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Biden seeks review of State Department screening

WASHINGTON—A senior Democratic senator has asked the State Department's inspector general to determine whether the department has been using a political litmus test to screen private American citizens before sending them abroad to represent the United States.

Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a letter to the inspector general that he was requesting the review in part because of a Dec. 2 Knight Ridder report that such a test was being used to weed out critics of the Bush administration's Iraq policy.

"If these allegations are true, such a policy appears to be inconsistent" with a State Department requirement "that speakers must be `representative of a broad range of responsible and informed opinion' in the United States," Biden said in the letter, which was dated Monday and sent to State Department Inspector General Howard J. Krongard.

"Moreover, it would undermine a public diplomacy purpose of the program—to show the world that we are not afraid of, and indeed actively encourage, full and open discussion of important issues," said the letter, a copy of which Knight Ridder obtained Tuesday.

The earlier Knight Ridder report concerned the U.S. Speakers/Specialists Program. Run by the State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs, it sends private American citizens and others on speaking engagements abroad.

The story quoted current and former U.S. officials as saying that potential participants were vetted—via Internet searches, for example—for any comments or writings that criticized administration policies, particularly its approach to Iraq.

Krongard's office didn't immediately return a call seeking a comment on whether it was acting on Biden's request.

In his letter, Biden said a review of the Bureau of International Information Programs also should be conducted because there hadn't been one since a 2004 inspection.

That effort, he said, found that while the overseas speakers program was a "highly regarded and valuable tool," it lacked a "strategic focus" and was largely reactive instead of proactive.


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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