The New (contracted) USIA

On the heels of my posting in Information Operations (IO) by the Defense Department that sound, taste, and smell suspiciously like Public Diplomacy, comes news of a $20 million contract by the military command in Baghdad to monitor news and provide “public relations products”. This is troubling on many levels.

Let’s start with PHK’s post on WhirldedView questioning whether the Defense Department, known for “private contractors like the Lincoln Group, SAIC, Rendon and SY Coleman Inc. to produce and disseminate fake “good” news reports for placement in the Iraqi media”, is the appropriate agent of American public diplomacy. Regardless of whether you think DOD should be the lead, it is and that’s the plain fact. The $20m contract is reinforcing the lack of support that any semblance of a USIA-like entity can provide from within the government directly or in a managerial capacity to provide oversight of the contract. Instead, DOD must do it.

Consider who is doing the contracting. Origination of the contract from the “military commanders in Baghdad” is akin to the an Embassy contracting out and symbolic of the power of the Combatant Commands, in this CENTCOM. No big deal by itself but its emblematic of the leadership role of Defense over State in the region.

Now comes the biggest point: more privatization of American public diplomacy. It is one thing to recruit American business to participate in, or even design, public diplomacy programs, but we’re talking about very Rendon-like skills here. Check that, this is outsourcing a capability State used to provide publically through its Foreign Media Reaction website. The FMR, by the way, used Embassy personnel actively monitoring local news and was pulled off the public website after GQ Magazine cited State's own FMR product skewering Karen Hughes after her failed Listening Tour. FMR sorta lives on in the form of Rapid Response & other material from State’s Media Reaction Division, but nothing public and not like the FMR that systematically and more proactively monitored foreign language media. More importantly, nothing on the same scale.

The new diplomatic corps in Defense consists of soldiers, airmen, and sailors that are, in the Iraqi theater at least, going to be backed by their own version of the USIA.

U.S. military leaders in Baghdad have put out for bid a two-year, $20 million public relations contract that calls for extensive monitoring of U.S. and Middle Eastern media in an effort to promote more positive coverage of news from Iraq.

The contract calls for assembling a database of selected news stories and assessing their tone as part of a program to provide "public relations products" that would improve coverage of the military command's performance, according to a statement of work attached to the proposal.

Is this really where we should be going? State functions increasingly being (re)developed in Defense, and through outsourcing?