Information Operations: Successes and Failures
(Robert Reilly, September 6, 2013)
Transcript available below
U.S. Capitol Visitor Center – Room HVC 201
About the speaker
Robert R. Reilly has been on the board of Westminster since its founding. In his 25 years of government service, he has taught at National Defense University (2007), and served in the Oﬃce of The Secretary of Defense, where he was Senior Advisor for Information Strategy (2002-2006). He participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 as Senior Advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of information. Before that, he was director of the Voice of America, where he had worked the prior decade. Mr. Reilly served in the White House as a Special Assistant to the President (1983-1985), and in the U.S. Information Agency both in D.C. and abroad.
Other Westminster talks
He has also spoken at Westminster on the subjects of:
The Closing of the Muslim Mind (October 17, 2016)
Deciphering the Middle East: Why the U.S. Usually Gets it Wrong (February 9, 2016)
Dangerous Embrace: The United States and the Islamists (May 22, 2012)
The Challenge of Islam to the Catholic Church (February 4, 2010)
I will start with a couple of essentials. I, by the way, was engaged in the war of ideas both in the Voice of America for some years and the Defense Department. I developed a couple of elementary rules regarding a war of ideas. Do not go into a war of ideas unless you understand the ideas you are at war with. Do not go into a war of ideas unless you have an idea.
Wars of ideas are fought by people who think. People who do not think are influenced by people who do. That should invite you to consider which audience you want to aim your public diplomacy at. Should it be a large, youth audience with pop music? Should it be to the people in the society you are trying to reach who, because they are thinking intellectuals, form the intellectual tenor of that society?
Successful information operations understand the audience, have the right message and the right format, and have the means to deliver the message to the media used by the audience to receive its information. Miss any of these links and you have a failed information operation. You can have the medium and not the message, or you can have the message and not the medium, or you could be without both.
Now, we know from every national strategy for combating terrorism that the objective in the long run is winning the war on terror, [which] means winning the war of ideas. I often refer to the statement by Akbar Ahmed, Chair of the Islamic Studies Department at American University, took a six month tour throughout the Islamic world and during that tour he reflected, quote, “I felt like a warrior in the midst of the fray who knew that the odds were against him but never quite realized that his side,” meaning our side, “had already lost the war,” unquote. How could this be?
Well, what I am going to do today is reflect briefly on what we have done that has worked, on what has not worked, and an overall view on what we have failed to do altogether. I have no interest in being autobiographical, but I have been asked to speak on information operations, successes and failures, and I interpret that term very broadly to mean public diplomacy, war of ideas, and I am invariably drawn to some operations in which I have been personally involved.
There were several huge failures and some tiny successes. I have not spoken of some of these experiences before because they are almost personally too painful to relate. I recount them now only in the hope the lessons from them can be learned and related to the current conflicts in which we are involved. Sometimes the mission was right but the execution was wrong. Sometimes the mission itself was misconceived. At other times there was not even a mission to execute, just avoid.
Now, I will not dwell at length upon my experiences at the Voice of America where I worked for ten years, my last year as its director, but I had thought this in 2001, 2002, this will be the VOA’s finest hour as prior it had been in 1942 when that organization first went on the air in Germany and started broadcasting to Germany, so I thought our 12-hour a day Arabic service would have a key role to play in this new war of ideas.
Certainly, that service needed revamping and improved programming and it needed to get off long way and on to medium way because people in the Middle East for the most part no longer listen to their long way radios. Now, imagine my surprise when the Broadcasting Board of Governors decided to eliminate that service of the Voice of America, which broadcast interviews, reviews, editorials of official U.S. policy, discussion programs, and so forth and replace it with a youth pop station called Radio Al Sawa that broadcast 24/7 and at the beginning- all music but for two, five-minute news breaks, with Eminem, Britney Spears, and J-Lo, along with Arabic pop music. The lyrics had to be changed for broadcast of course, because they were so offensive to Muslim audiences. This, in a time when we were at war. That was the start of the transformation.
Now, it is interesting that I have the occasion after this transformation to meet with one of the most important Saudi princes, and I said without prejudice to him, I asked question, “What do you think of Radio Sawa?” He said, “It is not good, it is not bad, it is just what it is.” He said, “Now my father, King Faisal, loved the Voice of America.” He always listened to it. He had memorized the broadcast times, so when he went into the dessert, which he often did, he would take the shortwave radio with him because he did not want to miss a program. He said, “I too, of course, used to listen to it, the Voice of America. Of course, I do not listen to Radio Sawa.”
Well, who cares if the King listens? Might that not be an influential audience you would try to reach with your broadcasting and explanations of your policy?
Regardless, Judge Hamoud al-Hitar in Yemen said that, “If you study terrorism in the world, you will see that it has an intellectual theory behind it and any kind of intellectual idea can be defeated by the intellect. However, the language of the intellect is ideas not pop music. The war of ideas cannot be fought with the battle of the bands. The objective is to reach people who think.”
On the other hand, Voice of America did get something right in respect to Afghanistan. The first Minister of Information of Afghanistan approached me when I was VOA Director and said, ‘We have no means of reaching our own people and Afghanistan is being bifurcated by broadcasting coming in from Pakistan on the one side in Pashto and Iran on the other side. We have no national voice to reach the people of Afghanistan. Can you give us some giant transmitters that would allow us to do that and in turn, we will give you the space and the license to build your own giant transmitter.’
This being important because the people of Afghanistan received their news and information primarily through radio, which they still do today. I am happy to say that thanks to the generosity of the Defense Department from where we got the more than $10 million to build these was accomplished.
At the same time, the Broadcasting Board of Governors said, let us do a 24/7 news channel in Pashto and Dari. And so we combined the Voice of America Afghan service with that of RFE/RL and created that 24/7 service. This as it should be. These were moves in the right direction.
However, ten years later one worries what is the substance of the broadcast? Ten years later there was a very upsetting revelation from the International Council on Security and Development located in Kandahar, Afghanistan. They conducted a survey in Helmand and Kandahar Provinces of one thousand males. These were Afghan to Afghan interviews, very early and well done.
What percentage of the interviewees do you suppose had never heard of 9/11? 93%. Ten years into a war and our public diplomacy communication had failed to convey to the Afghan people the purpose for which we were there. This would be like fighting World War II and not telling anyone about Pearl Harbor.
This same group did a survey of Afghan males in two northern provinces, Parwan and Panjshir, showed them pictures of 9/11, and asked them, now that you understand what happened there, do you think the presence of foreign forces in your country, ISAF and the United States, is justified by what you have seen? 59% subsequently said it justified the international presence in Afghanistan.
Even ten years later it was not too late, what we were doing there. Now, we are departing with many of the people of Afghanistan puzzled as to why we came in the first place. Another egregious error that has been mentioned in the first talk by Patrick Sookhdeo and others [was] the failure to engage at the religious level in Afghanistan. The people in Afghanistan identify themselves first and foremost as Muslims, so whoever controls the Islamic understanding of the flow of daily events is the person who is going to dominate the war of ideas there.
The Taliban have been very effective in monopolizing the network of madrassas and mosques and mullahs in order to do that, and that is how they affect their unofficial rule in portions of the country where they do not have direct rule. Quote, “They have coopted the religious narrative for the last several years,” said Rear Admiral Greg Smith in 2010, NATO’s Chief of Communications. “They have used that narrative locally very effectively,” unquote.
If you are involved in a conflict that is in large part religious, failing to address it in religious terms concedes to the enemy, in the words of my former colleague, Robert Andrews, a theological safe haven. A theological safe haven, which is far more important than any physical safe haven that they may enjoy.
There are ways to undertake these challenges. Judge Al-Hitar in Yemen did it through Quranic duels with Al Qaedists, challenging them with an interpretation of the Quran, which delegitimized their religious basis for going on violent jihad. Actually, VOA’s station in Pashto, Radio Deewa, undertook this kind of event in reaching those people in that no man’s land between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and through the kinds of call-in questions they received, [they] found it was very effective in delegitimizing the Taliban ideology.
The other thing about Al Qaeda and the Taliban is their own understanding of their vulnerabilities. As captured Al Qaeda documents said, “If we lose the justice of our cause, we are finished. That is the source of our legitimacy.” Mullah Omar said in an early Islamic Emirate magazine, quote, “We know that taking a Muslim’s life is a cause of defeat,” unquote.
Well, on those grounds alone they should be defeated.
The Taliban killed three to four times more civilians that are hit in collateral damage through ISAF forces. Why has that not worked? Well, for one reason NATO refused to publicize Taliban atrocities because they thought it would be demoralizing and it would hand to the Taliban a victory. When General Petraeus got there, he said you must be nuts. He, of course, had been effective in Iraq, making sure the Al-Qaeda videos of their tortures and what happened in their torture houses were widely spread because not only do those videos terrify, they repulse, and this helped animate the Sunnis in Al Anbar Province and elsewhere to turn against Al-Qaeda.
So when he got to Afghanistan, he said no, you have got to do the same thing here to delegitimize the Taliban. Well, this brings us to Operation Iraqi Freedom. I am going to speak a little bit about what went wrong there because I am intimately familiar with what went wrong. I left the Voice of America and went to the Defense Department in Near East South Asian Affairs, and in our office arrived a retired Lieutenant General Jay Garner, filling out his paperwork to become the director ORHA, the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq. I approached General Garner at that time with a two-page paper that my colleagues and I had written.
When I arrived at the Defense Department, I began thinking if we are going to invade Iraq, this is a country which has a totalitarian regime and a totally controlled state media. In Iraq, it was a capital offense to own a satellite phone. It was a crime to have a satellite dish. All they had had was state control media since the Ba’ath Party had come into power. [We] take down Saddam’s regime, he goes off the air, what comes on the air the next day?
So, I thought I am going to start exploring around the United States government, seeing who is providing the answer to this question. Well, they are doing it over there. I go over there. No, actually, it is over there at the State Department. No, it’s someone on the NSC. No, actually, no one was doing it. The analogy we used is if in North Korea people went to bed one night after another broadcast day of singing the praises of the great leader, and they woke up next morning and all of that was gone and was replaced with South Korean media. Think of the enormous impact that that would have on the North Korean population. It would be revolutionary.
Providing that example to General Garner, I said we need to get as close to something like this as we possibly can. He completely embraced this idea, immediately, went to the NSC and OMB and tried to pry the money loose for it. Unfortunately, we could only get about $2.6 million dollars to begin. Now, having worked at the Voice of America even as its director, I had some rough idea of what it would cost to start a national television station, a national radio station, and a national newspaper. If the infrastructure is still there, you would still need a hundred million dollars to do it.
So, now we are in January. I leave for London to try to recruit Iraqi expatriate journalists to come with us to Baghdad. Most of the really good ones, guess what, already had jobs in reputable media enterprises, and we could only offer them six, three-month contracts, non-renewable. Want to come? Well, actually, I have a family. I think I just may not be available for this.
So, that was one difficulty. The other difficulty was there was no analogy within the Arab media world to South Korean media. All of the media enterprises in the Middle East are state media, so where were we going to find the programming that we wanted to put on the air on the day after in Baghdad? Well, we would have to produce it. Do you have any idea how much work that requires and how much, what expense it takes, and the studios, the camera crews, the editing, etc. that are needed? Enormous.
So, we began trying to do this, recruiting the talent, and lo and behold, we did not know how much time we had to prepare. We were deployed. Remember, we are beginning in January, we were deployed in March to Kuwait to wait for the move up to Baghdad. At that point I knew this would be a failure. How could we possibly have succeeded in so little time with no support, no money? I thought, well, you have got to try anyway, and so try we did.
Unfortunately, on the last day of bombing, our precision-guided munitions took out the Ministry of Information. When I saw that building, a skyscraper in Baghdad, being split in two, my heart broke because there went the broadcasting infrastructure. When we got to Baghdad, there was not one operational television studio, not one camera that worked, two radio studios that were semi-functional, and not one rotary printing press in the city that worked (to mass-produce newspapers), and, of course, very little electricity.
What was there? Two 24-by-7 Iranian channels in Arabic and, of course, the satellite dishes began appearing on the roofs of the Baghdad houses. These cheap Chinese things were being sold on the corner, and so it was very easy to see who got to dominate the information flow in the beginning. The one thing we did of the three (radio, newspaper, and television) that I thought was a success was Al Sumer, the newspaper started by Hassan Al Alawi, brilliantly done and printed in Kuwait because they had rotary presses, flown up (of course, it was difficult to get it distributed), but the content of it was exactly what one would have hoped for.
This, indeed, was a journal to attract the intelligentsia of Iraq. It would have been the vehicle for publishing the equivalent of the Iraqi Federalist Papers. And it was the one thing the Coalition decided to shut down because a shabby little competitor had begun with local Iraqi talent, and I was told when I made my plea for it, ah, we do not need the equivalent of the Wall Street Journal in Iraq right now, we just need a sheet to announce weapons turn-in checkpoints. Oh, there goes the intelligentsia.
When I got back from Baghdad, I then tried to start a Federalist Papers project for Iraq with a private foundation, a great entrepreneur from California called Jim Hake, the Spirit of America. We found out it would cost a little over a million dollars. We recruited one of the most respected intellectuals in Iraq, who ended up being the executive assistant to the Iraqi President, wind up the intellectuals to make these contributions, where we could get them printed, how we could get them distributed in the mosques, put them in the most important newspapers, get the authors on to the media, etc.
We could do it for about $1.2 million dollars. [We] could not find the money in the government, could not find the money in private foundations, so there were no Iraqi Federalist Papers. In an interagency meeting I was seated next to the senior AID person who was responsible for all their programs in Iraq. I said may I ask you, ‘Why didn’t you fund an Iraqi Federalist Papers project?’ You know what the answer was? Oh, we were not tasked with it. No one in authority to require something like this.
I am running out of time. I actually have successful operations relating to Iraqi media, the Iraq Memory Foundation. I will just tell you for the cost of $1.2 million a year they produced a show called Light: or Overcoming the Legacy of Evil, that became the second most popular television show on Al Iraqiya, and the Defense Department with some help from State funded that. $1.2 million, all made by Iraqis in Baghdad. It had a very big influence, so much so that during Ramadan, which is the high viewership time in the Muslim Arab world on television, that Prime Minister Maliki ordered Al Iraqiya to play the program every day.
I can tell you, since I was involved in this work, that the PSAs that the Coalition broadcast, you know, five-minute spots were made in London. They had to go through an advertising agency to have it made and they had to buy the broadcast time on Iraqi TV. [It cost] $8 million dollars. [It] could have kept the Iraq Memory Foundation going for eight years. Why did this happen? For the same reason Stephan Ulph said the Muslim reformers’ influence is so tenuous. [It is] because there was no institution.
There was no institutional support, there was no place from which to fight this battle. All of these were individual initiatives of people of goodwill, trying to something despite the fact that there was no institution dedicated to it. Ladies and gentlemen, there still isn’t an institution dedicated to doing it. With the elimination of the U.S. Information Agency, no one has the job of winning our side of the war of ideas, and that is why we are not even fighting it. Thank you.