Bush Message Machine Is Set To Roll With Its Own War Plan

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 19, 2003

When American troops move into Iraq, the Bush administration's message machine, in its own way as massive and disciplined as the U.S. military, will be equally ready to roll. Staffed with veterans of countless political campaigns, and honed on the communications lessons of Afghanistan, its war plan is in place.

Senior spokesmen and coordinators from the White House, the National Security Council and the State and Defense departments held their latest formal planning session last week in the White House's Roosevelt Room, administration officials said. President Bush dropped by to bless their efforts and to remind them of the need to get out the news "in a coordinated way that reflects the truth about our efforts."

More than any other conflict in history, the Iraq war will be conducted under the staring eyes and within constant earshot of most of the world. In a new Pentagon strategy both to disseminate and control the news, U.S. and foreign journalists are integrated into virtually every U.S. and British unit, with satellite technology enabling them to broadcast reports on the war on the ground as it happens. A number of journalists remain in Baghdad, watching, for the moment at least, from the other side.

While many in this country will welcome the opportunity to cheer on the U.S. forces and watch over their safety on a real-time basis, a large portion of the worldwide audience is opposed to an invasion of Iraq and could be quick to criticize the administration in the event of civilian casualties or other bleak news.

Just as in a political campaign, the Bush administration wants its version of each day's events to be first and foremost, as it seeks to press preferred story lines.

"It's a given that we want to draw attention to the truth about Iraq," including humanitarian abuses, "as soon as the dictator's grip has been loosened," one administration official said. "The truth about Iraq has been at the heart of our arguments for six months," the official said, "and it's going to be front and center for the skeptics in the weeks ahead."

The close attention to its war message mirrors the discipline the Bush team brought to his election campaign and to the passage of his domestic political agenda, especially the securing of a $ 1.35 trillion tax cut from Congress. Such a comprehensive communications strategy for a war, however, is unprecedented in the modern White House.

Once the war starts, the administration plans to fill every information void in the 24-hour worldwide news cycle, leaving little to chance or interpretation.

At dawn, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer will brief the television networks and the wire services in a conference call before the morning news programs. A conference call will follow among Fleischer, Bush communications director Dan Bartlett and White House Office of Global Communications Director Tucker Eskew, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, Defense Department spokeswoman Victoria Clarke and British Prime Minister Tony Blair's senior spokesman, Alastair Campbell. During the call, they will set out thematic story lines for the day and deal with pending problems.

An afternoon briefing at Central Command headquarters in Qatar will be held most days, timed to hit the news at noon in the United States. Supper-time television news in the United States and late broadcasts in Europe will be fed by the Pentagon's afternoon briefing in Washington, where military officials will utilize the video images from targeted bombs that all agree worked well in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and in the Afghan campaign.

Broadcasts on the government's Radio Sawa and on other Voice of America regional outlets will carry the U.S. message to the Middle East and the Persian Gulf region. A daily grid of senior officials available to be interviewed by Arab and other media will be prepared and coordinated. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley, will be available for regular background briefings with selected small groups of print reporters, officials said.

Every night, the Office of Global Communications will distribute its "Global Messenger" via e-mail to government offices in Washington and to embassies and other U.S. facilities around the world. Already in operation, the Messenger supplies U.S. diplomats abroad with talking points and key quotes from Bush and senior officials to prepare them for the day ahead.

Yesterday morning, most of the Messenger was taken up with the text of Bush's Monday night speech on Iraq, along with a comment Secretary of State Colin L. Powell made earlier in the day that was critical of France's position in the U.N. Security Council.

"It's a good way for people to have in one place some key facts and quotes," Eskew said. "It can fit into a coat pocket or purse very easily."

The Iraq war will be the first test under fire for the Office of Global Communications, the progeny of the Coalition Information Centers (CIC) hurriedly set up in Washington, London and Pakistan in late 2001 when the administration realized it risked losing the Afghan propaganda battle to Taliban spokesmen and to rumors of hundreds of civilians dying under the U.S. air assaults. The CIC was set up by Karen Hughes. Bush's closest adviser, Hughes left the White House last summer but has been a frequent visitor in recent days.

As the Office of Global Communications, the unit has grown into an 11-person White House operation under Eskew, a longtime Bush spokesman and political operative. "In a sense, part of our mission has adapted from what CIC did," Eskew said in a recent interview. "We're here for daily coordination" among the White House and other government departments, "midrange planning and long-range strategy. We're working on all three every day."

One administration communications official acknowledged that his political campaign experience is valuable. "I don't think any of us will be willing to be seen as saying this is like a political campaign, because it's not," the official said. "This is war. It's real life and it's lives, and it's greater stakes than any campaign that any of us has ever been involved in. Campaign people take their campaign seriously, but this is a whole other level."

More useful than any political experience, the official said, are the lessons they learned in communicating about the war in Afghanistan. U.S. and British officials were initially taken aback by the flood of quotable rhetoric that flowed from the Taliban's diplomatic office in Pakistan. Once the Pakistanis closed it down, new stories emerged from Afghanistan itself, as reporters crisscrossing the country on their own heard stories of bombs gone astray, friendly Afghans killed by mistake and military missions that looked different on the ground from the way they were described at the Pentagon.

There was no organized response to what the administration felt were erroneous reports and venomous commentary pouring from Arab media outlets.

In CIC work, now being continued by the Office of Global Communications, lists were compiled of Arabic-speaking government officials who could appear on Qatar-based al-Jazeera and other networks. Senior administration officials were made available for interviews with foreign media, particularly in the Arab world. A senior CIC official, Jim Wilkinson, was permanently headquartered at Central Command in Tampa to handle communications.

Wilkinson, a former spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, is now based at the command's new war-fighting headquarters in Qatar.

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