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White House all shook up after losing war of words.

The White House, 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 will co-ordinate the dissemination of news from the State Department, Pentagon and other US agencies.

"What this is intended to do is organise the instruments of the federal government to be able to support the public diplomacy, military engagements and economic initiatives that we have overseas," said Mr 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 co-ordinated message overseas.

The group came about partly in response to the spread of unflattering or erroneous information about the United States received abroad via electronic mail, the Internet, cellular telephones and other communications advances.

In many respects, the new information group is a smaller, less structured successor to the independent US Information Agency, which the State Department will absorb in October.

A new office of undersecretary of state for public diplomacy will run the IPI. The current USIA director, Evelyn Lieberman, has been nominated for the job.

President Clinton signed a directive on 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 organisations and the free flow of information, and support democratic participation will advance our interests and is a critical foreign policy objective."

Ms Joan Mower, director of Latin American and African programmes for the Freedom Forum, said she worries the co-ordinated 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 autumn, said a government official involved in the process. President Clinton's directive orders officials at the Pentagon, FBI, CIA and the departments of State, Commerce and Treasury to organise the group.

The rationale for IPI dates at least to the confusion and bad press surrounding US intervention in Haiti in 1994/5, but 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," Mr Leavy said. "We have 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 Milosevic. Many Europeans also were sceptical of the airstrikes, seen as a US enterprise, and reluctant to level hefty military power 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 US plane mistakenly bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade on May 7, killing three journalists.

Anne Gearan
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Title Annotation:National
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 10, 1999
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