Thursday, March 8, 2007

The State Department has hired two native Arabic speakers to monitor Arabic political discussion forums on the Internet and to overtly participate in them in an effort to correct misperceptions about U.S. policy in the Middle East.

The small “digital outreach team,” which also includes a supervising Foreign Service officer, was created in December by Karen Hughes, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, as part of her campaign to prevent mistakes and speculation about the United States from being accepted as truth, officials said.

“We want to make sure that U.S. views are present in the Arabic cyberspace,” said Jeremy Curtin, acting coordinator of the Bureau of International Information Programs at the State Department.

“The two people who were hired just before Christmas monitor Arabic sites on current affairs in the Middle East and other issues we are interested in,” he said. “They identify themselves as U.S. government employees.”

Mrs. Hughes, a close friend and former adviser to President Bush, was appointed in 2005 to help improve perceptions of the United States overseas, particularly in the Arab and Muslim world, which suffered because of the Iraq war and other U.S. policies.

She has spent considerable time traveling to the Middle East, as well as meeting with Muslims in Europe and the United States. She also has focused on exchange programs that bring Muslims to the United States.

“There is an information explosion, and we are competing for attention and credibility in the midst of that explosion,” Mrs. Hughes said in Mexico last month.

In addition to the new digital outreach team, the State Department employs as many as a dozen Arabic speakers who monitor various news outlets in the Middle East. Some of them also help a so-called rapid-response team that reads all lead stories in the Arab press and writes guidance for U.S. embassies in the region if a response is deemed necessary or useful.

“The first step of success is to be there and have people respond” to publicly expressed views, Mr. Curtin said. “The second step is to engage in a conversation. We try to adopt an informal tone, and we are careful what we say.”

In a forum on one of the sites regularly monitored by the State Department (, the team recently began a thread asking, “Will violence end in Iraq if U.S. forces withdraw?”

Another poster wrote that the thread was probably started “in preparation for withdrawal from Iraq, so that the U.S. government can say that it has listened to Arab public opinion,” Mr. Curtin said.

One of the team members responded that he was simply “trying to stimulate discussion,” adding that “the U.S. is not planning a sudden departure” from Iraq. “The plan all along has been to train and equip Iraqi forces to handle their own security, and, as they make progress in that area, you will naturally see a drawdown of U.S. forces.”

In another thread, participants discussed “accusations that the U.S. military is engaged in widespread rape of men and women in Iraq,” Mr. Curtin said. One of the posters accused the State Department team of discounting all accusations.

“I never said nothing happened,” the team member replied. “I stated that, when there have been cases of misconduct by U.S. soldiers against Iraqi civilians, a legal process has been implemented. I also said allegations that such misconduct is widespread are untrue and unproven.”

Mr. Curtin said that even when posters disagree with U.S. policies or opinions expressed by the State Department team, they are “polite, respectful and courteous.”

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