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[] WPO 1.11.01: U.S., Britain Step Up War For Public Opinion,
Washington Post
November 1, 2001

U.S., Britain Step Up War For Public Opinion

By Karen DeYoung, Washington Post Staff Writer

Concerned that they are losing the war for international public opinion, particularly in the Islamic world, the United States and Britain have launched a public relations effort to aggressively counter Taliban claims of massive civilian deaths and destruction from U.S. bombs in Afghanistan.

The two governments have established round-the-clock information centers, jointly staffed by U.S. and British officials, that operate at the White House and at British Prime Minister Tony Blair's residential office at London's No. 10 Downing Street. A third center, staffed by diplomatic, defense and communications officials from both countries, is scheduled to open in Islamabad, Pakistan, within days.

The objective is to provide a rapid, authoritative coalition response to Taliban claims of casualties, collateral damage and other issues -- such as yesterday's assertion in a Pakistan news conference that 1,500 civilians have been killed since the bombing began Oct. 7 -- without waiting for Washington to wake up 10 time zones and a full news cycle away.

"There's a recognition that rapid reaction means a lot," one administration official said. "The Taliban is trying to wage war with terror and militarily but they're also trying to lay out information that is simply not true. We have to set the record straight and we need to have this globe-spanning network tied together by the Internet and television."

At the same time, Washington and London hope to better coordinate and disseminate what they see as their positive messages on humanitarian aid, efforts to establish a representative government in Afghanistan and repeated assurances that the anti-terrorism war is not being waged against Islam or the Afghan population. The new operations will also try to stagger speeches, news conferences and other public remarks on the war effort by senior coalition officials here and in Europe so that they can dominate television coverage around the world and around the clock.

The effort springs most immediately from worries brought to the White House early last week by Blair emissaries. In a meeting with presidential counselor Karen Hughes, senior Blair adviser Alastair Campbell outlined what one official present at the meeting called a "big news management issue" that left unrebutted Taliban allegations headlined in electronic and print news media throughout the Middle East and Persian Gulf region, where both public opinion, and publicly expressed political opinion, are increasingly opposed to the continued bombing.

But officials from both governments said concern had been growing for some time that they were increasingly behind in the battle to shape opinion. "It wasn't just that the Brits were unhappy," an official said. "Everybody was."

The campaign to win public support for the anti-terrorism effort is viewed as at least as important as the military assault against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization, as supportive Arab governments contend with increasingly large anti-American demonstrations. Many of those governments have found it politically convenient to condemn the ongoing air assaults and to allow increasingly harsh criticism in state-controlled media.

The closest U.S. allies in the Arab world, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are seen by the administration as walking a narrow ledge between support for the coalition anti-terrorism campaign and bowing to public pressure.

Blair has made four trips to the region to try to build support, stopping yesterday in Riyadh and Damascus, where Syrian President Bashar Assad said at a joint news conference that "We cannot accept what we see on the [television] screen every day -- hundreds of civilians dying."

In Senate testimony last week, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell acknowledged that "We do have a problem with the Arab street . . . in terms of getting them to have a better understanding of what we're trying to do . . . I think we have to do a better job in our public diplomacy efforts."

Next week, the State Department plans to escalate its own efforts with a barrage of information circulated on the Internet, including statements by Muslim leaders condemning the Sept. 11 attacks, translated into 12 regional languages. U.S. embassies will download information daily and distribute it to local reporters.

Coalition Information Centers in Washington, London and Islamabad are modeled on the "war rooms" that provide rapid response to breaking allegations and news during U.S. political campaigns. As described by an administration official, a typical day would begin in Pakistan with a 10 a.m. "offensive event" -- either a counter to Taliban allegations, or a good news report about humanitarian aid that would also be timed to make the morning television news shows in London, five time zones earlier.

London's day would begin with a "war room" conference, headed by Campbell, with Islamabad connected by telephone. A news event there would be timed to make the morning television news programs in Washington. At around 8 a.m., the baton would be passed to the Washington "war room."

Each morning, Washington time, the three centers will hold a conference call. In addition to Hughes, the White House daily conference team will include senior adviser Karl Rove, communications director Dan Bartlett, vice presidential counselor Mary Matalin, State Department Undersecretary Charlotte Beers, Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke and representatives from the National Security Council.

Messages will be coordinated and events scheduled in Washington to coincide with late night news and print media deadlines in the Middle East and South Asia. On its first full day of operation Tuesday, the message was two-fold, repeated by virtually every administration official appearing in public. The United States had airdropped its millionth ready-to-eat meal to desperate Afghan civilians, and the coalition was taking under consideration widespread calls to end or at least moderate the bombing during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Jim Wilkinson, the deputy White House communications director, who heads the White House center's daily operations under Hughes, said "a 24-hour news cycle demands a 24-hour operation to harness the different time zones to help win the war." He denied that the administration was losing on the public diplomacy front. "Our efforts government-wide have been fantastic. This is an effort to ramp up those efforts even more."

Staff writers Dan Balz and Dana Milbank contributed to this effort.

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