Managing the problem: VOA, Smith-Mundt, and oversight

Public Law 80-402 opening

The White House, in typical fashion, very publicly lashed out at reporting it did not like. In this case, it was reporting from the Voice of America, a government-funded and managed news service, on Wuhan in China. The White House was triggered by a story published by VOA that did not come from the network, or its sister operation covering China, Radio Free Asia. VOA had republished a story from the Associated Press which VOA distributes under contract. Yesterday, I framed the situation as a failure of VOA’s leadership, and by extension a failure of VOA’s parent organization, the US Agency for Global Media, to focus on the mission and parameters of VOA. That mission and those parameters do not include providing coverage that is redundant to commercial media and does include focusing on audiences relevant to US foreign policy. Below, I continue the conversation by focusing on the “safeguards” Congress implemented around VOA to prevent and correct such failures, safeguards ignored by Congress and the White House abdicating their responsibilities.

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A Strategic Perspective on “Information Warfare” & “Counter-Propaganda”

On Wednesday, March 15, 2017, the Emerging Threats & Capabilities subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee convened a hearing entitled “Crafting an Info Warfare & Counter-Propaganda Strategy for the Emerging Security Environment .”

I recommed watching the worthwhile conversation. Below are my prepared remarks given at the top of the hearing.

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Amb. Kathleen Stephens named Acting Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy (and Public Affairs)

From the State Department:

The Secretary announces that President Obama has designated Ambassador D. Kathleen Stephens as the Acting Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs pending the Senate’s confirmation of the President’s nominee, Tara Sonenshine. Ambassador Stephens will begin work on February 6, 2012, and will exercise all of the authorities of the office for the duration of this designation.

Tara’s nomination remains in limbo as we wait for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to refer her to the floor.  Maybe there will be a business meeting next week to move her to the next step, along with several Ambassadorial nominees.  However, the real challenge is not the Committee but the floor of the Senate where the general sense is few if any confirmations will be allowed in the current less-than-bipartisan environment.  Hence, the appointment of Stephens as Acting Under Secretary.

Amb. Stephens was most recently the U.S. Ambassador to South Korea.

For more on the unencumbered Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy (and Public Affairs), see “R we there yet? A look at the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy (and Public Affairs).”  Unless there is some surprise in the Senate, perhaps a Valentine’s Day gift (to both Tara to give her the office and Amb. Stephens to relieve her of it), this Under Secretary position will have been empty, or not encumbered by person confirmed by the Senate to the position, for 1 out of every 3 days since the position was established in 1999.  The question will be how much more than 1/3 the time will the seat be vacant (no slight to Amb. Stephens intended)?

Note: Amb. Stephens’s bio at state.gov hasn’t been updated in a while.  In fact, “outofdate” is actually in the current URL of her bio: http://www.state.gov/outofdate/bios/109797.htm

Reforming Smith-Mundt: Making American Public Diplomacy Safe for Americans

My latest op-ed on the conceptually and practically out-of-date “firewall” of the Smith-Mundt Act is up at World Politics Review: Reforming Smith-Mundt: Making American Public Diplomacy Safe for Americans. The complete article is available without a subscription.

American public diplomacy has been the subject of many reports and much discussion over the past few years. But one rarely examined element is the true impact of the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which for all practical purposes labels U.S. public diplomacy and government broadcasting as propaganda. The law imposes a geographic segregation of audiences between those inside the U.S. and those outside it, based on the fear that content aimed at audiences abroad might “spill over” into the U.S. This not only shows a lack of confidence and understanding of U.S. public diplomacy and international broadcasting, it also ignores the ways in which information and people now move across porous, often non-existent borders with incredible speed and ease, to both create and empower dynamic diasporas.

The impact of the “firewall” created by Smith-Mundt between domestic and foreign audiences is profound and often ignored. Ask a citizen of any other democracy what they think about this firewall and you’re likely to get a blank, confused stare: Why — and how — would such a thing exist? No other country, except perhaps North Korea and China, prevents its own people from knowing what is said and done in their name. …

The rest at World Politics Review and comment there or here.

It is time this wall, one of the last two remaining walls of the Cold War, the other being the Korean DMZ, came down. If we insist on keeping this wall, a completely un-American and naive approach to global affairs, should Wikileaks be enlisted to let people within the US borders know what its government is doing with its money and in its name?

See also:

  • Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2010 (Updated) on the Thornberry-Smith legislation now pending in Congress
  • Recalling the 2009 Smith-Mundt Symposium on the January 2009 event on US public diplomacy
  • …and the only-somewhat tongue in cheek remark by PJ Crowley, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, at the daily briefing of 27 July 2010. While announcing the new Coordinator of IIP in his opening remarks, Matt Lee from the AP (also only somewhat tongue-in-check) asks whether PJ can talk about this “under the provisions of Smith-Mundt?” PJ’s response: “Yes. I, as the head of Public Affairs, can communicate both domestically and internationally. IIP, on the other hand, can only communicate outside the borders of the United States.”

GAO and US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy discuss evaluation tools

The subject of public diplomacy evaluation tools and methodologies has been front and center this week. Debating the difference between “measures of effectiveness” (or MOE), “measures of performance” (or MOP), and throwing spaghetti at a wall can seem like arcane stuff, understanding the value of engagement, and the ability to communicate that value, is extremely important. Measures are fundamental to discussions on what to do and why.
Of course in order to measure, one must not only know the audience (primary, secondary, tertiary as they must be categorized… or do they?), where they are (as they are less likely to be within neat geographic coordinates), and how they communicate, but also the effect, intentional and unintentional, of the activities of allies, adversaries, and neutrals on the audience. The world cannot be put into a laboratory.

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Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2010 (Updated)

On July 13, US Congressmen Mac Thornberry (TX-13) and Adam Smith (D-WA), both members of the House Intelligence and Armed Services Committees, introduced “The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2010” (H.R. 5729), a bipartisan bill to revise an outdated restriction that interferes with the United States’ diplomatic and military efforts. The Smith-Mundt Act, formally known as the United States Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948, was intended to improve and institutionalize information and exchange activities to counter Communist activities around the world that America’s ambassador to Russia described in 1946 as a “war of ideology… a war unto death.” Today, however, the Smith-Mundt Act is invoked not to enable engagement but to limit it.
The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2010 by Reps. Thornberry and Smith seeks to update the so-called “firewall” of the Act to bring it up to date with the modern environment where people, ideas, and information move through porous or non-existent borders with increasing ease.

The impact of the current “firewall” is decreased accountability of what is said and done in the name of the taxpayer and with taxpayer’s money, reduced transparency and scrutiny in the conduct, purpose, and effectiveness of foreign policy, reduced awareness of global affairs, limited understanding of the State Department in general inhibiting the development of constituency.

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BBG nominees confirmed and Radio Free Asia bill passes House

Briefly, June 30 was a good day for US international broadcasting. Alan Heil tells us the Senate confirmed the approved all eight nominees for the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) last night. They should be sworn in soon. Also, the bill to permanently authorize Radio Free Asia passed the House yesterday. The next step is President Obama’s signature to make it a law.

See also:

Congress and International Broadcasting

While the nominees for the Broadcasting Board of Governors remain in a holding pattern in the Senate, mostly likely because of Senator Tom Coburn, there is good news on the US international broadcasting front. The bill to permanently authorize Radio Free Asia has passed an important milestone.

According to a Senate source, last Friday, the Radio Free Asia bill was “hotlined” on the Republican side. This means there was no Republican opposition to considering the bill for unanimous consent. The next step is to hotline the bill on the Democrat side, which may or may not have occurred before you read this.

See also:

USA Lost and other depressing news

Team USA lost to Ghana in the World Cup in a contest that went into extra time. The referring was not quite the factor it was in previous games, but the referee yesterday should have warned and even penalized Ghana for delay of game and pretending to be fouled. He did neither but in the end, that did not change the fact Team USA could not put the ball in the net, despite several good opportunities to do so.

South Korea, another team I hoped would make it to the next round, was also defeated.

Also depressing is the nominees for the Broadcasting Board of Governors have yet to be confirmed by the Senate. Senator Lugar’s report and Huffington Post article on the BBG has apparently had no effect on the primary opposition, which is still apparently Senator Tom Coburn. Hopefully the nominees will be confirmed immediately when the Senate returns.

Finally, my vacation in Hawaii is sadly coming to an end. However, on the brighter side, within hours of my return to the mainland, I’ll be on a plane to the 9th Annual Information Operations Europe Conference in London where I will speak on Tuesday about the convergence of old and new media. My presentation will focus on Wikileaks as an online propagandist whose products and influence transcend mediums as well as the timely if unfortunate example of the General McChrystal / Rolling Stone story.

Lastly, the upcoming seminar Now Media: Engagement Based on Information not Platforms takes place July 6 in Washington, DC. There is still space so sign up now. I will extend the “Early Bird” pricing to Wednesday, June 30. On July 1, the price goes up $100.

Lastly, you may have heard that the US military has renamed Psychological Operations (PSYOP) to Military Information Support Operations (MISO). Soup (and other) jokes aside, here is the memo from the Department of the Army that describes the change with the “direction and consensus of our most senior military leadership.”

Senate Report on the Broadcasting Board of Governors

The most extensive report on the issues facing the Broadcasting Board of Governors and US international broadcasting was released this week. “US International Broadcasting – Is Anybody Listening? – Keeping the US Connected” (1mb PDF) was prepared by the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, under the leadership of senior professional staff member Paul Foldi, and is the best, if not the only, substantial review of its kind.
The report describes the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) as transforming from its intent of a political “firewall” to a modern political “football” that has resulted in an average vacancy on the board of over 470 days. Even now, the new slate of members of the BBG has yet to be confirmed by the Senate.

Beyond staffing difficulties and the resulting repercussions, the report describes the fierce competition and imbalance, particularly with China and Russia, to engage listeners, viewers, and readers around the world. The report also recommends changes to the Smith-Mundt Act, describing the firewall as “anachronistic and potentially harmful.”

Some highlights from the report:

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Movement on the BBG? (Updated)

imageNo, not yet. The Senate has adjourned until June 7. Questions from Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) to at least one of nominees to the Broadcasting Board of Governors is available from the Huffington Post (scroll down to COBURN’S QUESTIONNAIRE FOR DANA PERINO), or click here for the Word document with the questions.

Meanwhile, the head of the Persian News Network was “reassigned” and his deputy was fired.

See also:

Want a visa? Give €15 and we can talk about it

image

A reader comment reminded me of the strange reality of US public diplomacy.  As an effort to offset costs after Congress cut their operating budget (we hope this is the reason), some US embassies charge for the opportunity to setup an appointment to get a visa to enter the US.  At US consulate in The Hague, the charge is €15 (about $18). The consulate does recommend making sure you have all your documentation in order so you need only make one call – which they say you can do from anywhere in the world (which is a curious thing to say unless they are implying you can call collect). 

As the reader noted,

What a strange image this builds of America in a country which has diplomatic relations for hundreds of years.

I checked of four other US posts in Europe and failed to find a similar fee, which either makes Amsterdam unique or quicker to implement a policy. UPDATE: Jonathan writes that our embassy in Brussels requires the same payment

If this is the result of budget constraints and not a policy shift, has a demand signal been made to the budget and appropriations committees on the Hill (or to Jack Lew and others in State) on the need to get money to correct such problems?

Understanding State’s Budget Woes

Andrew Exum at CNAS blames – only somewhat tongue in cheek – the absence of federal money creating jobs in Congressional districts for the State Department’s budget woes. His point, of course, is that Congress sees little direct benefit from State’s activities. My friend draws additional insight from Gordon Adams and Cindy Williams and their highlight of an operational difference between State and the Defense Department:

The State Department’s dominant culture — the Foreign Service — takes pride in [the department’s] traditional role as the home of US diplomacy. Diplomats represent the United States overseas, negotiate with foreign countries, and report on events and developments. Diplomats, from this perspective, are not foreign assistance providers, program developers, or managers. As a result, State did not organize itself internally to plan, budget, manage, or implement the broader range of US global engagement … State department culture focuses on diplomacy, not planning, program development and implementation.

This is evident across the board at State, including, but not limited to, inadequate budgeting processes and systems, rigid hierarchies, and cultural bias against outside advice.

Below is a quick list of some of the other substantive issues I’ve talked in various public and private forums:

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Lynne Weil goes to USAID

One of public diplomacy’s best friends on the Hill, Lynne Weil, is going to USAID. Al Kamen writes about this move:

The beleaguered Agency of International Development is awaiting the arrival of some assistant administrators to give the new boss, Rajiv Shah, some help in restoring the dysfunctional shop to at least some semblance of robust health (he is a doctor, after all). …

Now comes word that he’s tapped veteran Hill foreign policy insider and media maven Lynne Weil to shore up the AID press shop as its director and to be the agency spokeswoman. Weil, who spent 15 years as a reporter, much of that time overseas, has worked on the Hill for nearly nine years , including stints for then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden and then for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, for the late Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) and more recently for Chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.).

The House Foreign Affairs Committee and Chairman Berman’s loss is AID’s gain. This move should help USAID in ways more than just press relations. Lynne won’t check her public diplomacy legislative experience at the door.

As a result of the wonderful world of dysfunction created by Senator Jesse Helms when he abolished the United States Information Agency, Lynne will report to PJ Crowley. Yes, that PJ, State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs. More on that when I write on the State Department Inspector General inspection report on the Bureau of Public Affairs. I’ll include comments from my sit down with PJ last week – after participating in a little send off of Ian Kelly to from State to Vienna – when we discussed this report.