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Government Spokesmen: Managing Issues, Not News

October 19, 1986|Alan D. Romberg | Alan D. Romberg, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, served as deputy spokesman for the U.S. State Department from 1981-1985

NEW YORK — The resignation of State Department spokesman Bernard Kalb, as an act of dissent over a "reported disinformation program" aimed at Libya, raises many questions--about the policy, about the implementation and about the role of a spokesman.

I understand why Kalb quit--I think. It was a matter of deep anguish over what he perceived to be a disinformation campaign directed, as a matter of conscious policy, through the U.S. press. He felt it hurt his country and, no small thing, he felt it threatened his own credibility. Those who might condemn him for leaving just before the Reykjavik meeting ignore the immensity of the issue for his sense of integrity. What I have trouble coming to grips with is that, despite careless drafting and mindless execution, I am convinced there was no policy of using the U.S. press to spread disinformation.

Unless Kalb speaks out more directly, we won't know the details of his involvement--or lack of it. On the face of it, however, it seems he did not see any planning documents for the Libyan program at the time of the first stories in late August or possibly even after the Oct. 2 Washington Post story that revealed the alleged disinformation campaign in the U.S. media. White House spokesman Larry Speakes said he had not either.

This is not unusual. Spokesmen do not have to know every detail of every policy. But it is foolish, from the government's viewpoint, and unacceptable, from a spokesman's, if he is not included early on, either when there is a media issue or when fallout from a policy could become the focus of public attention.

The problem is not access to people. Speakes sits in on key White House meetings and his counterpart does the same at the State Department. That has been a policy of Secretary of State George P. Shultz since he took office in mid-1982. And someone in the spokesman's office at State spends a great deal of time working with other bureaus within the department, developing questions and answers on coming actions--be it supplies to Chad, sanctions against South Africa, advisers in El Salvador or International Monetary Fund membership for Poland. He spots gaps in the answers and prods policy-makers to respond to questions they might overlook. Elements of a policy have indeed been changed when shown to be logically indefensible

A notable exception to this procedure involves sensitive operations. With the invasion of Grenada in October, 1983, most spokesman were not briefed until 11 p.m. the night before U.S. forces landed, and even then not all were included. As a result, Speakes was burned when he was forced to answer questions from oral guidance. Much the same thing appears to have happened here.

In mid-August the President authorized a plan designed to rattle Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi's cage. It involved a variety of deceptive actions but not, it appears, lying to the U.S. press.

Nonetheless, a story appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Aug. 25 that contained what appears to be a mixture of fact and fiction. Again, based on oral guidance from National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter, Speakes called the story "authoritative" but "not authorized." The spokesman did not, I believe, seek to mislead the press. He did, however, say the Administration was sending "a warning shot across (Kadafi's) bow." In any case, his response came across as a solid endorsement of the thrust of the story.

It is worth noting that spokesmen in Washington--Speakes was in California--did not endorse the story. As happens every August, coordination within the government was disrupted, including the invaluable interchange among spokesmen and between spokesmen and their "principals." Inevitable gaps in knowledge and interpretation are widened by the void between vacation spots.

A basic problem, however, is a system that does not always involve its spokesmen. In part, one must also say it is the fault of spokesmen who settle for "guidance" from policy officials and do not press for access to the relevant documents--which in my experience can be made available if really necessary.

The problem was compounded by the Administration's stiff reaction to the Post's Oct. 2 story. The President declared, "no one on our side has been lying to anyone." At a minimum, this begged the question of background statements to the Journal in August and sidestepped the misleading--if innocent--official response that the story was "authoritative."

And Shultz, whose integrity I consider beyond question, complicated the matter with his reference to a Winston Churchill quote about attending truth with a "bodyguard of lies." Shultz prefaced that citation with the remark: "I probably shouldn't even say this because you'll give it the wrong interpretation." He was right. He shouldn't have; they did.

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