The Clinton administration, dismayed by the success of anti-American propaganda worldwide, is striking back with an information offensive of its own: a State Department unit that will control the flow of government news overseas, especially during crises.
The new International Public Information group, or IPI, will coordinate the dissemination of news from the State Department, Pentagon and other U.S. agencies.
"What this is intended to do is organize the instruments of the federal government to be able to support the public diplomacy, military engagements and economic initiatives that we have overseas," said David Leavy, spokesman for the White House's National Security Council.
In the recent Kosovo war, the Pentagon, State Department and White House poured out information each day but no single agency tried to assemble it so that the United States spoke with a coordinated message overseas.
In many respects, the new information group is a smaller, less-structured successor to the independent U.S. Information Agency, which the State Department will absorb in October.
U.S. officials say the group came about partly in response to the spread of unflattering or erroneous information about the United States via electronic mail, the Internet, cellular telephones and other communications advances.
A new office of undersecretary of state for public diplomacy will run the IPI. The current USIA director, Evelyn S. Lieberman, has been nominated for the job.
President Clinton signed a directive April 30, in the thick of the Kosovo war, that set out plans for IPI, although the White House did not formally announce the group's existence or role.
An unclassified mission statement obtained by the Associated Press described IPI's role:
"Effective use of our nation's highly developed communications and information capabilities to address misinformation and incitement, mitigate inter-ethnic conflict, promote independent media organizations and the free flow of information, and support democratic participation will advance our interests and is a critical foreign policy objective," the document said.
Joan Mower, director of Latin American and African programs for the Freedom Forum, said she worries the coordinated effort may filter information that should be broadly available to foreign reporters. "My feeling is that the more information is out there, the better," she said.
The IPI will hold its first formal meeting this fall, said a government official involved in the process. Clinton's directive orders officials at the Pentagon, FBI, CIA and the departments of State, Commerce and Treasury to organize the group.
Regular members will be senior diplomats and others in foreign policy or national security jobs in Washington, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The rationale for IPI dates at least to the confusion and unfavorable media reports surrounding U.S. intervention in Haiti in 1994-1995, but the conflict over Kosovo is the best recent example of how the United States needs to fight a propaganda war in concert with military strikes, officials said.
"President [Slobodan] Milosevic has an extensive propaganda machine," Leavy said. "We've worked very hard to try to counteract that propaganda machine, and make sure the people in Serbia and in Kosovo have access to their own news--that they can make their own independent judgments."
Anti-American sentiment ran high during the 78-day air war, even among Yugoslavs who did not support the Yugoslav president. Many Europeans also were leery of the airstrikes, seen as a U.S. enterprise, and reluctant to use heavy firepower against a modern European capital.
The air war that ended in June also produced one of the worst diplomatic and public relations disasters in recent memory when a U.S. plane mistakenly bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade on May 7, killing three Chinese citizens.
Outraged mobs rushed the American Embassy in Beijing, trapping then-Ambassador James Sasser inside for a time. The Chinese government waited days before publicizing the official apology from the United States, and the belated U.S. explanation was greeted with disdain by both the Chinese government and rock-throwing street mobs.
The Communist Party's flagship newspaper, the People's Daily, called the war and the embassy bombing "a great step in the United States' strategy to dominate the world."