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

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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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Diplomacy’s Public Dimension: Books, Articles, Websites #99

January 6, 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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Government (Re)Organization to confront Disinformation and Misinformation

Bottom line upfront: A multi-dimensional “whole-of-government” approach requires a will to act from the president. It does not require a proper strategy, just a will, which is substantially more than a whim. Structure and method will follow and provide, as long as the will is there to push, a backstop to hold efforts accountable and on track. Without the president’s commitment whatever happens will be tactical and reactionary. This is demonstrably true in the area of foreign information operations.

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The Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs: an updated incumbency chart and some background

A newer version of this topic, published 3 December 2020, may be found here.

The Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs was created in 1999 to lead the State Department’s existing public affairs operations and the reintegration of most of the global public affairs activities previously based in the department. These global activities had been removed in 1953 and rebranded in the late 1960s as “public diplomacy.” (Edmund Gullion is often credited with this rebranding, but proper attribution should go to Rep. Dante Fascell (D-FL), but that’s for another post.)

Since the office was established and the first Under Secretary was sworn-in on October 1, 1999, the office has been vacant 36% of the time. To be more precise, the office has been “unencumbered” with a confirmed Under Secretary for 35.8% of the days since October 1, 1999, with an average gap between appointments of 289 days (over 9.5 months). In December 2011, the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy released a report about this vacancy issue (at the time, I served as the Executive Director of the commission) and the next month I published a less restrained commentary on the topic, R we there yet? A look at the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy (and Public Affairs). Above is an updated chart showing the tenure and vacancies of the office as of August 26, 2019.

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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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