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. 

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.

Continue reading “Into the gray zone

Organizing for information: leadership is the cornerstone and not a by-product of structure

This post originally appeared on my substack 17 hours ago, do consider subscribing (it’s free, like this site) if you haven’t already.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend reached out to see if I was interested in co-authoring an article. Dr. Chris Paul, a defense policy researcher at RAND Corporation, had attended a Defense Department-focused conference “intended to inform and coalesce departmental efforts supporting Information Advantage and Cognitive Security” where he heard declarations that our problems with international information operations would be fixed if only the US Information Agency was resurrected. From someone else who was there, I heard at least one such pronouncement received a big applause. 

I’ve known Chris for more than a decade. We have been in the same “information operations” circles for a very long time, and we have worked together before – including when I was supposed to be a co-author on his 2009 report “Whither Strategic Communication,” but after the initial research was done, I had to switch gears. He reached out to see if we could collab again, and I was quick to say yes. 

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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.)

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

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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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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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 #103

October 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

Continue reading “Diplomacy’s Public Dimension: Books, Articles, Websites #103

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.

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

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

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

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

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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Diplomacy’s Public Dimension: Books, Articles, Websites #94

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 #94

Diplomacy’s Public Dimension: Books, Articles, Websites #93

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
https://smpa.gwu.edu/bruce-gregory
http://ipdgc.gwu.edu/bruce-gregorys-resources-diplomacys-public-dimension

Continue reading “Diplomacy’s Public Dimension: Books, Articles, Websites #93

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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When do we start the honest debate over the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act?

Sardonic? Ironic? Satire? Which word best fits the the lack of serious debate over the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act and the realities for which public diplomacy and international broadcasting are required and operate? See my post at the Public Diplomacy Council about this. 

What is it about U.S. public diplomacy that we must hide it from Americans? Is it so abhorrent that it would embarrass the taxpayer, upset the Congress (which has surprisingly little additional insight on the details of public diplomacy), or upend our democracy? Of our international broadcasting, such as the Voice of America, do we fear the content to be so persuasive and compelling that we dare not permit the American media, academia, nor the Congress, let alone the mere layperson, to have the right over oversight to hold accountable their government? [Read the rest here]

Also, see Josh Rogin’s Much ado about State Department ‘propaganda’.

Neuroscience and Social Conflict: Identifying New Approaches for the 21st Century

What if you put neuroscientists, social scientists, conflict resolution experts, and diplomats together in a room? Is there something to the “human dimension” of conflict that the science of the brain can inform the art of conflict resolution and mitigation? The Project on Justice in Times of Transition, in partnership with the SaxeLab at MIT, launched the initiative “Neuroscience and Social Conflict: Identifying New Approaches for the 21st Century” to find out.
The first meeting was February 9-11, 2012, at MIT in Boston. PJTT and SaxeLab brought together a high-level group of experienced leaders from the Middle East, South Africa, Northern Ireland, and Central America with conflict conflict resolution experts, social psychologists, and leading neuroscientists to survey the latest findings in neuroscience and brain research to brainstorm and exchange ideas for addressing conflict.

I attended the February meeting and it was an eye-opening few days that started early and continued over dinner into the night. The presentations were honest, devoid of grandiose assertions of magic bullets, and each were followed by collegial discussions fueled by fresh questions and ideas.

Rebecca Saxe, the Director of SaxeLab, highlighted some of the general assumptions most scientists looking at conflict and conflict resolution share:

  • People respond to conflict as human beings and there is some generalized experience that can be captured
  • Behaviors can reflect emotions, associations, norms, and narratives that are not accessible through cognition or introspection
  • People resist changing their minds and simple persuasion is almost never sufficient to make them change

The science presentations shared research on how particular parts of the brain were involved with specific behavior and emotions, such as fear. Discussions included the role of humiliation in perpetuating war, motivations for “prosocial” and empathetic behavior, group norms, among others.

The acknowledged drawback of some of the existing scientific research is the “normal” person for much of the brain imaging is an MIT student, which all acknowledged is not a true representation. The scientists were eager for advice on how to modify their experiments to test on relevant questions, topics, and people.

The first meeting left all of the participants more interested than when the meeting started. Follow up ideas include:

  • Convening a second meeting to inventory key areas of research relevant to conflict resolution
  • Studying specific conflict resolution approaches to test assumptions underlying various established methodologies
  • Exposing leading neuroscientists to active conflict resolution and negotiation situations
  • Generate opportunities for concrete research on perpetrators of violence who have been de-radicalized [see Google Ideas’ “Formers” project]
  • Evaluating the impact of social media-based public diplomacy efforts
  • Create a multi-disciplinary study and research program that investigates core questions related to conflict resolution

This effort continues with a working group, which I am a part of, to help guide the initiative forward. The working group includes:

  • Matt Armstrong, former Executive Director, U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy
  • Eileen Babbitt, Fletcher School of Law and Public Diplomacy, Tufts University
  • Dan Batson, Professor of Social Psychology, Kansas University
  • Kim Brizzolara, feature film and documentary producer
  • Emile Bruneau, Researcher, SaxeLab, MIT
  • Betsy Levy Paluck, Professor of Psychology, Princeton University
  • Mohammed Milad, Massachusetts General Hospital, Department of Psychiatry
  • Tim Phillips, Co-founder, Project on Justice in Times of Transition
  • Lee Ross, Professor of Psychology, Stanford University
  • Rebecca Saxe, Professor Cognitive Neuroscience; Director, SaxeLab, MIT
  • Gary Slutkin, Executive Director, CeaseFire
  • Jessica Stern, former member of President Clinton’s National Security Council staff

There is more to come on this subject.

Your thoughts?