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Put the US back in government information

Not all the money the United States allocates to improve American national security needs to go to the Department of Defense. A small portion should go to Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, the Voice of America, and the many other ICA (former USIA) programs. Words and ideas can be as important for defending US positions and advancing US purposes as guns and submarines and aircraft.

President Carter approved a transmitter-building program for VOA and RFE/RL during the first weeks of his administration but failed to follow through with expansion of all the other components that are needed for more effective broadcasting. Meanwhile the Russians went on building new transmitters and expanding language services.

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Traveling in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa in recent weeks, I had to twist the dial continually to hear VOA, which has to transmitters closer than Greece to penetrate the whole area between Ethiopia and Afghanistan. Soviet broadcasts, on numerous frequencies, come booming in to this part of the world.

In the second year of the Carter administration, educational and cultural exchange programs which had been in the Department of State were merged into USIA (US Information Agency) and its name was changed to the International Communication Agency. This "new" organization remained structured much as its predecessor had been, but the name change betokened a shift to a passive approach to its work. The agency's output was reoriented to apologize for America's actions.

There was a strong bias against anti-Communist programming. USIA's most distinguished publication, "Problems of Communism," had a hard time surviving during ICA's first year. Soft, third-world oriented cultural dialogue took priority.

Level budgets at a time of rapidly rising costs meant that all operations actually declined. Schemes for computerized management replaced the judgment of seasoned, professional information officers with significant experience abroad. Flexibility to respond to events as they occurred was lost. The proud motto that had served USIA for 25 years, "Telling America's Story to the World," was erased from over the entrance at 1776 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The overseas information arm of the US government should not hide behind the designation "international." Both the name and the spirit of the old USIA should be restored. Nothing would boost morale more than a budget that would permit initiative and creativity. There is no lack of priority tasks, both within ICA's area of direct responsibility and in related fields:

* The new transmitters President Carter approved in 1977 are now coming into operation but they are too few and none of them is aimed at the Middle East. A new transmitter- building program is overdue. Meanwhile US weakness should be compensated by leasing transmitter time wherever facilities can be found.

* VOA should inaugurate new services for priority areas, such as Pushtu and Amharic, the national languages of Afghanistan and Ethiopia. VOA broadcasts in Soviet Muslim languages should be expanded.

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* Radio Liberty, which has never reached the level of impact of Radio Free Eruope, but whose target area -- the whole Soviet Union -- is more important than any other, should be given the resources to expand to the fullest possible effectiveness. RL needs more manpower, more transmitters, better research and more broadcast time, especially to vital areas such as the Ukraine, the Caucasus , and Central Asia.

* The oversight structure of RFE/RL should be simplified by eliminating the wasteful and meddlesome Board for International Broadcasting, as the Reagan transition team recommended.

* All ICA's nonbroadcasting operations should be strengthened too: films and magazines, libraries, book distribution, overseas lectures and US travel grants for foreign leaders, journalists, politicians and professors. These cost a pittance compared to arms or economic aid and bring returns for years. Posts abroad should get back into the business of serious political and economic dialogue with local opinion leaders.

* "Problems of Communism" should be translated into major world languages and greatly increased in circulation. It is the best bargain the US government has in the field of ideological competition.

* Last but not least, serious planning for a Radio Free Cuba should get under way posthaste. It is astonishing that after 22 years of Castro, the US still has not set up for Cuba the kind of hardhitting, objective, round-the-clock broadcasting operation that Radio Free Europe has provided for Poland and the other countries of Eastern Europe since 1950. It is still not too late to do so. Broadcasts to Cuba could be supplemented by English and Spanish services for the entire Caribbean and Central American region. The US looks inept when it does nothing to counter the Soviet broadcasts which are now relaying out of Havana to Latin America as well as to the US and Canada.

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