Preparing to Lose the Information War?

It has now been eight years since 9/11 and we finally seem to understand that in the modern struggles against terrorism, insurgency, and instability, the tools of public diplomacy are invaluable and essential. We live in a world where an individual with a camera phone can wield more influence than an F-22 stealth fighter jet. The capability of engaging public audiences has long been thought of as the domain of civilians. But for the past eight years, the functions, authorities, and funding for engaging global audiences, from anti-AIDS literature to soccer balls to development projects, has migrated from the State Department to the Defense Department. It seems whole forests have fallen over the same period on the need to enhance civilian agencies – be it the State Department or a new USIA-like entity – to provide a valid alternative to the Defense Department who most, even the detractors, agree was filling a void left by civilians who abrogated their responsibility for one reason or another.
This summer may be a turning point. Some in Congress have unilaterally decided that 2010 is the year America’s public diplomacy will stop wearing combat boots. Sounds good, right? This is the future most, including analysts and the military, have wished for. The military has been the unwilling (if passionate once engaged) and often clumsy surrogate and partner for the State Department in representing the US and its interests in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere around the world through what the House Armed Services Committee now calls “military public diplomacy.” In some regions, State is almost wholly dependent on Defense money and resources to accomplish its mandate.

The Pentagon has wanted more robust civilian capabilities and leadership that for some time Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen have offered to give some of their budget to State. Well, according to the defense subcommittees of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, that time is now.

Back in July, the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee decided that the Defense Department’s role in strategic communication – a term often used as a synonym to public diplomacy – was too much. Wielding the only tool in their kit bag, the appropriations committee slashed 80% of the requested budget for information activities. (The initially – and widely – reported budget of $900m was an estimate, the actual was a third less but the committee’s red lines remained unchanged. Further, one reporter reported the $900m was for “ten programs”, but in fact the “10” in question was not numerals but letters, as in “Information Operations”).

This week, the Senate’s defense subcommittee for appropriations weighed in with their cut that will effectively remove the boots from public diplomacy. The next step is for the two committees to hash out the final numbers in conference.

There are two problems with this. First, appropriations – which funds – never coordinated with the armed services committees – which authorizes. In fact, the armed services committees in the House and Senate were both blindsided having issued their reports and the National Defense Authorization Act of 2010 prior to the House appropriations action in July. The armed services committee, particularly the House committee, while noting the problems at Defense and requesting remediation in the areas of accountability, leadership, workforce capabilities, and coordination of “military public diplomacy” actually asked Defense to expand, stating the “committee encourages the development of strategic communications capability within the Department of Defense as a softpower complement to traditional hard-power tools.”

The world revolves around more than just Defense and it appears the defense appropriators are guilty of ignoring the comprehensive approach on which they based their criticism of the Pentagon. Many have declared, including this author, that many of public diplomacy-like activities (such as development and training civic leaders) should be lead if not outright conducted by civilian institutions like the State Department. But the defense appropriators never spoke to the State Department appropriators (the well-named foreign operations subcommittee of Appropriations) or to the House Foreign Affairs Committee or the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

So, while the boots are coming off public diplomacy, the wingtips may not be showing up anytime soon. State simply does not have the capacity now nor has there been anything remotely resembling an in-kind increase in funding and authorities to absorb the responsibilities that most, including in State, agree should be in State. (It does not even have the contractor culture or capacity that Defense does to support a surge in capacity.)

The State Department is simply not capable of accepting the tasks that the defense appropriators want it to take. Will State be capable? Assuming the appropriate Congressional committees (House Foreign Affairs, Senate Foreign Relations, and Foreign Operations subcommittees of both House and Senate Appropriations) aren’t distracted with the normal business of returning from recess and the one or two other pieces of legislation the members are dealing with (like health care reform), State must first get to its feet. Remember too that Secretary Clinton and Undersecretary McHale are still trying to get situated and reorganize. Then there the small issue that the US Agency for International Development remains leaderless. A gap solution could be transitioning activities to be under State leadership even if “sub-contracted” Defense (a likely gap solution) or to real contractors (the bane of many and the cause of pushback against Defense activities from other quarters).

It would seem that the appropriators believe that as the Defense filled a void, their retreat will be filled by State. But is this neither realistic – especially considering that the defense appropriators acted after the foreign operations appropriators – nor sensible.

There is no disputing that the current situation is undesirable but there must be a transition. Funding is cut, not transferred – the defense appropriators only have the authority to add and subtract. Current and future programs will suffer – including those run by the State Department that are in part or wholly dependent on Defense funding and resources eliminated by the appropriators. This will undermine the stability of our presence and create vacuums that are adversaries will fill and use to show we are not a reliable partner. It will take much more time and resources to catch up than if there was an orderly transition from Defense to State.

The impact of the unilateral decision to remove Defense from the field may be significant. While Defense has wanted the attention to fix its own house, this is more than it wanted as it quite simply threatens the President’s goals for Afghanistan, Africa, and elsewhere.

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11 thoughts on “Preparing to Lose the Information War?

  1. Amen!So what can be done to kick-start the process of getting a Goldwater-Nichols act to transform State – to include building State’s ability to conduct Public Diplomacy?

  2. The logical solution to this problem in the long run is to reconstitute a specialized public diplomacy agency to conduct civilian public diplomacy operations and coordinate with other USG agencies public diplomacy-related operations and programs from DoD to USAID to the more than 60 other USG agencies and departments involved in overseas education and training, and to cooperate with NGOs and the private sector whenever possible. In the short run? Well, begin the process to that end by immediately centralizing existing public diplomacy within State and revisit the appropriations for both Defense and State to begin some of the funding transfer.

  3. hello matt — i’m noticing that a lot of concerns that plague public diplomacy / strategic communication also plague cyber security. the difficulties faced in both issue areas — e.g., definition of terms and aims, search for able top leadership, key agency location, inter-agency responsibility, public-private coordination, even the role of NGOs — exhibit lots of curious some extent, these parallels reflect broader problems of government in our times. but at a deeper level, the parallels may owe to facts that both issue areas are about “information” and that much is still up in the air about the significance of this concept / dynamic.
    i’m prompted to comment about this here today because, thanks to tim stevens’s ubiwar blog and one of his “infobore” posts, i just spotted the following statement by frank kramer, closing his congressional testimony last april:
    “Second, international influence and international public diplomacy need to be strengthened. There likely will continue to be a major battle of ideas in the 21st century. The United States will need significant international support to prevail, and cyber can be a key element, as I testified to this Committee last year.”
    i think that speaks to my point about parallels and hints at linkages. it may also be relevant because i’m reading that he is a likely nominee for the new cyber czar / coordinator position.
    perhaps you have already thought about the parallels and linkages (not to mention differences) between the public diplomacy and cyber security areas. if so, please point me to earlier posts / writings. if not, do you think it bears scrutiny? — onward, david

  4. David, I have indeed thought about and talked about cyber in other forums. However, I haven’t written anything worthwhile on the topic. I agree there are significant parallels between public diplomacy and cyber issues for the reasons you suggest. It’s hard to measure effectiveness when dealing with information and perceptions and as a nation, we forgot about the ‘psychological struggle’ of the early Cold War as we focused instead on the last few decades of detente and bipolar relations that had little room for what had been overt activities.As a technologist by training since I was a boy (started with dumb terminals, then CP/M, then DOS…), I see some of the implied separation between cyber and public diplomacy (or simply information engagement) troubling. To me, cybersecurity and the role of the cyber ‘czar’ should be primarily focused on the protection of communication networks and data. Cybersecurity should a) provide ‘base security’ by protecting origination and termination of data, b) provide ‘convoy security’ by making sure the data makes it from point a to point b securely and without distortion, and c) be aware of but not necessarily participate in counter- operations. That’s it.
    The focus of ‘cyber’ should be, must be ‘data’ – the bits and bytes – and not ‘information.’ Data is not operational until it gains context and becomes information at which time it may become knowledge.
    A large part of the problem of the ‘cyber’ debate, in my opinion, is the great unknown mired in the concepts of of “old” and “new” media that have become misleading and leads to rice bowls. When information and audiences move with increasing ease between platforms, how is focus on the information, not the data, on one platform or medium not like creating a ‘newspaper czar’?
    Perhaps a collaboration is in order?

  5. matt — i just noticed your article (very interesting) at FP, which provides a different slant but similar take on ingredients of your post here. in that article too, the concerns you identify about the state department and public diplomacy have counterparts in the cybersecurity issue area: bureaucratic fiefdoms, rivalries, and bottlenecks; repeated commission reports and reorganizations that lead to little; lack of integrating leadership, reliance on outsiders, and doling out to subcontractors; plus inappropriate computer systems — topped off by criticisms that someone or other “does not understand” the issue area. meanwhile, the pentagon has taken greater command of the public diplomacy / strategic communication issue area — not to mention the cyber area. what you specify about the significance of stateless issues and non-state actors, in a world where borders and boundaries matter less, also applies in many ways to the cyber area. i’m not sure about your proposal for reorganizing state, but i agree that thinking more regionally has some attractions (within limits). in any case, all this adds to my sense that there is something here worth thinking through.your comment above about data vs information reflects the so-called information pyramid. as your remark implies, it has a broad base of raw “data” and “facts,” atop which sits a middle stratum of “information.” the next, still narrower, higher stratum corresponds to information refined into “knowledge.” atop all, at the peak, sits the most distilled stratum, “wisdom” — the highest level of information. the pyramid implies that the higher levels rest on the lower, but that is true only to a degree. each layer has some independence — more data do not necessarily mean more information, nor more information more knowledge (or wisdom). also, it should not be presumed that the hierarchy is driven from the bottom by data; values and value judgements may intrude at all levels. moreover, critics object sensibly that “information” should not be mistaken for “ideas.” [read more at
    this looks like a good way (or one part of finding a way) to frame my point that the cybersec and stratcomm areas have a lot of parallels and linkages, and your keen point that cybersec is often mostly about ops at the lower levels and pubdip (info engagement) about ops at the higher levels of this pyramid.
    so now we have a growing list of parallels and linkages, plus one analytical framing and bridging device about “information.” what else can we (and others?) add to expand on this? and where would it lead, in theory and practice, if we kept moving this along?
    i could imagine coming up with a few more thoughts, and i’d like to hear a few more. but right now i’m going to pause and go watch the qualifying session for tomorrow’s formula 1 race. — onward, david

  6. and i meant to add a thought that i will now add with a bit more elaboration than i intended yesterday:under current circumstances, i suppose that officials who deal with public diplomacy and strategic communication rarely if ever talk to officials who deal with cyber security. moreover, current proposals in both issue areas for new czars, coordinators, offices, whatever, would continue to keep them quite separate. (i’m so removed from washington at this point that i’m not sure about this, so please correct and update me if my suppositions are incorrect.)
    now, if our musings about the tie-ins between the two issue areas are more sensible than people have considered, then maybe those two sets of officials should be relating a lot more to each other. that’s a very general implication i see that could follow from this.
    this does not mean that the same person(s) should be in charge of both issue areas. but a range of implications may be advisable. at a minimum, perhaps there should be occasional joint meeting to figure out and act upon the synergies. at a maximum, perhaps a national information council (or put cyber in the name somehow) should be established, and both issue areas (plus others, like media policy, as you raised?) should be associated with it.
    a glimmer of a memory tells me that this has been proposed before, but i don’t recall the details right now. in any case, it’s the kind of implication — and range of implications — that would seem to follow from what we’re trying to discuss. i’m not taken with the notion that a new cybersecurity advisor should report mainly to the omb and the national economic council; that’s too business-oriented for my sense of what’s at stake. and you are not happy (nor am i) with what’s been going on with the treatment of public diplomacy and strategic communications. the maximum implication i posited above may well be too much, but maybe there’s an interesting range yet to be identified.
    or maybe i’m just cluttering your blog with unrealistic musings?

  7. First, Matt, great posting. There are enough challenges out there, we don’t need the extra challenges created by blind appropriations cutting … but what else can we expect from this Congress? The net effect of this is to put Combatant Commanders (COCOMs) and Service Components in the position where they have been given authorizations (mandate) without the money to do it. Reality won’t wait, needs in the various Theaters will require a response, not a dialogue about who should or shouldn’t be doing what. As a result, commanders will try to find funds in some other rice bowl to meet their needs, and this in turn will lead to some other tasking not getting the funding it needs. This will likely culminate in a lot of things being done half-assed due to the shortfall – in other words SNAFU.As to the discussion with David re: cybersec, this too seems par for the course. The more we devolve issues within the Information Domain, the more we become hamstrung by the lack of clear doctrine/TTP/ROE/guidance/(fill in the blank). We spend a lot of time “doing” things for which we don’t have a common understanding. Is cyberspace and cyber-security really any different than Computer Network Operations (CNO) with its subsets of Computer Network Defense (CND), Computer Network Attack (CNA) and Computer Network Exploitation (CNE)? If so, why and how? Have we ever really spelled that out – convincingly, collaboratively and with common agreement … or is this another service squabble and power play to attempt to gain control (which means money) of the technical side of information operations (IO).
    It seems that the “community” constantly gets bogged down with arguments about definitions, and in order to get around the disagreements we go out and parse the topic even further creating new terminology along the way that yet again no one agrees on the definitions.
    No one likes a needless argument, but if we are going to do this right (“this” being everything from developing strategic communication to restructuring public diplomacy to developing a comprehensive information process), we might do well to take the time and make sure we are all on the same sheet of music at the start. It will help ensure we are at the same endpoint when we finish.

  8. I’m so glad that this discussion is happening. This time last year there was such momentum to rebuild US public diplomacy and now all seems to be adrift. The administration seems to know how to present the President, but so much more is needed.

  9. I must agree with Bill on this topic, the answer is the reinstatement of a public diplomacy agency. It is amazing to me, in the information age, that information is the only element of national power that does not have its own agency. This means there is no coherent message coming from the national level. In addition there is no one to fight for resources. It makes it all too easy for Congress to cut the programs it does not understand.As an information operations guy on the DoD side, I am also looking for clarity in the various theaters we work in. In my experience downrange, the different agencies were all expending resources to put out information. The various agencies had no understanding of what the others were putting out. Information was never synchronized and sometimes contradictory.
    The focus of the new agency should be the development of a national communications strategy; to integrate information from across the various agencies to ensure the United States is speaking with one voice; to incorporate civilian communications expertise; to harness existing technologies and develop new technologies in order to stay ahead of global competitors. This new agency must have the authority to direct public diplomacy efforts across all agencies within the United States government. The agency must also have its own budget. Under the existing construction with public diplomacy as an element of the State Department, it is too easy to divert funds for more pressing needs.
    MAJ Chris Jeszenszky
    “The views expressed in this blog are those of the author
    and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department
    Of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.”

  10. I agree with Mr. Kiehl’s proposal on reconstituting a specialized public diplomacy(PD)/information agency. I also support Mr. Cull’s and MAJ Jeszenszky’s points. The military (DoD) is one of the most capable national instruments of power in executing America’s public diplomacy efforts due to its established resources, personnel, technology, equipment and structure. It seems to me that USG must establish a bridging strategy between the way public diplomacy is conducted now and into the future; whether it be USG creating an information agency or DoS taking the lead and the brunt of public diplomacy(PD)/strategic communication(SC) efforts. Even if the sole responsibility of public diplomacy lies with the DoS, it will take years for it to develop its information/PD organization to the same level as the DoD’s today. The bridging strategy should capture the best practices of collaboration, integration, synchronization and coordination between DoD, DoS andother agencies. Not all PD/SC practices in the regional combatant commands’ area of responsibilities are the same. Most of the processes in public diplomacies in these regions are personality driven. To make the public diplomacy effort more effective, DoD, DoS and other agencies must capture best practices, establish formal agreements and understanding in their roles in PD/SC. For example, DoS in the lead role and DoD in the supporting role are two scenarios that come to mind. For synchronization between the agencies, the establishment of liaison officers on both sides can be utilized. Instead of focusing on agencies’ own agendas (rice bowl syndrome), DoS and DoD must collaborate as a team with one vision and one mission.
    MAJ Mike “Iggie” Ignacio
    ILE-CGSC Student
    “Perspectives expressed in this blog are the author’s and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.”

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