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.”

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.”

Die Wahrheit zuerst

Die Wahrheit zuerst.pdf, September 2009, at PRMagazin (German).

„Amerikanische Public Diplomacy trägt Kampfstiefel”, mäkelt
auch Matt Armstrong, Gründer der Agentur Armstrong Strategic Insights
Group und viel gelesener Public-Diplomacy-Blogger auf mountainrunner.
us. Er vermisst eine klare, vom Außenministerium statt vom Pentagon vorgegebene Linie. „Unsere globale Kommunikation ist nach wie vor unterfinanziert, schlecht strukturiert und wird zu wenig eingesetzt”, so Armstrong gegenüber dem prmagazin.

Whither Strategic Communication? A Survey of Current Proposals and Recommendations

Whither Strategic Communication? A Survey of Current Proposals and Recommendations by Christopher Paul, 2009, at RAND Corporation

Countless studies, articles, and opinion pieces have announced that U.S. strategic communication and public diplomacy are in crisis and are inadequate to meet current demand. This paper reviews contemporary thinking regarding the advancement of U.S. strategic communication, cataloging recent recommendations and identifying common themes and the frequency with which they are endorsed. …findings indicate that four core themes capture consensus recommendations: a call for “leadership,” demand for increased resources for strategic communication and public diplomacy, a call for a clear definition of an overall strategy, and the need for better coordination and organizational changes or additions. This paper also discusses specific recommendations for strategy elements or resource targets that made frequent appearances in the literature and during interviews.

From the acknowledgments:

I owe my friend and colleague Matt Armstrong a considerable debt of gratitude for his support of this effort. Matt helped arrange and conduct many of the interviews used in this research.

Censoring the Voice of America

Censoring the Voice of America: Why is it OK to broadcast terrorist propaganda but not taxpayer-funded media reports? by Matt Armstrong, 6 August 2009, in

Earlier this year, a community radio station in Minneapolis asked Voice of America (VOA) for permission to retransmit its news coverage on the increasingly volatile situation in Somalia. The VOA audio files it requested were freely available online without copyright or any licensing requirements. The radio station’s intentions were simple enough: Producers hoped to offer an informative, Somali-language alternative to the terrorist propaganda that is streaming into Minneapolis, where the United States’ largest Somali community resides. Over the last year or more,al-Shabab, an al Qaeda linked Somali militia, has successfully recruited two dozen or more Somali-Americans to return home and fight. The radio station was grasping for a remedy.

It all seemed straightforward enough until VOA turned down the request for the Somali-language programming. In the United States, airing a program produced by a U.S. public diplomacy radio or television station such as VOA is illegal. Oddly, though, airing similar programs produced by foreign governments — or even terrorist groups — is not. As a result, the same professional journalists, editors, and public diplomacy officers whom we trust to inform and engage the world are considered more threatening to Americans than terrorist propaganda — like the stuff pouring into Minneapolis. …

But compare this scenario with what might have happened if the community radio station had instead asked to broadcast a program made by a foreign government-owned channel, say China’s CCTV or the Kremlin’s Russia Today. At one time, broadcasters were required to label media from foreign governments as “political propaganda” under the 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act. Not anymore; as part of the 1995 Lobbying Disclosure Act, Congress changed the law and replaced the mandatory “propaganda” label to a discretionary one, “informational material.” In practice, the disclosure is hardly used. CCTV, Russia Today, BBC, and other foreign government-financed broadcasts are increasingly available inside the United States.

Arming for the Second War of Ideas

Arming for the Second War of Ideas by Matt Armstrong, 20 January 2009, at Threats in the Age of Obama

Today, perceptions created and forged by words and deeds, some of which may be violent acts, are part of orchestrated efforts to gain strategic influence over friends, foes, and neutrals.

…America’s adversaries have quickly adapted to the new environment using information as force multipliers. Today, bullets and bombs have a much smaller impact than the propaganda opportunities they create – opportunities to influence public opinion and build public support.

…While the U.S. has come around to the importance of public opinion, forward progress is, at best, slow. Policymakers and legislators continue to debate the role of persuasion through means other than brute force to national security imperatives from economics, health, terrorism, and war. Our adversaries, however, are moving ahead and increasingly using the tools and techniques developed within the United States.

Change for America: A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President

Change for America: A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President by Doug Wilson, 5 January 2009.

Posted on MountainRunner here: U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy: no one in PD conducts PD overseas.

In this lengthy collaboration Jolin, of the Center for American Progress, and Gren, president of the New Democracy Project, gather a comprehensive series of essays for the new president’s consideration, arranged into four broad categories: the White House, domestic policy, economic policy and national security policy. Along with suggestions and goals for the first 100 days, contributors like Tom Freedman, Karen Davenport, Jessica Stern and Lames Lee Witt paint sobering portraits of areas in need of overhaul.

Matt Armstrong’s blog post, 24 June 2008, is cited in this book.

Persuasive Politics: Revisit the Smith-Mundt Act

Persuasive politics: Revisit the Smith-Mundt Act by Matt Armstrong, 19 December 2008, in The Washington Times.

“Repairing America’s image” is a popular mantra these days, but discussions on revamping America’s public diplomacy are futile if the legislative foundation of what we are attempting to fix is ignored. A sixty year old law affects virtually all U.S. engagement with foreign audiences by putting constraints on what we say and how we say it. Perhaps more importantly, it limits the oversight by the American public, Congress, and the whole of government into what is said and done in America’s name abroad. The impact of this law, the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, must not be ignored if policymakers hope to improve how the United States communicates overseas. …

A brand new National Security Council directed the State Department to respond to the “coordinated psychological, political and economic measures designed to undermine non-Communist elements in all countries.” The psychological struggle of the Cold War is lost by those who remember only the military confrontation. The “predominant aspect of the new diplomacy,” wrote a young Henry Kissinger, “is its psychological dimension.” But by the late 1960’s, as the borders of the most important contested spaces were settled, the strategic value of this “new diplomacy” gave way to private, closed door diplomacy.

The result was the transformation of what is now known as public diplomacy from a national security imperative aggressively targeting foreign public opinion to something more resembling a passive “beauty contest.”

Operationalizing Public Diplomacy

Operationalizing Public Diplomacy by Matt Armstrong, 14 October 2008, at Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy

In the 21st century, perceptions matter more than facts as “super-empowered” individuals wield technology and manipulate public opinion for their own purposes unburdened by the truth and unchecked by less adroit global powers as they seek support across borders. This chapter looks at the origins and purposes of modern U.S. public diplomacy as a means to engage foreign publics directly, bypassing their governments, in a struggle to support the peace and security of the United States. This diplomacy with publics, which included carrots and sticks similar to traditional diplomacy, was required to fight an unknown enemy that seemed to be everywhere and set on destroying the American way of life.

This chapter begins with a look back at the original purpose and function of public diplomacy borne out of the total war period of the early Cold War years. I then describe how public diplomacy transformed from an active and holistic engagement into a passive practice based on emotions as part of a U.S. re-election campaign. This is followed by two sections that form the heart of this chapter. The first is an overview of the importance of information in modern conflict and the second is recommendations to operationalize public diplomacy so that it sits between and informs both strategy and tactics. This chapter concludes with the assertion that this view of public diplomacy must be reinvigorated and made central in Information Age warfare where perceptions trump bullets.

Rethinking Smith-Mundt

Rethinking Smith-Mundt by Matt Armstrong, 28 July 2008, at Small Wars Journal.

Sixty years ago, the elements of America’s national power – diplomacy, information, military, and economics – were retooled with the National Security Act of 1947 and the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. The former has received significant attention over the years and is currently the subject of an intense project to recommend updates. In contrast, the latter, a direct response to the global ideological threat posed by Communist propaganda, has been variously ignored, glossed over, or been subject to revisionism. Smith-Mundt was a largely successful bipartisan effort, establishing the foundation for the informational and cultural and educational engagement that became known as “public diplomacy.”

While today is unlike yesterday, it is worthwhile to look back on the purpose of Smith-Mundt and the debates surrounding the dissemination prohibition that has taken on mythical proportions. The modern interpretation of Smith-Mundt has given rise to an imaginary information environment bifurcated by a uniquely American “iron fence” separating the American media environment from the rest of the world.

Radio Interview with Matt Armstrong on Armed Military Robots

Armed Military Robots (radio interview), by Matt Armstrong, 20 June 2008, at The Sound of Science.

Posted on MountainRunner here: Robots on the Radio: interviews with Arkin, Asaro, and Armstrong on warbots.

…I am looking at the informational effect of these systems, the need to build trust and show commitment among local populations, and the impact of commodification of violence, and the reduced the cost of violence, on Congressional oversight and Executive decision-making, among other considerations…

Article: Combat Robots and Perception Management

Robots will figure prominently in the future of warfare, whether we like it or not. They will provide perimeter security, logistics, surveillance, explosive ordinance disposal, and more because they fit strategic, operational, and tactical requirements for both the irregular and “traditional” warfare of the future. While American policymakers have finally realized that the so-called “war on terror” is a war of ideas and a war of information, virtually all reports on unmanned systems ignore the substantial impact that “warbots” will have on strategic communications, from public diplomacy to psychological operations. It is imperative that the U.S. military and civilian leadership discuss, anticipate, and plan for each robot to be a real strategic corporal (or “strategic captain,” if you consider their role as a coordinating hub).

Source: my article “Combat Robots and Perception Management”, published in the 1 June 2008 issue of Serviam Magazine. The magazine’s website is no longer available, so it is reposted here: The Strategic Communication of Unmanned Warfare.

Beyond Government Accountability: a challenging look at Peacekeepers

Beyond Government Accountability: a challenging look at Peacekeepers by Matt Armstrong, 8 April 2008, at Serviam Magazine (magazine website no longer available).

The relationship between peacekeeping forces (PKFs) and the U.N. Security Council mimics the relationship between a private military or security company and the country in question. The Security Council negotiates with U.N. members to contribute to PKOs, most often in the stead of the five permanent Security Council members who actually make the decision to deploy military observers, police, and troops. The General Assembly does not authorize or oversee PKFs, but it is tasked to operate on the behalf of the Security Council.

Forgotten is Article 43 of the U.N. Charter, which calls for maintaining a standing rapid reaction military force to be available to the Security Council. Instead, the U.N. relies on ad hoc partnerships and “conditional commitments” through the U.N. Stand-By Arrangements System. This system falls well short of what was envisioned when it was established six decades ago at the dawn of the Cold War.