We don’t have an organizational problem, we have a leadership problem

This originally appeared at https://mountainrunner.substack.com/p/we-dont-have-an-organizational-problem on 21 September 2022.

Pointing fingers, turf fights, & dumb ops are products of absent leadership

Saying we have a leadership problem in the field of international information activities – whether you call this public diplomacy, strategic communication, countering disinformation, correcting misinformation, or something else – is an old refrain. Too many, however, intentionally avoid the leadership issue; instead, they pretend that a certain organizational structure will magically unlock the leadership, cohesiveness, and efficiency that currently eludes the US. Leaving aside logic and common sense, time and time again, examples are served up showing that it is leadership and not organizational structures that matter. 

The latest example is a recent article by Bill Gertz in the Washington Times, “State Department watchdog gives failing grade to new counter-disinformation center.” Gertz writes: 

The State Department unit devoted to countering disinformation and propaganda is failing to take the lead on government-wide efforts to expose foreign lies and deception, according to a new survey by the department’s internal inspector general.

The Global Engagement Center (GEC) still lacks the authority to carry out its mission and has not been led by presidentially-appointed officials for nearly half its existence, the IG stated following an eight-month probe that ended in March — despite having a staff of 167 people, mostly non-government contractors, and an annual budget of over $74 million. … 

The IG found that the center’s response was hampered by problems with contracting, communicating and operating efficiently in dealing with foreign propaganda. Additionally, the center’s mission must deal with competing counter-disinformation programs at multiple government agencies, including the Homeland Security Department, Pentagon and Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

There are several issues to unpack here, but I’ll just discuss three below. These two aren’t in order of priority. In fact, #2 is more important as its more impactful, but since I keep reading about the need for a legislative “fix” imposed on the executive, which is what GEC kind of was (if you really think about it, GEC was Congress’s attempt to recreate USIA, though I don’t think anyone thought of it like that), that’s where I’ll start.

First is the lack of action by Congress. Establishing GEC was a half-hearted organizational fire-and-forget “fix.” I know Members of Congress are proud they backed establishing GEC through legislation more than five years ago, but the lack of serious follow-up indicates the underlying hope it would work. Hope is (still) not a strategy, however. We can leave aside that GEC existed before the 2016 amendment, which was introduced six years ago, to the National Defense Authorization Act. We should not ignore, though, that the GEC authorization was in the NDAA and not a State authorization bill, which is indicative of Congress’s abrogation of its oversight role in non-military foreign affairs operations, including the State Department. It is sad to say, but the lack of oversight and accountability is essentially a feature and not a bug at this point. 

In my “Gray Zone” testimony before Congress in July, I implored the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee to do their job – in the politest way I could – instead of looking at the sexy shiny baubles in DOD, the IC, and elsewhere. The incurious oversight in Congress and in the executive enables and even encourages the problems we complain about publicly and privately. While the legislative can’t make the executive execute, something I remind the Hill whenever I’m asked if this or that proposed bill they send me will “fix” whatever problem, they can call hearings to bring discomfort for the lack of action and poor action, but they fail to do any such thing. Fire-and-forget plus hope. 

The second issue is the lack of leadership by the executive branch. Gertz writes GEC “has not been led by presidentially-appointed officials for nearly half its existence.” Funny enough, GEC’s notional boss, the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and (Global?) Public Affairs has also not been filled by a presidentially-appointed official for nearly half its existence. In the case of this under secretary, the vacancy rate is 44% of the days since the first incumbent in October 1999. 

The absence of leadership means an absence of strategy, oversight, cohesiveness, coherency in and across operations, invites operational competition, turf fights, reduces coordination, and unintentionally fosters ignorance of the government’s own capabilities that can be leveraged rather than recreated. We see this in the recent reporting about the social media debacle from (apparently) US Central Command, including the biting comments from State and elsewhere. (Back on 1 September, when news of the shuttered accounts first broke, I shared with a public diplomacy scholar that I figured these activities were CENTCOM contractors working a theater security contract with minimal direction and less oversight. The activities were too dumb to have been conducted by active PSYOP personnel.)

Leadership begins with the President and the Secretary of State, full stop. Chris Paul and I closed with this point in our July 2022 article “The Irony Of Misinformation: USIA Myths Block Enduring Solutions.” Further, leadership is not just about appointing someone but supporting and holding that person and other leadership accountable. In other words, the failure to appoint leaders is a symptom of an endemic problem and not the problem itself. 

The third issue is with authorities. Gertz wrote GEC “still lacks the authority to carry out its mission.” What authority or authorities does it lack? I’d certainly like to know. There are basically two kinds of authorities that could be at issue here. First, there is statutory authority. Conversations I’ve had with folks near to GEC and broader around public diplomacy in State and Congress and elsewhere generally pointed to the Smith-Mundt Act as inhibiting this or that. More precisely, they were told Smith-Mundt prevented this or that, and when they went back, sometimes with information I provided, specifics were unavailable. In other words, “show me where it says I can’t do x” was followed by the equivalent of hemming and hawing and shifting. It seems, from my cheap seat, that the issue is with some lawyer’s interpretation of the authorities rather than the specific authorities, and this interpretation is often wrong, in my direct experience over the past decade. (Here, I’m reminded of the DOD’s August 2006 legal guidance that since DOD seemed to be doing things similar to State’s public diplomacy activities, DOD must then be constrained by the same Title 22 restrictions but applied to DOD’s Title 10 activities until Congress says otherwise. I helped raise this point with Congress, which resulted in the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012.)

If the lacked authority is within the State Department, this is strictly a leadership issue. The absence of leadership makes it an issue as fiefdoms are defended, coordination is inhibited, reticence to change course is effectively rewarded (or not punished, take your pick), lack of accountability reduces perceived value, and so on. 

It is also possible, of course, that both are true: there is required statutory authority for GEC to be more effective and there is authority (or are authorities) within the department GEC requires. That’s fair, but on the statutory authority, has there been a definitive declaration on what is needed and why? I’ve had conversations with the Hill about statutory authorities around this and, of course, specifically around the Smith-Mundt Act, and I’ve not heard anything about this, but that’s just me, a random guy living in Europe. You’d think that GEC would go to its proud founding champions on the Hill and ask for the necessary authorities. Now, what if State has prevented this? Or, what if the authority problem isn’t statutory but departmental? We don’t know, and in the many years GEC has been around, there’s been no public airing of such issues. Why? Because leadership doesn’t care. It is just a sideshow. 

Comments and Recollections on the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy

This originally appeared at https://mountainrunner.substack.com/p/about-the-advisory-commission-on on 16 September 2022 and is lightly edited to fix remedial grammar.

Masthead of ACPD newsletter to Commissioners
Masthead of the ACPD newsletter developed for and sent to Commissioners

The U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy was established in 1948 through the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. I posted this forgotten fact on the commission’s website back in 2011 when I served as the commission’s executive director, and, fortunately, it remains there. The reason was two-fold. First, to show the maligned Smith-Mundt Act wasn’t the “anti-US propaganda” law it had come to be known through pervasive disinformation, misinformation, and, I’d argue, having done the research, academic malpractice. The second reason was to show the commission had a long and once important role. The updating of why the commission existed was partly to reframe the commission from being merely a baton wielded at the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, as was the view by some at the time, but an entity dual-hatted to provide advocacy and oversight over a broader portfolio and, equally important, to recall that the “clients” of the commission were Congress, the Secretary of State, and the President, and not the public diplomacy under secretary or even academia. 

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Into the gray zone

A note on my testimony before Congress on July 28, 2022

The below originally appeared at https://mountainrunner.substack.com/p/into-the-gray-zone on 26 August 2022 and is lightly edited to fix remedial grammar.

“Gray zone” is a popular label for various adversarial activities, specifically those activities “in the space between peace and war.” The term has been around for many years and is often considered to be—and is often used as—a replacement for the term political warfare. The problem with political warfare, of course, is the word warfare and the resulting reaction by some that “we don’t do ‘warfare’ and thus political warfare isn’t our job.” Political warfare was, however, more palatable than psychological warfare, which, for example, was in the draft report from a special joint Senate and House Smith-Mundt Committee’s delegation that toured 22 European countries in 1947 but disappeared from the final copy made public: “The United States Information Service is truly the voice of America and the means of clarifying opinion of the world concerning us. Its objective is fivefold… (5) be a ready instrument of psychological warfare when required.” 

Terms matter, and not just because they inherently have different meanings to different audiences at different times. Terms may also assign responsibilities just as they may be used to punt responsibilities to someone else. Public diplomacy, for example, has always been confusing because it was purposefully applied to the activities of an agency and not to specific methods or outcomes, which continues to cause confusion long after that agency disappeared. Hybrid warfare may be discussed in a similar way as it seems to be military-focused and intended to lay claim to an enhanced role for the military.

Continue reading “Into the gray zone