By Patricia H. Kushlis
Where does public affairs begin and psy ops end? Or for that matter, where does public diplomacy begin and psy ops end? Or how about the line between public affairs and public diplomacy? Then toss in a thread the width of a silk worm's between Congressional relations and info ops and psy ops to make matters more complex.
All, after all, are about informing and influencing others for a specific purpose although the reasons, methods of choice and audiences differ. The practitioners select from a variety of communication tools depending upon the circumstances.
The controversial Rolling Stone anti-Pentagon expose making the rounds of the blogosphere and main stream media this past week is about the apparent misuse of an army unit under General Caldwell in Afghanistan whose members, a whistleblower claims, were told to use information operations tools to attempt to influence visiting Congressional representatives. The goal: to gain support for increased funds for training Afghan troops.
The Whistle Blower Did Not Have Psy Ops Training
A few comments on the Rolling Stone site suggest that the whistle blower did not have the requisite army psy ops training and, therefore, did not really work for a psy ops unit. The New York Times later confirmed that the commenters were right and whistle blower Michael Holmes clarified his position.
Meanwhile the Command argued that the unit had only been asked to prepare bios and other unclassified background information –along with several public affairs specialists - because it was short handed.
Regardless, the issue is something different. The roots are found in 1948 when Congress passed the Smith-Mundt Act. Smith-Mundt was aimed at the State Department’s information activities directed towards foreigners abroad. The law’s goal was to prevent “propaganda” from the Executive Branch directed at foreigners from reaching the American public.
That’s the official version.
Matt Armstrong, however, discovered in researching the topic several years ago that it had also been pushed by AP who saw State’s efforts as threatening to its fledgling overseas sales operations.
The Smith-Mundt firewall moved from State to USIA when the Agency was created in 1953 and affected all of its information work until USIA was abolished in 1999– from Voice of America radio broadcasts to publications like the glossy America Illustrated that was coveted throughout the Soviet Union.
The firewall was never absolute.
Short wave radio hams could pick up the signal in these United States and Americans working abroad could pick up copies of the USIA publications from USIS posts and centers to use in classes or otherwise if, for instance, they were teaching English to foreigners. We used to hand out copies of America Illustrated when we traveled in the Soviet Union and met with Soviet officials and other Soviet citizens: copies of AI also helped score those coveted tables at popular restaurants. But the Internet blew a hole in the Smith-Mundt wall.
By the time I left USIA in 1998, a major dilemma was how to deal with that momentous challenge created by the Internet and the gusher of information it unleashed and in so doing, how to differentiate public affairs from public diplomacy.
Back at the Arlington ranch
Meanwhile, back at the ranch in Arlington, the Pentagon walled off psy ops, info ops and other communications based operations aimed at foreign enemies from Americans. It did so for the same reason – so as not to propagandize the American people. Its lawyers built long standing arguments around Smith-Mundt principles to keep the two at football field length. This is what Michael Holmes, the Rolling Stone’s chief source, was referring to when he argued that his unit should not have been being used to help conduct Congressional relations.
Yet, the issue that the critics and Rolling Stone commenters miss is that the question being raised is not just whether the Command in Afghanistan had crossed the Smith-Mundt barrier in the traditional sense, e.g.between psy ops, info ops or public diplomacy and public affairs, but worse, whether the unit in question was being used to help lobby Congress for additional funds for a particular program – in this case, to increase the training pf Afghan troops. This adds a whole new and even more dangerous dimension to the fifty year old Smith-Mundt fire wall. In fact, Caldwell’s decision had nothing to do with cross over from psy ops to public affairs or info ops to public affairs.
Ironically, the members of Congress who General Caldwell was trying to influence were supporters of the training program anyway – so was this apparent overkill really necessary?
I for one, fail to understand why a psy ops or info ops unit would have been called upon to do anything more than brief visiting Senators on the unit's operations. Surely the Command should have had staff specialists assigned to handling visiting firemen, that is, Congressional delegations known as Codels in the vernacular.
Afghanistan the largest US military operation in the world
Afghanistan is now the largest US military operation in the world and must be inundated with high level visitors from Congress. The military understands that Congress needs kid-glove treatment and so do the Embassies. Surely the military, at least, would have the staff to devote to receiving multiple Codels multiple times over and wouldn’t have needed to pull staff from elsewhere.
After all, the US military has an amazingly well honed Congressional relations operation which helps explain why it consumes nearly 20% of our federal budget.
In the end, however, this is a strange and troubling story. I hope it represents a single case.