WASHINGTON — A presidential commission recommended Wednesday that Radio Free Europe, the 40-year-old American propaganda operation that broadcasts to Eastern Europe, be phased out in the wake of the collapse of Soviet rule in the region.
The recommendation would require action by the Bush Administration. But the unanimous finding, extraordinary for the usually routine annual report by the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, is expected to carry weight. And it instantly drew the indignant objection of the head of the independent board that oversees Radio Free Europe.
Radio Free Europe, founded in 1950 and originally financed by the CIA, is one of three radio services of the U.S. government. Its sister operation, Radio Liberty, broadcasts directly to the Soviet Union and is aimed particularly at Soviet ethnic minority nationalities.
The third service, the U.S. Information Agency's Voice of America, puts more emphasis on providing news of the United States and makes more of an attempt to appear an objective provider of all sides of an issue.
The commission report called for the continuation of Radio Liberty and Voice of America.
Malcolm S. Forbes Jr., chairman of the Board for International Broadcasting that now oversees Radio Free Europe and its sister operation, Radio Liberty, insisted that Radio Free Europe "enjoys several times the audience of Voice of America in Eastern and Central Europe."
He noted that Polish labor leader Lech Walesa and Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel both have pleaded that the broadcasts continue.
Forbes criticized the commission's "too close relationship with USIA" and asked for an "independent, blue-ribbon presidential commission that would establish criteria for measuring the success of U.S.-sponsored international radio broadcasts."
In its report, the commission recommended that, "The United States should start planning now for the termination of Radio Free Europe's language services when their goals have been achieved and the transfer of assets as appropriate to the Voice of America.
"Unlike VOA, whose worldwide mission to broadcast news and information about the United States will continue, the goals of some surrogate broadcasting services will be achieved if democratic trends are sustained," it said.
But it emphasized the need for country-by-country evaluation of changes, saying that while Polish and Hungarian broadcasts can be cut, Radio Liberty's broadcasts in Russian and 11 Soviet minority languages should remain.
Commission Chairman Edwin Feulner Jr. said that the group is "depressed that the government seems to have no coherent policy to meet the new situation" in Eastern Europe.
Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, suggested that a national council, similar to the National Council on Space, should be formed to coordinate government agencies dealing with information.
As broadcasting decreases, his panel's report said, more classic cultural exchange programs involving teachers, students and artists should be expanded to take their place, as well as increasing funding for libraries and educational programs.
"Public diplomacy is not, as some suggest, a creature of the Cold War, its work now accomplished," the report said. "The new governments . . . need what decades of totalitarian rule did not provide: nation-building skills, entrepreneurial know-how and a firm intellectual foundation in democratic values and human rights."