Ready, Aim, Inform

Clinton administration prepares for information warfare

by Joel Bleifuss

In These Times magazine, March 2000


During last year's war against Serbia, the White House discovered that the bombing campaign was not backed up by any coordinated attempt to sell U.S. policy to foreign audiences. So last April, President Clinton, ~ through a secret presidential directive, established the International Public Information (IPI) "core group" to "implement a more deliberate and well-developed international public information strategy." The group consists of officials from the CIA, FBI, and State, Treasury, Commerce, Justice and Defense departments

According to a draft of the IPI charter obtained by the Washington Times, the core group's mission is to counteract enemy propaganda, "to prevent and mitigate crises and to influence foreign audiences in ways favorable to the achievement of U.S. foreign-policy objectives." According to the charter, the IPI will control all "international military information" to influence "the emotions, motives, objective reasoning and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups and individuals." The aim of all this is "to enhance U.S. security, bolster America's economic prosperity and to promote democracy abroad."

Critics fear that this new master spin agency is a government attempt to overtly apply psyop (psychological operations) techniques on both the world and American public using communication strategies refined by the PR industry. IPI's proponents say it is better to fight a war with words than bullets, but that to do so requires some central coordination.

The IPI has assumed many of the functions of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), which was disbanded last October, and operates out of a new Public Diplomacy branch of the State Department. As Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Evelyn Lieberman explained on CNN Worldview: "This is an opportunity for us to join the tools of traditional diplomacy with the tools of public diplomacy, and talk to foreign publics about American foreign policy and democracy in new ways and in ways that are appropriate for our new wired world."

Others in the foreign policy establishment are not so sanguine. Michael Waller of the American Foreign Policy Council told Worldview, "It's just going to be a propaganda machine for our diplomats."

The Washington Times' Ben Barber reported last July that a former senior Clinton administration official who requested anonymity said that administration officials believe "news coverage is distorted at home and they need to fight it at all costs by using resources that are aimed at spinning the news." The former official, who had close knowledge of the plan's development, said this "new multi-agency plan to control the dissemination of public information abroad was really aimed at spinning the American public.... This has been in the works a long time. The target is the American people."

Indeed the draft charter of the IPI advises that information aimed at U.S. audiences should "be coordinated, integrated, deconflicted and synchronized with the IPI Core Group to achieve a synergistic effect."

The former director of the USIA, Joseph Duffey, opposed the plans to subsume his agency into the State Department. According to the Washington Times, in 1997 he wrote to Richard Leone, the president of the Twentieth Century Fund Foundation, expressing concern about the IPl's ability to keep information campaigns targeted at foreign audiences separate from those aimed at domestic audiences. He cited a "USIA Reorganization Team" memorandum warning that "foreign information programs inevitably have some 'spill over' or 'blow back' effects here at home."

Gene Kopp, former deputy chief of the USIA under Nixon, Ford and Bush, also worries that the public diplomacy campaigns will be directed at the American public. "The temptation to spin this stuff in a partisan way will be very strong-probably irresistible," he told the Washington Times. "The other ominous feature is that this includes the intelligence agencies. They are in the business of misinformation. God only knows where that goes."

Much of this IPI criticism come from the right, advanced by the Washington Times, a right-wing paper published by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. The Heritage Foundation's Ariel Cohen, for example, fears a left-wing conspiracy. He told the Washington Times last July: "It cannot be driven by any political-correctness agenda that will not be representative of what the American people think or that will re-elect only a social-change agenda of extremist activist groups."

Cohen perhaps has reasons to be concerned. The IPI draft charter was written by Jamie Metzl, who in previous scholarly writings has expressed solidarity with the work of Intemet groups like BurmaNet and East Timor Action, as well as organizations like Amnesty Intemational and Human Rights Watch. Metzl, 37, is currently coordinator of IPI. (He did not respond to a phone call from In These Times.)

Metzl has worked most recently as an aide to National Security Council "terrorism czar" Dick Clarke. Metzl holds a doctorate in Southeast Asian studies from Oxford and a law degree from Harvard. A former U.N. Human Rights Officer and the author of Western Responses to Human Rights Abuses in


Cambodia, 1975-80, he believes information is power and that information, when wielded correctly, can do great good.

In a 1996 issue of Human Rights Quarterly, he provides human rights activists with a primer on "harnessing information technology for the benefit of human rights." He offers helpful tips, such as encouraging human rights Web sites to provide viewers with suggestions "regarding action which can be taken." Citing the work of progressive political philosopher Benjamin Barber, Metzl notes that "developments in communications have given wings to systems which destroy diversity and foster capitalist-defined cultural uniformity.... While international capitalism might wish to mold individuals as passive consumers susceptible to mass advertising campaigns, supporters of human rights would wish to use information technology systems to give voice to the voiceless and access to the disadvantaged." But he cautions: "If information technology can function as a tool of the oppressed, it can just as much serve the oppressor-'technologies of freedom' can just as easily become technologies of abuse."

Similarly, in a 1997 Foreign Affairs article, Metzl advocates using information warfare to prevent "humanitarian disasters." "Mass media reach not only people's homes, but also their minds, shaping their thoughts and sometimes their behavior," he writes. He points out that radio was used "to propagate Nazi ideology and spur genocide in Rwanda"; and in the former Yugoslavia, radio and television were instrumental "in fomenting ethnic animosity and bloodshed." "Countering such incendiary transmissions systematically, using information warfare techniques, will go a long way toward securing human rights short of costly, large-scale military interventions," he concludes.

Metzl's more current thoughts on information warfare can be found in the Summer 1999 issue of The Washington Quarterly. In that article, Metzl urges making all future wars PR battles, thus mitigating the need for armed intervention.

This is not altogether a bad idea-better to be hit with propaganda than bombs. The examples Metzl uses, however, illustrate the problems inherent in the IPI policy.

Metzl points to the August 1998 bombing of a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan as an information war the United States lost, because much of world public opinion turned against the U.S. action. "Although the U.S. government's policy was sound, presenting it became all the more difficult in this more hostile environment," he writes.

That hostile environment included some quarters of the Clinton administration. The New York Times' James Risen reported in October 1999 that on the eve of the attack "senior diplomatic and intelligence officials had argued strenuously over whether any target in Sudan should be attacked."

In the aftermath of the bombing, Risen reports, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and a senior deputy "encouraged State Department intelligence to kill a report being drafted that concluded that the bombing was not justified." An administration official, who says the United States may have made a mistake, told Risen, "As an American citizen, I am not convinced of the evidence."

Another information battle the United States lost, according to Metzl, was over its refusal to sign the international treaty to ban land mines. Instead, the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines carried the day. "Had the government recognized the potential influence of these NGOs," Metzl writes, "it might partially have attempted to strike a deal with them early in the process whereby the United States would commit its tremendous resources to building consensus for such a ban provided that a specific class of mines used in Korea would be excluded."

Clearly, despite assurances from the State Department, IPl's information arsenal will be aimed at U.S. citizens-how can it not be? As Metzl himself points out in The Washington Quarterly: "In foreign affairs, just as in economics, success will belong to those who internalize the lessons of an increasingly open global system." One of those lessons is that government cannot send one message to the international press corps and another to domestic media.

There is nothing new about the U.S. government deceiving the public about bad policies or strategic blunders. They are by nature hard to defend, even with the best PR, as one administration after another has demonstrated. What's new is that the administration is preparing to use different techniques to convince a world audience that U.S. might makes right. Metzl writes, "The models for its effective use are plainly available in political and mass advertising campaigns: state a goal, determine the audience, test messages or products with that audience, and then constructively engage that audience."

Ready, aim, inform.

Propaganda and Media Control