The Irony of Misinformation and USIA

A clear absence of research, making arguments incongruent with history and facts, and unsubstantiated if-then statements are the kind of malpractice that at some point is more than mere accidental misinformation. With the rare exception, modern calls to reincarnate the United States Information Agency skirt beyond malpractice and misinformation and into the realm of disinformation. Calls to “bring back USIA” are prevalent enough to be a genre of its own. And this genre, while well-intentioned, is a Pavlovian reaction based almost entirely on demonstrably false mythologies.

The most recent entry into this steady stream of malpractice is a piece entitled “It’s Time to Bring Back USIA” by Mr. Shay Khatiri. There is certainly a need for broader discussion and debate around the broad topics under and near the umbrella of “public diplomacy” and the role of public opinion in foreign policy, but this article, like the whole of the genre, lacks a basic awareness of the underlying “facts” it invokes and upon which its argument is built. That it was written this way, that experts who may have reviewed a draft did not catch the gaps in the arguments, and even retweets of the article by “public diplomacy” advocates, reveal the shallowness of the discourse around USIA and “public diplomacy.”

That the debate is this shallow at this date should, sadly, surprise no one. USIA mythology is not the exclusive domain of pundits who parachute into the topic. They are likely recalling the superficial history taught in their cold war studies or national security class or some book they read on “strategic communication” and the good ole days. Academia perpetuates the mythology, and it lives in the minds of many. I was a board member of a non-profit group relevant to this subject when a former practitioner-cum-academic suggested an event we were planning should start with the founding of USIA because, as their logic went, that was the modern beginning of US public diplomacy. No, just no. I had to interject that USIA came eight years after these “public diplomacy” operations were operated wholly within the State Department and later authorized by the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. So, again, I do not fault Mr. Khatiri for his lack of knowledge, his article is just the product of a profound misunderstanding of history likely conveyed to him in school, in articles and books, and in various discussions all of which combined continue to limit the quality of the discourse today on this important topic. Put another way, he is an (unfortunate) proxy for my frustration that is really aimed at all the people and resources that contribute to this genre and led him to write his article as he did.

We need change, but this will only come from an informed debate based on facts if we are to learn from our past actions, and more importantly, past mistakes. If past organizations are to be invoked, we need an honest understanding of those agencies’ trajectories. I am all for and welcome a debate on the topic of the US government’s continuing failure to integrate international information operations with foreign policy, but the misinformation around USIA – and related organizations like the Active Measures Working Group – coupled with the surprising lack of awareness of the Psychological Strategy Board and Operations Control Board in discussions about centering information policy and leadership in the NSC, is profound and disturbing.

I appreciate the author linked to my 2015 “No, We Do Not Need To Revive The U.S. Information Agency” but I have the feeling he did not read it, certainly he did not respond to it. Mr. Khatiri may have been better served – and developed better arguments – if in addition to that article he read my 2017 “The Past, Present, And Future Of The War For Public Opinion.” He would have learned in that latter piece that what he thinks he knows about USIA may not be accurate, at the very least it would have challenged his preconceived ideas. A longer, footnoted version of this article is my chapter “The Politics of Information Warfare in the US” in the 2018 book Hybrid Conflicts and Information Warfare: New Labels, Old Politics. (Contact me if you want a PDF of that chapter; also see this post for the endnotes to the 2015 “No, We Do Not Need…” article.) Mr. Khatiri may have also benefited from reading my chapter “Operationalizing Public Diplomacy” in the 2020 edition of the Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy in which, among the broader defects around USIA and the State Department’s poor support of public diplomacy, I speak directly on the origin of the term “public diplomacy” as a product of reinforcing the segregation of information from policy. There is also the video of my January 2021 presentation “Neglected History, Forgotten Lessons: The Struggle for Minds and Wills Relies on Leadership First, Organization Second” (launching SMA’s Integrating Information in Joint Operations Speaker Series) and the recent podcast “Episode 49: Armstrong On The Smith-Mundt Act” of the Cognitive Crucible series by the Information Professionals Association. These options, among others, could have helped create a more informed article, even if he disagreed with my arguments. However, these may not have come up in a Google search since they are not USIA-focused but rather broadly focused on integrating, or rather the failure to integrate, international information operations into US foreign policy with the focus on leadership.

For a semblance of brevity, which is relative since you’ve already read 900 words, my response below to Mr. Khatiri’s article is in three parts. First up is why was USIA created? I will show that USIA’s creation story is a myth and that USIA replaced an organization that wielded more authorities across a greater range of operations and resided within, and not outside of, the foreign policy bureaucracy. The second part looks into Mr. Khatiri’s “punching bag” comment. This part counters the misinformation that imagines USIA had a greater leadership role and integration with US foreign policy than it did. Within a few years of establishment, USIA faced twenty years of reports urging that if USIA was not part of US foreign policy decision-making that it must be reintegrated into the State Department. The third point reveals the emptiness of the “bring back USIA” genre. Considering USIA’s real impact was not in DC but the programs the agency ran on the ground abroad, what does “bring back USIA” really mean when the arguments ignore the field operations and are wrongly based on the agency’s DC role?

In the end, the reader should see the “bring back USIA” genre as an ill-informed hope that a new, or in this case old, organization chart will magically create and instill leadership, policy, direction, and accountability in integrating information with policy independent of whatever the White House on down may do (or not do). A new box on the chart will not compensate for bad leadership or the lack of leadership.

Point One: Why was USIA Created?

To think more clearly about this question, let’s look back at the history of USIA. The agency was created in 1953 to counter Soviet propaganda by telling the truth about the world and representing a better picture of America and American principles. It absorbed several extant government programs, including Voice of America (launched during the Second World War) and Radio Europe (launched in 1950), as well as various activities that had been performed by other departments and agencies. New programs were begun under USIA’s auspices, including Radio Liberty (directed at the USSR, launched in 1953), Radio Martí (directed at Cuba, begun in 1983), and a number of cultural and educational exchanges.

Khatiri, Shay. “It’s Time to Bring Back USIA”. The Bulwark, July 21, 2021 (accessed 26 July 2021).

The history of USIA is a good place to start as it is the root from which the misinformation and mythology of the organization rises. The conventional wisdom is USIA’s creation was a progressive step of consolidating the government’s international information programs into a single agency, under singular leadership, and with clearly defined appropriation from Congress in the face of a growing Russian threat. The reality is a bit different.

Russian aggression through propaganda and political warfare was known and appreciated well before 1953. There was no sudden flip of a switch when the Eisenhower administration came into office. Our focus on USIA means we can skip past that in December 1944 the State Department began to prepare for its post-war role and positioning to be the central coordinator for the government’s international information policies by establishing the Assistant Secretary of State for Public and Cultural Relations. We can also skip past that most of the government’s international information program operations were transferred to the department in August 1945 and that these programs, many of which were under the umbrella of the United States Information Service, were given legislative permanence by a bill introduced back in January 1945 that became the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. For more details, read my Operationalizing Public Diplomacy (2020), listen to “Episode 49: Armstrong On The Smith-Mundt Act” (2021), or for a higher overview including how the organizational chart reflects leadership rather than creating leadership, watch “Neglected History, Forgotten Lessons: The Struggle for Minds and Wills Relies on Leadership First, Organization Second” (2021).

(If you were triggered by the USIS reference, yes, USIS predated USIA. You may have been taught, as I was, that USIS was USIA’s name abroad because, as the story went, the “A = agency which is too close to CIA.” The reality is USIS, leaving aside its initial run of 1917-1919, was launched two decades before USIA. USIS was in State for years as the umbrella name of news and information products sent to State Department posts abroad to be shared at the post’s discretion with local people and organizations before USIS was transferred to USIA in 1953. In other words, in some countries, USIS was a known entity for many years, even decades, before USIA appeared on the scene. Here’s a link to a USIS product from September 1947.)

While Rep. Karl Mundt’s bill of January 1945 focused on building international understanding through educational exchanges, the threat of Russian propaganda and political warfare caused the scope of the bill and the rhetoric supporting the bill to shift and become more urgent. The Smith-Mundt subcommittee, a special joint House and Senate bipartisan committee that toured Europe in September and October 1947, recommended immediate passage of the bill because of the situation in Europe:

Europe today has again become a vast battlefield of ideologies in which words have replaced armaments as the active elements of attack and defense. The USSR and its obedient Communist parties throughout Europe have taken the initiative in this war of words against the western democracies.

Mundt, Karl E. “We Are Losing the War of Words in Europe.” New York Times, 1947. See also House Committee on Foreign Affairs. “The United States Information Service in Europe: Report of the Special Mundt Subcommittee of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Pursuant to the Provisions of H.Res 295.” (1948).
See also “The Past, Present, And Future Of The War For Public Opinion” (2017). This quote first appeared in the committee’s draft report of November 1947.

In 1951, the Senate ratcheted up the warnings:

Whereas the first weapon of aggression by the Kremlin is propaganda designed to subvert, to confuse and to divide the free world, and to inflame the Russian and satellite peoples with hatred for our free institutions…

Senate Resolution 74 on Overseas Information Programs of the US, June 1951. See 2017 “The Past, Present, And Future Of The War For Public Opinion” or, better, see the chapter “The Politics of Information Warfare in the US” in the 2018 book Hybrid Conflicts and Information Warfare: New Labels, Old Politics.

The international information operations in the State Department were good but overwhelmed by the volume, frequency, and aggression of Russian, and to later and to a lesser degree Chinese, propaganda and political warfare. But the biggest problem was the department itself. The personalities that drove the State Department’s mission to expand under the premise that the “nature of present-day foreign relations makes it essential for the United States to maintain informational activities abroad as an integral part of the conduct of our foreign affairs” moved on, leaving increasing room for the “pin-striped” foreign service traditionalists and the department’s bureaucracy to increase their direct and indirect (including leaks to the press) opposition to directly engaging the public abroad. Dean Acheson, who experienced this first hand as an assistant secretary and later as the under secretary helping move the Mundt bill along, had some choice words about how the department “muffed its intelligence role” (his words) that he also applied to the information mission:

In all of these cases, either the Department was not imaginative enough to see its opportunity or administratively competent enough to seize it, or the effort became entangled in red tape and stifled by bureaucratic elephantiasis, or conflict with enemies in Congress absorbed all the Department’s energies. Then, in the stock market phrase, the new function was ‘spun off’ to live a sort of bloodless life of administration without policy, like the French bureaucracy between Bonaparte and de Gaulle.

Acheson, Dean. Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department. New York, NY: Norton, 1969, 127.

In January 1952, Acheson, now the Secretary of State, insulated USIS and the rest of the international information programs by creating the quasi-independent International Information Administration inside the department. The purpose was to consolidate leadership, programs, authorities, budgets, personnel, and accountability under a single point of contact, the IIA Director, who had direct access to the Secretary of State and the rest of the government’s foreign policy establishment. (If you thought of the Global Engagement Center after reading the first sentence, the second sentence should disabuse you of any similarity between the two organizations.) The IIA was an operational organization with official agreements and links to agencies across the government. IIA described itself as managing the “psychological activities of the US Government in the Cold War, which are generated by Public Law 402.” (Public Law 402 was the Smith-Mundt Act. The use of “psychological” is noteworthy as the November 1947 draft report of the Smith-Mundt subcommittee, see the quote “Europe today…” above, originally wrote, “The United States Information Service is truly the voice of America… To be effective it must… (5) be a ready instrument of psychological warfare when required.” This fifth point did not appear in the publicly released report and public perceptions of the Act discount this psychological angle.)

So why was USIA created if IIA was already a one-stop-shop supporting US foreign policy in the face of Russian propaganda against America’s interests abroad? There were two reasons. The first reason was the State Department did not want the responsibility and refused the mission. The second reason is Acheson’s successor, John Foster Dulles, refused the mission and wanted the whole operation separated from the department.

In 1951, the US Advisory Commission on Information, established by the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 to provide expert oversight and advice to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress on the information programs, had this comment on where the information program should reside:

If we were persuaded that it could function more effectively outside the State Department, we would feel obliged to say so. But our experience has led us to have grave doubts that the program in the hands of a separate agency would operate as well as it does now… One vital requisite in the handling of the information is that it shall not be remote from policy-planning. Another equally significant need is that the United States abroad should speak with a single voice. There can be separate tones and modulations in that voice, and a choice of vocabularies, but the voice should not contridict itself. We do not believe that [the Office of War Information] operations were altogether happy as far as policy-coordination is concerned… No [information program] can be stronger than the policy from which it springs. Thus the infromation specialists should be at all times and at all levels [be] just as close as they possbily can be to the making of policy… Since most foreign policy is made by the State Department, the closer the information program can be to the State Department, the more effective [the program] will be.

United States Advisory Commission on Information. “Fourth Semiannual Report to the Congress, April 1951.”

What changed two years later? In addition to a new Secretary of State objecting to the information mission, the Eisenhower administration promised the separated operation would have cabinet-level status or at least operate as a cabinet-level agency. In support of this promise, the commission revised its position in February 1953 and recommended that “IIA be lifted out of the Department of State and placed in a new agency of Cabinet-level in which there is vested authority to formulate psychological strategy and to coordinate information policies of all Government agencies and consolidate all overseas information programs.” The commission’s comment that the program would no longer be “buried in the huge State Department” hinted at the real cause.

IIA and the broader information mission were seen as a distracting administrative burden for the Secretary of State. Testifying in support of the separation at a hearing on the Eisenhower administration’s Reorganization Plan No. 8 to create USIA, the Under Secretary of State, Walter Bedell Smith (the modern equivalent to the Under Secretary then is today’s Deputy Secretary of State), emphasized the theme of a “huge State Department” that was unwieldy in its present form:

Since the end of the war it has been increasingly difficult for the Secretary of State to deal with the steadily mounting responsibilities placed upon him and still have enough time so that he and his principal assistants could concentrate on basic foreign policy functions.

Reorganization Plans Nos. 7 and 8 of 1953 (Foreign Operations Administration) (United States Information Agency): Hearings. Eighty-Third Congress, First Session on H.J. Res. 261 and H.J. Res. 262. June 22, 23, and 24, 1953, 34.

(Outside of the scope of this paper is a discussion on the point the Secretary of State is not hired to be the chief administrator of the foreign affairs bureaucracy in the same way the Secretary of Defense is hired to be the chief administrator for military readiness and the conduct of military affairs.)

The point that international information activities were an “integral part” of foreign affairs was rejected; information was not one of the “basic foreign policy functions.” As to the “huge State Department,” creating USIA resulted in a forty (40!) percent reduction in personnel at the department as personnel moved to the new agency, were fired, or moved to the new agency and then fired. In VOA’s first year under USIA, seven language services were eliminated. Across the 34 remaining languages, program hours were reduced from 33 to 28 a day. By the way, the USIA Director reported that 42% of the programming was “straight news” with the remaining 58% as “news analysis and features.”

Eisenhower’s blue-ribbon President’s Committee on International Information Activities, more commonly referred to as the Jackson Committee after its chairman, C.D. Jackson, preferred retaining IIA in the department as an autonomous operation with administrative and fiscal autonomy and a higher rank for its chief. Another alternative by the Jackson Committee was an independent IIA under the National Security Council. Since Secretary of State Dulles wanted to be rid of IIA, this scenario was adopted, though the relationship to the NSC was dropped (and apparently forgotten by those who invoke the Jackson Committee’s support for USIA). Recall the Advisory Commission report supporting USIA if it were a Cabinet-level agency. Though USIA would not be a Cabinet agency and not under the NSC, Under Secretary Smith said the independent USIA would be closely integrated with the diplomatic, military, and economic agencies and with the objectives of the nation. When pressed by a skeptical Congress on the absence of a firm foundation for this relationship, Smith said this structure was clear in President Eisenhower’s instruction to the relevant Secretaries regarding USIA:

The Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and the Secretary of the Treasury as appropriate, shall review plans and policies relative to military and economic-assistance programs, foreign-information programs and legislative proposals of the Foreign Operations Administration and the United States Information Agency to assure that in their conceptions and execution, such plans, policies, and proposals are consistent with and further the attainment of foreign policy, military policy, and financial and monetary policy objectives

Eisenhower, Dwight D. “Memorandum on the Organization of the Executive Branch for the Conduct of Foreign Affairs.” June 1, 1953.

Some Members of Congress remained concerned the separation of information from policy would become a problem. The President’s message to the executive heads was not, in their view, an adequate safeguard to ensure USIA and information remained integrated with policy. This was true for a while, but despite Smith’s assurances and the President’s memo, segregation would become the norm. The separation of USIA from policy grew with exceptions being wholly dependent on personalities, interests, and immediate requirements.

Coinciding with the separation was a further consolidation of information programs under a single roof. There were primarily the international information programs of the aptly named Mutual Security Agency (which managed the government’s foreign aid) and some of the Defense Department’s information programs in Germany and Austria. However, this consolidation could have been done with IIA under the State Department, an independent USIA was not needed to “absorb” these operations.

The separation also created an opportunity to reduce the portfolio. Many of the exchange programs, which were intentional influence operations aimed at creating mutual understanding to undermine adversarial propaganda and political warfare activities, were blocked from going to USIA because Sen. Fulbright did not want them associated with VOA or, more broadly, associated with “information” programs. (The Fulbright-Hayes Act of 1961 further separated exchanges from the Smith-Mundt Act and removed Mundt’s name from the whole project of exchanges, and erased the inconvenient fact Fulbright exchanges had up to that point relied on the Smith-Mundt Act. Broadly speaking, Sen. Fulbright was one of the severest enemies to “public diplomacy” as he rejected the threat of Russia and communism and argued the information programs unfairly antagonized Russia.)

One last point on the history. Mr. Khatiri’s historical statement on USIA has the word “absorbed” doing a lot of work (see the quote above that USIA “absorbed several extant government programs”). When USIA was created, VOA had been in the State Department since August 1945 (that the radio broadcast operation was to be moved out of the government and into a government-funded non-profit with a full-time chief executive overseen by a board of trustees nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate, a structure that may sound familiar to some, is a separate topic). Radio Free Europe (not “Radio Europe”) was launched in 1949, not 1950, and it was never “absorbed” by USIA. Arguably (only by me, as far as I know), RFE was launched because VOA was not aggressive enough (and I argue that RFE may not have been created if VOA had been spun out into a separate entity as planned). The same is arguably true for Radio Liberty, launched in 1951, and possibly also the case for Radio Free Asia (1951-1955, today’s Radio Free Asia was established in 1996). RFE and RL merged in 1976 to form RFE/RL, this organization was later placed under USIA during the Clinton administration. Mr. Khatiri’s use of “absorbed” infers USIA was a cohesive whole for US international information programs, which it was not. (The Broadcasting Board of Governors was certainly not a cohesive entity when I joined the board in 2013, I can only imagine the situation earlier. A 1976 report on whether VOA, RFE, and RL should be in the same organization was clear on the opposition of all parties involved.)

Though the “bring back USIA” genre is anchored in the assertion USIA was a holistic enterprise integrated with policy-making, USIA was further removed from policymaking than its predecessor and had a smaller portfolio than its predecessor. The promises that USIA would have a seat at the foreign policy table were empty, wholly dependent on the leaders of the moment and not structural, a concern voiced by Congress and dismissed by the Eisenhower administration because the Secretary of State did not want to be “distracted” with this operational responsibility. USIA eventually lost its seat at the policy-making table, as was feared, and wielded fewer authorities over fewer programs and than the organization it replaced. President Eisenhower’s completely forgotten memo and the conditions of the Advisory Commission’s recommendation had no lasting effect. This eventually created the need for the high-profile Edward R. Murrow to be brought in to lead USIA in 1961 and why he famously lamented the agency needed to be in on the take-offs of policy, not just its crash landings. But Murrow’s lament also held no sway, which was later on full display as President Nixon’s National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, effectively told USIA, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

Point Two: the “punching bag”

USIA was a political punching bag, knocked about by Congress and presidential administrations alike. Following a 1978 reorganization, it operated for a few years under a different name before becoming USIA again. Finally, it was dismantled in 1999, with its non-broadcasting responsibilities largely handed off to the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and its broadcasting responsibilities to the new, independent Board of Broadcasting Governors (later renamed the U.S. Agency for Global Media, USAGM).

Khatiri, Shay. “It’s Time to Bring Back USIA”. The Bulwark, July 21, 2021 (accessed 26 July 2021).

The “punching bag” framing by Mr. Khatiri is difficult to reconcile. Was USIA doing such a bang-up job that Congress and the White House were constantly taking potshots at it? Is Mr. Khatiri’s implication that USIA was awesome even if contemporary policy-makers did not get it but they will today? Or, are we to interpret the line to mean that USIA would have been more successful if the President, the chief policy-maker, on down just got out of USIA’s way? While each of these interpretations seems absurd, they are part of the logic undergirding “bring back USIA” that the loss of this effective agency was tragic. By the time it was on the chopping block in 1997, we had long forgotten what had come before and the segregation of information from policy was entrenched in our minds. We latched onto it because something was better than nothing, but is that really the standard we should be reaching for?

To be sure, some of the criticisms of USIA were not entirely justified. The first serious questioning of USIA’s independence came in 1957 and stemmed primarily from concerns (expressed through Congress but really from the commercial media) that the agency “was engaged in undue competition with the regularly established press.” Interestingly, this was addressed directly in and prohibited by the Smith-Mundt Act. Concerns over USIA’s effectiveness, tone, and lack of integration with policy nudged the same White House that split the information agency from the foreign policy department to consider whether the two should be reintegrated. John Foster Dulles, however, stuck to his earlier position saying such a merger would “distract me from foreign policy formulation, advice, and execution.”

Returning to the “political punching bag” comment, I suspect that Mr. Khatiri is referring to questions over the effectiveness and utility of USIA. Concerns that removing closing IIA and creating USIA was the right move reached the White House in 1957, the same administration that created USIA four years earlier. The USIA Director was in the hot seat with Congress, as was the agency, and the question of reintegrating the agency with the State Department was discussed in a cabinet meeting. John Foster Dulles opposed the idea, still holding to the position integration would distract the department, and more specifically the Secretary of State, from its (his) primary mission of foreign policy.

(Incidentally, back in 1948, Dulles supported the idea of a separate Department of Peace, which was a proposal in a June 1945 House bill focused on “nonmilitary defense” that would presumably be charged with running the government’s international information programs. Personally, I thought that the job of “nonmilitary defense” was that of the State Department.)

Concerns over USIA did not stop, however. In 1959, the Brookings Institution, at the request of the Senate Relations Committee, recommended remaking the State Department into three autonomous departments, including one for Information and Cultural Affairs led by the Cabinet-rank Secretary for Information and Cultural Affairs. In 1959, Eisenhower appointed a blue-ribbon committee to examine USIA and its role in the foreign policy community. Unlike other analyses, this recommended retaining USIA as a “semi-autonomous” agency while emphasizing the need to “cease the continuous reorganization and review of USIA.” Later that year, President Kennedy appointed his own blue-ribbon committee at the same time two in-house studies were completed by USIA. All of the studies urged increased inclusion of USIA in policy-making. One of the in-house studies, led by USIA’s Assistant Director, urged the agency “to persuade, not just to inform.” The agency was not a “punching bag,” but it was not performing as needed with the lack of integration the continual common theme.

Reports would continue to be written, many of which were restatements or refinements of previous recommendations. One proposed placing the “strictly information” functions into the department’s geographic bureaus and move the other operations into some different form of an independent entity. Another recommended moving more functions from the State Department, and the Commerce Department, to USIA. A 1973 report by a commission chaired by the then-former chairman of the US Advisory Commission on Information (and current president of CBS and former president of RAND Corporation) recommended if the USIA Director did not gain direct access to the President, the Secretary of State, and the National Security Council, and did gain full control over its budget, personnel, and operations, then the agency “should no longer be independent.”

The degree of the political fights in DC, with the State Department rejecting the relevance of information to foreign policy and any incursion into their lane of foreign policy (cf. the Freedom Academy, see also my chapter “The Politics of Information Warfare in the US” in Hybrid Conflicts and Information Warfare: New Labels, Old Politics, 2018) and the White House too often ambivalent and acquiescing to the separation is too often ignored. The very term “public diplomacy” is both a representation and manifestation of this fight. For twenty years, there was no need to label the international information program with a new term, but in the mid-1960s, as USIA was facing reintegration with a State Department that rejected the information mission, a public relations campaign was needed to argue for parity between the two entities. (See my Operationalizing Public Diplomacy chapter, specifically the section “Creating Public Diplomacy,” for more on this.) The result is a term adopted to apply to an agency and not methods or outcomes, which contributes to the gross confusion over what is and is not “public diplomacy” today (hence my frequent use of quotes around the phrase). More than once I had a person tell me that some activity or another was not “public diplomacy” exclusively on the basis that the effort was not run by a certain element in the State Department. (I also had more than one person literally, not figuratively, yell at me that my work to “undo” the Smith-Mundt Act and its “firewall” was the “only protection public diplomacy” had in the State Department, and without that “firewall” the department would diminish its international outreach in favor of domestic communications. No, that is not how the Act worked/works.)

What Mr. Khatiri seemed to refer to was frustrations over the lack of integration with foreign policy and lack of focus on influence, and even counter-disinformation and counter-political warfare, by USIA. The agency was not charged with, funded for, or staffed for a counter-political warfare role, leading to the Freedom Academy proposal, and did not take a serious position on counter-disinformation, which lead to the Active Measures Working Group. Exceptions proved this rule, including when in 1965 a USIA Associate Director exercised temporary operational command over the 1st Psychological Operations Battalion during Operation POWER PACK in the Dominican Republic.

Point Three: What does “bring back USIA” look like

One comments on Mr. Khatiri’s inexplicable reference to the 1978 name change as I cannot see the relevance to such a short piece. Surely he could have replaced it with a more important sentence. (Yes, in 1978, the Carter administration did change the name of USIA to the International Communication Agency, a move President Reagan reversed.) Also not entirely important is the Broadcasting Board of Governors was five years old and not new in 1999. It was established under USIA in 1994 but it was made into an independent federal agency when USIA was abolished (into an intentionally divided structure constantly at war with itself over resources). But it’s Mr. Khatiri’s interesting misstatement of the title of the heir to the Director of USIA. This position is the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Now, perhaps Mr. Khatiri intended a subtle comment here by leaving off “and Public Affairs” since while the modern Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs is nominally a subordinate to the under secretary, the reality is they operated like peers. Or, it could be that Mr. Khatiri is referencing the original legislation that abolished USIA and directed the executive branch to establish an Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, which the Clinton administration responded to by creating the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. This title may suggest a return to the past when the equivalent position in December 1944 had the duty “to direct the information policies and activities of the department at home and abroad.” The reality had been something else with the office of the chief international information operations officer left largely vacant four of ten days since 1999, but I will return to this.

Ignorance of the current organization chart is apparently a requirement in this genre. Mr. Khatiri’s passing reference to this under secretary is more than what is found in similar articles. For example, the two articles (besides mine) Mr. Khatiri linked to at the start of his piece – “Bring Back the United States Information Agency” (2017) and “How to Stop Losing the Information War” (2018) – both fail to mention the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. One of these two articles does mention the Global Engagement Center, which is notionally subordinate to the under secretary, but fails to consider both why GEC exists and its limits.

But at the same time, the arrangement has significantly weakened the U.S. government’s ability to communicate its message and its ideas. There is no longer a single government entity tasked with USIA’s multifarious responsibilities. The distinct but overlapping terms “public diplomacy,” “public information,” “information warfare,” and “counterpropaganda” describe the kinds of work USIA did. Because USIA was, in large part, a dedicated P.R. shop, it could get out America’s message in ways that straightforward journalists cannot.

Khatiri, Shay. “It’s Time to Bring Back USIA”. The Bulwark, July 21, 2021 (accessed 26 July 2021).

Mr. Khatiri’s mention of this under secretary is followed by this statement: “There is no longer a single government entity tasked with USIA’s multifarious responsibilities.” While accurate, it is misleading, especially when Mr. Khatiri wants to keep separate the broadcast operations of the US Agency for Global Media, formerly the Broadcasting Board of Governors, from his new “USIA.” It is worth noting that before the board in the Broadcasting Board of Governors was abolished, contributing to the need for the name change to the US Agency for Global Media, the under secretary had a seat at the management table as the Secretary of State’s proxy. There, the under secretary could help shape the direction of the BBG’s operations. With USAGM now headed by a single political appointee and no longer insulated by the political whims of Congress or the White House, the relationship of the Secretary, and thus this under secretary has changed. Setting this aside, the broadcast element is a relatively small piece targeting and engaging a discrete audience (basically where a free press cannot or does not operate). This under secretary, however, still has notional influence, sometimes even authority, over some of the former USIA’s “multifarious responsibilities.” This has diminished however in light of the failure to appoint a capable and engaged under secretary to lead from this high office within the foreign policy machinery.

It is worth noting Mr. Khatiri’s description of USIA as “in large part, a dedicated [public relations] shop.” This seems to undermine what I interpreted as his key argument: that someone needs to lead the “multifarious responsibilities.” Is it that we just need a bigger megaphone? At the end of this piece, like so many others, this seems to be a key objective. It is not that the informational element of policy needs to be considered, whether it is the information generated by policy or the information necessary to support the policy. It seems “bring back USIA” is not well thought out.

A relaunched USIA would necessarily be different from the old one. The USAGM ought to remain intact and separate, retaining the various journalistic subsidiaries that were part of the old USIA. The new USIA would be smaller and more nimble than its predecessor. It would have more of a tech focus, too. In addition to countering foreign disinformation campaigns, the new USIA ought to focus on finding ways to bypass autocratic censorship and increase access to unrestricted internet and broadcast media—including finding ways to keep social media tools and communication apps available in repressed countries, so that political oppositions can use them to organize, and so that the people can find out what is going on in their countries.

Khatiri, Shay. “It’s Time to Bring Back USIA”. The Bulwark, July 21, 2021 (accessed 26 July 2021).

How would it be different? What does “small and more nimble” mean? Does this mean the new “USIA” would not gain direct access to the public affairs sections at Embassies and Consulates and not control the information resource centers (sometimes referred to as libraries) and not “own” the speaker’s tours and not own the Bureau of International Information Programs, the largest rump of USIA after the BBG, since integrated into a new Global Public Affairs office? Considering USIA’s primary impact was its ground game, as mentioned earlier, what is this new “USIA” really about, especially if USAGM is kept separate? I agree on the separation of USAGM from whatever this new “USIA” looks like, as USAGM is a surrogate press for discrete audiences that lack a free press. Access to international press via the internet is not the same as a press speaking in your language and providing news and information from your perspective and “so that the people can find out what is going on in their countries,” in their region, globally, and with the United States. But Mr. Khatiri’s laudable “focus on finding ways to bypass autocratic censorship and increase access to unrestricted internet and broadcast media” is and has been squarely within USAGM’s current mission. USAGM also has a long history and is well-known for not just making “social media tools and communications apps available” in these markets, but USAGM also funds the development of these tools and apps for these markets. The lack of knowledge of these current programs (other agencies delve into the space, too, among them USAID) is not adequate to demand a new “USIA” but it does suggest a lack of research that is prevalent across the “bring back USIA” genre.

Ultimately, it is unclear what “bring back USIA” really means if it does not entail removing various elements from the State Department and (or) creating lines of authority from State Department offices to this new organization. And this does not even get into the fact the government is far more complex with the public-facing contours far more numerous than in USIA’s time. Without the ground operations the former USIA controlled or led, and now realizing the lack of centrality and inclusion of USIA in foreign policymaking, what does “bring back USIA” really mean?

Conclusion

USIA was the manifestation of segregating information from policy; USIA’s authorities were less than the organization it replaced; and, USIA was not charged with nor did it conduct an anti-/counter-political warfare mission. Today, the organizational chart as-is has the potential to surpass the relevance, integration, and effectiveness of USIA if the White House and Secretary of State would appreciate this function, hire the right person, and support and hold accountable this office and its role. It is profoundly mind-numbing that the abundant “bring back USIA” pieces are so anchored in misinformation in their well-intentioned fight against misinformation.

Maybe a new USIA is the best course of action, but the supporting arguments to date are dangerous by their distraction from the core organizational problems we face today. I remain unconvinced that changing the organizational chart, in the absence of leadership and strategy, will magically create leadership and strategy and align organizational behavior and budgets and policy and personnel accordingly. It did not happen in the 1950s or 1960s (or the 1970s or the 1980s) when the White House and Congress were largely aligned in appreciating the threat to the US from Russian political warfare, why do some people think alignment will magically happen today when the government is far more complex, not to mention that today’s Defense Department is vastly more engaged directly with foreign public opinion than before? The “bring back USIA” not just ignores the past but encourages this ignorance at the risk of us failing to fix the problems that led to USIA. In other words, “bring back USIA” reveals that not only too many do not understand the true deficiencies of today, but encourage us to repeat the mistakes of yesterday. The mantra “bring back USIA” is a strategy of hope, the hope leadership, accountability, and policy will magically integrate information; the problem is hope is still not a strategy.

3 thoughts on “The Irony of Misinformation and USIA

  1. Very well articulated Matt! I can attest to some of your ideas. After doing 15 years IO for DOD I have more than 10 other years evaluating DOS PD programs. I have seen some of the discussions’ arguments in action.

  2. “Today, the organizational chart as-is has the potential to surpass the relevance, integration, and effectiveness of USIA if the White House and Secretary of State would appreciate this function, hire the right person, and support and hold accountable this office and its role.” But it hasn’t and recent history indicates it will not. It’s obvious you are one of, if not the foremost expert(s) on the information element of power in the U.S. U.S. history tells me that the DIME construct has really always been the DiME construct…with the “little i” considered as an afterthought, if at all. Can we ever overcome the cultural (driven by legal) reticence to bring information to the level of the other instruments of power? If so, how? I don’t see how subordinating an instrument of power to an executive office primarily responsible for another element of power will work. Having said that, I fully appreciate the cultural opposition to a “Department of Information.” Perhaps “Council of Information Advisors” on the model of “Council of Economic Advisors”? Good read. I learned something. Thanks.

  3. Dennis,
    I will readily admit my dueling optimism and pessimism. With respect to the latter, the way I see it, the State Department was given the opportunity to integrate public opinion into its portfolio in 1916 and 1917. It did not. The Secretary of State placed the department’s press relations and Congressional relations under the chief of counter-intelligence at virtually the same time the Secretaries of the Navy and War created their press relations and public affairs offices. The Secretary opposed this public role to the degree the department denied the public affairs officers of CPI’s Foreign Section use of the department’s cables. In the 1930s, the President asked the department to step up again. It dragged its feet, creating the opportunity for the proposal to create the eventually-named Office of Inter-American Affairs. In 1944, the situation changed because of leadership, though primarily at the State Department, starting with the Secretary, followed by senior leaders within the department. The heads of the foreign service agreed information must be integral to the job of the foreign service officer; a new Assistant Secretary of State for Public and Cultural Relations was established, moving press and public affairs out from underneath the administrative department. So far, that’s two instances again, and one for. But the “for” changed as the personalities moved on. Perhaps if someone like Acheson was Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, the department’s DNA that rejected the public engagement role would have been overcome. Instead, John Foster Dulles returned to the “old ways” (my words) and State opposed the public engagement role, which the Russians took advantage of. (If you read my Operationalizing Public Diplomacy chapter, you’ll see where I note “public diplomacy” was in common use before being adopted to describe USIA’s activities, and that use was to describe the Russian proclivity of speaking to the press to shape public opinion knowing their State Department counterparts would do no such thing. Move ahead and in 1999 when USIA is shuttered and the State Department takes on the bulk of USIA’s operations, it keeps them shunted to the side. Now, to be fair, some of the hiving off was from direct action by USIA alumni who viewed the Smith-Mundt Act, as amended by Senators Fulbright (1972) and Zorinsky (1985) to seal off and hide USIA’s activities from Congress, the press, and the public, as the only protection preventing the department from redirecting “public diplomacy” operations entirely to the American public (as in mostly disregarding the foreign public). So now we have 1917, 1938, 1953, and 1999 as instances where the department decidedly rejected the public information role and 1945 as the one instance the department hugged that role. So, Dennis, to your point, if history is prologue, things do not look good.

    This is where my optimism comes in (or blind hope, accepting that hope is, well…). Fundamentally, if we accept the State Department is truly tasked with leading our foreign policy, as was determined was to be the case in 1945, then the international information operations supporting our foreign policy should be co-existent within the agency. This gets at what I see as the basic problem: what is the department’s role? Is it, as the floor plans of the embassies indicate, merely a facilitator of other agencies, or is it, as the role of the COM, DCM, and geographic bureaus indicate, the lead agency helping craft, execute, and monitor our foreign policy? The placement of the international information operations is dependent on our, or rather the White House’s and the Secretary of State’s answer to this question.

    Can the department fix itself? Yes, but it will require a serious commitment by the Secretary. Does this necessarily mean an empowered R (as the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs is known in department lingo)? I don’t know, despite my rhetoric around the R vacancy and primacy. I do wonder if R should go away and most of its responsibilities, and some of J’s (the U/S for for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights) offices, specially the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (which arguably was created to duplicate some of USIA’s activities and clearly does “public diplomacy” activities), should go to P (the U/S for Political Affairs). (Whether International Organizations also goes to P, is separate; if R doesn’t go, J should still go, with DRL going to R and IO going to R, among other rearrangements). There is no one like a Goldwater or like a Nichols in Congress, so the idea there will be a Goldwater-Nichols for State is far more hopeful than my dream that the department “gets it” and embraces the international information operations mission.

    My optimism is also driven by the expectation that a separate agency for information will further permit and encourage the “not my job” view of international information programs. If the operating concept is embedded into the department and the department leads, the informational element of policy can be constantly hammered. In other words, integration will be institutional. But if the role of information is separate, policy and information will be integrated only when the right personalities are in the right place at the right time. The latter is the model we have now.

    The council ideas are worthwhile exploring and are not mutually exclusive of integrating information into the department. However, I’m not sure how this differs from the problem of trying to centralize the information leadership in or under the NSC. The council does not change the institutions, especially considering how administrations view the NSC.

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