Russia “is waging the most amazing information-warfare blitzkrieg in the history of information warfare,” Gen. Philip Breedlove told NATO leaders at their 2014 summit. There’s no evidence that Moscow’s efforts have since slackened—nor that the United States is institutionally equipped to develop an effective response.
This was not always the case. During and just after the Cold War, the U.S. more than held its own in the sphere of information operations. And though the internet — and particularly social media — have greatly increased the speed and scale (and decreased the cost) of such operations, the experience of those years suggests a way to build and run an IO organization to lead them successfully.
From 1953 until 1999, the deployment and use of the nation’s information-warfare “instruments of power” were led and coordinated by the United States Information Agency, or USIA. The agency was created by President Eisenhower, a military veteran who understood the power of information and alarmed by the activities of the “psychological strategists of Communism.” Among other areas, USIA was created to lead America’s efforts in the field of public diplomacy — the effort to influence foreign audiences through messaging and organizations such as Voice of America. (Its creation was advocated by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who wanted his own organization to concentrate on traditional diplomacy.) USIA’s strategic communication and counter-propaganda efforts helped shore up Western resolve while exploiting cracks between Warsaw Pact governments and their populations.
Even after the Berlin Wall fell, USIA ably equipped policy-makers with international public opinion atmospherics, aided in countering extensive Iraqi misinformation campaigns, and managed messaging to media outlets during 1990-91’s Desert Storm and Desert Shield. During the Clinton administration, USIA again played a key role in consolidating and pushing strategic messaging to foreign media outlets and audiences in reaction to a 1993 agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, galvanizing world opinion in support of the U.S. government’s role as a peace broker and pushing for continued progress. And as the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement began to send U.S. military forces into and around Bosnia, USIA’s public-opinion polls in the region helped U.S. government leaders and organizations make policy decisions.
But desires to streamline the post-Cold War government bureaucracy, coupled with State’s desire to engulf the agency and its budget, made USIA an easy target. In 1999, it was folded into the State Department. As its advocates feared, a clash of cultures and the weighted importance of traditional diplomacy pushed public diplomacy to the backseat.
Within just a few years, the consequences of an absent information arm made themselves apparent. The 2003 Iraq invasion became known for its IO missteps — among them “Mission Accomplished” and “coalition of the willing.” The problems were compounded by general U.S. policy-maker naiveté toward Middle Eastern and global public opinion on U.S. military actions. A year later, the 9/11 Commission Report highlighted the deterioration of the informational instruments of power, noting the monopoly enjoyed by al Qaeda in the domain of Middle Eastern public opinion.
Skip forward to 2015, when former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is telling the Senate Armed Services Committee that the U.S. government needs “a much more robust capability from the standpoint of the resource commitment to counter-messaging.” His proposed solution? A “U.S. Information Agency (USIA) on steroids.“
Congress responded by establishing the Global Engagement Center, an interagency office housed at the Department of State “to coordinate and synchronize counter-propaganda efforts.” Lawmakers allocated the new center $120 million to start up in fiscal 2017, but the Trump administration spent none of it. The GEC was to receive $60 million in fiscal 2018, but as of March had neither the funds nor enough staff to do its job.
Other parts of the U.S. government still do messaging, spending about $730 million annually on a wide range of international media operations. That is “a small fraction of what our adversaries are spending,” according to the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which supervises Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and other government broadcasters. Writes one independent security researcher, “The State Department estimates that the Kremlin's sophisticated influence campaign effort includes a $1.4 billion-a-year internal and external propaganda apparatus, claiming to reach some six hundred million people in 130 countries and 30 languages.”
The USIA’s key contributions during an earlier period of competition underline the need for a concerted, interagency approach to strategic information operations. Among the requirements is a direct link between policy-makers and the informational instruments of power. Its funding problems aside, the GEC is simply too peripheral.
What is needed is a new organization — call it the Office of Strategic Narratives — and the right institutional placement. It should be located within the National Security Council, under the existing Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications. This will give it a direct line to the president and equal footing with the departments that run the various U.S. messaging programs. This new office should include representatives from across the government, and purview over the GEC and the BBG.
The OSN would have responsibility for developing narratives and counter-narratives on issues of national importance for U.S. communications, based on bottom-up interagency reporting from across the information environment and guidance from the president via the National Security Advisor. Its roles would include leading the informational instruments of power, gauging public opinions, countering mis/disinformation, monitoring and reporting on the effects of adversarial messaging, monitoring the IE as a whole, and disseminating presidential policies and messages. As part of all this, it would coordinate with the DOD’s PSYOP and Public Affairs service members nesting of messaging efforts under accepted national strategic narratives — not unlike how some Combatant Commands operate. As well, the new office might eventually work with NATO partner-equivalent offices to share the costs and burdens in identifying and countering Russian mis- and disinformation.
Importantly, the OSN should be established by executive order, which would head off efforts by more senior agencies to protect their parochial interests by not relinquishing control of assets and budgets.
The importance of the information environment has never been more greater — nor the need to move beyond today’s half-measures and establish a strong and central organization to coordinate America’s messaging, counter-messaging, and instruments of informational power. Establishing an Office of Strategic Narratives in the National Security Council offers the chance to duplicate, or even exceed, the effectiveness of the Cold War’s USIA.
This article reflects the authors’ opinions, and does not represent those of the U.S. government or Defense Department.