House Appropriations Concerned Pentagon's Role in Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy (updated)

American public diplomacy wears combat boots. That was the first sentence of my chapter in the Handbook of Public Diplomacy published last year. I argued that public diplomacy and its related strategic communication had gone too soft and that the Defense Department necessarily, if unwilling and sometimes clumsily, stepped in to fill a gap left by an absent State Department. Today, the situation is different with Defense running increasingly sophisticated efforts, often with the collaboration and support of State and other entities within the Government. And of course, the Smith-Mundt Act has an effect here on public diplomacy and strategic communication.

Today, Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post about the House Appropriations Committee's decision to withhold funding from the Defense Department. (Scroll to the bottom of this post for more on Pincus' last two paragraphs which reference Smith-Mundt.)

Lawmakers are voicing concerns about the Pentagon's strategic communications programs, through which the military aims to win over civilians and erode support for adversaries in countries around the world.

According to the the report by the House Appropriations Committee (HTML version is here),

The Committee has serious concerns about not only the significant amount of funding being spent on [information operations] programs, but more importantly, about the Department's assumption of this mission area within its roles and responsibilities.

Pincus suggests that the activities, described as  "non-military propaganda, public relations, and behavioral modification messaging" in the report, were

until recent years had been the sole province of the State Department's public diplomacy effort. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in the military getting money more easily than the diplomatic corps, and the dominance of military personnel in those countries has led to an increasing military role in information operations.

This argument, verging on willful disinformation, will get a lot of traction. I'm not sure where Pincus has been, but until the recent year (ie. this year), the leadership at the State Department was out to lunch. From the Secretary of State to the Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy (James K. Glassman excepted), very little effort was made in the areas of a) funding the diplomatic corps, b) enhancing and expanding public diplomacy, and c) embracing the modern information environment. (Related: U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy: no one in PD conducts PD overseas.)

It is worthwhile to recall that it was the Secretaries of Defense (both Donald Rumsfeld and Gates) and not the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that frequently and seemingly continuously fielded questions about the need of resurrecting the United States Information Agency. It was Rice who raided the public diplomacy budget to help fund the Embassy in Baghdad. Under her watch the State Department put in place rules of engagement for their contracted diplomatic security that led to one of the most infamous private military contractor engagements in Iraq.

It was Richard Holbrooke that wrote an op-ed titled "Get the Message Out" on October 28, 2001, that first put out the words that the Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and others continue to paraphrase today: "How can a man in a cave out communicate the world's leading communications society?" (This same op-ed opens with a phrase Pincus quotes Holbrooke as recently repeating: "Call it public diplomacy, or public affairs, or psychological warfare, or -- if you really want to be blunt -- propaganda.")

Congress has been understandably reticent to increase funding for Public Diplomacy over the last decade. Understandably, Judith McHale's predecessor did not start asking for money until he put in at least some minor improvements. It is also noteworthy that some of his predecessors never asked for more money, including the one Under Secretary who declared in her confirmation hearing that would not. How many ("too many" in the words of Karen Hughes) reports suggested changes that nobody acted on? New reports had to find their own special "hook" lest they become like the "too many", in the words of Karen Hughes, that were as neglected as any new report.

But Pincus' reporting echoes Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) who stated last week: "It's propaganda. Why, the military's got nothing to do with this. That should be in the State Department, in my estimation." Many would agree, including many within the Defense Department and the military educational system that has spent the time (and had the money to do so) examining the issues and requirements related to public diplomacy, strategic communication, global engagement or whatever your field of practice chooses to call it. It was not that long ago, certainly within Pincus' "recent years", that a Defense Department official yelled at me when I suggested in a question to him at a conference that the Pentagon did public diplomacy.

The House Appropriations Committee Report expressed several concerns, including:

  • "The Committee also notes that the official budget justification materials for requested funding of this magnitude are woefully inadequate."
  • "The Committee believes that the Department of Defense, and the Combatant Commands which drive the demand for information operations, need to reevaluate IO requirements in the context of the roles and missions of the United States Military along with consideration for the inherent capabilities of the military and the funding available to meet these requirements."

Some of this is justified and at the same time at odds with the House Armed Services Committee who recently expressed its own concerns with the effectiveness of Defense information programs (HTML version here):

Elsewhere in [the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010], the committee expresses concerns about the inability of the Department of Defense and its partners to effectively counter the propaganda of violent extremist groups abroad. The committee believes that to prevail in an information-centric fight, the Department of Defense and its partners must develop and employ innovative strategies that dominate the information spectrum both in terms of the network and the message.

and

The committee is concerned with the clarity and agility of existing policies through which the Department of Defense and its partners execute internet-based strategic communications. The committee believes that online strategic communications are essential tools for the Department to effectively counter the propaganda of violent extremist groups abroad. Many of these groups operate exclusively in this arena and execute online media operations that greatly outnumber, outpace, and outperform United States government initiatives. In many cases, our inability to develop and execute such operations in near real-time ultimately cedes the initiative to our adversaries. Such a phenomenon not only renders subsequent factual messages useless, it endangers our troops abroad by mischaracterizing the positive impact and stability they have cultivated with regional inhabitants.

Many of the activities currently within Defense should arguably be run from the State Department (including some listed in this report assembled for Congress which also notes the absence of leadership in the area of strategic communication). Some where run very closely with the State Department through the now abolished Defense Support to Public Diplomacy (largely the doing of certain people within Public Affairs - why is it that the many problems people have with influence activities from DoD are actually Public Affairs activities - like the retired military analyst program - or surface because Public Affairs is attacking the activity?). But as Rosa Brooks (see below) seeks to resurrect a DSPD-like entity, the Appropriations Committee is taking one of two positions: information engagement is pointless or that State should own it yesterday. The latter is apparently the view of Appropriations if we accept the weight of Murtha's comments last week.

However, the latter argument - that State should own these activities yesterday - is as much a disingenuous act of disinformation as Pincus' "recent years." It was only this year, with the new President and new Secretary of State did the House demonstrate confidence in the State Department by moving to increase the Foreign Service by in State by 750 over each of the next two years and in USAID by 350 for each of the next two years.

The House Armed Services Committee is already responding to many of the issues raised by the House Appropriations Committee:

The committee encourages the development of strategic communications capability within the Department of Defense as a soft-power complement to traditional hard-power tools. The committee has explored policy, management, and organizational impediments to wider adoption of strategic communications capability, but is becoming increasingly concerned that human capital planning in this area is insufficient compared to the needs. The committee notes that the Department has a large and diverse pool of people with talents, experience, and skills that can contribute to strategic communications from which to draw. The committee is concerned that, since the disestablishment of the office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Support to Public Diplomacy, the Department lacks an effective management structure for providing the necessary leadership to guide the growth of needed capabilities in this area.

Therefore, the committee directs the Secretary of Defense to submit a report on the assessment of the Department's strategic communications workforce to the congressional defense committees within 120 days after the date of enactment of this Act.

and

The committee is aware that the Department of Defense carries out a number of engagement activities with foreign partners that might be construed as military public diplomacy. While the Department of State is responsible for public diplomacy for the United States, many of the activities the Department of Defense uses to promote better understanding and build capacity with foreign partners have a similar effect. For example, the Department of Defense helped to fund the Iraqi Virtual Science Library, which provides free, full-text access to thousands of scientific journals from major publishers as well as a large collection of online educational materials. There are also a number of activities to promote exchanges between scientific institutions as well as military personnel exchanges with professional military educational establishments. These activities represent an analogy to the kinds of Fulbright scholarships, American Corners, and book translation programs offered by the Department of State's public diplomacy program. Other activities, such as the deployment of hospital ships, or the use of military medical personnel to carry out medical, dental, and veterinary operations, have no analogue elsewhere within the government.

However, it is not clear to the committee that there is a good accounting for all of these activities within the Department of Defense. Furthermore, the committee is concerned that the disestablishment of the office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Support to Public Diplomacy has left the Department of Defense without the necessary management structure to coordinate and guide effectively the myriad activities that comprise military public diplomacy. In order to craft an effective engagement strategy, the Department of Defense should understand all of the instruments at its disposal. The committee directs the Secretary of Defense to submit a report on the planning for, and execution of, military public diplomacy to the congressional defense committees within 120 days after the date of enactment of this Act.

The House Armed Services Committee thus requires two major reports that potentially mitigate many of the House Appropriations Committee's concerns. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy is already moving in this direction - both our of need and direction by the House - with the efforts to be led by Rosa Brooks.

The Senate Armed Service Committee (SASC) is also concerned with the "funding for counter support for terrorism and counter-radicalization strategic communication programs and other public diplomacy programs" and wants clearer answers as it looks forward. From the SASC report on the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2010 (111-35, 2.56mb PDF):

The committee is aware of initiatives undertaken and funded by the joint improvised explosive device defeat organization and geographical combatant commands for strategic communications programs directed at counter-support for terrorism and counter-radicalization. Many ongoing programs are in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but military information support teams (MISTs) from United States Special Operations Command are also deploying to United States embassies in countries of particular interest around the globe to bolster the efforts of the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development. These efforts are in addition to many of other small public diplomacy programs. Strategic communications and public diplomacy programs are important activities and the committee supports them, but the committee is not able to determine whether these efforts are integrated within DOD or with the broader U.S. Government, nor is the committee able to oversee adequately the funding for the multitude of programs.

While Congress awaits delivery of the report on strategic communication and public diplomacy activities of the Federal Government required under section 1055 of the Duncan Hunter National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2009 (Public Law 110-417), the committee directs the Under Secretary of Defense--Policy and Under Secretary of Defense--Comptroller to develop budget documentation materials for fiscal year 2011 that clearly articulate and document DOD's objectives and funding levels for strategic communications and public diplomacy.

The core issue seems to be that House Appropriations wanted better reporting and was frustrated at what it received. This frustration with the Pentagon in failing to adequately explain its needs and measures of effectiveness is loud and clear:

The Committee also notes that the official budget justification materials for requested funding of this magnitude are woefully inadequate. In addition, the Department's response to attempts by the Committee to obtain a meaningful explanation of funding for these programs clearly indicates that Departmental oversight of these efforts is disorganized, and that a thorough understanding of their scope within the Department's leadership is incomplete.

It also requires a thorough examination of activities over the last five years as it seeks the Holy Grail to prove the effectiveness of public diplomacy and strategic communication:

Of the remaining funds provided for information operations, the Committee directs that no funds shall be obligated or expended until 30 days after the Secretary of Defense submits a report to the Committees on Appropriations of the House of Representatives and the Senate on the Department's IO programs. This report should encompass the period from fiscal years 2005 through 2010 and include all Department of Defense information operation programs for which base budget, supplemental, or overseas contingency operation funds have been appropriated or requested. The report shall include: program strategies, target audiences, goals, and measures of effectiveness; budget exhibits at the appropriations account and sub-activity level; spend plans (including positions and other direct costs); and production and dissemination mechanisms and locations. The report shall also include an annex for the inclusion of necessary explanatory and supporting classified information. The Secretary shall submit this report in writing not later than 180 days after enactment of this Act.

Certainly justification for existing programs is warranted as gathering lessons learned from past programs. But the Draconian approach is problematic. If not Defense then who will fill in the gap left when Defense leaves? It won't be State, at least not yet.

The Senate Appropriations Committee report for State Department funding (the Senate will only now begin to review Defense appropriations as they wait until the House is done) does not make up for the shortfall the House is threatening in the global struggle for minds and wills (see HTML version of the report here). The public diplomacy funding, In fact, the Senate (who likely had little if any coordination with the House Appropriations Committee in this area), recommends slashing the funding for the Civilian Stabilization Initiative (see Rice and Gates seeking funding from the House Armed Services Committee here and a description of S/CRS here). (Note the Senate Appropriations report slashes funding for Cuba broadcasting in lieu of methods like DVD, SMS, etc and that the Broadcasting Board of Governors submit a plan within 60 days to submit a report "detailing the national strategic communication goals supported by BBG's strategic plan and activities, and which goals, if any, BBG considers inconsistent with its mandate, to include an explanation for such inconsistency.")

The essential question here is the same one we've asked since 9/11: if not Defense then who? Only now with President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, Under Secretary McHale, Special Advisor Alec Ross, and a host of others is State getting into position to handle the roles and responsibilities required to simply participate let alone win the current and future struggle for minds and wills. But State isn't ready, not the least of which because McHale is still getting the public diplomacy house in order and while Defense has had eight years to transform into a learning organization (as John Nagl, now of CNAS, argues), the State Department hasn't even begun to really adapt to modern requirements, including but certainly far from limited to, breaking its emphasis on countries (many would argue they haven't adapted to the needs of the 20th century let alone the requirements of the 21st).

I opened this post with the first sentence of my chapter and I'll close with the last sentence of that chapter: "Unless we get our information house in order, the United States will remain virtually unarmed in the battles that shape our future." The House Appropriations action threatens to - at least temporarily - leave us unarmed.

Addendum: 

The HASC report also notes the detrimental effect of the present perception and intent of the Smith-Mundt Act (Suggested reading: Smith-Mundt: Myths, Facts, Recommendations):

The committee perceives an overly cautious approach in the Department of Defense and its partners' military messaging operations partially as a result of misinterpretation of the United States Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948 (Public Law 80-402). The committee's understanding is that Public Law 80-402 was created to apply exclusively to the Department of State. The committee's concern is that over the past sixty years, applicability of this law has affected the development of Department of Defense policy. The committee is aware of legal interpretations from the Department of Defense that reflect this commonly accepted view.

The committee does not believe that Public Law 80-402 should constrain the Department of Defense and its partners' strategic communication and messaging efforts abroad and encourages the Department to conduct a legal review of the applicability of Public Law 80-402 and its intersection with Department of Defense policy guiding online media operations. The committee believes this effort is essential in clarifying any confusion or misinterpretation that may inhibit more aggressive strategic communications against our adversaries abroad, and ensure all elements of national power are utilized in executing this essential mission.