*Thursday, November 2, 2006*
*The Kansas City Star*
*By Jonathan S. Landay*
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 send them on foreign speaking assignments.
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 efforts to control information, muffle dissenting views
and promote positive assessments of its policies to foreign audiences.
It also appears to be contrary to the guidelines of the U.S. Speaker and
Specialist Program, which taps U.S. 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. Joe Biden of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee, requested a review of the program after a December
2005 story by Knight Ridder Newspapers (since acquired by the McClatchy
Co.) quoted State Department officials who complained that political
litmus tests were being used to weed out speakers critical of the Bush
The Inspector General's Office recommended that the Bureau of
International Information Programs, which runs the speakers program,
adopt new regulations to ensure that speakers are chosen "regardless of
their personal opinions on policy issues."
In one case cited in the December Knight Ridder story, a conflict
resolution expert and author of a book critical of Iraqi reconstruction
was told at the last minute that his participation in a videoconference
in Jerusalem was no longer required.
Internal e-mails quoted in the report showed that IIP officials pressed
to have the expert, David L. Phillips, replaced by other scholars.
The Inspector General's report found that the Bureau of International
Information Programs (IIP) used "no expressed or established
'ideological litmus tests,' or 'black or white lists" of speakers. But
it said that "past . . . leadership" in the State Department's Bureau of
Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, whom it didn't name, 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," said the report. "An
atmosphere of extreme caution and self-censorship was created."
Unidentified former IIP 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 State Department 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."
"Others, in an effort to maintain 'balance' unrealistically, suggested
recommending two ideologically different speakers for a program in which
only one speaker was requested," said the report.
In another case cited in the Knight Ridder report, 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 IIP political appointees argued that a Republican senator be sent
The report found that while some IIP employees 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
The report didn't reveal the identities of anyone involved in the
selection process or the private U.S. citizens whose statements and
publications were vetted.