NEW YORK – Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups have poisoned the Muslim public's view of the United States through deft use of the Internet and other modern communications methods that the American government has failed to master, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Friday.
In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, Rumsfeld sounded a theme he frequently raises as a key to eventually winning the global war on terrorism: countering anti-Western messages from Islamic extremists.
"Our enemies have skillfully adapted to fighting wars in today's media age, but for the most part we — our country, our government — has not adapted," he said.
He quoted Ayman al-Zawahri, the chief lieutenant of Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden, as saying that their terrorist network is in a media battle for the hearts and minds of Muslims. Rumsfeld agreed, saying that the battle for public opinion is at least as important as the battles on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The extremist groups are able to act quickly on the information front, with relatively few people, while the U.S. government bureaucracy has yet to keep up in an age of e-mail, blogs and instant messaging, he said.
"We in the government have barely even begun to compete in reaching their audiences," Rumsfeld said.
Rumsfeld has often described the U.S. government as being disadvantaged by its ponderous approach to dealing with the media, and he has pushed for the U.S. military in particular to try innovative approaches to getting out its message to the Islamic world.
He has also complained that the U.S. media tends to focus too much on the negative aspects of U.S. involvement in Iraq.
In his speech, Rumsfeld said the military needs to focus more on adapting to the changes in global media.
"In some cases, military public affairs officials have had little communications training and little, if any, grounding in the importance of timing and rapid response, and the realities of digital and broadcast media," he said.
The government's public affairs system is antiquated, he said, working mostly on an eight-hour, five-days-a-week schedule that cannot keep up with the rest of the world.
"This is an unacceptable, dangerous deficiency," he said.