What We Mean When We Say We Want a New USIA
by Chris Dufour
The following article is an original work published by the Information Professionals Association. Opinions expressed by authors are their own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of or endorsement by the Information Professionals Association.
Communication, information, and influence experts Dr. Christopher Paul and Matt Armstrong wrote a fantastic article in July 2022 addressing the myths information professionals often espouse, unintentionally or otherwise, about resurrecting the U.S. Information Agency (USIA). If you’ve been even peripherally connected to the IPA community for the past 23 years, you’ve likely heard some variation of this argument. Chris and Matt correctly point out flaws in this ever-present demand. They have studied such models for a long time, and thus keep us honest when the frustration of today’s information professional community overboils into pithy rants for a new USIA.
Public calls to action for an operational, coordinating body to synchronize the whole of the U.S. government’s information and influence activities have merit. Chris and Matt have long chronicled our government’s strategic ineptitude in the information environment. Ask any information operations (IO) staffer and they’ll echo their frustration. There’s only so much they can do from their foxhole without authorized, resourced, and sustained interagency organization across all information disciplines.
We’re all saying the same thing, but here’s what we really mean when we say we want to resurrect the USIA.
A new organization that purports to manage this space must be equipped to maneuver in our hyperconnected, complex world where everyone with a mobile phone can lob meme bombs and cast doubt upon the credible. It must be free of old, irrelevant restrictions. It must integrate and educate. It must be ethical, objective, and honest. It must connect and educate people. It must harmonize intent and effects between professionals in disparate information roles, from IO to public affairs. It must embrace complexity while also managing it, and its people must be intellectually and emotionally equipped to do the same. To succeed, it must outlast presidential administrations and election cycles.
What does this look like in practice? Here are some ideas. Be forewarned: They are ideas only and far from the only ones.
- A new “organization” (I’m hesitant to even call it that as organizations tend to stagnate and calcify over time…I’m looking at you, State Department) must be holistic. It cannot address merely one department or agency. The policy line between communicating externally and internally is a fraught one in the age of complexity. Information disorder is the norm. Some have argued that intent is the only way to organize information disciplines (e.g., IO, PSYOP, MISO, public affairs, public diplomacy, statecraft, PR, fantasy football, intelligence, etc.). So instead of replicating bygone institutions like the USIA, let’s think about it more as a function or a mechanism. Mechanisms do things. Organizations maintain things. And there is a lot to be done.
- Capability development. Where do we need to invest to grow and deploy our information arsenal? Researching the latest mis/disinformation vectors and technologies our adversaries deploy. Developing solutions to those threats, both technical and policy. A common, accredited standard or pedigree for information professionals to attain, regardless of agency, is needed to certify the workforce. A university to train, educate, and matriculate people. Next generation digital MISO programs. Models and simulations. Econometrics. Tokenomics. The metaverse. A program office to sustain capabilities, because, let’s be honest, when 4th PSYOP Group says they need a virtual training environment, the Army isn’t going to fund that long-term. (Although, let’s be honest, Army—you should. Get on that.)
- Our nascent agency-that-is-not-the-USIA must act as a place to settle scores, hash out interagency equities, and fix bureaucratic infighting. It should enable the development and implementation of good, enduring policy that accounts for the realities of daily operations in the information environment (any Combatant Commander is going to tell you they’ve got an operations order and a campaign plan with plenty of supporting MISO objectives that need fulfilling). One such policy solution might be to simply absorb underperforming units. The Global Engagement Center or even the whole of the State Department’s public diplomacy corps might find better utility under the auspices of this new mechanism, with significant statutory adaptation, of course.
- We need to figure out how this new mechanism can fix how we talk to each other. A NORTHCOM MISO branch chief said recently, “The homeland is the main effort.” I cannot think of a more sobering and accurate portrayal of the dilemma faced by military information professionals in defending a public that it cannot, by statute, communicate with. Journalists should play a role here and perhaps also public relations and advertising professionals whose acumen created the complex hyperconnectivity in which our adversaries exploit the national psyche. When I read analyses of the damage done to our country’s institutions by falsity, outrage politics, and domestic unrest, I worry that insurrections on Capitol Hill are only the beginning of our problems on the homefront. Perhaps our new information and influence agency can bridge authorities to figure out this conundrum, too.
Some are quick to point to the National Security Council (NSC) as the natural hydra’s head that synchronizes information. Sure, there’s a special assistant to the President for strategic communications. This person and their staff have never been able to adequately wield the conductor’s baton and orchestrate our national information capability. They focus on quick wins turned to administrative victories that validate budget requests. The NSC is too understaffed to manage or coordinate our national information and influence function, those staff assigned are prolifically unqualified, and they lack permanence.
If the NSC doesn’t work, then what does? There are some organizational models we may want to emulate when thinking about creating a new national function for information.
The most recent is Congress’s establishment of the Office of the National Cyber Director (ONCD), a White House office charged with leading the nation’s cybersecurity efforts. Congress enshrined in 2021 that the NCD must coordinate the federal government approach to cyber threats, challenges, and defense. After confirmation as the first NCD, Chris Inglis indicated his first major challenge was merely understanding who’s who in the zoo: the cybersecurity community’s evolution created the very organizational challenge that Inglis is chartered to solve. Sound familiar, information professionals?
ONCD will first work organization and strategy, but it will eventually recommend budgets, realignments, and other resources necessary to strengthen the nation’s cybersecurity and augment its cyber posture. ONCD is in the middle of often heated discussions between U.S. Cyber Command, the National Security Agency, and members of Congress. ONCD must also navigate testy politics at the White House, NSC, and the Department of Homeland Security’s Cyber and Infrastructure Security Agency on who is responsible for what pillar of national cyber defense. How Inglis pilots this ship should illustrate key lessons to learn for any new agency, function, or mechanism aimed at integrating and improving the entire U.S. information and influence apparatus.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the birth of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) in the wake of 9/11 to solve similar systemic problems in the Intelligence Community. The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 created ODNI and a host of new offices and centers, many with new or amended authorities to get more things done more efficiently. How successful this has been over the past 20 years is debatable, but we can still learn from ODNI’s implementation and perhaps steer away from less desirable or functional parts.
So, this is what we mean when we say we want a new USIA: something new with blended authorities to get things done across federal agencies and the American public, funding, talent, and the ability to GO GO GO GO.
Of course, we’ve heard all this before. To paraphrase one of my favorite Marines, we’ve been admiring this problem for a long time. These are the enduring, naive dreams of those who care deeply about this profession. Everyone has an expert opinion about one little piece of what could constitute the objective solution, so we’ve got to keep everyone engaged and focused on a result. Maybe it’s a new USIA in name only. Maybe it’s something else.
But how much time do we have to continue admiring this problem? If you turn your ear to the wind and listen closely when the leaves cease their rattling, you might hear the unenviable march of history amongst a few prophets’ warnings. With a little luck and the right kind of ears, maybe we can hear it in time.
Chris Dufour is a national security consultant with over 20 years supporting operations, policy, and R&D at organizations like the Irregular Warfare Technical Support Directorate, ASD-SOLIC, USSOCOM, USASOC, 1st Special Forces Command, USCENTCOM J39, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the State Department, and the Treasury Department. He has trained thousands of students in OSINT and digital privacy protection skills including security teams from Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and Google. He has authored and co-authored research investigating the behavioral effects of social media and detecting indicators and warnings of nefarious or extremist intent online. He acquired a Master’s in Government from The Johns Hopkins University with a thesis on national security organizational reform. A longtime member of the Sister Cities community and believer in citizen diplomacy, Chris has worked extensively with the governments of Germany, Lithuania, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Japan. Chris currently consults on political issues like industrial policy, research innovation, disinformation defense, and federal appropriations. He is a native of Fort Worth, Texas, and an accomplished crime fiction author. Chris is also a member of the Information Professionals Association, and you should be, too.