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 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 show 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 discuss three below. These two aren’t in order of priority. Point #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 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.” 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 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 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, and coherency in and across operations invites operational competition, facilitates turf fights, reduces coordination, and unintentionally fosters ignorance of the government’s capabilities that can be leveraged 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 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 leaders 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 two kinds of authorities that could be at issue here. First, there is statutory authority. Conversations I’ve had with folks near 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. From my cheap seat, it seems 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.)

This is strictly a leadership issue if the lack of authority is within the State Department. 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 a problem with authorities within the department that GEC lacks. 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 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.