In the wake of the latest State Department determination that Colombia’s human rights situation is improving, a piece in this morning’s Washington Times, a conservative daily, stood out in sharp relief.
Entitled “U.S. envoys hesitate to report bad news,” the article contends that since the Bush Administration but continuing today, U.S. embassies have actively discouraged any reporting back to Washington that reflects badly on governments that are considered friends of the United States. “Bad news” cables – for instance, about a country’s human rights record or threats to democracy – simply do not move up the chain, and foreign service officers practice self-censorship and avoid reporting events that do not fit within the reigning narrative of U.S. policy. Dissent is actively discouraged, with the result that decisionmakers in Washington end up acting on information that is skewed heavily toward the positive.
The article does not specifically mention Colombia. Nonetheless, it documents an alarming trend from which the U.S. mission in Colombia – where Ãlvaro Uribe’s scandal-plagued government is one of the United States’ only close friends in the hemisphere – may not be immune. Some excerpts:
U.S. embassies are discouraging or suppressing negative reports to Washington about U.S. allies, sometimes depriving officials of information they need to make good policy decisions, current and former diplomats say.
One diplomat told The Washington Times that he has decided to resign in part because of frustration with “rampant self-censorship” by Foreign Service officers and their superiors that has gone so far as to ban “bad news” cables from countries that are friendly with the United States. …
Current and former Foreign Service officers said the censorship reached a peak during the Bush administration. They attributed its continuation to a risk-averse institutional culture.
“Even in highly classified cables, people in the [Foreign Service] are very careful not to speak negatively about their host country,” said the diplomat, who is resigning after three overseas assignments. …
The resigning officer said that, during one of his tours, his ambassador, a political appointee of President Bush, “flat out banned any ‘bad-news’ cables, and made it known at all levels that we were only to produce ‘good-news stories’ about our [host] country,” a U.S. ally.
The officer said he had written “several cables critical of senior leaders” in his host country and about “interference by the government in the electoral process,” but many of them “were either quashed or radically altered.”
On the other hand, he said, negative cables are common regarding countries with strained relations with Washington, such as Burma, Zimbabwe and Venezuela.