Winning the Propaganda War:
On Clinton's Creation of the International Public Information Group
by Sanjay Basu

August 22, 1999 - Note from the Editor: What kind of information reaches you? And how does it reach you? Have you heard of the little known International Public Information Group? Sanjay Basu, this week's contributor, uses the case study of Haiti to illuminate the point.

They shout and picket from the lawns of American universities; assemble underground newsletters in suburban basements; throw stones at U.S. embassies. In America's passive culture, where most acquiesce to the bombing of a foreign countryside (as long as soldiers don't have to go with the planes), it is easy to dismiss protesters of U.S. military intervention overseas, labeling them as retroactive rebel-wanna-be's, brainwashed cultists ready to support communist China.

But in our "home of the brave", use of the First Amendment to protest American military intervention overseas is protected by lobbyists and civil liberties unions, even praised by some charismatic politicians. And since Monroe's time, our Presidents have pledged to "export" this democratic ideal of free speech first to the Western Hemisphere and then to the rest of the world. Their declarations reflect the comments of John Stuart Mill, who wrote in his On Liberty, "If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."

Sadly, it appears that the Clinton administration, caught in the center of the Kosovo conflict, has forgotten Mill's democratic ideal altogether. In early August, Associated Press reporters found that the Clinton political establishment had covertly created a small group-now an official State Department unit-programmed to accomplish just one task: to fight against the release of unflattering propaganda about American military operations abroad. Instead of circulating Pentagon briefings or State Department news releases, government agencies will now pass all news reports through the International Public Information Group (IPI). The IPI will then selectively disseminate press releases on United States military activities in foreign lands, controlling the flow of government news overseas.

What motivated the Clinton administration to take this initiative? Was it the desire to correct misguided or erroneous information published by government-run news agencies in America's enemy states? Or was it simply an attempt to unify American press releases overseas and prevent confusion among foreign journalists?

One need only read a newspaper to realize that none of these factors led to the creation of the IPI. The truth is simple enough: details of American military action abroad cast dark shadows on American foreign policy, compromising our ties with European allies and endangering America's image as an exporter of democracy. During NATO's recent air strike in the Balkans, anti-American propaganda generated such grave public relations problems that many Europeans questioned their involvement in the raids, wondering if their faces would appear on websites along with Clinton's swastika-tattooed forehead. To add to the mess, our faulty cartography threw us into diplomatic hell with the Chinese. It became clear to American officials that the only way to win support for U.S. military intervention overseas was to satisfy our European allies and avoid a brouhaha with our Far East trading partner-a difficult task easily stifled by negative propaganda.

To accomplish the feat, the new IPI group will "organize the instruments of the federal government to be able to support the public diplomacy, military engagements and economic initiatives that we have overseas," reported David Leavy, spokesman for the White House's National Security Council. Joan Mower of the Freedom Forum immediately expressed her concern that this new coordinated effort would initiate the filtering of information previously available to foreign reporters. In short, American politicians will continue to present themselves as humanists and peacekeepers while brushing away those who protest American intervention based on news of errors and misdeeds. Clinton apparently felt that the political technique was not novel enough to announce to the public. He finalized plans for the IPI last April, in the midst of the Serbian bombing, without notifying the press of the group's existence.

No matter. How well the IPI actually fulfills its role remains to be seen. And in any case it would be inaccurate to claim that Clinton's political establishment created the IPI in response to the Kosovo crisis alone. Blueprints for the organization were already being drafted in 1994, when the United States received scathing press reviews for sending American soldiers to Haiti. Prior to the deployment of U.S. troops in the area, Haiti held its first free election in three decades. To the great surprise of American politicians, the new Haitian President was not a United States-backed member of the country's elite. Rather, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was a radical priest supported by grass roots organizations and slum communities.

United States officials had reason to worry about Aristide: how would this new independent leader alter the Haitian platform of cheap labor and large profits for American firms? Our riposte against the new political establishment featured a diversion of investment and aid from nearly all Haitian sectors to anti-Aristide coalitions (comprised mainly of the wealthy and elite) on the pretext of strengthening democracy and civil society.

But the new Haitian President was strikingly successful at his work. Aristide managed to cut down on bureaucracy, receive the support of international lending groups, and organize a few military operations. He did, however, make one fatal mistake. In an attempt to gain total control over the country's military, he threatened the power of Brigadier General Raoul Cédras. Cédras immediately initiated a bloody coup, killing hundreds of Aristide supporters, forcing the newly elected President into exile, and taking control of the country's government.

In reply, the United Nations passed resolution 841, announcing sanctions against Haiti. The Organization of American States (OAS) also responded to the coup, initiating an embargo on all supplies to the country with the exception of humanitarian aid. The OAS demanded that Aristide be returned to power. Meanwhile, U.S. President George Bush covertly passed an "exemption clause" to the embargo for American business firms. Put simply, the clause indicated that the embargo did not apply to those American companies profiting from the Haitian cheap labor platform. According to Bush, Haitian people would suffer if the profit margins of American firms began to dwindle. The New York Times called the measure "fine-tuning the embargo".

Meanwhile, the United States Coast Guard turned away the hundreds of Haitian refugees who fled from political oppression and economic collapse in their country. The U.S. initiated an illegal blockage around Haiti to prevent a massive flood of refugees from becoming American responsibility. This measure received heavy criticism from then-Presidential candidate Bill Clinton, although Clinton strengthened the blockade after later winning the election in 1994.

Clinton also sent troops to the country in an attempt to overthrow the military regime after months of U.N.-supported sanctions and negotiations failed. The immediate press response to the intervention was ambivalent: while The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times supported military intervention (one columnist even suggesting that Haiti should "be in some creative way 'recolonized' for a time"), others sharply criticized U.S. military action, using history for support. A columnist for The Tampa Tribune wrote, "It didn't work the last time American forces occupied Haiti…Marines were sent in then to protect American residents and property and restore order after a mob lynched an unpopular president. Within weeks, the United States designated a puppet president and seized Haiti's custom services. Later, Marines seized the main bank, turning it over to the National City Bank of New York. Franklin D. Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of state, wrote Haiti's new constitution, formalizing the powers of the occupiers. A nationalist revolt was brutally repressed. The Marines killed up to 13,000 guerrillas and peasants...faced with widespread resentment, the Marines went home." Yes, they went home. But they did so after nearly 20 years, leaving the country in ruins and in the hands of a murderous National Guard.

Many reporters and columnists also criticized Clinton's intervention plan for its lack of support from the American military, which did not want Marines dying in Haiti once again. Several grass roots organizations and human rights groups continued to protest America's blockade of refugees, claiming that several Haitians had attempted to escape oppression in the country, only to be returned to Cédras' death squad by the crewmen of U.S. Navy boats.

These negative reports, according to the Clinton administration, were merely products of "confusion", inaccurate portrayals of a well-constructed humanitarian plan. Had the IPI been established at the time, perhaps this trouble-making negativity could have been avoided. In one sense, however, it is ironic that Clinton's administration was upset about the amount of negative press they received, given the far greater possibilities for negative media coverage during the Haitian affair. After our military forces managed to reinstate Aristide to his presidential seat, for example, Cédras was permitted to escape to Panama. And this time, U.S. officials praised Aristide as a great democrat. In a speech delivered shortly after Aristide's return to power, Clinton declared that Aristide would prove himself to be a democratic leader by "complying with Haiti's constitution"--meaning that the Haitian president would step down from his seat without seeking a second term. Haiti's constitution called for a five-year term for its President. And while many newspapers reported on Clinton's speech, none revealed that Aristide was obliged to receive a five-year term as President according to the Constitution. Clinton had actually counted Aristide's three years in exile as part of his presidential term.

Ultimately, the United States would win its long battle against the peasant-supported leader, eliminating the possibility that Aristide would destroy the Haitian export platform that offered cheap labor and big profit margins for American businessmen. In fact, just one day before the United States intervened in the conflict, the Associated Press reported that an U.S. Justice Department investigation had found that the Secretary of Treasury under President Bush had authorized American oil companies to supply oil to the military junta in Haiti, violating the embargo and fueling Cédras' murderous rampage. These illegal oil-supplying activities continued under Clinton's administration.

While the U.S. Department of Justice report would appear to fall under the category of headline news, the story was actually printed in only a few newspapers. The first was Platt's OilGram, an oil industry newsletter. Most of the other reports appeared in local papers. In fact, The Wall Street Journal, which included only a few lines of the AP article, was the only national newspaper to address the report.

So although no IPI was in existence at the time, American criticism never came close to reaching its full potential-not because the information was unavailable, but rather because the American press failed to report much of the information. And thus Clinton can hardly be blamed for wanting to establish the IPI. Our odyssey in Haiti suggests that the American press has avoided reporting news that threatens our image as exporters of democracy. Given the opportunity by a compliant press, why not eliminate American opposition altogether? As Thomas McCann, chief PR officer for United Fruit, once stated, "It is difficult to make a convincing case for manipulation of the press when the victims proved so eager for the experience."


Sanjay Basu is a member of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT and director of the Cambridge, MA-based humanitarian aid organization United Trauma Relief.


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Published August 22, 1999
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