A lecture on the history, challenges, politics of US information warfare
A short write-up on my conversations in Munich this week
I had the privilege of speaking at Amerikahaus in Munich this week on the topic of “The politics of US information warfare.” The trip was made possible by the Yale Club of Germany and its Munich Dialogues on Democracy program in association with Amerikahaus. At a personal level, thank you to Bartley Grosserichter of the Yale Club of Germany, who leads the Munich Dialogues on Democracy program, and to Dominick Raabe of Amerikahaus. Also, thanks toas it was my appearance in her lecture series that led to Bartley reaching out.
The video below is of the lecture Wednesday, which was about 30 minutes of me providing some overview discussion points that I hoped would help spark an engaging question-and-answer period. I’ve long held to the principle that a conversation on “public diplomacy” should be that, a conversation rather than one-way transmission of what I think the audience must know.1 It should be noted that a discussion on the severe limitations imposed on US public diplomacy through neglect, poor leadership, and absent support taking place at Amerikahaus, a facility once supported by the US Information Agency, was not lost on me – and certainly not by the organizers – even if I didn’t mention it in my lecture.
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This evening lecture followed a fun – for me at least – series of sessions starting at about 9:30 with the entire 11th-grade class of the Munich International School. Broken into three groups, I used the recent Robert Gates op-ed as an essay to interrogate and analyze in an interactive, conversational way. The conversations also went where the students wanted to go, so the topics were not restricted to the op-ed or its subject. I am told they liked it and learned something, so that’s nice.
It was convenient that an email exchange the evening before the lecture provided yet another sad reminder of our self-handicapping in not just “information warfare” but simply communicating. The emailer noted that in his position working with a senior official in the early parts of the occupation of Iraq, the idea was floated to take out a full-page ad in Al Jazeera listing all the initiatives the US had taken and accomplished to make life better for the Iraqis. To quote my source: “The Coalition Provisional Authority populated with State Department folks, shot the idea down, I was told, because it was too much like propaganda.” While you may wince at this, I really winced at the incredible irony. The idea it was “too much like propaganda” very likely goes back to Sen. Fulbright’s full-throated attacks on the US Information Agency, Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Liberty in the 1960s through 1972 when he amended the Smith-Mundt Act as part of these attacks. So-called “loopholes” in Fulbright’s 1972 amendment were “closed” by Sen. Zorinsky in 1985, which solidified the idea that much of our communication abroad is “propaganda.” The idea this stuff was unfit for a domestic audience was reinforced by a federal court ruling that because of Zorinsky’s amendment, USIA was exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests, a decision that was itself ironic since Congress, at about the same time and in an action that wholly unrelated, watered down the Foreign Agent Registration Act to remove the “propaganda” and source label from foreign government information products entering the US. Yes, you read that right.
But, that was not the irony that caused my wincing. That is too obvious. When the European Recovery Program, aka the Marshall Plan, was announced, Russia freaked out (my academic term) and reorganized its disinformation operations to crank up the volume, tenor, and breadth of the same. The Mundt bill was still pending. It had passed the House overwhelmingly but was lingering in the Senate as Senators were discussing how to make it perfect from the get-go. Ultimately, the Senate realized it needed something now and passed the bill, later amending it through the ERP legislation. The pressure to get the Senators off their butts was the US aid and development program, among other efforts, required the information program to make the factual details of the ERP known and understood, including countering disinformation and correcting misinformation. In other words, a core reason we have the Smith-Mundt legislation authorizing much of the US government’s ability to engage abroad is to take out the full-page ad that was suggested. In this specific case, however, the action was clearly not within the Smith-Mundt Act’s domain but the larger principles were at work, especially since most if not all of the participants rejecting the ad likely believed (wrongly) the Smith-Mundt Act applied to the CPA or Defense Department.
Dinner the night before the day of speaking was at Osteria Italiana, a good Italian restaurant established in 1890. Apparently, the German leader in the 1930s through 1945 loved this restaurant, and a British socialite, Unity Mitford, stalked him at the restaurant with the intent of becoming his mistress, which she allegedly did.
Some of the history around the corner from Amerikahaus includes this plaque to remember the book burning of May 1933.
The opportunity in Munich led me to give a coin from a batch I personally paid for back in 2016 without the knowledge of my colleagues or the agency. I had these made since I was trying to promote the agency, pushing it to further engage other agencies and departments and Congress, and to build esprit de corps. At the time, however, unbeknownst to me and most of my fellow Broadcasting Board of Governors board members, the then-CEO was conspiring to eliminate the board to make the CEO position a politicized appointment. I gave a bunch to my fellow governors2 during what ended up being our last official board meeting. The bulk of the minimum order remains with me, but I have one fewer now.
Yes, they are serialized.3 I gave out low numbers to my fellow governors, to people in the agency, and to others. Most were handed (in the proper way), but some were delivered by mail.4 Along the edge is the text, “Exporting the First Amendment since 1945”. This was both a message supporting the journalistic principles of the agency and my own stake in the ground that the VOA we know, the oldest of the broadcast operations, transitioned to a journalist operation when it was transferred to the State Department in the fall of 1945. The 1942-1945 function of the radio operation was very much not a journalist operation as it was highly scripted and filtered, despite the assertion “The news may be good or bad for us – We will always tell you the truth.”
There was one critical thing I had intended – for weeks – to say in this lecture that I completely forgot to say until it was over. I meant to open with “Grüezi mitenand!” (greetings to everyone in Swiss-German) as a hommage to my land of residence. Alas, I forgot. I am sure the Swiss foreign service officer in attendance would have gotten a kick out of it as well.
Most of whom had no idea what they were or why they might hold some value in some quarters. I have no idea what they did with their coins, whether they kept them or handed them out, but I suspect most were tossed.
My coin is number 1, of course. I don’t remember how many I had to order to hit the minimum, but I remember it was more than I wanted. Nor do I know – or perhaps want to know – how many I still have.
At least one intended recipient didn’t get theirs as the mailing address I had for them was incorrect. Maybe that was you?