Neglected History, Forgotten Lessons: a presentation and a discussion

In discussions about how the United States needs to structure its bureaucracies as the nation — and democratic principles in general — is pummeled by propaganda and political warfare, historical precedents are often cited. These examples may be used to show how something worked before or as warnings. For the latter, it is easy to find a reference to the Committee for Public Information as a government domestic propaganda machine. For the former, it is increasingly common to read how the United States Information Agency provides a model to be emulated today. Both are bad takes based on common narratives that are ahistorical and easily debunked, and yet no one has seemed to do so.

On 14 January 2021, I gave an online presentation to address and hopefully correct misconceptions of the past in the hope appropriate lessons may be drawn from history. The full title of the presentation was “Neglected History, Forgotten Lessons: The Struggle for Minds and Wills Relies on Leadership First, Organization Second.” Thank you to NSI for asking me to present and for hosting the conversation. The video, a summary of the discussion, and the presentation are available at their site. I have also embedded the video and presentation below.

My presentation looked at three examples to support three mutually reliant and fundamental realities. Each of these are ignored or overlooked in modern analyses that attempt to identify the government’s shortfalls and recommend remedies. First, leadership from the top drives purpose, structure, and accountability. Second, strategy is not an alternative spelling for tactics. Third, an organization chart reflects strategy, it is not a strategy.

The first case study in the presentation — the Committee for Public Information — is well-documented in my forthcoming book. CPI was the product of two cabinet secretaries — no, George Creel did not create CPI, he was brought in at the last moment — to have a centralized government public affairs office at a time that very few agencies had centralized press relations offices. This operation effectively replaced a private information bureau established by the National Chamber of Commerce to be an outside hub supporting state and local groups. The goal of the government’s public affairs office was two-fold. First, was to provide for the psychological defense of the nation against foreign propaganda. Second, it was to protect operations security (OPSEC) by trying to limit the dissemination of information that would be helpful to the enemy. The need to communicate directly with foreign audiences and breakthrough local censorship, especially that of allies France and Great Britain, led to the establishment of the United States Information Service. The effort that led to CPI also determined that war “is not one that is being fought by military forces alone. There are economic, psychologic, social, political and even literacy forces engaged.” Put another way, as a report from April 1918 did, in the “strategic equation” of war there are “four factors — combat, economic, political, and psychologic — and that the last of these is coequal with the others.”

The second case briefly introduced the audience to what a well-integrated, comprehensive, whole-of-government approach can look like. This example, initially known as the Office for Coordination of Commercial and Cultural Relations between the American Republics (OCCCRBAR), was developed outside of government and brought to the president as a recommendation prior to the US’s entry into World War II. You may know this operation as the Office for Inter-American Affairs. This multiple-media and multi-faceted operation worked with private organizations across the other American republics (as the nations in North, Central, and South America were referred to) and inside the US through its own government offices and non-governmental entities it created for various purposes.

The third case looked at the initiatives in 1945 to establish the US government’s first permanent, peacetime international information operation, the leaders at the State Department, the White House, and Congress (I left out the private sector, you can read my book about these and other details). However, the penultimate point of this case study is that the creation of the United States Information Agency is an example of what happens when leadership fails. Sorry, but USIA is the product of the failure of leadership.

The video is about 1:20. My presentation begins about 5 minutes in and lasted about 30 minutes with Q&A taking up the rest of the time.

Naturally, I was unable to answer all of the questions the online audience submitted. A friend captured these so I am sharing them below along with brief responses.

Question: With the incoming Biden Administration, reform of USAGM is likely. How would you like to see the agency reformed given its public diplomacy role?

First, I expect USAGM to be reformed relatively quickly and, at first, quietly. I have complete confidence in Kelu Chao, who is currently the CEO. Second, the removal of an oversight board to insulate the CEO from pressures from the executive and legislative branches was a serious mistake. It was done intentionally and secretly before the end of the Obama Administration with the result of deleterious unchecked politicization of the agency. The oversight board should have the sole discretion of hiring and firing the CEO. Second, to parse words, I do not agree that USAGM is a tool of “public diplomacy” as we commonly use that phrase. (That the phrase is a term of segregation rather than integration is a separate topic. See the 2020 edition of my chapter Operationalizing Public Diplomacy on this point.) Generally speaking, “public diplomacy” is about creating a bilateral relationship between the people abroad and the United States. USAGM has a distinct mission that a) limits its target audience to those in countries with limited to no access to a free press and b) is a surrogate news service to inform that audience about their local situation, what their government is doing, regional and global affairs that may affect the audience, and news about the US. On the last point, “sharing” the US is often misunderstood. USAGM “shares” stories about the US to counter propaganda about the US and its intentions and to discuss democratic principles their government oppose or reject (by definition see (a)). USAGM is a national security agency because delivering truthful news and information and providing suppressed peoples the freedom to hear and to speak is essential, but we should not confuse USAGM with the broader enduring “public diplomacy” mission that nearly every US government agency has, even if they do not call it “public diplomacy” (as “PD” is, by design, a term defined by organization, specifically elements in the State Department plus USAGM, rather than function or purpose).

Question: The GEC has origins which attempted to avoid/address the shortcomings of the UnderSec for PD. Should they become more integrated into State or become more independent? Should they lead interagency efforts?

GEC, and its predecessor CSCC, were arguably organizations created because the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs lacked the imagination, support, ability, and possibly will to position the “R” office within the department, assert leadership over the public diplomacy “cone,” and fix the deficiencies of the Bureau of International Information Programs, the largest rump of USIA when excluding the capital costs of global broadcast operations. This under secretary office has been neglected (with a vacancy now of 2 of every 5 days since it was established in 1999) and generally filled with people with the wrong skill set, ill-supported by their leadership (the Secretary and the President), and not held accountable. If the Secretary of State is serious about change, GEC should be integrated within an empowered and appropriately experienced person as under secretary.

Question: Assuming we have a president who wants an information program and he has designated competent leadership how should military and civilian information be orchestrated and should there be an integrated information program organization? (again recognizing the importance leadership as the first priority).

See my slide taken from Alice in Wonderland in the presentation. I’ve used this slide for over a decade and it is my initial answer to this question. If there is a strategy or something resembling a strategic vision, in other words, the president knows what we want tomorrow to look like and has a baseline understanding of the costs we are willing to pay and the costs we are willing to extract from adversaries (and allies), then there is a “page” for everyone to get on to (ie “commander’s intent”). Centralized orchestration breaks down quickly as the buck is passed and sign-offs are required. Along with a commonly understood goal (or goals), we need to tolerate risk so risk avoidance does not continue to have the priority. These are all products of leadership, or lack of leadership.

Question: Possibly our specific target objective with respect to the Chinese is (no matter where in the spectrum of activity) we the US must keep them from causing us to “react.” On all fronts, we must stay ahead of any action short-term to long-term, economic to political, individual people-focused to the collective, influence to hard, etc. forcing them to “react” and respond. Everything is new! Thoughts?

Generally speaking, we let our adversaries set the time, tempo, manner, method, and place of engagement. If we know what we want tomorrow to look like, we could get in front of these efforts. Fundamentally, there is little that is actually new. Technologies and opportunities may seem new, but often these are iterations of old methods and opportunities and just as often countries like China are taking advantage of our failure to act and our absence.

Question: You just mentioned the say-do gap (a perennial DINFOS favorite); our adversaries and would-be adversaries are taking full advantage of the events of Jan. 6 as an example of our lack of leadership and the ‘failure of American democracy.’ How are we going to be able to overcome this? Will we, or is our best hope to instead support other allies/partners?

Words support policies and policies support words. (Throw in actions for the triad, I suppose, but for simplicity let’s just make actions=policies.) We overcome the damage to our nation’s prestige and influence, and thus national security (which is far more than physical security), by returning and adhering to our principles. And, the say-do gap may be a perennial DINFOS favorite, but I would offer their number one is the magical belief in “we inform, we do not influence.”

Question: Could you unpack the “dreaded” and misunderstood “Smith-Mundt Act” and it’s perceived limitations and dictates regarding USG communications?

First, know that the modern perception and modern language of the Smith-Mundt Act is the result of an intentional perversion of the basic authorizing legislation by Senator J. William Fulbright as part of his years-long effort to hobble and then shutdown USIA, Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Liberty. Fulbright, who rejected the idea that the Soviet Union was a threat to the US and that RFE and RL (which were later merged into RFE/RL) helped antagonize Russia, earlier changed USIA’s authorization to be one year, which anyone in or near government knows is a potentially fatal blow. This distortion of the legislation was furthered by Senator Edward Zorinsky in 1985. The distorted view of the legislation was furthered by defective scholarship like that of the Palmer and Carter paper “Smith-Mundt Act’s Ban On Domestic Propaganda: An Analysis Of The Cold War Statute Limiting Access To Public Diplomacy,” published in the Winter 2006 issue of Communication Law and Policy (I have an article showing how their arguments — and I selected this paper because it is cited so often — are based on faulty readings of their cited material, how they worked backward to support their argument while disregarding evidence, and show how despite being published in a law journal did not seem to read the law, cf Title 22 legislation that specifically and only mentions State, USIA, and BBG without explaining how the alleged limits do or do not apply to the White House, the Defense Department, or any other executive agency not mentioned in and are not — are not normally? — covered by Title 22). Second, the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2013, which I helped draft, attempted to remove the Fulbright and Zorinsky attacks on USIA that took the form of amendments to the Smith-Mundt Act. No one seems to appreciate what Modernization Act did, except for the really uninformed who continue to claim this Republican sponsored and championed bill was somehow an Obama bill to unleash broad domestic propaganda, none of which is ironic at this point considering the amount of propaganda this counter-propaganda legislation has been subject to over the decades. Incidentally, in 1947 even a member of Congress complained about the lack of accurate information about the bill (some of which may have been coming from within the State Department at that point).

In short, the Act did not block access by Americans to the products authorized by the Act (until Fulbright in 1972 and Zorinsky in 1985). The Act never applied to the whole of the government. The Act stipulates that as “private information dissemination is found to be adequate” the government information service shall be reduced. This is non-compete (and sunset) clause would stop the authorized programs from targeting Americans. And, just so you know, the “shall disseminate abroad” was an explicit authority requested by the State Department, it was not a restriction imposed by Congress. And, that the material would be available “by request,” the language Fulbright distorted to limit access, was put there to stop blanket requests of foreign language material that would require a large staff of translators, filing clerks, delivery clerks, and a whole lot of paper and filing cabinets to support, so Congress agreed to preemptively block blanket requests but very intentionally did not want to insulate the materials from Congress (which Fulbright did want to do) or the press (and thus the public) as easy access meant easy oversight.

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