Just weeks after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton complained to Congress that America is losing the information war against Al Qaeda, China and Russia, it appears that Clinton’s own State Department is one of the impediments to success.
For more than 18 months, the State Department has hoarded nearly $30 million, appropriated by Congress for Internet freedom measures across the globe. While that money sits in a State Department bank account, repressive regimes are blocking Internet access and restricting information. China and Russia have even developed their own English-language broadcasts.
What’s worse is that the State Department is withholding the funding from another government agency that wants to put the money to use immediately. The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees the U.S. international broadcasting complex is also home to a modest Internet freedom staff of experts, who are far more tech savvy than anything the State Department can boast.
The BBG very much wants a greater share of State Department funding, in large part because its strategic five-year plan calls for moving more of its services to the Internet and away from radio and television. This has already happened to the Russian Service, and the BBG’s 2012 budget request proposes that the Chinese Service follow the Russian model.
These moves away from radio and television and to the new media have caused intense controversy at Voice of America, as well as on Capitol Hill. The wisdom of this broadcasting strategy is currently being questioned in a series of congressional hearings. Indeed, Clinton herself questioned the strategy in congressional hearings last month, emphasizing the continued importance of traditional media and stating that “We are in an information war, and we are losing that war.” That was a direct and very public criticism of the BBG.
Yet at the same time, if Internet expertize exists at the BBG, it only stands to reason that the U.S. government ought to capitalize on it for the benefit of cyber dissidents in repressive societies. The BBG did receive a modest $1.4 million grant from State in August 2010, which it has used to support two proven programs, Ultrareach and Freegate, the latter of which was created by Falun Gong members to circumvent the Great Firewall of China. According to the BBG, those investments have allowed millions to access the Internet since the Tunisian uprising took on speed and spread around North Africa and the Middle East.
The rift between State and BBG has resulted in inaction. At fault is the U.S. State Department’s Office of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, which is just now moving forward with grants for Internet freedom projects after pressure from Congress. Lawmakers have given the agency nearly $20 million in the past few years for Internet freedom. Another $30 million is at stake in the continuing resolution currently before Congress.
It is increasingly evident that if the U.S. government is to be effective in advancing freedom in the new media sphere, there has to be a single center or agency within the government that sets policy, controls funding, and coordinates assets — a center or agency for strategic communication. As currently configured, the U.S. government agencies that have a slice of the communications pie too often work at cross purposes in an atmosphere of mutual distrust.
Washington Post columnist Anne Appelbaum  perceptively summed up the paradox at the center of the U.S government’s tangled Internet policy:
“One part of the U.S. government has anti-censorship technology but no money to expand its use. Another part of the U.S. government has money for anti-censorship technology but hasn’t spent it. The American political system is too dysfunctional, in other words, to create ‘a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas.’”
Applebaum is spot on in her analysis of the current debacle, but there is a remedy. As many as 15 major organizations — The Heritage Foundation among them — have studied the communications failures of the U.S. government and recommended creating an agency or center for strategic communication. As recommended by Heritage in 2008, such an agency or center would be the heart of U.S. outreach to the world, including public diplomacy policy, Internet freedom, and broadcasting strategy.
In its absence, the State Department will continue the folly of trying to hoarding scarce funding, and U.S. broadcasting will continue to waste resources on a top-heavy, duplicative structure that ends up shortchanging listeners abroad. So, to Clinton: Yes, we can win this information war, but we need a general in charge to prevent friendly fire incidents, like the one currently unfolding.