Government (Re)Organization to confront Disinformation and Misinformation

Bottom line upfront: A multi-dimensional “whole-of-government” approach requires a will to act from the president. It does not require a proper strategy, just a will, which is substantially more than a whim. Structure and method will follow and provide, as long as the will is there to push, give a backstop, and hold efforts accountable and on track. Without the president’s commitment whatever happens will be tactical and reactionary. This is demonstrably true in the area of foreign information operations.

While there are many historical examples to draw from, let’s step back to a relevant period, a time when memos and telegrams were the email of the day. Specifically, December 1944 when global public affairs at the State Department was elevated and a new Assistant Secretary position created for the purpose. Until this point, public affairs was a mundane function under the Assistant Secretary for Administration. This was an improvement over when the department first established a role for press and Congressional relations and assigned both to the head of the department’s counter-intelligence service immediately prior to America’s entry into World War I.

Thus, on the Wednesday before Christmas 1944, the day the siege of Bastogne began, the Assistant Secretary for Public and Cultural Relations was established. Archibald MacLeish, the inaugural incumbent, was tasked with coordinating all of the department’s domestic and foreign public information activities and supervising the “Department’s relations with other Government agencies on all matters involving public information policy.” There was no firewall between home and abroad and the shift was supported by the White House and the Secretary of State. (Congressional relations, by the way, was assigned to the Assistant Secretary for Congressional Relations and International Conferences.)

Within weeks, an in-house study on the postwar information requirements for the department and the nation was launched. The working paper was shared in meetings in July ’45 with participation from across government agencies, including one on the same Saturday morning a B-25 bomber crashed into the Empire State Building. A reaction to the presentaiton may be familiar to the modern reader as one participant commented the conversation was “fragmentary and inconclusive, but it indicated an apparent lack of appreciation of the technical qualifications needed by the operators of a modern information program.”⁠ But discussions continued, with the Secretary’s support and that of other senior leaders inside and outside the department, as the requirements became better understood. The report formed the backbone of the Office of War Information’s letter to President Truman the next month, on August 17, a Friday, the day after Emperor Hirohito ordered a cease fire. The letter provided the requested recommendations on shutting down OWI, specifically what functions to keep, where they should go, and what operations should be shuttered. The OWI memo stated there is a need for “information services to the rest of the world” and there were “no substantial reasons for such an information service to be placed anywhere but in the State Department.”

Two weeks later, Truman issued the Executive Order closing both OWI and the Coordinator for Inter-American Affairs and moved the international information operations of both to State. Text from the working paper appeared in the EO and the accompanying announcement. In the EO, Truman gave State until Dec 31 (3 months, for those keeping track) to come up with a long term plan, including structure and operational details. State, working with Congress, had, since March, been working a bill introduced in January by a Republican Congressman from South Dakota to provide the necessary authorities. The bill, which aimed to “promote further the friendly relations of the peoples of the pan-American republics by providing pan-American student teacher scholarships,” was the subject of severals days of hearings in October. It was quickly rewritten from an amendment to existing authorities to a standalone bill and reintroduced in December. It would authorize an expanded global public affairs operation was under the authority of the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs (while this title appeared in late 1945, the official name didn’t happen until 1946) which was clearly identified as, tasked with, and accountable for being the US government’s central information operations officer for coordinating among government agencies and for leading the nation’s primary international information programs. 

People and processes can move when motivated. Of course, unforeseen interference may interfere. For example, in December, an abridged edition of the working paper was released by the State Department to journalists and others as background to support the peacetime information program. However, Reuters reacted negatively to two footnotes, and the Associated Press jumped in on the side of the British news service. These footnotes were to have been removed and would have been considered either SBU (“Sensitive But Unclassified”) or classified today. One of these included a comment from the Second Secretary at the US Embassy in Mexico City: “So far as Mexico is concerned, at least, any argument that Reuters and the BBC are not British Government agencies is completely untenable…”). In a book widely regarded as the unofficial history of Reuters, the ensuing fight is spread across six pages, a substantial number all things considered, but substantially less ink than the contemporary coverage across newspapers’ front pages and articles in The Economist, and among other magazines. The Reuters-then-AP fight with the department contributed to, or provided cover for, Congress slow-walking the bill. Either way, the bill passed the House in 1946 by a two-third vote but did not reach the Senate floor due to a failure to manage it in the upper chamber. The Senator that blocked the bill threw his support behind it once the true purpose of what it did, and did not, do was explained to him. It was reintroduced, at the request of the department, in 1947 and passed the House by a three-quarter vote and overwhelmingly in the Senate.

Despite the legislative challenge, the department’s programs continued through appropriations until the legislation, the Smith-Mundt Act, was signed. Though tenuous at times, support from the White House and active support from Secretaries of State, primarily James Byrnes and then George Marshall, who visited the Hill and testified on the need for the bill, and by generals, including General Eisenhower, kept not just forward progress on the legislative side but kept the comprehensive operational approach alive and kicking to combat disinformation and misinformation negatively impacting US national security.

Things can get done when there is a will from the top. The world did not pause and was not silent during this time. The need was defined, though the strategy and organization was not. Today, we are forced to operate backwards in the absence of support by senior government leaders and the difference is stark.