Fine Print

Fine Print: Panels Raise Concerns Over Pentagon's Strategic Communications

By Walter Pincus
Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Lawmakers are voicing concerns about the Pentagon's strategic communications programs, through which the military aims to win over civilians and erode support for adversaries in countries around the world.

The programs have grown too fast and are spread through the Defense Department budget in a way that hampers oversight, complain the House and Senate Armed Services committees and the House Appropriations Committee. They also suggest that the military is producing propaganda and other materials that mask U.S. government sponsorship and focus "far beyond a traditional military information operations."

In Iraq, the military has awarded $100 million contracts to support elections and the aims of the Baghdad government. A recent multimillion-dollar contract in Afghanistan tried to bolster public support for the Kabul government's efforts in its fight against makeshift bombs.

The Pentagon spends nearly $1 billion a year on its strategic communications, its contribution to the "war of ideas" that until recent years had been the sole province of the State Department's public diplomacy effort. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in the military getting money more easily than the diplomatic corps, and the dominance of military personnel in those countries has led to an increasing military role in information operations.

State Department special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke told journalists in March that "the information issue -- sometimes called psychological operations or strategic communications" -- has become a "major, major gap to be filled" before U.S.-led forces can regain the upper hand in Afghanistan.

Last week, the House Appropriations Committee, in approving the fiscal 2010 defense funding bill, said that it had identified 10 strategic communications programs that had grown from $9 million in fiscal 2005 to a "staggering $988 million request for fiscal 2010." The committee said many of the costlier programs appear as "alarmingly non-military propaganda, public relations, and behavioral modification messaging."

Several of the 10 classified programs "should be terminated immediately," said the panel, and it threatened to withhold funding for all 10 for next year until Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates reports to the committee about their "target audiences, goals, and measures of effectiveness." It also cut $500 million from the Pentagon's overall total for strategic communications.

The Senate Armed Services Committee, meanwhile, directed the Pentagon last week to come up with separate budget materials for fiscal 2011 "that clearly articulate and document Defense Department objectives and funding levels for strategic communications and public diplomacy." Without such documentation, the Senate panel said, it could not "oversee adequately the funding for the multitude of programs."

The first congressional panel to voice public criticism of the military's programs was the House Armed Services Committee. It said last month that the Pentagon's "planning" for strategic communications "is insufficient compared to the needs," and it directed Gates to report within four months on the department's "strategic communications workforce." Gates's report is to include the skills needed, both military and civilian personnel on hand who are capable, and the number of contractors being used to fill any gaps.

Despite their criticisms, each committee sees merit in the programs. Senate Armed Services described strategic communications as "important" but said it was "not able to determine whether these efforts are integrated within the Defense Department or with the broader U.S. Government, nor is the committee able to oversee adequately the funding for the multitude of programs." The committee nonetheless urged Special Operations Command to use its "linguistic and cultural expertise" to increase its strategic communications activities linked to military operations.

The House Armed Services Committee said "online strategic communications," such as Web sites now run by the Defense Department in the Balkans and North Africa, "are essential tools for the department to effectively counter the violent extremist groups abroad." It described the Pentagon as "overly cautious" in its approach, for fear of violating the law that prohibits films and articles produced by the State Department from being circulated in the United States.

The committee said the Pentagon should conduct a new legal review of that law, which it said applies only to the State Department, and expand its online media operations even if they can be accessed in the United States by American audiences.

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