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News Brief: Rumsfeld, at CFR, Outlines Challenge of Hostile Global Media Environment

Author: Michael Moran
February 17, 2006
Council on Foreign Relations

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[NOTE: This is a news brief of a February 17, 2006, meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations. Full transcript click here.]

NEW YORK — Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Friday said the U.S. government, its military, and its news media must face the fact that today's media environment is often hostile to the values of liberal democracies and the aims of America's "war on terrorism."

Rumsfeld, speaking at the headquarters of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, also strongly defended Bush administration policies in the war on terrorism, rejecting a UN report's call for closing down the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and releasing all detainees held there. Rumsfeld denied abuses were taking place there and noted that International Committee of the Red Cross visits are continual. "We've released people from Guantanamo on a continuing basis and we've made mistakes," he said forcefully. "Fifteen have gone back to the battlefield and been killed or captured."

The Secretary also parried criticism of his FY2005 defense budget, of the Pentagon's penchant for secrecy, and he insisted progress was being made in Iraq.

Pointing to several successful elections and the Iraqi insurgency's inability to prevent the political process from evolving, Rumsfeld asserted "they're making good progress." He also said the key goal of replacing American forces with well-trained Iraqi troops is moving ahead.

The fight in the newsrooms

In his opening remarks, the secretary warned that a failure of the United States government to come to grips with the reality of "today's media age" has cost lives and hurt America's standing in the world, and that "some of the most critical battles may not be in the mountains of Afghanistan or the streets of Iraq, but in newsrooms—in places like New York, London, Cairo, and elsewhere."

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

He called for a major rethink and overhaul of U.S. international broadcasting and communications efforts, noting that current procedures leave the United States vulnerable to distortions and lies. "That is an unacceptably dangerous deficiency."

Rumsfeld suggested some of the problem rests with "relatively immature standards and practices that too often serve to inflame and distort—rather than to explain and inform." While he singled out no particular broadcaster, Rumsfeld and other top administration officials, including President Bush, frequently have leveled criticism at the Arab world's leading satellite broadcaster, al-Jazeera.

"While al-Qaeda and extremist movements have utilized this forum for many years and have successfully further poisoned the Muslim public's view of the West, we have barely even begun to compete in reaching their audiences," he said.

Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center for Press and Public Policy at Harvard, said Rumsfeld has some valid points, but also might be "confusing propaganda with news."

"The news is not good" out of Iraq, Jones said. "Therefore the coverage reflects that ".

A failure to communicate

Rumsfeld also conceded the official U.S. communications effort, inside the Pentagon and elsewhere, "tends to be reactive, rather than proactive—and it still operates for the most part on an eight-hour, five-days-a-week basis, while world events and our enemies are operating 24-7, across every time zone. That is an unacceptably dangerous deficiency."

Citing Cold War-era efforts like the U.S. Information Agency and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Rumsfeld called for a new emphasis on communications strategy across the government, as well as recognition that the "realities of digital and broadcast media" require changes in the way public affairs officers do business.

"The longer it takes to put a strategic information framework into place, the more we can be certain that the vacuum will be filled by the enemy ..."

Rumsfeld praised Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's proposal to direct more resources toward these kinds of information and cultural outreaches to Iran. "Personally, I think she deserves support in those efforts," Rumsfeld said, noting the plan that was announced only this week, already is drawing opposition in Congress. But, he said, "we need to do all we can to attract supporters to our effort, to correct the lies being told which so damage our country."

To and fro

During a spirited question-and-answer period, Rumsfeld grappled with a variety of topics in exchanges that verged, occasionally, on heated. Andrea Mitchell, NBC News chief foreign correspondent, asked Rumsfeld's opinion of the recommendations of an independent report by UN Human Rights Commission staffers this week suggesting the United States should shut down the detention facilities in Cuba.

Rumsfeld forcefully defended the facility, noting the UN staffers failed to visit the facility after learning they would not be able to interview prisoners—access Rumsfeld says is reserved for the International Committee of the Red Cross, defense attorneys, and diplomatic visitors. The secretary deflected two further questions on that issue, one from Human Rights Watch's Associate Director Carroll Bogert, insisting inmate claims of abuse are largely fabricated and that "any single example of abuse that has ever been cited has been investigated" and properly adjudicated.

Ted Sorensen, former chief counsel to President Kennedy, asked Rumsfeld whether America's image problems abroad might be related to Bush administration policies rather than the absence of an Internet-age media relations strategy. The Secretary said "policies and communication are both terribly important," then went on to defend current policy with this caveat: "We must have the cooperation of other countries. Therefore, we have to figure out how we do that...That may require some adjustments."

Rumsfeld was asked about military spending priorities—outlined in the Quadrennial Defense Review released earlier this month—by John Brademas, president emeritus of New York University. Brademas cited criticism about the continued pursuit of expensive conventional weapons systems—fighter aircraft, warships, and missile defense shields—at the expense of counterterrorism programs.

Rumsfeld said he felt the mix was just right and denied the plan was unaffordable.

"I do not believe we've reached the end of history," Rumsfeld said, adding that there is no need to cut any major weapons programs. "We're shifting our weight, shifting our balance, shifting our emphasis," he said, rather than jettisoning one approach in favor of another.

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