Public affairs officers head home for US policy review

WASHINGTON: More than 100 of America's public affairs officers stationed overseas will descend on the nation's capital next week as undersecretary of state Charlotte Beers convenes a meeting - unprecedented in size, cost, and ambition - to discuss the country's public diplomacy efforts overseas.

WASHINGTON: More than 100 of America's public affairs officers stationed overseas will descend on the nation's capital next week as undersecretary of state Charlotte Beers convenes a meeting - unprecedented in size, cost, and ambition - to discuss the country's public diplomacy efforts overseas.

Attending the three-day conference, scheduled for April 8-10, will be every public affairs officer from every American embassy across the globe.

Estimates vary as to just how many people that will be. A State Department spokesman puts the number at 130, though some estimates exceed 200.

"This is an opportunity for public affairs staff to candidly discuss public policy, teach various forms and methods with which to disseminate our message, what in fact our message is that we want to be delivering to foreign audiences, how that environment has changed post-September 11, and the entire plethora of issues related to their jobs,

said the spokesman.

The cost of the affair - approximately $350,000 - is reportedly making waves within the State Department, where many are unconvinced that Beers' efforts to promote American values in the Arab world is having an impact.

Included in that price is $22,000 for event planner Mel Lukens, the former advance man for the first Bush administration, who organized the 2000 National Republican Convention in Philadelphia. The sole-source contract was not open for competition due to the short time frame in which the event had to be put together.

Despite rumors to the contrary, Martha Stewart, domestic doyenne and personal friend to Beers, is not scheduled to speak at the event.

The meeting comes on the heels of an embarrassing episode in Damascus, where an American public affairs officer "unwittingly

attended an editorial meeting at a radio station financed by an alleged terrorist group.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher declined to identify the officer, and would not say if he or she would be disciplined. The group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, appears not just on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist groups, but on the Treasury Department's list of groups whose assets are to be seized.

"I don't see how this meeting could have helped our goals,

said Boucher.

"We put people on our list of terrorist groups because of the activities they are involved in that are abhorrent to all of us. We uphold the policy of not meeting with people like that."

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