Pentagon boosts 24-hour public relations

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The Independent US

The US Defence Department is setting up a system to counter derogatory publicity quickly, a rapid response operation perfected in recent US political campaigns.

A prime goal appears to be to deflect criticism increasingly directed toward Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over the Iraq war.

In a memo obtained by The Associated Press, Dorrance Smith, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, said new teams of people would "develop messages" for the 24-hour news cycle and "correct the record".

The memo describes an operation modelled on political campaigns that use "Rapid Response" action to answer opponents' assertions quickly.

Another branch would co-ordinate "surrogates". In political campaigns, surrogates are usually high-level politicians or key interest groups who speak or travel on behalf of a candidate or an issue.

The Pentagon plan would focus more resources on so-called new media, including the internet and weblogs. It would also include new workers to book civilian and military guests on television and radio shows.

Pentagon press secretary Eric Ruff did not provide the number of people to be hired or the programme's cost.

Rumsfeld has complained bitterly that the press focuses too much on bad news coming out of Iraq and not enough on progress being made. As an example, during a trip to Nevada this year, he said he was deeply troubled by the success of terrorist groups in "manipulating the media" to influence Westerners.

"That's the thing that keeps me up at night," he said during a question-and-answer session at a naval base.

The Pentagon public relations changes have been in the works for months and come as voters prepare to vote next week with the war in Iraq as a major issue to decide whether the Republican continue their control of Congress. Polls suggest that the Republicans could lose their majority in the 435-seat House of Representatives, where all seats are being elected, and perhaps the Senate as well, where 33 of the 100 senators will be elected.

The new public relations plan began to take shape on Friday as new construction began in the E-Ring, the Pentagon's outermost corridor, to accommodate new employees

Ruff said the reorganisation, spearheaded by Smith, would help the department "set the record straight" and provide accurate, timely information.

He denied that the effort was set up to respond to the eroding public support for the war or that it was aimed at helping President George Bush's Republican partymates in next week's elections. He also said he would not call it an "information operations" programme, which generally refers to a propaganda-type campaign.

Ruff said the effort grew out of Rumsfeld's criticism of the department's communications capabilities, which the secretary compared unfavourably to how quickly and effectively terrorists can get their message out.

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