West Wing Story: Ground Zero For Communications

When GOP supporters at home and U.S. embassy staffs around the world woke up this morning, they already had an e-mail from the newly created Coalition Information Centers. It was the "daily message" from the CIC, the White House's round-the-clock message machine.

The Center's e-mails probably reach hundreds of thousands of people around the world (counting pass-along). Today's message: that the world's financial-services firms must either help shut down terrorists or forget about doing business with the United States. That's a talking point that dovetailed nicely with today's federal clamp down on Islamic financial networks operating in the United States.

While it zaps out its daily missive, the White House, in turn, has been inundated with messages from its allies. European leaders have been telling President George W. Bush and his staff that they need to shore up public support for the war abroad. France's President Jacques Chirac brought it up with Bush yesterday. Britain's Tony Blair will no doubt reiterate the point during his visit with Bush today. Blair's aide, Alastair Campbell, made the case to national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney when he was at the White House two weeks ago.

But it is Washington's Arab allies who have been pushing most urgently for better public relations in their countries. That's because public opinion on their streets is the most mercurial. For years, the United States didn't believe that state-controlled Arab media truly reflected public opinion. "What we have been saying to the U.S. administration ... is pay attention to Arabic television. We have 30 satellite television channels in the Arab world. We have a sense of where public opinion lies, because we have call-in shows," explains one Arab government official who started lobbying even before Bush took office. "We said, 'read our newspapers!'"

The White House, finally, is listening. Today's far-flung daily message also included some key quotes from Al-Dustour, a Jordanian newspaper. "What is happening now, under bin Laden's leadership, is a true disaster to the Islamic nation," the White House message says, quoting a writer named Bater Mohammad Ali Wardam. (Now in his daily briefings, press secretary Ari Fleischer throws out pro-U.S. or anti-Taliban quotes from the likes of the Egyptian foreign minister or the Arab League secretary-general.) The daily message today also cites a report by the BBC quoting Peter Kessler of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees saying that his agency has "had our vehicles stolen, our offices taken over and our staff beaten" in Afghanistan. The CIC is paying more attention than ever to radio, and in particular the BBC, which is broadcast extensively in Arab nations.

The next step for the White House is to get booked on Arab TV other than Al-Jazeera, the flashy, much-talked-about independent channel. The White House has been reluctant to have President Bush himself appear on that network. When Osama bin Laden released his first video to the station after the bombing campaign began, the White House scrambled to reply. They didn't want to dignify OBL by having Bush respond in kind. Eventually, Rice and others granted Al-Jazeera interviews. But White House aides say they have found the questions to be biased and often anti-Israel. There are a lot of other choices like MBC (Middle East Broadcasting Co.) and LBC (Lebanese Broadcasting Corp.). Several of these are Saudi-owned and amenable to having pro-U.S. guests. Several of these news companies will soon have a presence in Washington. That means Al-Jazeera will soon have competition.

Inside the CIC in Washington there is a big grid on the wall showing which U.S. officials are on which TV shows around the world. The goal is to fill it up. The CIC has taken over the Indian Treaty Room in the Old Executive Office Building next door to the White House. Presidents signed peace treaties in this marble-floored room after World War II. Today, the marble has been covered over to protect it and 30 flat-screen computers have been set up at each station--the humanitarian desk, the defense desk, etc. Hanging nearby are clocks showing four time zones and an illuminated map tracking night and day around the world.

So while London and Islamabad sleep, the D.C. staff is culling facts and putting out the daily message. They are also compiling an ongoing "catalog of Taliban lies." Today's sampling: "Claim: The Taliban accuse the U.S. of targeting civilians. Fact: The Taliban are actually placing their military assets near civilian areas and using innocent Afghans as human shields." Eventually the CIC will have a duty officer 24 hours a day. But for now, that duty falls to Jim Wilkinson, who is running the day-to-day operation.

A Navy Reservist, Wilkinson still sports a military-looking cut and has the uncanny ability to speak in a Southern drawl at breakneck speed. Wilkinson served aboard the USS Cole before it was attacked, and he keeps a Cole cap on his desk at the CIC. But he has an even more powerful memento. When he accompanied the president to Ground Zero, he was given a New York Fire Department jacket. It hangs on the back of his chair in the Indian Treaty Room turned War Room for anyone who needs a reminder of why they are working such long hours.