Commentary

Spinning the World

By David Isenberg
September 23, 1999
George Orwell and Franz Kafka could not have crafted a more cunning character than President Clinton. Orwell and Kafka, who devoted so many of their writings to warning of the dangers of centralized governmental control and thought police, would find the president’s new International Public Information (IPI) system eerily familiar.

Back in April, while NATO was dropping bombs on Kosovo, Clinton issued Presidential Decision Directive 68, ordering the creation of the IPI, a new multiagency plan to closely control the dissemination of public information abroad. The initiative was designed to ensure that all U.S. government agencies disseminating information abroad presented a single message. The reported purpose of the IPI is to “prevent and mitigate crises and to influence foreign audiences in ways favorable to the achievement of U.S. foreign policy objectives.”

The White House seems to be concerned that the public is not sympathetic enough to the president’s noble foreign policy aims. Thus, the IPI will also reeducate Americans while “educating” non-Americans. As the Washington Times reported in July, a former senior Clinton administration official charged that the IPI is really aimed at “spinning the American public.” The idea of an administration trying to influence the thinking of people, both overseas and at home, is not novel. During the Cold War the United States had an enormous foreign information service that also performed some propaganda functions. That hybrid approach was exemplified by the United States Information Agency, Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Moscow, and Radio and TV Marti.

But the IPI initiative, coming from a White House that has blamed criticism of it on a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” and whose sense of paranoia rivals that of Richard Nixon, makes perfect sense. After all, as Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz detailed in his book Spin Cycle, for the Clinton administration spinning is a way of life.

It seems to baffle the Clinton White House that its conduct of foreign policy since 1993 could be greeted with anything other than adulation. If people believe that the U.S. intervention in Haiti was unnecessary, that America has needlessly entangled itself in quagmires in Bosnia and Kosovo, or that Washington has engaged in cosmetic cruise missile diplomacy toward Iraq, they must simply be ignorant, the administration believes.

The problem is that the mission of correcting so-called misinformation may itself breed further misinformation. According to one former senior Clinton official quoted in the Washington Times article, the IPI plan “did not distinguish what would be done overseas and what would he done at home.” Intelligence officials have a name for this: It’s called blowback.

Gene Kopp, a former deputy chief of the USIA who served under presidents Nixon, Ford and Bush, fears that IPI would mean that U.S. propaganda aimed at foreigners would be used to manipulate domestic opinion to influence American elections. Kopp noted the elections of presidents Kennedy and Carter were directly influenced by leaks of USIA public opinion polls taken in other countries. Those polls showed a decline in American prestige abroad.

According to Kopp, “The administration is transferring all assets, except broadcasting, to [the Department of] State, where they will not be separated in any way. It will be very difficult to separate what is disseminated in the United States and overseas.”

In other words, it will be next to impossible to prevent the pro-administration information from seeping back into the United States. That is because U.S. media outlets frequently repackage foreign news reports or just repeat the information within them. So these “foreign” stories that appear in your morning paper or on the evening news across the United States may actually originate within the halls of the U.S. government’s information apparatus. According to the former White House source in the Washington Times report, this is just what the Clinton administration intends with the IPI. The potential for blowback and the de facto propagandizing of the American people is enormous.

The IPI may not have yet reached the level of Orwell, but even Big Brother had to start small. Americans owe it to themselves and their nation to learn about the IPI and call for a halt to it — before the information they can receive is controlled for them by the White House spin machine.

David Isenberg is an analyst at DynMeridian, a private firm that advises the U.S. government on national security issues.