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, a backstop to 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 formally 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.)

On the last Friday of the year, a meeting between MacLeish and the senior leadership of the Office of War Information (including Elmer Davis, Edward Klauber, and Edward Barrett) concluded that OWI’s cultural attachés and cultural operations should move to MacLeish’s office but OWI’s international information programs should be overseen by a joint committee. Within weeks, MacLeish launched in-house study, led and primarily written by a consultant to the State Department who would become the president of the American Political Science Association, on the postwar information requirements for the department and the nation. The final working paper was completed in six months, spanned 241 pages, and included input from across the government and the private sector. On a Saturday in July, the same day a B-25 bomber crashed into the Empire State Building, the working paper was discussed at a meeting of the State Department’s Coordinating Committee, a standing committee chaired by the Under Secretary (then Joseph McGrew) tasked with developing recommendations on the department’s “current and long-range problems.” One participant said the discussion 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.”⁠

With the Secretary’s support, and that of other senior leaders inside and outside the department, the deliberations caused by the inquiry and those resulting from the recommendations and options in the working paper continued. The report formed the backbone of the Office of War Information’s memo to President Truman the next month, on August 17, a Friday, the day after Emperor Hirohito ordered a cease-fire. Written at the request of the President to give OWI’s advice on the dissolution of OWI, specifically what of OWI’s functions to keep and to which department the kept activities should go. Signed by Edward Klauber as Acting Director of OWI because his boss, Elmer Davis, was then in the hospital, “Recommendations to the President on the future of the Office of War Information” stated there is a need for a “General information service by the government to the rest of the world” and that there were “no substantial reasons for such an information service to be placed anywhere but in the State Department.”

Two weeks later, on August 31, 1945, Truman issued the Executive Order closing both OWI and moving the international information programs of OWI and the Office for Inter-American Affairs, which would be shut down later, to the State Department. Text from the working paper appeared in the EO and the accompanying announcement without attribution (the working paper would not be made public until December, and then in abridged form). In the EO, Truman gave State until Dec 31 (4 months, for those keeping track) to come up with a long-term plan that would include structural and operational details.

State, working with Congress, had, since March, been working on a bill introduced in January by a Republican Congressman from South Dakota to provide the necessary authorities for continuing and expanding educational, cultural, technical, and bureaucratic interchanges. 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,” (where “student-teachers” were specifically students then in college to become teachers at the high school level and below) was expanded and the subject of several days of hearings in October that included discussing direct international information programs. The bill was rewritten from an amendment to existing pre-war 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 change 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, for leading the nation’s primary international information programs, and overseeing the department’s domestic and foreign international programs.

People and processes can move when motivated but there can still be interference. For example, in December, about a hundred copies of the abridged edition of the working paper were distributed by the State Department to journalists and others as background to support the peacetime information program. Reuters reacted negatively to two footnotes that should have been removed and today would likely be considered SBU (“Sensitive But Unclassified”). 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 covered across six pages, a substantial number all things considered, but substantially less ink than the contemporary coverage across US newspapers’ front pages and in magazines (The Economist took a real interest in the story). The Associated Press jumped in on the side of the British news service (the AP had a long-standing, though at times strained, relationship distributing news of the US around the world, which for decades, Reuters heavily censored) and took its grievance further, opposing in role of government as an international news service. (Later, the press and the State Department noted the discrepancy between the AP declaring it would not permit the State Department’s news service to use the AP wire because, AP claimed, doing so would taint the AP even as the AP continued to sell to TASS, the Russian government’s wire service, which selectively edited and ran AP’s stories.) The Reuters-then-AP fight with the department contributed to, and provided cover for, Congress slow-walking the bill. Either way, the bill passed the House in 1946 by a two-thirds vote but did not reach the Senate floor due to the failure to do any substantial management in the upper chamber. The Senate’s Republican leadership opposed the bill and blocked it from leaving the committee. And yet, these same Senators ardently supported the reintroduced bill when it once again had Republican names attached, one in the House and one in the Senate. Reintroduced at the request of the State Department in March 1947, it would pass the House by a three-quarter vote, then overwhelmingly in the Senate, and signed into law by Truman on January 27, 1948, three years and three days after Karl Mundt introduced the direct antecedent on January 24, 1945. (Though cleaner and less wordy, to say this happened three years and three days after Mundt first introduced his bill is inaccurate as the January 24, 1945, bill was an update to a bill he introduced in March 1943. For now, we will also leave aside that Mundt’s March ’43 bill was similar to a bill introduced by Rep. Jerry Voorhis, Democrat of California, in March 1942 and before that in June 1941. And we will leave aside that the amendment to the Surplus Property Act, which MacLeish’s successor named the Fulbright Act, was a minor complement to the expansive Mundt exchanges, as the exchanges authorized by the Smith-Mundt Act were known, just as we will ignore for now that Fulbright Act participants, both those traveling from abroad and those in the US traveling to foreign countries, heavily relied on Smith-Mundt funds for the US dollars that enabled the travel to the destination country and costs within the US, respectively.)

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 were not. Today, we are forced to operate backward in the absence of support by senior government leaders and the difference is stark.