On Sept. 12, 2001, as the United States reeled, the Voice of America featured two interviews with Muslim clerics, one more anti-American than the other. The story, first noticed by columnist William Safire, originated with a VOA reporter in London, who was garnering international reaction to President George W. Bush's speech. One cleric was Yasser Al Serri, who was identified by VOA only as "a leader of Egypt's largest Islamist group, the Gama'a Islamiyya, which has worked to overthrow the Egyptian government."
This is highly reminiscent of a mid-1980s National Public Radio report on the Yalta Conference, which featured an interview with Alger Hiss, identifying him only as "a former State Department official." Well, yes, but ... For Al Serri, the rest of the story is this: Gama'a Islamiyya was responsible for a terrorist attack on European tourists visiting Egypt four years ago that killed 58 Europeans and four Egyptians. It had formal ties with Al Queda until recently.
For balance, VOA offered only another cleric who warned that "no accusations against Islamists or Arab groups should be made before knowing the full truth."
Two weeks later, the State Department learned that VOA had obtained and intended to air an interview with Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban and relative of Osama bin Laden. This was too much even for the Department of State. "We didn't think it was appropriate for the Voice of America to be broadcasting the voice of the Taliban into Afghanistan," said a State Department spokesman. The report never aired.
A VOA journalist sputtered angrily that he was "stunned"; "if this is an indication of the gag order they're going to impose on us, we can't do our jobs ..."
In war, information is arguably as crucial as ordnance and soldiers. Afghans and other Third World people still get most of their information by radio, and the daily fare available in that part of the world is highly inflamed against the United States. The last thing VOA ought to be doing at this time is offering insipid reports that offer perfect neutrality between good and evil. Remember, you can be so open-minded your brains fall out.
When President Bush heard of the disarray at America's worldwide radio service, he moved fast to fill the vacancy at the top, choosing (for the first time in VOA's history) an insider, Robert Reilly. Reilly is a brilliant star in the Pantheon of the Unconfused. A former vigorous cold warrior who served in the Reagan administration, he is the long-time host of "On the Line," a news program of Worldnet. Reilly's work has won praise at VOA, where the majority of reporters and editors, like reporters and editors everywhere, are liberals. His appointment has been generally well-received by an agency badly in need of leadership.
But there are still dark corners of the Washington bureaucracy that have not quite signed on to the new spirit of bipartisanship and unity that was supposed to have settled over the Capitol like a warm blanket. A whispering campaign featuring anonymous letters is afoot to undermine the president's choice for VOA.
They claim that Reilly has said "America is a Christian nation." Reilly is an intellectual and a gentleman, not the Elmer Gantry these snipers would depict. In a scholarly essay written years ago, Reilly argued that America's rich democratic tradition draws from the Judeo-Christian belief in each human being's uniqueness as a child of God. This is no more than was said by John Adams, Abraham Lincoln in various ways and countless others. Not only is it uncontroversial, it has recently come to seem highly relevant to our current troubles.
There is more -- the notion that Reilly is a homophobe, which is laughable. The man is a practicing Catholic and believes, along with a billion or so others, that homosexual acts are not moral. But he would no more discriminate against gays than fly to the moon. For heaven's sake, he was an actor for 25 years. How could he survive that as a homophobe?
The bone-chilling reality of America's vulnerability to the world's fanatics has not yet penetrated everywhere. Those assailing President Bush's choice for leader of the Voice of America are not just small-minded, they are dangerous.