"US Said to Use a Litmus Test to Block American Speakers," by Warren P. Strobel and Jonathan S. Landay (in Washington) - Knight Ridder Newspapers, 4 Dec 2005, as carried on the Boston Globe Web site
The State Department has been using political litmus tests to screen private American citizens before they can be sent overseas to represent the United States, weeding out critics of the Bush administration's Iraq policy, according to department officials and internal e-mails.
In one recent case, a leading specialist on conflict resolution who's a former senior State Department adviser was scheduled to participate in a US Embassy-sponsored videoconference in Jerusalem last month, but at the last minute he was told that his participation no longer was required.
State Department officials explained the cancellation as a scheduling matter. But internal department e-mails show that officials in Washington pressed to have other scholars replace the specialist, David L. Phillips, who wrote the book, ''Losing Iraq," which is critical of President Bush's handling of Iraqi reconstruction.
''I was told by a senior US official that the State Department was conducting a screening process on intellectuals, and those who were against the Bush administration's Iraq policy were not welcomed to participate in US government-sponsored programs," Phillips said.
''The ability of the United States to promote democracy effectively abroad is curtailed when we curtail free speech at home, which is essential to a free society," he said.
In another instance of apparent politicization, a request by the US Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, to arrange a visit by Senator Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, who lived in Indonesia when he was young, was delayed for seven months.
The visit never occurred.
A prominent translator of Islamic poetry who toured Afghanistan to rave reviews last March fell out of favor when he later criticized the Iraq war in front of a department official, two US officials said....
Current and former officials involved with the State Department's overseas speakers program said potential candidates were vetted for any comments or writings that criticized White House policy.
''There's definitely a political litmus test. You don't have to be a Republican, but you better not have said anything against them," one official said.
The official said he knew of no blacklist of banned scholars. ''But there certainly is a `white list' of those who can go," he added.
He and others agreed to discuss the State Department practices only on condition of anonymity, saying they feared retaliation for exposing them.
Late this week, after Knight Ridder inquired about the litmus tests, Alexander Feldman, the head of the department's International Information Programs bureau, which runs the speakers program, sent a memo to his employees.
The memo warned that ''no one is to speak to the press without following the procedures" and getting approval. Knight Ridder obtained a copy of the memo.
Feldman, a political appointee and former media executive, was traveling and couldn't be reached for comment. Seven calls made to two of his press officers and to State Department spokesman Sean McCormack weren't returned by the end of the day Friday.
The effort, known as the ''US Speakers/Specialist Program," is part of a public diplomacy effort to change negative foreign opinions of the United States. It's overseen by Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes, although the questionable practices reportedly began before she took up her post in September.
Using political views to screen candidates appears to violate the speaker program's charter, which is to present a ''range of responsible opinion" in the United States to overseas audiences, not to hawk a particular administration's policies.
The officials who were critical of current practices said the situation hadn't reached the level of the mid-1980s, when Reagan administration appointees at the now-defunct US Information Agency compiled a blacklist of 95 people banned from the agency's overseas speaking program.
On it were the retired CBS News anchorman, Walter Cronkite, Coretta Scott King and economist John Kenneth Galbraith.
''Every administration has made an effort to check the political correctness of speakers who go out," one State Department veteran said.
In the case of Obama, after the request from Jakarta came in Jan. 12, political appointees in the International Information Programs bureau argued in e-mails that a Republican senator should be sent as well.
That is State Department practice when individuals go out to discuss American party politics.
But the Jakarta US Embassy had asked for him to speak about diversity, not politics.
Approval for department officials to contact Obama was delayed until June 13.
The senator's office said it was unaware of the controversy.
State Department records show that administration critics occasionally have gone overseas on government-sponsored engagements.
Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies has gone to Iraq, Australia, Tanzania and elsewhere.
He frequently has critiqued the US anti-insurgency effort in Iraq, among other comments.
To be fair -- if you're going to send someone overseas to speak about US Iraq policy, of course you're going to select someone who says things that are helpful to you. Embassy-sponsored speakers carry an implicit USG endorsement. People are going to be awfully confused if an embassy endorses a speaker who slams US policy. And excluding your opponents from an official speakers program is not the same thing as censorship; your opponents are free to express their views through many other channels, and, especially in today's media environment, the audiences your opponents would reach as US speakers have other ways of learning their views.
But that explanation doesn't work here, for several reasons.
One is the questionable assumption that the only kind of helpful statement is one of uncritical support for the war. That's just a bad rhetorical choice. People are perfectly well aware of arguments against the war, whether a US speaker utters them or not. We might at least reassure audiences that some semblance of reason still lingers in US policy circles by acknowledging and talking through those arguments. (What I would really like to be able to say here is that it would be helpful to show that Americans with a broad range of views still came around to agreeing that X is a reasonable policy. I honestly can't do that in the case of Iraq.)
Another, related, problem is simply one of feasibility. If the State Department really is keeping a 'white list' of potential speakers who wholeheartedly endorse US Iraq policy, it must be an awfully short list. The Iraq war really is unpopular at home. It can only be especially unpopular among experts in fields like conflict resolution (to cite the case of David Phillips' dis-invitation from the Jerusalem videoconference) -- not because these people are a bunch of pinkos, but because everything about the war violates the fundamental principles they work by. Finding a conflict resolution specialist who will say the Iraq war was a good idea must be like finding a physician who will say that smoking is good for your health.
Yet another problem is that such screening amounts to cutting off our nose to spite our face. As the CSM notes about the Jakarta embassy's request for Barack Obama as a speaker, Iraq isn't the only thing that Americans want to talk to other people about. Sen. Obama was to be asked to speak about diversity in the US, not about foreign policy. Might an Indonesian audience member nonetheless have raised the issue of the Iraq war with Obama, and put him on the spot to say what he thought of it? Sure. But public speakers deal with difficult questions all the time. The Americans invited to go on State Department speaking tours are, presumably, adults, and fully capable of formulating honest and responsible answers to such questions.
The really sad thing about this news story, though, has nothing to do with US public diplomacy. It's what it says about the state of this country's policy discourse. We could strip the State Department's speaker and specialists program of all balance, of all expertise, and of all credibility without doing much harm to ourselves. The same thing can't be said of our internal communication. When policy discourse is stripped of balance, expertise, and credibility, you wind up with real problems -- as we have in Iraq.