America bids to improve its image

THE UNITED States is to tighten its control of the official information it disseminates abroad with the creation of a new public information group under the auspices of the State Department. While the change is partly organisational - the new group is the direct successor of the United States Information Agency (USIA) - it is said also to reflect concern in the administration about the growth of anti-American sentiment abroad.

The decision to abolish the USIA as a government agency in its own right and wrap it into the State Department was taken almost a year ago amid strong opposition from staff and warnings about new curbs on the free circulation of information. The change was part of the continual bargaining between the administration and Republican-controlled Congress and eased the way, among other things, for congressional approval of Nato expansion.

With the formal establishment of the new department - the International Public Information group (IPI) - now only six weeks away, however, and more details of the new arrangements becoming available, it appears the change in status will be accompanied by a change in substance.

IPI will be smaller and less structured than the USIA and its status as an arm of US diplomacy will be spelt out with the appointment of an undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. This is a new post, for which the current director of the USIA, Evelyn Lieberman has been nominated.

Details of the new department's function were finalised when the Kosovo conflict was at its height and the misgivings abroad about US policies at the time, as well as the mixed signals that were sent by different branches of the US administration - the State Department, the Pentagon and the top brass - appear to have given the reorganisation a new impetus.

Any tighter control of official US statements, however, is regarded in some quarters as potentially risky. "What are you going to do? Get everyone together at 9am every day to decide the message for that day?' said one critic outside the administration. Her view was that money would be better spent in helping foreigners to navigate the prodigious amounts of official information already available on government websites and in encouraging officials to give more interviews. "You have to let reporters have the facts."