Pentagon reviewing strategic information operations
Trying to counter information-savvy enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has rapidly spent nearly $1 billion in the past three years on strategic communications.
Paid-for news articles, billboards, radio and television programs, and even polls and focus groups have been sponsored by the U.S. Central Command, which has raised its spending for information operations programs from $40 million in 2008 to $110 million in 2009 to a requested $244 million in 2010.
But when Congress asked this year what the Defense Department across the services and commands proposed spending for strategic communications -- or information operations as it is often called -- in the fiscal 2010 budget, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates found that no one could say because there was no central coordination. The first answer came back at $1 billion, but that was later changed to $626 million.
As a result, Gates has multiple studies underway to get a firmer grip over the individual military services' plans for strategic communications next year, according to Pentagon officials.
"Just what is the DoD [Defense Department] role?" is one of the questions Gates is asking as part of the department's Quadrennial Defense Review, according to a senior defense official, authorized to speak only on the condition of anonymity. In a more basic sense, the defense secretary also wants a definition of just what is strategic communications.
Increasing interest in strategic communications across the government has led the White House to hold biweekly interagency meetings to coordinate activities of the Defense and State departments as well as of the intelligence agencies. "It's an effort that brings together all the actors across government with equity in strategic communications," according to a senior administration official who would only discuss the matter only on the condition of anonymity. "It is a rapidly developing field of endeavor," the official said, adding that proactive planning for the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater is underway, marrying experts in the area with strategic information specialists. "Based on data, people are working on the best way to get our message across, whether through radio, television or some other means."
Beginning in Iraq and expanding to Afghanistan, Pentagon officials have awarded multimillion-dollar contracts under the labels of strategic communications or information operations that in the past had been the purview of the State Department's public diplomacy section.
"The department's leadership has only recently become aware of the variety, scope and magnitude of funding associated with these programs across the services and at all levels within the combat commands," according to the report of the House-Senate conferees on the fiscal 2010 defense appropriations bill that passed Congress on Dec. 19.
As a result, the conferees cut $100 million from information operations, including $20 million from the Central Command request. An additional $50 million was cut from the Special Operations Command (SOCOM), which has been at the forefront of information operations.
It was SOCOM, in association with the U.S. European Command, that started a publicly available Web site now run by the Africa Command that provides news in Arabic, French and English on the Magreb region in North Africa. The Defense Department's sponsorship is not readily apparent, though it is acknowledged if you go to the "disclaimer" or "about us" sections at the bottom of the home page.
It took eight months to get approval for the site several years ago, according to the senior administration official. Since then, he added, "there has been positive feedback . . . though it's realized such an approach is not appropriate in all areas." Nonetheless, SOCOM recently put out a contract for preparation of contingency Web sites for other countries or areas in which the United States may operate.
"The Congress has a need for better budget justification and execution documentation for congressional oversight of information operations program funds," the conferees said in their report. They ordered the Defense Department comptroller to submit a report on strategic communications and information operations 30 days after President Obama submits his budget proposal to Congress in January.
The State Department is also stepping up its output, although it does not have the Pentagon's resources. Judith A. McHale, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, described in a recent interview how the president's Cairo speech in June was "almost instantly translated into 14 languages, posted on Web sites and blogs around the world, transmitted by text message to mobile phones in more than 170 countries and discussed on social networks that span the globe."
But as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in October in discussing her department's public diplomacy activities, particularly in Pakistan: "This is going to take time. You know, this is not something you can fix in a news cycle or by just snapping your fingers and asking people to believe you. . . . And I was frankly quite surprised that we had not done much of this in an effective manner. But we're going to remedy that."