The Brownback Bill: S.3546 to Establish the National Center for Strategic Communication

Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) this week introduced S.3546 titled “The Strategic Communications Act of 2008.” The Senator knows the bill will not be passed in this Congress and feels more discussion on the subject matter is required. His bill is, in part, intended to provoke that discourse.

The National Center for Strategic Communication is largely based on the National Counter Terrorism Center model. The bill recognizes that the current system is flawed and needs to be fixed. Driving this bill are concerns over the present-day quality of broadcasting, concerns over the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and a general failure of the public diplomacy apparatus to function effectively since 9/11. To the delight of many I know, this bill nukes the BBG.

The bill, as presented (but prior to receiving its number), is available here (Adobe Acrobat 6 or later is required). I (and others) are interested in your thoughts on the bill.

What follows are some of the concerns I have raised in off-the-record and constructive and relevant meetings (e.g. beyond the Brookings event). The problems are such that I do not support this bill in its present form.

It emphasizes the “us versus them” construct as it focuses on who we are and not the increasingly important struggle between foreign audiences. “Us versus them” is extremely important here at home but “them versus them” is more important beyond our shores.

It only focuses on a specific group, using a word, “Islamist”, that is indistinguishable to most of the globe from general Muslims. Equally, if not more important, this singular focus does not establish a comprehensive ability to participate in future informaticized wars, conflicts, and struggles. It is very likely the next “war” will be information-based without bullets or bombs, or with those “kinetics” in complete support to the information activities of the adversary, be it state or non-state. The focus in this bill does little to prepare the United States for a broader struggle.

The director has limited reach into other USG thinking, planning, and personnel. Personnel concurrence, agreements on the selection of personnel, is absent and budgetary oversight is limited to this new silo of excellence. A possible solution is a 1206-style budget model.

Public diplomacy is ripped out of the State Department, effectively making it only a Department of State when the central criticism is it must be acting as a Department of Non-State and engaging publics. Most “traditional” diplomacy is conducted in public to pressure and create awareness in foes, allies (ours and theirs), “swing voters”, and our own public. By removing public diplomacy, the proactive, engaging, narrative and context-based practices of public diplomacy are torn from the Department. What is left is public affairs that largely operates reactively, by press release sans context, and largely under the theory that one can and must inform without influence.

Public diplomacy and strategic communication elsewhere in USG remains untouched even as it is ripped from State. The advisory panel is inadequate. The military, ironically, operates completely opposite from the American public. Whereas John Q. Public looks at the law as a guidance of what cannot be done, the military constantly refers to the law (and strategy documents) to see what they can do. There must be a channel established to permit and even encourage, but not necessarily legislate (which is what they want to avoid), the military to use the NCSC.

The U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy was intentionally left untouched. This bill must push for revised criteria for USACPD membership. The original Commission’s were filled with professionals with experiences in media, persuasion, and communication. In fact, the original Commissions were “blue ribbon” panels presenting public reports to Congress that were critical critiques aimed at improving operations and effectiveness every six months.

The necessary professionalism in international engagement is not addressed. A motivator behind this bill was VOA Iran broadcasts and arguments that feature selection was based on objectivity. The bill must focus on professionalism. VOA staff, BBG staff, etc are by and large a very professional bunch. A major purpose of the Smith-Mundt Act was to make permit America’s international broadcasting to raise the level of professionalism because, while well-intentioned, the quality was at times poor and the messages possibly counter-productive.

A link to capacity-building is required. Foreign audiences often need to see and receive capacity-building to appreciate the “them versus them” discourse. They need development assistance, electricity, etc. To counterinsurgency experts, it comes as no surprise that Smith-Mundt, the information and counter-misinformation act, was passed largely in response to enemy activity against a major capacity and educational program, the Marshall Plan.

Private media support should be expanded as domestic media, especially, pulls back from international coverage. The Smith-Mundt Act legislated that private media be used whenever possible. The Informational Media Guarantee, a supplement to the Smith-Mundt Act put into the Marshall Plan, helped get U.S. media products, from newspapers to Disney films, overseas. This should be expanded.

The principles of the bill should be focused less on specifics, and on broader common ground. Some suggested language to be included is here.

While there are several parts of the bill that concern me, one pleases me. The Brownback bill removes the distortions to the Smith-Mundt Act in 1972 and 1985 by eliminating the prohibition against domestic dissemination. See specifically Sec 4(c)2 of the bill, or page 5, line 5: “by striking subsection (a)”. Subsection (a) of 22 USC 1461 reads:

(a) Dissemination of information abroad The Secretary is authorized, when he finds it appropriate, to provide for the preparation, and dissemination abroad, of information about the United States, its people, and its policies, through press, publications, radio, motion pictures, and other information media, and through information centers and instructors abroad.

Subject to subsection (b) of this section, any such information (other than “Problems of Communism” and the “English Teaching Forum” which may be sold by the Government Printing Office) shall not be disseminated within the United States, its territories, or possessions, but, on request, shall be available in the English language at the Department of State, at all reasonable times following its release as information abroad, for examination only by representatives of United States press associations, newspapers, magazines, radio systems, and stations, and by research students and scholars, and, on request, shall be made available for examination only to Members of Congress.

The bill does, however, offer a definition of “strategic communication” (note: most refer to the concept in the singular “communication” and not the form in this bill):

The term “strategic communications” means engaging foreign audiences through coordinated and truthful communications programs that create, preserve, or strengthen conditions favorable to the advancement of the national interests of the United States.

As for an external to State Department entity doing America’s public diplomacy, that’s for another post but suffice it to say that some outreach must remain within the functional departments while becoming increasingly cooperative and engaged in the interagency process. What is missing in everything to date is a functional rethinking of what public diplomacy and strategic communication really mean. Without understanding the needs and requirements, how can we build the systems?

Enough by me on this right now. What are your thoughts?