The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Inside the State Department’s fight against Russian disinformation

James Mann’s next book, “The Great Rift,” will be published in January.

The memoirs written by presidents and Cabinet secretaries usually tell us little about how our federal government works from day to day. Inevitably, such books (the dreary memoirs of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, for example) tend to focus instead on the weightiest issues and decisions, the supposedly lofty debates, the most important foreign leaders with whom the author did business.

For a long time, the best description of daily life in the federal government came from a fictionalized newspaper serial: In the late 1970s, the now-defunct Washington Star published a regular soap opera chronicling the lives of workers in the (nonexistent) Chicken and Egg Division of the Department of Agriculture.

But recently, a new genre of nonfiction books is emerging that gives us a far better sense of how the federal government works — or, more often, doesn’t — at the ground level. Three years ago, Rosa Brooks described life inside the Pentagon in her book “How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything.” Now, Richard Stengel offers a comparable account of the customs and byways of the State Department in his new book, “Information Wars.”

In early 2014, Stengel, a former editor of Time magazine, was sworn in as the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, responsible for counteracting negative perceptions of the United States around the world. More specifically, he spent much of his time on the job trying to deal with disinformation about the United States spread by Russia and by the Islamic State.

He achieved, at best, only very modest results, and Stengel’s account of what happened in that effort is well-told, though not exactly gripping, given the nature of the work. (More about that later.) But the book Stengel seems to have wanted to write was about the culture of the State Department, and in this regard he is much more successful. In fact, the first few chapters of his book should be required reading for new State Department employees.

As editor of Time, Stengel operated with a single assistant on his office staff. As an undersecretary of state, his office included a chief of staff, a deputy chief of staff, a speechwriter, a social media person, a military aide, a congressional liaison, an adviser on extremism, another assistant for scheduling, and still another for logistics and travel. And this list doesn’t include the heads of the various bureaus and programs under his domain.

State’s workday was full of regularly scheduled meetings, known in shorthand by their time on the calendar — most important was “the 8:30,” a session each morning with Secretary of State John Kerry. Each bureau inside State is known by an initial. Stengel’s sub-bureaucracy, public diplomacy, was known as “R.” At the 8:30, he reports, “I generally sat between J (Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights) and T (Arms Control and International Security).”

Virtually any new initiative from his bureau had to be cleared with various other branches of the State Department. “Things that I originally expected to take hours would take days, things that I thought would take days would take weeks, and things that I thought would take weeks would take months,” Stengel found.

And this was merely inside the State Department. Once State figured out its own position, it had to go to meetings with representatives of other bureaucracies, like the Defense Department, the National Security Council and the CIA. Often, these gatherings were simply too big to be able to decide anything. “In government, any meeting with more than a dozen people is mostly for show,” Stengel discovered. During one such session, an exasperated lieutenant general whispered to Stengel that he knew how to defeat the Islamic State: “Get them involved in the interagency process.”

Stengel’s main mission was to combat disinformation and propaganda of the sort spread by Russia and, in a different way, by the Islamic State. He provides an excellent example from overseas of how disinformation works: Four years ago, as migrants from Syria were streaming into Germany, Russian state-run TV aired a story about Lisa, a girl of Russian descent in Berlin who, it said, had been seized and raped by migrants. Other Russian media outlets and eventually the Russian foreign minister soon repeated this story, leading to street demonstrations and a political uproar in Berlin. But after a few days, it emerged that there had been no rape; German authorities found that Lisa had gone missing because she had run away from her parents.

The Lisa story will probably not sound surprising to Americans who remember some of the phony stories spread by Russian bots during the 2016 campaign. (Example: WikiLeaks claimed to have an email — that of course didn’t exist — in which Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, supposedly said he didn’t like the way she smelled.)

So what should the State Department do about the disinformation? Stengel started simply, by trying to get department officials to start posting regularly on Twitter to respond to disinformation. Even this proved difficult, in part because State Department officials were used to speaking in their own diplomatic code. At one point, other officials at State sent him the following tweet to be posted: “U.S. is closely monitoring developments in #Ukraine.” (As Stengel mordantly observes, “Putin must have been quaking in his boots.”)

Unfortunately, it seems that Stengel turned into a bit of a bureaucrat himself. His introductory portrait of life at the State Department is compelling, but after a while, he began to fit in, and his account becomes laden with initials and jargon. “I had seen the pre-brief for the NCTC meeting the night before, and there was only a small section on CSCC and counterterrorism messaging at the end,” he reports at one point. Not long afterward, a colleague “turned to me to talk about the changes in the messaging space.”

Eventually, Stengel concentrated on creating a new entity at State called the Global Engagement Center (a name that somehow suggested it might be a way-station toward mass weddings). This was supposed to be a centralized hub for responding to disinformation and propaganda around the world. It soon became a new sub-bureaucracy, the GEC. Before long, Stengel found that its mission was curtailed and that it began to lose people. (The GEC still exists; the Trump administration has claimed to be reviving it.)

Stengel lasted at Foggy Bottom for 34 months. That doesn’t sound long — but in fact, it made Stengel the longest-serving of the 13 undersecretaries who have held the job since it was created in 1999. President Trump has had four people in the position so far, three of them in an acting capacity.

Stengel’s book ends with several recommendations, such as changing Facebook algorithms and having newspapers explain better what they do. While some of these are thoughtful, he admits it’s not clear they will fix the problem of pervasive disinformation. “I know it’s an awful cliché, but there are no easy answers,” Stengel writes. “The plain truth is that people are going to believe what they want to believe.”

How We Lost the Global Battle Against Disinformation and What We Can Do About It

By Richard Stengel

Atlantic Monthly. 357 pp. $28