New Caucus To Probe Strategic Communication, Public Diplomacy

Inside the Pentagon reports on the new caucus on the Hill that shows the level of heightening interest in improving America’s global engagement. In “New Caucus To Probe Strategic Communication, Public Diplomacy”, dated 11 March 2010, reporter Fawzia Sheikh writes:

A new Capitol Hill caucus focused on strategic communication and public diplomacy officially launched last week and plans to study the latest government efforts in these domains during its inaugural meeting later this month, according to a congressional source.

A new Pentagon report on strategic communication, a State Department plan on public diplomacy and a National Security Council framework outlining how agencies will collaborate in these areas will be among the discussion topics, the congressional source said on the condition of anonymity. (See related story.)

Reps. Adam Smith (D-WA) and Mac Thornberry (R-TX) are heading the caucus, which is still being rounded out, the source told Inside the Pentagon. Organizers have collected the names of three other Republicans and three additional Democrats interested in joining, said the source. There has also been “a lot of interest at the staff level,” including the House Foreign Affairs Committee, defense authorizers and “other elements of the congressional staff,” the source said.

“Given the interest in this issue,” added Michael Amato, Smith’s spokesman, “we expect a significant number of members to join the caucus.”

The rest of the article follows.

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What does Microsoft and State’s Bureau of International Information Programs have in common?

In today’s The New York Times, Dick Brass, a former Microsoft Vice President (1997-2004), describes a corporate paralysis that stifles the release of relevant and innovative products in his op-ed, Microsoft’s Creative Destruction.

As they marvel at Apple’s new iPad tablet computer, the technorati seem to be focusing on where this leaves Amazon’s popular e-book business. But the much more important question is why Microsoft, America’s most famous and prosperous technology company, no longer brings us the future, whether it’s tablet computers like the iPad, e-books like Amazon’s Kindle, smartphones like the BlackBerry and iPhone, search engines like Google, digital music systems like iPod and iTunes or popular Web services like Facebook and Twitter. …

Microsoft’s huge profits — $6.7 billion for the past quarter — come almost entirely from Windows and Office programs first developed decades ago. Like G.M. with its trucks and S.U.V.’s, Microsoft can’t count on these venerable products to sustain it forever. Perhaps worst of all, Microsoft is no longer considered the cool or cutting-edge place to work. There has been a steady exit of its best and brightest.

What happened? Unlike other companies, Microsoft never developed a true system for innovation. Some of my former colleagues argue that it actually developed a system to thwart innovation. Despite having one of the largest and best corporate laboratories in the world, and the luxury of not one but three chief technology officers, the company routinely manages to frustrate the efforts of its visionary thinkers. …

What does Microsoft’s “Creative Destruction” have in common with the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP)? According to Pat Kushlis of the public diplomacy blog Whirled View, too much. Pat drew my attention to the Dick Brass op-ed and had these comments, published here with permission:

Read the last paragraphs in particular and just substitute the initials IIP because that’s precisely what happened to a forward thinking bureau when State took over.

If the [International Broadcasting Bureau, the administrative and marketing arm of the Broadcasting Board of Governors,] were functional, I think I would argue that IIP should be transferred out of State and put into a functional international broadcasting entity (like VOA) since the line between electronic media has changed so dramatically.  Unfortunately the IBB is dysfunctional too.

Is this a viable, even preferred, alternative to reconstituting the United States Information Agency?

Absent Leadership in Public Diplomacy

From the President to the Secretaries of State and Defense, we have frequently heard how public diplomacy is key to America’s national security. While Congress debates the encroachment of the military into areas traditionally occupied, lead, and resourced by civilian agencies, there remains too much darkness when it comes to understanding the dysfunction in the structures of America’s public diplomacy, let alone at the State Department as a whole. Whether it is absent leadership at USAID, empty Undersecretary and Assistant Secretary positions across State, including the Assistant Secretary positions at International Information Programs.

Such absence of leadership leads to meandering efforts and poor use of resources. This is a core issue behind the Congressional examination into Defense strategic communication activities – a warranted development considering the lack of leadership, as noted in this report from earlier this year.

The absence of leadership – even if the seat is being warmed – can lead to other agencies taking a piece of your pie. In the case of State, the void left by inaction and poor action by State in global engagement led to the often clumsy buildup by Defense. Today, USAID may suffer: the US Department of Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, has asked the Secretaries of State and Defense to reallocate $170 million from DOD, DOS, and USAID to USDA for work in Afghanistan. In IIP’s America.gov (a site I used to tout) there’s a clear shift from informing and engaging through news to engaging through social media for the sake of engagement (apparently under the what-I-thought-was the outdated rubric of “to know me is to love me”). It’s perhaps a bit ironic that the same failure of leadership led to the disestablishment (abolishment to be blunt) of USIA ten years ago.

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Al Shabab, Minneapolis in the news again

US Special Forces killed Salah Ali Nabhan, the man Somali-Americans who traveled to fight for the Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist organization identified as one of their trainers. The coverage of this ‘made for the movies’ attack should draw attention to the not-neutral territory of Minneapolis where Al Shabab has shown significant success in recruiting.

This is as a good a time as any to reread my Censoring VOA article at ForeignPolicy.com:

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. …

Read the rest here.

Interagency failure: DHS detains VOA reporter for 10 days

Last month, the Department of Homeland Security detained a Voice of America reporter for 10 days. The man, Rahman Bunairee, had the proper visa and documentation to show he was coming to the US for a year – the primary reason of which was to escape Taliban threats. But the DHS completely disregarded both the paperwork and the requests – including formal petitions – from the Broadcasting Board of Governors to release Bunairee.

Even after his release – helped by intervention from the State Department – DHS revoked his ability to work here, leaving a critical member of America’s information team to counter Taliban and Al Qaeda information on the sidelines. Worse, the BBG nor any other part of the Government can help him financially because of DHS’s decision.

The situation has not changed after a month. Imagine if DHS made what amounts to a unilateral decision on a member of our military – uniform or civilian? The is beyond a failure of interagency cooperation.

This beyond-boneheaded decision undermines not only our ability to engage in the struggle for minds and wills played out primarily in AM and FM in Afghanistan and Pakistan – the “market” Bunairee used to work and had to physically escape from – it also sends a message to other reporters currently and potentially working for America.

I recommend you read Jeffrey Hirschberg’s column in The Washington Post for more.

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 ForeignPolicy.com

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.

Monitoring What You Say

In 1948, 70-75% of Voice of America broadcasts were outsourced.  The National Broadcasting Corporation, now more commonly known as NBC, had complete control over the broadcasts it produced and sold to VOA.  For a radio series named “Know North America,” its purpose clearly established by its name, NBC hired a Cuban author and a Venezuelan supervisor to produce the series in Spanish for Latin America.
In one episode, a Latin American is shown around Cheyenne, Wyoming, and told the history of the state by a guide.

Tourist: “Do we still have Indians in Wyoming?”
Guide: “Yes…Our Indian maidens run in races dressed in nothing but feathers.”

In another episode on Texas, the Latin American asks, “Don’t you have a saying that Texas was born in sin but New England was born in hypocrisy?”

Needless to say, NBC and CBS, who had a similar arrangement with VOA, lost their contracts and VOA took full control over their products.

Fast forward to the present and to a post by Mike Waller at his Political Warfare blog about a music video titled “DemoKracy” by a Swedish-Iranian band.

From Mike:

The “reporter,” shown at right holding the microphone in the first part of the video, is the VOA employee, Melody Safavi, whose married name is Arbabi. This blogger has learned that VOA fired her after an Iranian former political prisoner filed a complaint to Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes, but her husband Saman Arbabi, who directed the video, reportedly is still on VOA staff. …

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which governs VOA, has long denied problems with its controversial Iran services. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has been raising concerns for a year about the broadcasts to the Islamic republic, but the BBG and State Department were dismissive. Last spring, this blogger also submitted a set of written questions to outgoing Under Secretary of State Hughes at the request of a senior aide, and received a written response that ignored or evaded the answers. It’s time for BBG and State to catch up with the new leadership at RFE/RL and tackle the larger problems of US broadcasting into Iran.

I think Mike gives too much credit to BBG being able to sort anything out (although with James Glassman’s pending appointment to be Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, it may not matter what the BBG could do). The BBG has a history of denying problems.  The same goes for Karen Hughes.

The real issue here is the trust the Congress has of the BBG and its operations. This same concern is what led to the establishment of what was then called the Advisory Committee on Radio Programming and is now known as the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.  How then to establish the trust and credibility of the BBG with the Congress?  This would include establishing the baseline on the purpose and allowances for the BBG’s operations.