The Pentagon has hired the Rendon Group, a well-known Washington public-relations firm, to help it explain U.S. military strikes in Afghanistan to global audiences. Rendon will be paid $397,000 over the next four months to monitor news media in 79 countries, conduct focus groups and create a counterterrorism Web site. Rendon's help is needed because "we are clearly losing the 'hearts and minds' issue," said one official involved in the administration spin effort.
Military analysts say propaganda is especially critical in a war against those isolated from Western views and infused with a dogmatic hatred for the United States. But is the military up to the task? A Pentagon report commissioned after psyops failures in the 1999 Kosovo conflict criticized the military for failing to keep pace with advances in electronic communications. It also called the equipment the Air Force is now using to broadcast radio and perhaps TV messages to Afghans "outdated and inadequate."
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has issued a new statement of policy that encourages federal agencies to resist Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The new statement supersedes a 1993 memorandum from Attorney General Janet Reno which promoted disclosure of government information through the FOIA unless it was "reasonably foreseeable that disclosure would be harmful." The Ashcroft policy rejects this "foreseeable harm" standard and instructs agencies to withhold information whenever there is a "sound legal basis" for doing so.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has shut down its website. The state of Pennsylvania has decided to remove environmental information from its website. Risk management plans, which provide information about the dangers of chemical accidents and how to prevent them, have been removed from the web site of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
USA Today has joined a number of other news media outlets in criticizing Bush Administration restrictions on public access to information. "Americans are being asked to give up their rights to information, with no evidence that it presents any real risk," the editorial states. "Today, the Bush administration is packaging its attempts to restrict information as a way to protect the war effort -- when in fact they could do the opposite. The moves violate the very spirit of freedom that America is fighting for. ... Americans overwhelmingly support the war on terrorism.
"In the days since the United States launched its armed and diplomatic responses to the Sept. 11 atrocities, few phrases have passed the lips of American leaders as often as 'this is not a war against Islam.' But as civilian casualties from American airstrikes in Afghanistan begin to pile up, and as the timeline for military action threatens to stretch into months, growing anti-American riots in the Muslim world are underscoring the message's limited reach."
Like many Americans, Pam Bottaro reacted to the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington with a mixture of horror and utter incomprehension. Although well educated and politically engaged, nothing she had read or seen on television had prepared her for an anti-American backlash. "Why do these people hate us so much?" was the question she kept hearing all around her. As Americans wake up to the need to better understand the world around us, "teach-ins" have come roaring back into fashion.
"Fighting the anti-American fury that fueled the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks will require more than bombs, intelligence and diplomacy. This is a job for the public relations industry," writes Carl Weiser, Washington correspondent for the Gannett News Service. He asked PR, advertising and marketing experts what kind of campaign they would create to convince the Islamic world "that this nation is not the Great Satan, but good and generous." Responses included:
The Bush administration and members of Congress have called for renewed efforts to improve America's image in the Islamic world, with Bush worrying aloud that the U.S. is losing the propaganda war to Islamic extremists. "I'm amazed that there's such misunderstanding of what our country is about that people would hate us," Bush said. "We've got to do a better job of making our case." An expensive advertising campaign in the Arab world, coupled with beefed-up Voice of America broadcasts, is making little headway as these PR efforts encounter a skeptical audience.
The UK Guardian reports, "Only five days after the bombing of Afghanistan began, Mr Blair made the extraordinary admission that the west was in danger of losing the propaganda war in Muslim states. He said: 'One thing becoming increasingly clear to me is the need to upgrade our media and public opinion operations in the Arab and Muslim world. There is a need for us to communicate effectively.'"