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 the field of 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 are served up showing 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 just discuss three below. These two aren’t in order of priority. In fact, #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 really 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.” I know 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, which was 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 essentially 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, coherency in and across operations, invites operational competition, turf fights, reduces coordination, and unintentionally fosters ignorance of the government’s own capabilities that can be leveraged rather 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 first 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 leadership 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 basically two kinds of authorities that could be at issue here. First, there is statutory authority. Conversations I’ve had with folks near to 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. It seems, from my cheap seat, 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.)

If the lacked authority is within the State Department, this is strictly a leadership issue. 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 authority (or are authorities) within the department GEC requires. 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 that 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. 

Comments and Recollections on the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy

This originally appeared at https://mountainrunner.substack.com/p/about-the-advisory-commission-on on 16 September 2022 and is lightly edited to fix remedial grammar.

Masthead of ACPD newsletter to Commissioners
Masthead of the ACPD newsletter developed for and sent to Commissioners

The U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy was established in 1948 through the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. I posted this forgotten fact on the commission’s website back in 2011 when I served as the commission’s executive director, and, fortunately, it remains there. The reason was two-fold. First, to show the maligned Smith-Mundt Act wasn’t the “anti-US propaganda” law it had come to be known through pervasive disinformation, misinformation, and, I’d argue, having done the research, academic malpractice. The second reason was to show the commission had a long and once important role. The updating of why the commission existed was partly to reframe the commission from being merely a baton wielded at the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, as was the view by some at the time, but an entity dual-hatted to provide advocacy and oversight over a broader portfolio and, equally important, to recall that the “clients” of the commission were Congress, the Secretary of State, and the President, and not the public diplomacy under secretary or even academia. 

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Into the gray zone

A note on my testimony before Congress on July 28, 2022

The below originally appeared at https://mountainrunner.substack.com/p/into-the-gray-zone on 26 August 2022 and is lightly edited to fix remedial grammar.

“Gray zone” is a popular label for various adversarial activities, specifically those activities “in the space between peace and war.” The term has been around for many years and is often considered to be—and is often used as—a replacement for the term political warfare. The problem with political warfare, of course, is the word warfare and the resulting reaction by some that “we don’t do ‘warfare’ and thus political warfare isn’t our job.” Political warfare was, however, more palatable than psychological warfare, which, for example, was in the draft report from a special joint Senate and House Smith-Mundt Committee’s delegation that toured 22 European countries in 1947 but disappeared from the final copy made public: “The United States Information Service is truly the voice of America and the means of clarifying opinion of the world concerning us. Its objective is fivefold… (5) be a ready instrument of psychological warfare when required.” 

Terms matter, and not just because they inherently have different meanings to different audiences at different times. Terms may also assign responsibilities just as they may be used to punt responsibilities to someone else. Public diplomacy, for example, has always been confusing because it was purposefully applied to the activities of an agency and not to specific methods or outcomes, which continues to cause confusion long after that agency disappeared. Hybrid warfare may be discussed in a similar way as it seems to be military-focused and intended to lay claim to an enhanced role for the military.

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A Reminder that the position of Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs actually exists

Since 2011, I have been tracking the ridiculously short tenures of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. By the way, the average tenure is 517 days, and the median tenure is 477 days. I also tracked how often the office was empty, which was equally if not more critical since senior positions can be stressful and some churn might be expected. For example, in December 2011 when my staff at the Advisory Commission for Public Diplomacy and I first looked at the Under Secretary turnover, for the six Under Secretaries for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs since 1999, there had been five Under Secretaries for Political Affairs in the same period. However, as of December 2011, the political affairs office lacked a confirmed appointment to the office 5% of the time, a stark difference from the public diplomacy office being empty 30% of the time. What follows is far less commentary than, say, my June 2021 post reminding people the office was empty.

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Gross Misinformation: we have no idea what we’re doing or what we did

International Information Administration logo

In the saga of institutional misinformation, we have a new entry. The following article is set up as satire in the spirit of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” which is fine, but the author’s invocation of history, specifically organizational history combined with implied current organizational portfolios is horribly wrong. The failure to understand our history is irrelevant to the article “Let’s Tweet, Grandma – Weaponizing the Social to Create Information Security” but it is relevant as yet another sad revelation of how poorly we understand our organizations, past and present. That the author of this piece is a Navy Commander, a graduate of the Naval War College, and presently at TRADOC reveals an unfortunate reality about what our institutions “know” about the past and present. (Incidentally, I am a casual collector of books by “Dean Swift,” my oldest is only from 1911 though. There was an older edition I had my eye on in an antique bookstore in London, but I never pulled the trigger.)

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Correcting Misinformation around the Smith-Mundt Act Seventy-Seven Years after it was Introduced

On January 24, 1945, Congressman Karl Earl Mundt, Republican from South Dakota, introduced a bill “to transmit knowledge and understanding to the greatest number of people” across the Pan American Union. The method would be exchanging elementary and high school teachers in training. Put another way, the Mundt bill was a scholarship program for student-teachers in their junior year of college, provided they were in good standing with the American Association of Teachers Colleges. Before he was elected to the House in 1938, Mundt had been a schoolteacher, school superintendent, a college instructor, a co-founder of the National Forensic League (since renamed the National Speech and Debate Association), and both he and his wife were active with the South Dakota Poetry Society. Karl Mundt appreciated the value of words and ideas. The bill he introduced seventy-seven years ago today would go through several iterations before being signed into law three years and three days later by President Truman as the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. Originally intended to create and foster common understanding between peoples, to preemptively as well as reactively counter misinformation and disinformation, today its purpose and evolution are clouded by an ironic combination of misinformation and disinformation.

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It is time to do away with the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy

Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy incumbency chart 14 Jan 2022

Here we are on January 14, days away from the end of the first year of the Biden Administration, and there is still no nomination for the office of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. There were rumors of a forthcoming nomination around last autumn and recently I heard a nomination could be announced later this year. At this point, who would want a job that has been broadly neglected, often treated as an inconsequential sideshow, and whose authority, already slight, has been substantially reduced over the past couple of years? Considering the history of this post and this administration’s first year, if this administration does nominate someone for this job, they will likely be more Don Draper than Colin Powell, to borrow framing from the author known as Carrying the Gun, because that’s how the role is perceived and that’s the only person that would take it.

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Sweden’s Psychological Defense Agency

Sweden's Psychological Defence Agency

At the start of this year, Sweden officially launched the Psychological Defense Agency. The purpose of the agency, as the agency’s website explains, “is to safeguard our open and democratic society, the free formation of opinion and Sweden’s freedom and independence.” The website further explains the need for, the scope of, and imperative to be proactive for psychological defense.

Psychological defence must be able to identify, analyse, meet and prevent undue information influence and other misleading information that is directed at Sweden or Swedish interests both nationally and internationally. It can be disinformation aimed at weakening the country’s resilience and the population’s will to defend itself or unduly influencing people’s perceptions, behaviours and decision making.

Psychological defence must also strengthen the population’s ability to detect and resist influence campaigns and disinformation. Psychological defence contributes to creating resistance and willingness to defend among our population and in society as a whole.

The agency’s deputy director, Magnus Hjort, explained to The Washington Post why now: “The security situation in our near European environment has deteriorated for some time now and therefore we need to rebuild our total defence.” Note the use of “rebuild” and how the framing aligns as the flipside of the offensive means of political warfare. The latter is for another time, with the former (“rebuild”) the topic of this post.

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The Irony of Misinformation and USIA

A clear absence of research, making arguments incongruent with history and facts, and unsubstantiated if-then statements are the kind of malpractice that at some point is more than mere accidental misinformation. With the rare exception, modern calls to reincarnate the United States Information Agency skirt beyond malpractice and misinformation and into the realm of disinformation. Calls to “bring back USIA” are prevalent enough to be a genre of its own. And this genre, while well-intentioned, is a Pavlovian reaction based almost entirely on demonstrably false mythologies.

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How Important is Public Diplomacy? A brief look at the Fulbright Board

President Truman, with Sen Fulbright and Assistant Secretary Benton, signs the Surplus Property Act into law

This is the first of an occasional, and limited, run of posts comparing the present with the past to suggest – though perhaps reveal is a better word – how far into the margins “public diplomacy” is today. The subject of this post is the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, formerly known as the Board of Foreign Scholarships.

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The Incompleteness of the Fulbright Paradox

In the recent issue of Foreign Affairs, Charles King wrote on the competing realities of the legacy of Senator J. William Fulbright. However, as good I think King’s “The Fulbright Paradox – Race and the Road to a New American Internationalism” is in correcting some of the fallacies, problems, and inflationary tales around the Fulbright legacy, he repeats a myth that is central to the Fulbright story. Inexplicably, King also fails to convey Fulbright’s rejection that Russia and communism pose a threat to US national security. While King goes a good way to correct the selective biographical stories of Fulbright that should generally get the label of hagiography (or even cult-like) for their selective telling in elevating Fulbright to deity, King’s essay requires a few corrections, clarifications, and filling in of omissions. That said, King’s essay should be required alongside the number of biographies of Fulbright.

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tl;dr edition of “W(h)ither R: a marquee failure of leadership in foreign policy”

Last week, I published “W(h)ither R: a marquee failure of leadership in foreign policy,” a 2300-word discussion on the bipartisan failure to fill the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Below is a bulleted edition (with bonus arguments) for the tl;dr (too long, didn’t read) crowd.

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W(h)ither R: a marquee failure of leadership in foreign policy

Whither /ˈ(h)wiT͟Hər/ what is the likely future of? 
Wither /ˈwiT͟Hər/ fall into decay or decline.

Skip the text and jump to the table below

In December 1944, the State Department formally, and finally, acknowledged the important role of public opinion to U.S. foreign policy by establishing the Assistant Secretary of State for Public and Cultural Relations. Renamed to the Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs just over a year later, the assistant secretary was charged with expanding both the department’s domestic and foreign engagement programs “to provide American citizens with more information concerning their country’s foreign policy and to promote closer understanding with the peoples of foreign countries.” This integrated approach, given expansive global legislative authority by the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, was later shredded because ivy league diplomats at the department wanted the foreign cultural and information programs to conform to their “own long-established conventions [rather] than carrying out the congressional intention of [the Smith-Mundt Act].” This meant removing the public side to foreign affairs and creating the United States Information Agency in 1953 and institutionalizing the segregation of information from policy and the foreign from the domestic. In 1997, when Congress set upon shuttering USIA and reintegrating the bulk of its operations into the State Department, they directed the executive branch to establish a new Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy. Instead, the White House established an Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Notionally akin to the integrated portfolio of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs as it existed from 1944-1953. The reality was different and the segregation continued. The fact this office has been vacant four of ten days since the autumn of 1999 reveals the intentional marginalization of the informational component of foreign affairs continues even as many assert the U.S. is engaged in some kind of “information war.”

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Neglected History, Forgotten Lessons: a presentation and a discussion

In discussions about how the United States needs to structure its bureaucracies as the nation — and democratic principles in general — is pummeled by propaganda and political warfare, historical precedents are often cited. These examples may be used to show how something worked before or as warnings. For the latter, it is easy to find a reference to the Committee for Public Information as a government domestic propaganda machine. For the former, it is increasingly common to read how the United States Information Agency provides a model to be emulated today. Both are bad takes based on common narratives that are ahistorical and easily debunked, and yet no one has seemed to do so.

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Diplomacy’s Public Dimension: Books, Articles, Websites #105

February 8, 2021 

Intended for teachers of public diplomacy and related courses, here is an update on resources that may be of general interest. Suggestions for future updates are welcome. 

Bruce Gregory
Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication
George Washington University
BGregory@gwu.edu
http://ipdgc.gwu.edu/bruce-gregorys-resources-diplomacys-public-dimension

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Whither R: the office that’s been vacant two of every five days since 1999

There is a government position at the center of countless reports on countering foreign disinformation, correcting misinformation, and directly engaging foreign audiences that is rarely, if ever, mentioned in these very reports and recommendations. Whether due to ignorance, perceived irrelevance of the office, or both, the ghosting of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs reveals a fundamental defect in the analysis of how the United States has, does, and could organize in response to the role of public opinion in foreign policy and national security. Established in 1999 as a reinterpreted USIA Director, excepting the broadcast operations, the office has had a confirmed, not acting, Under Secretary only 60% of the time. Even if the counter stopped at the start of the Trump administration, which had one Under Secretary who served for only 100 days, the average officeholder’s tenure was one year and seven months with an average of more than six months between incumbents. The marginalization of this office, including the nearly complete disregard of its potential in the myriad of recommendations on “recreating” USIA or similar structure, should surprise no one.

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Diplomacy’s Public Dimension: Books, Articles, Websites #102

August 2, 2020

Intended for teachers of public diplomacy and related courses, here is an update on resources that may be of general interest. Suggestions for future updates are welcome. 

Bruce Gregory
Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication
George Washington University
BGregory@gwu.edu
http://ipdgc.gwu.edu/bruce-gregorys-resources-diplomacys-public-dimension

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Quote: There was a time…

There was a time we could afford—or thought we could afford —to be unconcerned about what other people thought of us… That time is past. We shall be making decisions, within the U.N. and independently, that will have repercussions affecting the lives of ordinary people all over the globe. Our attitude and our actions—and rumors thereof—will be matters of concern everywhere.

Secretary of State James F. Byrnes in April 14, 1947

This is a quote from the past on the need to directly reach people abroad in the interest of US foreign policy. Today, we may call this public diplomacy, but then it was simply “public affairs.” The term “public diplomacy” would not be adopted for another two decades for the purpose of defending the independence of a bureaucracy.

Diplomacy’s Public Dimension: Books, Articles, Websites #100

March 5, 2020

Intended for teachers of public diplomacy and related courses, here is an update on resources that may be of general interest. Suggestions for future updates are welcome. 

Bruce Gregory
Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication
George Washington University
BGregory@gwu.edu
http://ipdgc.gwu.edu/bruce-gregorys-resources-diplomacys-public-dimension

Continue reading “Diplomacy’s Public Dimension: Books, Articles, Websites #100

Ben Bradlee and Public Diplomacy’s ‘Missing Years’

Cover page for a USIS daily news bulletin from September 1945, eight years before USIA was established.

This article was originally published on January 5, 2015. It has been revised and republished to spark new conversations.


There was a time before the United States Information Agency when the State Department held the entire portfolio of what we now call public diplomacy, and then some. A fact often that is forgotten or ignored. There was also a United States Information Service that existed for nearly two decades before USIA was created by the Eisenhower Administration in 1953, as the lesser of a two-part reorganization of government to improve the nation’s management of foreign policy. This is also forgotten, ignored, or, most likely, unknown. The misrepresentation of history not only misstates the trajectory of the government’s struggle with organizing public diplomacy, but it is also a disservice to those who worked hard to establish peacetime public diplomacy programs and those who carried out these programs before USIA. An example of this was seen in 2014 with the unfortunate passing of Mr. Ben Bradlee.

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