Discussing "leadership" around "information warfare" with Asha Rangappa, plus other stuff

Including: if GEC becomes a bureau, what of R?


While most of my posts focus on a single topic, this one features multiple items.

Last month,

invited me to speak to her virtual class under the banner “Why Can't the U.S. Get Its Act Together When It Comes to Information Warfare?” We recorded the live event with her subscribers on 20 December 2022 but my holiday schedule with family coming to Switzerland for Christmas and other requirements (like my PhD) means I’m just now posting this.

The discussion was part of an end-of-the-year theme, at least for me. On 6 December 2022, I participated in a plenary panel discussion, “What is Strategic Influence?” to open a Joint Special Operations University event entitled “Future of SOF Forum: Strategic Influence and Communication Paradigms in a Compound Security Environment.”* On 14 December, I participated in an Information Professionals Association podcast with my co-author Chris Paul to discuss issues that brought about and surrounding our article, The Irony of Misinformation: USIA Myths Block Enduring Solutions, which I posted here last week.

Combined with the desperate and ill-informed calls to “bring back USIA,” it is good the broad community is seeking knowledge, it’s just unfortunate that it’s 2023, and we’re still trying to figure out why and how we should organize to do something. Well, while the best time to plant a tree is yesterday, the second best time is today. Then again, it looks like we’re planning for maybe tomorrow.

Back to the conversation with Asha. The basic outline of our discussion went like this:

Some discussion on terms, like comparing Information warfare to political warfare, describing political warfare and disinformation.

There was some discussion about the bureaucracy of foreign policy as it relates to this subject, followed by the idea of a strategy. Some people strive for a big-s strategy, like something that is clear and defined. I’d be happy with a vision and direction, which I call the little-s strategy. We don’t have either by the way. (At some point, I should post the big-s strategy I proposed for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, now the US Agency for Global Media, when I was on the board and why, though it had apparent broad support, it never moved.)

There was also some discussion about the lack of oversight and broad attention to these issues, an issue that needs more attention. Asha highlighted this in her description of the video, noting that I said, “we had it more together — at least in terms of congressional attention and public awareness” in the past. That past, by the way, that I referred to was the mid-1940s through the early 1960s.

Audience questions took us into domestic issues, which is not my focus. Regardless, I still opined. Political actors and disinformation entrepreneurs inside and outside the country have found these political warfare tactics to be politically expedient, effective, and financially rewarding.

Have a watch or listen and share your comments. I’d like to hear them, even if (especially if) it’s a critique or pushback on something I said.


The Congressional Research Service just released a two-pager called What is “Political Warfare”? Leaving aside what I feel is an obligatory recitation of Kennan, I appreciate this paragraph:

Popular terms used to describe this phenomenon in the current international security environment include strategic competition and gray zone competition or conflict. Yet political warfare, according to some scholars, is not mere rivalry or competition but is also a form of war: its objective, like that of every other form of war, is to impose one’s own will on the opponent in order to achieve strategic objectives, to conquer and destroy the opponent’s will to resist.

This paragraph echoes what I’ve been saying for the past year. I said something similar to the first sentence in my Congressional testimony this summer. The second sentence is a direct reference to my preferred definition, or perhaps “description of” is better, I’ve shared many times over the past few years, including in my testimony this summer and several times in discussions around this topic on a listserv where one of the authors is also a member (and whom I know and have talked with over the years). That said, I can’t say I’m one of the “some scholars,” though it’s nice to think I am.

I’ve heard rumors the Global Engagement Center (GEC) at the State Department may be elevated to a bureau. Whether this means it’ll be renamed the Bureau of Global Engagement or something else is to be determined and only somewhat relevant. Leaving that aside, a change may have something to do with the appointment (finally) of someone to head of GEC: James Rubin. What then of GEC? Will it be a coordinating hub? An operational office? A policy and planning shop? All the above or some combination? If so, how will the matter of operational management and coordination across the State Department and the inter-agency be managed? A directive from the President or Secretary of State (S) will only go so far as to kick-start a process and is no substitute for actively supporting and holding the necessary coordination, collaboration, integration, and accountability.

If GEC does become a bureau, does the “Special Envoy and Coordinator” position leading GEC to become an Assistant Secretary position (which requires a Senate confirmation)? This will put the A/S for GEC on equal footing with the A/S’s of the regional bureaus, but still below the Under Secretary for Political Affairs (P).

What of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (R), an office without a confirmed appointee this entire administration and 45% of the days since the position was first occupied in October 1999? Will GEC remain under R, which it is nominally now? For the bureaucratic umph (aka “firepower”) within the department and across the inter-agency, an Under Secretary would be preferred. I’ve long argued that the best solution to our leadership challenges in “information warfare” is to fix R, even if it is destroying and rebuilding it, which I mentioned in the IPA podcast.

Or will GEC move to P, my second recommendation for the “public diplomacy” leadership, as the stand-alone leadership under R has gone nowhere for over two decades? Just integrate the darn thing with the running of foreign policy. This would place GEC alongside and with the same boss as the regional bureaus. The remnants of R are just that. The pillaging of the Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) by the Bureau of Public Affairs, an office that has never truly reported to R but notionally under it, to form the Bureau of Global Public Affairs means R has little under it now. Yes, there is the policy & planning shop, but that could go with GEC. There’s also the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), but long ago ECA declared independence of R. (IIP, by the way, was the largest rump of USIA when you exclude BBG’s capital costs. IIP was a massive operation functioning globally, but it slowly atrophied though several leaders unintentionally accelerated its irrelevance and destruction.

If GEC stays under R, will we see the appointment of an actually qualified person to the position and not “hey, this person created an international tv network” or “this person produced news programs” or “this person was an editor of a US magazine” or “this person ran a political convention well” or “this person sold me Uncle Ben’s rice”?

If R is remade – I can’t make any reference to being “reborn” or “like a phoenix” as that would imply some glorious past to be recalled, which doesn’t apply to this office save a few exceptions that prove the rule – then how long will that last? Will S (the Secretary of State) actually and actively support R in battles that will happen with P and the Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources (formerly M, is it still M?… basically the COO), not to mention with the NSC and inter-agency partners, which is broader than “merely” the Defense Department (DOD) and the intelligence community (IC)?

I don’t know what we will see as a new org chart. What “it” is, and whether the new box is a coordinating office (aka whip or perhaps czar), an operational entity (the worst idea, in my opinion, as it encourages a “not my job” reaction by others), some hybrid, or something else, success will wholly depend on the visible support of POTUS and S of the model, including holding offices and people accountable, in the days and months and years after the tree is planted. Fundamentally, we don’t have an organizational problem, we have a leadership problem. We shall see. Too many hope that just making a new box will magically manifest a strategy and leadership, but hope isn’t a strategy.

Lastly, I found this interesting: The Filing Cabinet: A Vertical History of Information.

That’s it for now. What are your thoughts on any of this?

*I’m not aware of a publicly available video for this, nor do I expect one to be available, especially since my short presentation before the discussion included showing the UNICEF-sponsored video about carpet bombing smurfs. This event may be the first time I spoke to a nearly exclusively SOF conference since I showed the same video as a wrap-up speaker for an event put on by SOCCENT about 14 years ago, so it may be my last time before a SOF audience for at least a dozen years.