The White House has issued detailed guidelines to government officials on how to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, with instructions to honor the memory of those who died on American soil but also to recall that Al Qaeda and other extremist groups have since carried out attacks elsewhere in the world, from Mumbai to Manila.
The White House in recent days has quietly disseminated two sets of documents. One is framed for overseas allies and their citizens and was sent to American embassies and consulates around the globe. The other includes themes for Americans here and underscores the importance of national service and what the government has done to prevent another major attack in the United States. That single-page document was issued to all federal agencies, officials said.
After weeks of internal debate, White House officials adopted the communications documents to shape public events and official statements, and they sought to strike a delicate balance between messages designed for these two very important but very different audiences on a day when the world’s attention will be focused on President Obama, his leadership team and his nation.
The guidelines list what themes to underscore — and, just as important, what tone to set. Officials are instructed to memorialize those who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and thank those in the military, law enforcement, intelligence or homeland security for their contributions since.
“A chief goal of our communications is to present a positive, forward-looking narrative,” the foreign guidelines state.
Copies of the internal documents were provided to The New York Times by officials in several agencies involved in planning the anniversary commemorations. “The important theme is to show the world how much we realize that 9/11 — the attacks themselves and violent extremism writ large — is not ‘just about us,’ ” said one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal White House planning.
Low-key appearances in Washington
Some senior Obama administration leaders had advocated a lengthy program of speeches and events to mark the anniversary, but the final decision was for lower-key appearances by Mr. Obama and other senior leaders only on the days leading up to the anniversary and on Sept. 11 itself.
Mr. Obama in his weekly address on Saturday said that this year’s anniversary will be one of “service and remembrance.”
“We need to make sure we’re speaking to a very broad set of audiences who will be affected by the anniversary,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, said in a telephone interview on Friday.
That may be, but some American counterterrorism and intelligence officials are complaining that the White House missed out on tying together the 10th anniversary with recently announced strategies to combat terrorism and violent extremism into a more coherent, longer-term plan. “They don’t do that kind of long-term planning,” said a senior counterterrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid disciplinary measures from the White House. Mr. Rhodes rejected that criticism, saying these themes have threaded through many of Mr. Obama’s speeches in recent months.
As the White House sharpens its messages for the commemorations, officials say they have also stepped up efforts to spot signs of foreign or domestic terrorist plots timed around the anniversary. So far, they said, they had not detected any specific plots or an increase in threats.
Officials interviewed at several federal departments said they would consult the White House guidelines, but had been given broad leeway to hold commemorative events at their agencies.
One significant new theme is in both sets of documents: Government officials are to warn that Americans must be prepared for another attack — and must, in response, be resilient in recovering from the loss.
“Resilience takes many forms, including the dedication and courage to move forward,” according to the guidelines for foreign audiences. “While we must never forget those who we lost, we must do more than simply remember them —we must sustain our resilience and remain united to prevent new attacks and new victims.”
At the same time, Obama administration officials caution that public commemorations here should not cast the United States as the sole victim of terrorism, an argument underscored by killings and maimings from extremist attacks overseas.
Some senior administration officials involved in the discussions noted that the tone set on this Sept. 11 should be shaped by a recognition that the outpouring of worldwide support for the United States in the weeks after the attacks turned to anger at some American policies adopted in the name of fighting terror — on detention, on interrogation, and the decision to invade Iraq.
So the guidelines aimed at foreign audiences also call on American officials to praise overseas partners and their citizens, who have joined the worldwide effort to combat violent extremism.
“As we commemorate the citizens of over 90 countries who perished in the 9/11 attacks, we honor all victims of terrorism, in every nation around the world,” the overseas guidelines state. “We honor and celebrate the resilience of individuals, families, and communities on every continent, whether in New York or Nairobi, Bali or Belfast, Mumbai or Manila, or Lahore or London.”
The death of Osama bin Laden was viewed as reason for officials to “minimize references to Al Qaeda.” While terrorists affiliated with Bin Laden’s network “still have the ability to inflict harm,” the guidelines say, officials are to make the point that “Al Qaeda and its adherents have become increasingly irrelevant.”
Bin Laden 'represents the past,' say guidelines
The guidelines say the absence of Al Qaeda playing any significant role in the “Arab Spring” uprisings against longtime autocrats in the Middle East and North Africa should be cited as evidence that Bin Laden’s organization “represents the past,” while peaceful street protesters in Egypt and Tunisia “represent the future.” Left unsaid was that many of the deposed leaders were close American allies and partners in counterterrorism operations.
Resilience is a repeated theme of the communications. “We celebrate the resilience of communities across the globe,” the foreign guidelines state.
Or, as Mr. Rhodes put it in the interview: “It’s a statement of strength that the United States can outlast our adversaries. We’re stronger than the terrorists’ ability to frighten us.”
The domestic guidelines, entitled “9/11 Anniversary Planning,” are shorter and less prescriptive than the talking points created for overseas audiences. For example, they note that the ceremonies will honor Americans killed in the Sept. 11 attacks but also “all victims of terrorism, including those who had been targeted by Al Qaeda and other groups around the globe.”
But these guidelines also acknowledge that Americans will expect government leaders to explain what steps have been taken to prevent another 9/11-style attack and to encourage Americans to volunteer in their communities this Sept. 11.
The domestic guidelines also ask something of Americans that has been lacking in Washington: “We will also draw on the spirit of unity that prevailed in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.”
This article, headlined "White House Issues Guides on Sept. 11 Observances," first appeared in The New York Times.