A Look at the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: A Historical Look at the Politics of US Information Warfare

Notes & details behind my 8-minute presentation

Since mid-2022, my primary outlet has been mountainrunner.substack.com. The mountainrunner.us site will continue to exist, and I will occasionally repost articles from my substack here. However, these reposts, like the one you are about to read, will be neither timely nor include all of my substack work. In other words, if you want to follow my writing, I suggest you subscribe to my substack where this post first appeared on 24 April 2023. The substack version of this article includes substantial footnotes that were not copied to the version below.  

I spoke at the #Connexions Conference on Global Media in Diplomacy and Foreign Policy this past Monday. The event was held at the University of Texas at Austin, and while I was remote, Dr. Nick Cull, the discussant, and Jeff Trimble, the moderator, were both in-person. 

The conference keynote was given by Ukrainian Ambassador to the US Oksana Markarova, whose comments are worth your time

Our panel was titled “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: A Historical Look at the Politics of US Information Warfare.” We immediately followed the Ambassador’s keynote to provide a kind of scene-setter (at the 1hr mark at the above link). That was the hopeful intent to try to push conversations into either accurate and meaningful invocations of history in support of their arguments or leave aside the history they misread, don’t understand, or invent. One subsequent presentation, for example, checked all three boxes quickly, even as the presenter could have left out their (inaccurate) historical narrative without affecting anything. 

As Nick noted at the start of his presentation following my 8-minute opener, our panel was in agreement. Rather than contention, we built upon each other’s statements. Jeff was a superb moderator with his context, pulling from outside statements, and teeing up questions. The only problem with the panel was its length: it was too short at 60 minutes, even after our brief opening comments, to allow for an extended question and answer, which, for me, is the real value and why I decided to participate in this event. I’m more interested in the conversation where I get to know and speak to the issues and concerns of the audience rather than just projecting stuff at the audience. 

As Ambassador Markarova commented that Russian activities today are not new but can be traced back centuries, I preceded my planned remarks by supporting her accurate assessment by reflecting that another Ukrainian said the same thing nearly six decades ago. In 1964, Dr. Lev Dobriansky, then chairman of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America and a professor at Georgetown, offered this in a prepared statement before a Congressional committee:

Careful analyses along these and primarily substantive lines would reveal that what we classify today as Moscow’s cold war techniques and methods are essentially traditional to totalitarian Russian empire-building. Contrary to general opinion, they are not the created products of so-called Communist ideology and tactics. Except for accidental refinements and considerable technologic improvements, many of the techniques manipulated by the rulers of the present Russian empire, and also applied by their Red Chinese competitors, can be systematically traced as far back as the 16th century. Indeed, over a half century before Marx, the Russian ambassadors of Catherine the Great utilized class-division techniques to prepare for the partitions of Poland. Countless other examples of striking comparative worth and value can be cited.

Hearings Relating to H.R. 352, H.R. 1617, H.R. 5368, H.R. 8320, H.R. 8757, H.R. 10036, H.R. 10037, H.R. 10077, and H.R. 11718, Providing for Creation of a Freedom Commission and Freedom Academy, Eighty-Eighth Congress, Second Session (Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1964), p1281.

While technologies change, there is remarkable consistency in the basic methods and desired outcomes across time. We periodically rediscover that our adversaries don’t wish to or cannot confront us directly in combat, and we complain about it. However, an examination of our organizational and policy history reveals that while we periodically accept such a reality, we also consistently disregard it in favor of tangible military-based dissuasion, which, perhaps ironically, naturally encourages our adversaries to continue to operate below our fuzzy thresholds to employ the combat might we have invested in so heavily instead of prioritizing the non-military avenues they encroach upon and exploit. These ambiguous thresholds, shaped by our domestic politics and the White House’s willingness to act in some way at any given moment, are manipulated and exploited by the same or similar capabilities we implicitly, if not explicitly, push our adversaries to use. While this was not the explicit focus of my comments, it is foundational to understanding “the good, the bad, the ugly” of the US’s history around the politics of information warfare. 

Based on the pre-meetings, my opening focused on four points. What follows is not a transcript of my remarks but an expanded discussion of my 8 minutes.

1. Unfulfilled Promises of USIA

My first point was the criteria in all of the recommendations supporting the establishment of the US Information Agency were never met. Yet, these same criteria are often heard today in calls to bring back USIA, whether on “steroids” or not. This fact increasingly feels like waving at windmills, but I’ll keep at it. If you want to recite history, know the history. More on that is below. 

In other words, the US Information Agency (USIA) never was or became what it was supposed to be. It replaced an agency with a seat at the various tables, usually as the chair of the departmental and inter-agency committees. Beyond being embedded in the making and conducting foreign policy, this predecessor agency had greater authorities across a broader portfolio of efforts. This predecessor was the International Information Administration and, as a semi-autonomous unit in the State Department, had under it 50% of the Department’s personnel and commanded 40% of the Department’s budget.

What was USIA supposed to be? Three major reports in 1953 that recommended establishing an independent agency outside of the State Department had overlapping views. 

The Advisory Commission on Information’s recommendation of February 1953 was clear on several points, the most relevant point here is: 

That the International Information Administration (IIA) be separated from 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.

U.S. Advisory Commission on Information, “Seventh Report of the United States Advisory Commission on Information,” (1953).

The commission also commented on the paperwork reduction language in the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 that led to the “on request” phrase appearing in the legislation that subsequently became a barrier to access: 

That Congress authorize IIA to release domestically, without request, information concerning its programs.

U.S. Advisory Commission on Information, “Seventh Report of the United States Advisory Commission on Information,” (1953).

It should be noted here the commission was not suggesting IIA, as it existed or would exist should it be separated into a new Cabinet-level agency, disseminate these materials. There is a difference between being available and active distribution. For example, imagine going to a library and being told you can access anything but can’t see the card catalog or enter the stacks. How are you supposed to know what is there? Now put this in terms of oversight and awareness. More on that later. 

It should also be noted that in its reports of 1951 and 1952, the commission repeatedly stated it saw no reason or value to move the operations out of the State Department. Below is from the commission’s April 1951 report, which it recalled in its July 1952 (“Our position today is as it was in April of 1951”): 

This Commision has no vested interest in the placement of the information program. We are only concerned with its maximum effectiveness. If we were persuaded that it could Function more effectively outside the State Department, we would feel obligated 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. We believe the subject requires very careful study. 

The President’s Advisory Committee on Government Organization, also known as the Rockefeller Committee, recommended in April 1953 that a new information agency be established “in which would be consolidated the most important foreign information programs and cultural and educational exchange programs now carried on by the United States International Information Administration” and other agencies. Keeping the cultural and educational exchange programs together was also part of the Advisory Commission on Information’s recommendation. However, the Rockefeller Committee did not suggest a Cabinet seat. Instead, it advised:

The new agency would be established under the National Security Council under arrangements paralleling those set forth in the National Security Act for the Central Intelligence Agency.

The third report came from the President’s Committee on International Information Activities, also called the Jackson Committee after its chairman, former Deputy Director of the CIA, William H. Jackson. This group landed on three scenarios: alignment with the Rockefeller Committee by making IIA an independent agency under the NSC; splitting the baby and keeping some exchange programs in State and creating a new agency responsible for information programs; or retaining IIA inside the State Department but with increased autonomy and a higher rank for the IIA chief. The Jackson Committee favored the third option – keeping IIA inside of State while increasing its authorities – as did the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which was pondering the subject. 

John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, did not want an operational role for the Department, let alone this IIA thing. So it was, he would say, a few years later, in 1957, when asked to consider reintegrating USIA into the State Department, a distraction to him and the Department from their core business of diplomacy. 

Two of these reports were largely ignored, while the third bent to the wishes of a Secretary of State. The result was the segregation of information from policy. In a further rejection of calls for greater consolidation, it bifurcated various engagement and exchange programs from information and general policy discussions.

2. Calls to Reconsider USIA Began within a Few Years

My second point is briefer. I pondered how many people calling for a new USIA realize not just the failure to adhere to the several well-thought-out recommendations in 1952 but that within a few years, there were calls to replace or reintegrate USIA into the State Department. 

In 1957, the Eisenhower Administration questioned whether USIA should be reintegrated into the State Department (Secretary of State Dulles, as noted above, said no). 

In 1959, Senator Karl Mundt, formerly Representative Mundt, proposed a Department of International Public Relations responsible for international information policies. Responding to Mundt’s call, the chairman of the Advisory Commission on Information, Mark May, reminded Mundt the commission “had a similar idea” when it recommended “IIA be lifted out of the Department of State and placed in a new agency of Cabinet-level” back on 1953.

Also, in 1959, the Brookings Institute analyzed the foreign policy apparatus at the request of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It recommended establishing an overarching Department of Foreign Affairs with three cabinet-level departments. A Department of Information and Cultural Affairs would be co-equal to the other sub-departments: the Department of State and the Department of Foreign Economic Operations.

In 1960, another Eisenhower committee looked at the organization, which was led by Mansfield Sprague and included the USIA Director George Allen, CIA Director Allen Dulles, National Security Advisor Gordon Gray, Advisory Commission on Information Member Philip D. Reed, and others. Their January 1961 report did support keeping USIA and recommended increasing training, increasing activities, and “cease the continuous reorganization and review of USIA.” Also in 1960, the Advisory Commission on Information stated, “the time has come for the United States to consolidate all the foreign cultural, educational, and information programs in one agency of cabinet status.”

The Kennedy administration in 1961 saw three more studies of USIA. One of these was part of the administration’s review of foreign policy machinery, with the USIA review led by Dr. Lloyd Free from the President and two in-house USIA reports. All of these did maintain USIA should remain independent. Still, they all recommended substantial changes, including the USIA Director’s participation in the National Security Council and an increased role for the USIA in making US foreign policy. Other recommendations included some of the consolidation recommended in 1953 that never happened. 

In 1968, the Advisory Commission on Information raised questions about USIA. Acknowledging USIA’s successes, it restated its call of 1960 (which it repeated in 1961) with added emphasis:

The continued separation of the exchange programs into United States Information Service (USIS) administration abroad and Department of State administration in Washington has become an anachronism, an anomaly leading co ineffectiveness, excessive bureaucracy and to an unfortunate diminution in funds for this imperative segment of long-range communications effort overseas. We believe that division should end; that it is time to draw together into a restructured USIA, or into a new independent agency, the reins leading to our now fractionalized public affairs programs overseas.

U.S. Advisory Commission on Information, “Twenty-third Report of the United States Advisory Commission on Information,” (1968), p12-13.

Five years later, in 1973, the commission reiterated the need for a serious study of USIA: 

The Commission believes that the need for an overall review of USIA, including its position in the overall structure of the government’s foreign affairs community, remains necessary. After 25 years of experience, it is time for a reexamination and an appraisal of its accomplishments, its role and its future potential.

U.S. Advisory Commission on Information, “Twenty-sixth Report of the United States Advisory Commission on Information,” (1973), p34.

There continued to be recommendations for severe evaluation and change. Some argued that if USIA did not gain greater authority and a seat at the policy-making table, it should cease being an independent agency.

3. Misinformation and Disinformation Around the Smith-Mundt Act

I don’t want to spend too much time on the misinformation and disinformation around the Smith-Mundt Act. Suffice it to say the perversions of the Smith-Mundt Act by Senator Fulbright in 1972, part of his years-long campaign to shutter USIA and to handicap if not shut the “Radios” (Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Liberty), further segregated information from policy while also tainting our views of what we say abroad as “propaganda” unfit for Americans, which is quite the statement.

4. Leadership Matters

My fourth point was that, ultimately, leadership matters. Each organizational iteration following IIA, portfolios shrank: USIA had less than the IIA, while the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, established in 1999, enjoyed substantially fewer authorities and actual capabilities than the USIA Director, and arguably even less now considering reorganizations and leadership vacuums. Considering the undersecretary position has been vacant nearly 46% of days in the last twenty-four years, with gaps unheard of in the time of USIA or with any other leadership office, how does an organization and line of effort function, and what does it say about leadership’s view of the position and value?

One last point, as this note has gotten quite long. Mark Pomar, in a statement-question at the end, asserted USIA’s role in foreign policy in the 1980s with his comment he gave a two-hour brief to the NSC (I recommend his book). I noted earlier that people looking at USIA’s “glory days” should consider the period they refer to. For example, the cold war of the late-1940s through the 1960s was remarkably similar to today, while the cold war of the 1980s was very unlike today. Pomar’s comment reflected a temporary high-level interest in the White House, an exception proving the rule over USIA’s long haul. 

That’s it for now. Congratulations on making it this far. 

There are (sometimes substantial) footnotes to be found in the substack edition of this article that were not copied here.