Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday endorsed Dorrance Smith to be his chief spokesman, despite opposition from Senate Democrats who are troubled by Smith's allegations of a "relationship" between U.S. television networks, the al-Jazeera satellite TV channel and terrorist groups.
"I've interviewed him, several times, and find him to be a very intelligent, thoughtful, experienced person," Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news briefing. "I expect that he ultimately will be confirmed."
Rumsfeld said he knew of but had not read an April 25 Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Smith, "The Enemy On Our Airwaves," that is a focus of Senate opposition to Smith's nomination to be assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. The article suggested that U.S. television networks are "a tool of terrorist propaganda" because they re-air al-Jazeera footage of terrorist activities. The article implied that the U.S. networks had not scrutinized the relationship with al-Jazeera -- and, by association, with terrorists -- because they felt "a certain safety in being in bed together" and did not want to give up their "tainted video."
In a tense exchange during Smith's Oct. 25 confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) pressed the nominee on the article, calling it a "very, very . . . serious mischaracterization."
"For you to label [U.S. networks] as aiders and abetters or as partners with our enemy, it seems to me, is an unfair labeling of people who are engaged in providing news to our people," Levin said. "I am troubled very much by that article."
Smith responded by saying that the article was simply showing the terrorists' communication strategy of passing on video footage to al-Jazeera knowing it would reach the six major U.S. television networks. "I was basically just revealing the nature of that relationship," he said, reiterating that he believes a "cooperative" relationship exists.
Levin, the panel's ranking Democrat, later vowed to oppose the nomination, and was joined by other Democrats on the committee.
Smith, a former ABC News producer, has served as a media adviser to several government agencies and GOP administrations, including that of President George H.W. Bush.
From September 2003 to June 2004, Smith was a media consultant to the U.S. occupation authority in Iraq, the Coalition Provisional Authority, for which he served as head of the Iraq media network.
In the fall of 2003, Smith reportedly voiced frustration with U.S. television broadcasts from Iraq and supported a plan to create a government-backed broadcast organization -- dubbed C-SPAN Baghdad -- that would bypass the private U.S. networks to get its message out directly. U.S. media executives criticized the plan as government interference with the news.
Smith would replace Lawrence Di Rita, who has been acting spokesman since June 2003.