Using Information to Beat Gadhafi

This morning, I was on the radio show The Takeaway, a co-production of WNYC Radio and Public Radio International, to discuss non-military options for the U.S. in Libya.

My comments focused on the empowerment of Libyans by enabling the acquisition and dissemination of information. In other words, freedom to get and give information creates not only knowledge of the environment, it lays the foundation for an open society. The actions of the Libyans must be by and of the Libyans. The only substantial role here, at this early phase of the establishment of a new state, for the United States (or the West in general), is one of facilitator. The Libyans must pull themselves up. 

The United States is considering a range of options to deal with Libya, including military action and sanctions. However, there’s another possibility for Libya: an information campaign and the Pentagon has reportedly explored at the option of jamming Libya’s communications so that Gadhafi has a harder time talking to his forces. Matt Armstrong, lecturer on public diplomacy at the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism and publisher of  the blog, takes a closer look at how an information campaign might work in Libya.

The segment is about than seven minutes long and my conversation with host John Hockenberry, begins at the 1:30 mark. Listen below or go to The Takeway.

Yes, it was recorded live at 6a Eastern Time, making it 3a where I am…

US Army may have used PSYOP against senators. How is that different from PR?

US Army may have used PSYOP against senators. How is that different from PR?” Anna Mulrine, writing at the Christian Science Monitor, quoted Matt Armstrong:

While the prospect of an officer trained to manipulate psyches using those skills on elected members of Congress is galling to some within the military, others wonder whether it was an innocent mistake or even all that wrong.

Context is key, says Matt Armstrong, a specialist on military strategic communications with the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California.

Rolling Stone claims that Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who is in charge of training Afghan troops, asked his team of PSYOP officers to create profiles of a visiting congressional delegation, including their voting records, “likes and dislikes,” and “hot button issues.” It’s a common request of public affairs officers, who routinely put together dossiers that include a biographical sketch and articles written by visiting officials, for example.

“You could argue that he was just being prepared,” says USC’s Mr. Armstrong. …

According to Rolling Stone, Caldwell asked Lt. Col. Michael Holmes, a National Guardsman and MISO specialist, “How do we get these guys to give us more people? … What do I have to plant inside their heads?”

Was that an explicit request for ways to manipulate the visiting senators? Caldwell “may simply have meant, ‘I want to know what Senator McCain was thinking, so I can answer his question,” says Armstrong. …


Foreign Policy and Public Diplomacy

Foreign Policy and Public Diplomacy by Matt Armstrong, Summer 2010, at Public Diplomacy Magazine.

In the first quarter of this year, the executive branch released two reports required by Congress on strategic communication and public diplomacy. Both documents are known as Section 1055 Reports, named after the section in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2009 that makes them mandatory.

The Defense Department’s report described “the direction and priorities for strategic communication activities” within DoD, while the White House report intended to be “comprehensive interagency strategy for public diplomacy and strategic communication of the Federal Government.”

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

Reforming Smith-Mundt: Making American Public Diplomacy Safe for Americans by Matt Armstrong, 2 August 2010, at World Politics Review.

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 1948 language also gave the media and academics, in addition to Congress, some say in determining what elements of public diplomacy being directed abroad were also fit for American consumption. But in 1985, Sen. Edward Zorinsky declared that even this was too much: Failing to shield Americans from the United States Information Agency would make the U.S. no different than the Soviet Union, “where domestic propaganda is a principal government activity.” U.S. public diplomacy was so “dangerous” that it was exempted from the Freedom of Information Act that enforced transparency in government. Congress became the sole arbiter of what the taxpayer could see.

Today, any public diplomacy product from the State Department or the Broadcasting Board of Governors may only be made available within the U.S. by an act of Congress. Naturally, these acts take time. For example, requests by NATO, Johns Hopkins and Harvard, among others, to show a 2008 Voice of America documentary film on Afghanistan’s poppy harvest were denied because of Smith-Mundt. The process for congressional approval began in early 2009, and as of today, it is still pending. Meanwhile, the video has been available on YouTube since 2008.

Congress has no similar concerns when it comes to content produced by foreign governments and their official news agencies. Congress decided in 1994 that “political propaganda” by foreign governments was safe for Americans. ..

SFRC Report: U.S. International Broadcasting: -Is Anybody Listening?- Keeping the U.S. Connected

SFRC Report: U.S. International Broadcasting: -Is Anybody Listening?- Keeping the U.S. Connected, 9 June 2010.

Posted on MountainRunner here: Senate Report on the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

American Public Diplomacy has always addressed two audiences. One audience views the United States positively, as a democracy based on the free flow of information, the freedom of expression, civic discourse and active citizen participation in government. This group will more often than not be supportive of U.S. actions and initiatives, or at least give us the benefit of the doubt. Members of the second group believe that these strengths are, instead, weaknesses and are predisposed to assume the worst about America; they reject–or worse, attack–us as a result. Successful Public Diplomacy (PD) keeps the first group engaged and increases its numbers while reducing the size and impact of the second. Impacting both groups are not only the actions, images and words of our own Nation, but fierce competition from other nations whose own interests may or may not agree with our own. One of our major tools for connecting with these audiences is through people-to-people exchanges; another is international broadcasting.

Cites Matt Armstrong’s MountainRunner blog on page 43 of the report.

U.N. Peacekeeping as Public Diplomacy

U.N. Peacekeeping as Public Diplomacy by Matt Armstrong, 19 May 2010, in World Politics Review.

A subtle evolution of United Nations peacekeeping operations is underway. If the first of these missions kept an agreed-upon peace, and later missions sought to make peace, several countries now use these operations to advance their foreign and economic policy agendas, and raise their global profile. This shift, selective as it is to date, may potentially raise the standard of conduct in U.N. peacekeeping operations increasingly fraught with charges of criminal behavior, corruption, lack of accountability, and general ineffectiveness. However, there are significant downsides to this approach. …

These same conditions create opportunities to increase the reach and the potential impact of peacekeeping, even in areas where the communications infrastructure is underdeveloped. As the geographic reach of a peacekeeping mission extends further beyond its immediate area of operations, the effects of success, or failure, increasingly shape perceptions of the contributing nation and the mission.

This public diplomacy component of peacekeeping, which connects with the general public and leaders alike, is potentially transformative and empowering for a country’s agenda, as increased contact creates awareness of culture, language, and narratives. This facilitates greater understanding, as well as personal and institutional connections, potentially opening markets and access to resources through the development of formal or informal relationships.

A brief examination of today’s U.N. peacekeepers reveals that three countries are well-positioned to leverage this new facet of peacekeeping, although they are at various stages of this process. The first, China, is demonstrating the power of such an approach as it effectively couples peacekeeping with its national agenda. The second, Brazil, though lacking China’s horizontal and vertical integration of policy and action as well as Beijing’s global aspirations, is using peacekeeping operations as part of its efforts to gain a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. The third, India, is just entering this path, and still struggles to come to grips with its potential leverage as a major contributor of peacekeeping troops, even as it tries to define its role in regional and global affairs. …

The dynamic nature of credibility makes it an important but volatile asset that organizations and institutions must manage with care. Over the past 60 years, the U.N.’s image, credibility, and ultimately its effectiveness have often been tied to its peacekeeping activities. While that image has been tarnished by peacekeeping scandals involving sex, drugs, and corruption, contributor nations have largely escaped public condemnation. However, as peacekeeping forces face increasing transparency and accountability as a result of the global environment’s expanding interconnectivity — including less-developed regions — the potential for peacekeeping to build up or tear down the “brand” of a country will increase dramatically.

This shift in the purpose of peacekeeping from a contributors perspective is positive, but not without potential pitfalls. While contributing nations can increase their global image, international prestige, and soft power through a smart application of traditional and public diplomacy, such concerns could lead to increased selectivity of missions based on potential payoffs to national interests, at the expense of the collective interest that peacekeeping operations are primarily meant to serve.

The State of State: A Proposal for Reorganization at Foggy Bottom

The State of State: A Proposal for Reorganization at Foggy Bottom by Matt Armstrong, 13 January 2010, in

The past decade has seen the U.S. government expand its activities around the globe in response to complex and stateless threats. In the face of these challenges, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen, and members of Congress have all called for increasing the resources and capabilities of the State Department to roll back what Gates has termed the “creeping militarization” of foreign policy. But efforts at reform are hindered by an institutional structure rooted in a 19th-century view of the world. …

The State Department’s hierarchy was fine for another era when issues were confined within state borders by local authority, geography, and technology. But in recent years, the structure’s flaws have become conspicuous. The department’s ability to respond to crisis is fragmented and sclerotic. When successes do happen, they tend to be the result of individuals working around or outside the bureaucracy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has circumvented the current system with crisis-specific czars called Special Representatives. These Special Representatives, like Richard Holbrooke for Afghanistan and Pakistan, operate like super ambassadors with regional powers that should reside – but don’t – in the regional bureaus. …

Realignment will not be easy. It requires the committed support of the president, the secretaries of state and defense, the National Security Council, and Congress. But the potential benefits are considerable. Adjusting the focus of the State Department from country to region would permit the secretary of state to exercise more effective leadership and oversight over the instruments of power. It’s the logical step to take in a new era of stateless challenges, and a demonstration to the world that U.S. power does not always have to wear combat boots.

CRS Report: U.S. Public Diplomacy: Background and Current Issues

U.S. Public Diplomacy: Background and Current Issues by Kennon H. Nakamura and Matthew C. Weed, 18 December 2009, at Congressional Research Service.

…The attitudes and perceptions of foreign publics created in this new environment are often as important as reality, and sometimes can even trump reality. These attitudes affect the ability of the United States to form and maintain alliances in pursuit of common policy objectives; impact the cost and the effectiveness of military operations; influence local populations to either cooperate, support or be hostile as the United States pursues foreign policy and/or military objectives in that country; affect the ability to secure support on issues of particular concern in multilateral fora; and dampen foreign publics’ enthusiasm for U.S. business services and products.

This report cites Matt Armstrong and his work several times throughout the report.

Berkley Center discussion with Matt Armstrong

A Discussion with Matt Armstrong, Executive Director, MountainRunner Institute, on the Uses and Limits of New Social Media by Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, & World Affairs, 15 December 2009, at Georgetown University.

…New social media democratizes influence. Anybody can influence anybody. Today, the gatekeepers are challenged, bypassed, or ignored. People who may have been alienated or oppressed are now able to come together and make their voices heard, regardless of culture, ethnicity, location, or even language.

…Apart from democratizing influence, social media makes information both global and hyperlocal as it makes it extremely accessible. Social media is also visceral… you see videos and you have a greater sense of being there than reading text.

…Social media, like the Internet in general, is in many ways a double-edged sword. While it can empower people for positive goals and causes, it can help others do the opposite. There are groups online for teenagers that cut themselves, there are groups on anorexia and how to do it better, there are deviant groups and hate groups. Terrorists benefit from using new social media, especially YouTube, as propaganda and recruiting tools. They no longer have to wait for media coverage to spread their message, now terrorists put their videos online in 30 minutes. Furthermore, terrorists can be their own media crew now. They, not NBC, not CBS, package and send out their message and the global media picks up on it.

State Dept Project Signals Foreign Policy Shift

State Dept Project Signals Foreign Policy Shift: Review Could Shift Resources to Civilian Agencies for Foreign Development, by Spencer Ackerman, 22 October 2009, in The Washington Independent.

In July, [State Department’s director of policy planning Anne-Marie] Slaughter’s boss, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, announced a new planning and budgeting document, called the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, or QDDR, created to “effectively design, fund, and implement development and foreign assistance as part of a broader foreign policy” every four years. It is the first such effort for the State Department, which is not known for a culture of planning, and is modeled after a planning document produced by the Defense Department that reassesses and guides strategy on a recurring basis. …

The review comes as at a time when the State Department is facing existential questions about its utility to American foreign policy, and some aren’t so sure that it will be as influential as Slaughter believes. In a provocative article last month for Foreign Policy magazine, public-diplomacy specialist Matt Armstrong called the agency “broken and paralyzed, unable to respond to the new 21st-Century paradigm” where both state and non-state actors influence the global agenda. “The QDDR will ultimately be just a document. What it spurs will be the real test,” Armstrong, whose article urged radical departmental restructuring, said in an interview. “As we know from the struggle for minds and wills around the world today, words only go so far.” …

Only one policy option has been ruled out: dissolving USAID and moving development work to the State Department. “There will be no merger,” Slaughter said. “Secretary Clinton has made clear she wants a strong AID, a well-resourced AID, [and] wants diplomacy and development well-integrated.”

Armstrong has a similar focus, but he wondered how thoroughly the QDDR would adopt the critique. “A focus of the QDDR seems to be State’s ability to play well with others,” he said. “But creating more plugs and sockets to connect with other agencies will be of little value if the internal bureaucratic friction that inhibits agility and creativity are not addressed.” He said that the department would need to abandon its bureaucratic “emphasis on national borders”- the State Department is primarily organized around countries, rather than transnational phenomena — if it wants to become “become an effective alternative and counterweight to DOD.”