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State Department screened speakers for possible dissent
Mercury News
By Jonathan S. Landay McClatchy Newspapers November 1, 2006

WASHINGTON - An internal State Department review has found that U.S. officials screened the public statements and writings of private citizens for criticism of the Bush administration before deciding whether to select them for foreign speaking projects.

The screenings amounted to "virtual censorship" in the State Department's selection of speakers, said a report by the department's Inspector General's Office. McClatchy Newspapers obtained a copy of the 22-page report, which was completed in September.

The vetting practice appears to have been part of the Bush administration's pattern of controlling information, muffling dissenting views and promoting positive assessments of its policies to foreign audiences. Other examples include the dissemination of pro-administration videos that were passed off as legitimate news stories, payments to Iraqi journalists for pro-U.S. reports and the exclusion of perceived critics from President Bush's domestic events and campaign rallies.

The vetting appears to be contrary to the guidelines of the U.S. Speaker and Specialist Program, which taps American experts to deliver lectures, serve as consultants and conduct seminars overseas or from the United States via teleconferences. The guidelines call for the State Department to provide speakers "who represent a broad range of responsible and informed opinion in the United States" and are "not limited to the expression of U.S. government policies."

Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, requested a review of the program after a story last December by Knight Ridder (since acquired by the McClatchy Co.) quoted State Department officials who complained that political litmus tests were being used to weed out speakers who were critical of the Bush administration.

Biden said it was wrong for senior State Department officials to have practiced virtual censorship. He said he'd urge Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes, who oversees the speakers program, "to ensure that this is not repeated on her watch."

The Inspector General's Office recommended that the Bureau of International Information Programs, which runs the speakers program, adopt new rules to ensure that speakers are chosen "based on the quality of their credentials" and "their ability to communicate . . . regardless of their personal opinions on policy issues."

There was no response from bureau officials to several requests for a comment on the report.

In one case cited in the December Knight Ridder story, a conflict resolution expert and author of a book that was critical of Iraq reconstruction was told at the last minute that his participation in a videoconference in Jerusalem no longer was required.

Internal e-mails quoted in the report showed that bureau officials pressed to have other scholars replace the expert, David L. Phillips.

The inspector general's report found that the bureau used "no expressed or established `ideological litmus tests,' or `black or white lists' " of speakers. But it said that some leading officials in the State Department's Bureau of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs questioned the "ideological credentials" of some speakers and "this contributed to a series of internal IIP management reactions."

"These reactions were manifested in some cases in poor management decisions that influenced the speaker selection process during a period of heightened national security concerns," the report said. "An atmosphere of extreme caution and self-censorship was created."

Unidentified former Bureau of International Information Programs managers "encouraged the speakers program to employ `due diligence' in its selection of speakers. This meant vetting speaker candidates' public statements or publications that appeared to run counter to administration policies," the inspector general's report continued.

"Several speaker program officers and reference specialists did so regardless of whether the speaker candidates' personal opinions had a bearing on the topical issues for which they were being considered for recruitment," it said.

"Others, in an effort to maintain `balance' unrealistically, suggested recommending two ideologically different speakers for a program in which only one speaker was requested," the report said.

In another case cited in the Knight Ridder story, a request by the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, for a visit by Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who lived in Indonesia when he was young, was delayed for seven months while bureau political appointees argued that a Republican senator be sent with him.

The inspector general's report found that while some bureau employees had acted "on the margins" of the speaker program's guidelines, "there was no ideological motivation; rather, it was done in an attempt to `maintain program balance.' Nevertheless, it resulted in virtual censorship in the speaker selection process."

The report didn't reveal the identities of anyone involved in the selection process or the private citizens whose statements and publications were vetted.

A former State Department official who's familiar with the speakers program called the report accurate. But he insisted that "white lists" of approved speakers do exist for certain sensitive topics, such as U.S. relations with the Muslim world.

The former official requested anonymity to protect colleagues still in government service.

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