Imagine this: a drone launched from a ship off the Eastern coast of the United States fires a missile that destroys a neighborhood of Stamford, Connecticut. Another direct attack on America from a foreign enemy! The newspapers would cover the story on the front-page for days to come. It would be all over the cable shows. US officials would be bombarded with demands for answers.
Now consider the CIA’s recent attack on the Pakistani village of Damadola–an attempt to kill Ayman Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s No. 2 that seems instead to have ended up blowing apart a dozen or so civilians. [See the update below.] This tragic episode in the so-called war on terrorism was off the front pages by Monday and competing for time on national cable news broadcasts with runaway convicts and other local crime news. I’m not all that surprised. This was another example of how what we do there does not fully register here. There are tens of thousands of Pakistanis in the streets and outraged–as they should be–at the violation of their national sovereignty (by a supposed ally!) that led to the killing of their fellow citizens. If it turns out that General Pervez Musharraf knew about the attack in advance and okayed it (explicitly or implicitly), he may well have trouble staying in power. Meanwhile, this certainly makes one (or should make one) think of that old, cliched question: why do they hate us? Hey, I know; it’s only a dozen or so lives. But here you have the big, bad U.S. of A. raining death down from the sky with impunity, treating faraway villagers as nobodies that no one in Washington needs to worry about. No one pays for this. No one is punished. Can you spell “resentment.”
It was somewhat appropriate that the day the news of this errant assault broke, a source sent me a memo that Karen Hughes, Bush’s communications guru who is now undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, recently disseminated to chiefs of mission, deputy chiefs of mission and public affairs officers at US embassies around the world. The subject was speaking to reporters, and Hughes wanted to share what she called “Karen’s Rules” on dealing with the media.
Her Rule No. 1: “Think advocacy. I want all of you to think of yourselves as advocates for America’s story each day. I encourage you to have regular sessions with your senior team to think about the public diplomacy themes of each event or initiative.” But, Hughes added, do not stray from the talking points: “Use what’s out there. You are always on sure ground if you use what the President, Secretary Rice, Sean McCormack, or any USG spokesman has already said on a particular subject….My Echo Chamber messages are meant to provide you clear talking points in a conversational format on the ‘hot’ issues of the day.” Hughes ended her cable with this: “Forceful advocacy of U.S. interests and positions is critical to our effort to marginalize the extremists and share a positive vision of hope for all countries and people. I encourage you to take advantage of opportunities to speak out, and look forward to our aggressive promotion of U.S. policy.”
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So how should COMs, DCMs, and PAOs in embassies around the world be talking about the US attack in Pakistan? “I know,” Hughes wrote, “that it is important to get out in front of an issue or at best have a strong response to a negative story….I want you out frequently in front of the cameras, in the columns of your local and regional press and mobilizing your staff to wake up every morning with media in mind.” But in this instance it might be best for Hughes’ subordinates to stay away from the cameras and the reporters. It’s tough to be an advocate for “America’s story” on such occasions. The message delivered by the attack is all-too clear and has far more resonance than any public diplomacy spin that Hughes could cook up.
The full Hughes memo follows:
UNCLASSIFIED STATE 00006202 [122316Z JAN 06]FOR COMS, DCMS and PAOS from Karen Hughes
Subject: Speaking on the Record
1. During my recent trips and meetings with many of you, I have heard concerns about problems with getting clearance to speak on the record to reporters. I promised I would send out a message clarifying my policy on this issue, and providing what I hope is clear guidance for you all in dealing with the press. In this message, I want to share “Karen’s Rules” in the hope that you all will have a better idea of what I expect, and how you can react.
2. Rule #1: Think advocacy. I want all of you to think of yourselves as advocates for America’s story each day. I encourage you to have regular sessions with your senior team to think about the public diplomacy themes of each event or initiative. As a communicator, I know that it is important to get out in front of an issue or at best have a strong response to a negative story. One of my goals during my tenure at the State Department is to change our culture from one in which risk is avoided with respect to the press to one where speaking out and engaging with the media is encouraged and rewarded. I want you out frequently in front of the cameras, in the columns of your local and regional press and mobilizing your staff to wake up every morning with media in mind. As President Bush and Secretary Rice have stated, public diplomacy is the job of every ambassador and every Foreign Service officer.
3. Rule #2: Use what’s out there. You are always on sure ground if you use what the President, Secretary Rice, Sean McCormack, or any USG spokesman has already said on a particular subject. I always read recent statements by key officials on important subjects before I do press events. My Echo Chamber messages are meant to provide you clear talking points in a conversational format on the ‘hot’ issues of the day. You never need clearance to background a journalist though you should certainly pay careful attention to how your comments may be used.
4. Rule #3: Think local. Because your key audience is your local–or regional–audience, you do not need clearance to speak to any local media, print, or television. And, you do not need clearance to speak to U.S. media in your country if you are quoting a senior official who has spoken on the record on a particular subject. When you are in the U.S., you do need PA clearance to speak to major U.S. media.
Rule #4: Use common sense to respond to natural disasters or tragedies. You do not need to get Department clearance to express condolences in the event of a loss, or express sympathy and support in response to a natural disaster. Obviously in the latter case do not commit USG resources for support or relief without approval from the Department; but do not wait for Department authorization to offer a statement of sympathy unless the individual or incident is controversial.
6. Rule #5: Don’t make policy. This is a sensitive area about which you need to be careful. Do not get out in front of USG policymakers on an issue, even if you are speaking to local press. The rule of thumb to keep in mind is “don’t make policy or usurp the prerogative of the Secretary or a senior Washington policy-maker to set policy direction.” When in doubt on a policy shift, seek urgent guidance from PA or your regional public diplomacy office. Use your judgment and err on the side of caution.
7. Rule #6: No surprises. You should always give [the Office of Public Affairs] a heads-up in the event that you speak to U.S.-based media, particularly in the case of on the record television interviews. This ensures that those who should know are in the loop on what is happening.
8. Rule #7. Enlist the help of my office if you don’t get a quick response for clearance or help. My staff and I are here to support you in your efforts to get the USG position on the record and out in the media. Both Sean McCormack and I are committed to making sure you have what you need to advocate a U.S. position on the key issues at your post.
9. I know this is a departure from how you all have operated over the years. But forceful advocacy of U.S. interests and positions is critical to our effort to marginalize the extremists and share a positive vision of hope for all countries and people. I encourage you to take advantage of opportunities to speak out, and look forward to our aggressive promotion of U.S. policy.
Aggressive promotion of US policy–that’s the problem at the moment.
UPDATE: On Tuesday morning, AP reported that a provincial government of Pakistan had released a statement that said four or so “foreign terrorists” (they were not identified beyond that) had been killed in the CIA missile attack. And Pakistani intelligence officials told AP that Zawahiri had been invited to a dinner in the village but did not show up. Pakistan’s Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao would only say that there was a “possibility” that foreigners–presumably, militants–were killed in the strike