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November 11, 2001


In the War on Terrorism, a Battle to Shape Public Opinion


WASHINGTON, Nov. 10 Late last month, Karen P. Hughes, the White House communications director, met with her British counterpart to join forces in what may be the most ambitious wartime communications effort since World War II.

The two officials agreed that there was an urgent need to combat the Taliban's daily denunciations of the American bombing campaign in Afghanistan, vitriol that was going unchallenged across the Islamic world. Soon they had set up a round-the- clock war news bureau in Pakistan and a network of war offices linking Washington, London and Islamabad that help develop a "message of the day."

The highly orchestrated communications effort is a first step in a broader campaign to create a 21st- century version of the muscular propaganda war that the United States waged in the 1940's. Matching old-fashioned patriotism to the frantic pace of modern communications, the Bush administration is trying to persuade audiences here and abroad to support the war. At the same time, it is trying to control the release of information about military intelligence and operations.

To reach foreign audiences, especially in the Islamic world, the State Department brought in Charlotte Beers, a former advertising executive, who is using her marketing skills to try to make American values as much a brand name as McDonald's hamburgers or Ivory soap. The department's efforts are also meant to counter the propaganda of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden.

A Northern Alliance fighter with a leaflet warning Afghans that "women and children are suffering," one of thousands of fliers dropped by United States planes.

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The foreign message crafted in Ms. Beers's new shop at Foggy Bottom dovetails with the domestic news management led by Ms. Hughes at the White House. From a nerve center set up two weeks ago in the Old Executive Office Building, the top communications directors of the administration including veterans who ran war rooms for presidential campaigns talk every morning to keep one step ahead of the news from the enemy.

"Before the war room it was like spitting in the ocean," said Mary Matalin, chief political adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney and a participant in the communications effort. "Now we can collect all the utterances, proclamations from around the world that will buttress our arguments this week that the Taliban has hijacked a peaceful religion and get them out, get them noticed in real time."

The effort to cobble together a new global approach is a backhanded acknowledgment that Mr. bin Laden and the Taliban are formidable propaganda foes, having spent years winning the hearts and minds of much of the Muslim world. It is also an acknowledgment that propaganda is back in fashion after the Clinton administration and Congress tried to cash in on the end of the cold war by cutting back public diplomacy overseas, especially government radio broadcasts into former communist countries, to balance the budget.

The other side of this communications war is the equally historical military role of limiting information that could erode public support or help the enemy, while also running psychological operations in the war zone.

The Pentagon has imposed a tight lid on sensitive military news, particularly about special operations, trying to walk the fine line of saying enough to reassure the public that the war is on target but keeping the news media at bay.

Veteran communicators of other wars are amazed at the limited information and limited access to the battlefield. Barry Zorthian, the chief spokesman for the American war effort in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, said this conflict is "much tighter than Vietnam."

"Saigon was almost wide open compared to this," Mr. Zorthian said. "We gave out much more information, and we had no real problems with the media giving away information that would harm the troops."

On the battlefield, the military has also heated up its psychological operations. Air Force planes drop propaganda leaflets that describe the United States as a friend of the Afghan people, and then drop food packets to try to drive home the point. Planes act as airborne radio stations, broadcasting warnings to civilians to stay out of the way.

Even aspects of the Pentagon briefings can be part of the psychological warfare. At one briefing, officials showed night-vision video of an Army Ranger raid in Afghanistan, in part to show the Taliban and Mr. bin Laden's terrorist organization, Al Qaeda, that the United States military could land and carry out operations on the ground.

In this new effort to bridge the classic tension between controlling information while promoting the message to a diverse audience, the administration is reaching back to the icons of the "greatest generation" of World War II. The Bush administration is revving up foreign-language radio broadcasts behind the amorphous enemy lines and asking Hollywood to pitch in.

On Sunday, Karl Rove, a senior political adviser to President Bush, will visit Hollywood, where he is expected to receive a warm welcome from producers and directors eager to show their patriotism.

Sean Daniel, a former studio executive and producer of "The Mummy," said he expected Hollywood to help.

"We'll contribute in a modern way what was done in the Second World War," Mr. Daniel said. "There has to be a way for the most popular culture on earth to help spread or help focus on our commonly shared beliefs, like the fact that what we're doing is right."

But the World War II propaganda effort put Hitler front and center, effectively using radio, film and even cartoons to depict the dictator as the personification of the enemy.

The Bush administration, by contrast, has shied away from making Mr. bin Laden the most prominent image in its information war, airbrushing him out, at least for now. Given the pace of communications in the 21st century, that may change.

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In the summer of 1994, Mr. Rove flew to Prague on a mission to save Radio Free Europe. Then a member of the board overseeing the government stations that once broadcast into the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Mr. Rove was fighting both President Bill Clinton, who considered Radio Free Europe a relic of the cold war, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers who wanted to close it down.

"Karl Rove saw for himself how powerful that radio had been, bringing in the news about those communist countries to their own people in their own language, and it made it crystal clear to him that it had to be saved," said Kevin Klose, who was the head of Radio Free Europe then and is now president of National Public Radio.

Radio Free Europe was saved, but only after cutting $125 million from its $200 million budget.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Rove, now the central political adviser to President Bush in today's communications campaign, is trying to put foreign language broadcasts back at the center of the war effort.

"It's time to bring back the idea of an Edward R. Murrow in Arabic, modernized of course, using satellites and shortwave, and Karl Rove understands all this perfectly," Mr. Klose said.

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