Agency wages media battle

Team makes sure war message is unified, positive

By Bob Kemper

Washington Bureau

April 7, 2003

WASHINGTON --The Office of Global Communications, a controversial agency created by President Bush in January, has blossomed into a huge production company, issuing daily scripts on the Iraq war to U.S. spokesmen around the world, auditioning generals to give media briefings and booking administration stars on foreign news shows.

The office--a sort of global public-relations firm for the Bush administration and the U.S. war effort--tightly coordinates the message of the Pentagon, the State Department and the military command in the Persian Gulf, ensuring that any war commentary by a U.S. official is approved in advance by the White House.

Critics are questioning the veracity of some of the stories being circulated by the office and deriding it as a propaganda arm of the White House. But administration officials insist the office does not deal in disinformation and they say it serves a crucial purpose.

"We must do everything we can to help communicate the ideals and the policies of our country," said White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett. "In some countries we haven't paid as much attention, or spent enough time, doing that."

The communications office helps devise and coordinate each day's talking points on the war. Civilian and military personnel, for example, are told to refer to the invasion of Iraq as a "war of liberation." Iraqi paramilitary forces are to be called "death squads."

The effects of that discipline are evident almost daily. When questions arose recently about whether the United States could find Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, U.S. spokesmen and spokeswomen--from the White House to the Pentagon to the Central Command in Qatar--simultaneously insisted that the war was "not about one man."

So controlled is the administration's message that officials from Bush on down often use identical anecdotes to make their points, for example about Hussein's brutality. But the White House sometimes has been unable to provide details or documentation to back up those stories, and some human-rights activists have expressed skepticism about them.

One oft-repeated anecdote, for example, concerned an Iraqi woman who ostensibly waved at a U.S. military unit. When the unit returned to the area, the story goes, it found the woman hanged from a lamppost.

Yet U.S. officials never specified where that happened or gave any further details, and they declined to say how they know about it beyond citing "intelligence reports."

A second story involved an Iraqi man who, having criticized Hussein's regime, was tied to a post in a Baghdad square after his tongue was cut out and bled to death. "That's how Saddam Hussein retains power," Bush said at Camp David on March 27.

The story was repeated by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his deputy Paul Wolfowitz and Pentagon briefers during the next several days. But administration officials have declined to say when the incident occurred or who saw it.

Although the chilling stories sound familiar to those who have documented Hussein's atrocities, the specific anecdotes could not be corroborated by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, journalists in the region or U.S. intelligence sources.

Amnesty International spokesman Alistair Hodgett said the severed-tongue story resembles an event that occurred two years ago, well before the war in Iraq began.

"What we've seen with the use of our information in this campaign, particularly by the U.S., is that they certainly will be eager to cite from fairly old documents, which obviously are accurate but which are loosely cited from to justify what's occurring at the moment," Hodgett said.

Sticking by its stories

The White House would say only that the stories match what is known about Hussein's cruelty.

"The brutality of the Iraqi regime has been well-known for years and documented by human-rights groups and others," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

Bush's global communications strategy is the brainchild of one of his closest advisers, Karen Hughes. It is a strategy born of the Bush team's experience in political campaigns and honed during the war in Afghanistan, and its chief objective is to respond nearly instantly to criticism of the administration or the war anywhere in the Arab world throughout the 24-hour-a-day news cycle.

The office, expected to remain in place after the Iraq war ends, handles not only daily planning but also longer-term issues. That ability to chart a course far ahead of time, and adhere closely to it regardless of outside distractions, has been a Bush hallmark.

"That crowd that came out of Texas didn't succeed by worrying only about a day at a time or a week at a time," one senior administration official said.

The Pentagon put its own public-relations team in place shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, when it hired The Rendon Group on a $100,000-a-month contract. The State Department launched its campaign to sell American ideals overseas when it hired a former Madison Avenue advertising executive to run its Office of Public Diplomacy.

Target No. 1: Hussein

When Bush created the Office of Global Communications by executive order on Jan. 21, its aim was to coordinate public relations across the administration. The office's first report, issued almost immediately, was "Apparatus of Lies: Saddam's Disinformation and Propaganda 1990-2003."

The office is headed by Tucker Eskew, a soft-spoken but brass-knuckles political operative who ran Bush's South Carolina presidential primary campaign.

Every morning at 9:30 Washington time, a conference call with Global Communications offices in Qatar and London and other U.S. agencies sets the message of the day. The Washington office also issues the "Global Messenger," a daily e-mail to U.S. embassies and others outlining the administration's message.

On March 24, while the U.S. media were reporting that the invasion had fallen behind schedule, the Messenger reported that "news accounts today paint a vivid picture of joy and relief inside Iraq. American and coalition troops were being welcomed by smiling Iraqis."

The office has taken on myriad production duties too. At the forward headquarters of Central Command, Eskew's colleagues primed Gen. Tommy Franks, who is overseeing the war, for his first wartime news conference.

When Bush gave his State of the Union address, the office arranged for Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz to watch it with about 20 reporters from Egypt, China, Russia and elsewhere. Afterward, Wolfowitz did individual interviews, providing White House spin to TV markets around the world.

The Global Communications Office was created about a year after the Pentagon met with disaster with a similar operation. The Pentagon's Office of Strategic Influence was accused of planning to spread disinformation. The Pentagon denied the accusations but shut it anyway.

Three days after the White House office opened, Eskew went to the Foreign Press Center in Washington to introduce himself to foreign reporters and to field questions. The first question, from a German reporter, was whether he was setting up the "Office of Disinformation" the Pentagon had tried to set up.

"Our executive order," Eskew told the reporters, "insists that we deal with the truth."

Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune

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