Last month the Defense Department's Inspector General issued the first of three reports, D-2009-091: Information Operations in Iraq (2.2mb PDF), on a series of contracts issued to support information activities in Iraq last year. Congress requested these reports after Karen DeYoung and Walter Pincus wrote about the awarding of up to $300 million in information operations contracts over three years to four private firms last year in "U.S. to Fund Pro-American Publicity in Iraqi Media".
Arguably the goal of the contracts to "engage and inspire" Iraqis to support the US and the Iraqi Government should have been led by the State Department's public diplomacy, a practice which used to include such goals as "bolstering moral and extending hope". But for a variety of reasons - ranging from incompatibilities with modern requirements and current sense of mission, leadership, and capabilities - the void left by inaction and the dismantling of America's arsenal of persuasion in terms of theory and practice, has been filled by the Defense Department. The DOD, who until recently rejected the term "public diplomacy" as something only the State Department did, developed the yet-to-be-well-defined rubric of strategic communication which reflects a subtle but significant difference between the State Department and the Defense Department.
The Inspector General's report focused on two areas. The first was the outsourcing of skills and responsibilities and whether there was proper contractual and operational oversight. The second was the apparent comingling of US and non-US communications efforts within contracts.
With regard to outsourcing, there is a reasonable concern that at least some of the operations being tasked to the private sector should be done by the government, whether Defense or State or elsewhere. Related to this are valid questions as to whether there is enough oversight in the execution of the contracts (a standard problem whenever contracting goes up and one experienced in the surge of private military companies and in normal operations as this 17 August 2009 article in The New York Times highlights), adhering to Congressional authorizations, "editorial approval" to ensure continuity and focus, and making sure money was spent wisely. For example, as a Senate staffer asked, why the US would pay for programming (ads in this example) on the Iraqi-government owned television network intended to benefit the Iraqi government (as well as the US) when, at the time, the Iraqi government was running a $79b surplus?
In addition to the oversight question, there is the question whether key functions and capabilities essential in the struggle for minds and wills, the information-based struggle of today, are being developed internally to the Government as required. This concern is reflected in a report by House Armed Services Committee tasking the Secretary of Defense to submit an assessment on the "strategic communications workforce" (p374 of HASC Report 111-166), specifically on the following:
(1) An assessment of the critical skills and core competencies needed for strategic communications;
(2) A comparison of the skills and competencies identified in (1) to the actual civilian and military workforce within the Department;
(3) Identification of critical gaps that are filled by contractors;
(4) An assessment of the adequacy of top-level guidance related both to the policy, organization, and management of strategic communications and recruiting for strategic communications disciplines;
(5) An assessment of the existing management structure for providing policy, guidance and leadership for human capital planning and workforce development in this area; and
(6) An assessment of the adequacy of interagency mechanisms for recruiting and detailing personnel.
On the point about separating geographic audiences (US and non-US), the Inspector General's report relied on distinctions between audiences based on the doctrine of public affairs and psychological operations in its analysis of the strategic communication contracts. This is troubling although not unexpected.
First, there is the issue of the doctrine itself. The report relies on three doctrinal manuals intended for joint operations (versus an operation only for a single service branch). However, the cited doctrine for PSYOP, IO, and Public Affairs were published in 2003, 2005, and 2006. While seemingly just a few years ago, there has been significant changes in the concept and practice of information activities, including the understanding of global engagement, which the concept of strategic communications captures. The US Army, for example, in 2008 updated both FM 3-0 "Operations", that includes a chapter on information activities, and FM 3-07 "Stability Operations", which emphasizes information activities including the development of local media. Not to mention the release of FM 3-24 "Counterinsurgency" in 2007 and the revision of FM 3-13 "Information Operations" this year.
The idea that strategic communication as a global practice frustrated the Inspector General as it does not appear in doctrine. It does not conform to the "traditionalist" view of information activities that fears "blowback" of information intended for foreign audiences that is, by definition, unfit for American consumption.
It is interesting that this report notes public diplomacy doctrine is for US and non-US audiences while the statutory analysis by Daniel Silverberg and COL Joe Heimann (367kb PDF) suggests non-US audiences may only be targeted by Psychological Operations
We live in a global information environment. While the concerns that spurred the report and are noted in the report over staffing and oversight are warranted, requiring separate contracts - and not taskings - could easily lead to greater friction and reduced agility in a dynamic information struggle.
- The Task Force 134 Strategic Communication Plan, a model plan
- New Defense Department Plan on Strategic Communication and Science and Technology
- Censoring the Voice of America at ForeignPolicy.com