In the fight against Russian misinformation campaigns, U.S. diplomats are hamstrung by outdated laws and rules, and they are technologically ill-equipped for battle, a State Department advisory panel was told Tuesday.
“We’re sending our [information] soldiers into battle without weapons, essentially … It’s simply unacceptable,” former senior State Department official Tom Cochran told the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, which published a report on the future of U.S. efforts abroad to combat technologically and hacking-enabled information operations like the one against the 2016 presidential election.
Copies of “Can Public Diplomacy Survive the Internet? – Bots, Echo Chambers and Disinformation,” were distributed at the meeting and digitally afterwards, but the report was still unavailable on the State Department website as of early Tuesday evening.
“There’s a lot that we should be able to do [with technology] … in a very white hat kind of way that we can’t … because we’re governed by a set of rules and practices that weren’t built for this era,” added Ory Rinat, the department’s transition team digital lead.
He told the commission that rules and laws governing how diplomats used technology and social media needed modernization.
Current career officials acknowledged the criticisms but said they were overstated.
Cochran, who served 2014-16 as a deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs, said when he started the job, his first overseas trip was to Argentina, where he met “really energetic” social media director for the U.S. Embassy there. He “really loved his job and had a really hard time doing his job because he didn’t have a [department-issued] mobile device,” said Cochran.
No tools, no technology
“Without the right tools and without the right technology, how can we implement any digital strategies or any communications strategy at all?” asked Cochran.
After two years of asking, the social media specialist got a mobile device, Cochran said, “It was a 7-year-old Blackberry with a little rolling ball and the camera on the back was covered with an asset tag.”
“If that doesn’t speak to the failure of technology at the State Department, I don’t know what does,” concluded Cochran, calling it “a warning to the entire department.”
“No discussion of technology at the State Department is complete without a Blackberry reference,” cracked Shawn Powers, the commission’s staff director.
Asked if resources were the issue, Cochran snapped back: “The last thing we need is more money!”
He pointed out that the State Department spends $2.2 billion annually on technology. “That’s $31,000 per employee every year,” he said, and yet fortune 100 companies who spent a third of that per head got better equipment.
Cochran blamed the CIO’s office in the State Department. “It’s unfair of me to say the entire leadership structure that runs technology is not good at their job,” he said, but added, “We have people that want the technology … what we have is a leadership structure in the organization that frankly does not understand the technology needs of their customer.”
“There are a lot of people who make decisions about technology that don’t know what it’s like to be that social media person in Buenos Aires that can’t get the tools they need to do their job,” he continued.
“That’s the most important thing that needs to be fixed at the State Department.”
“It’s painful,” acknowledged Jonathan Henick, the principle deputy coordinator in the Bureau of International Information Programs, of the way the department buys technology. “But we work through the process,” he told CyberScoop in a brief interview after the hearing.
Rinat, the Trump transition official, agreed with Cochran that, “It’s not resources as much as it is governance,” adding that there was plenty of money. “There’s so much wasteful spending,” he said. “When it comes to digital communications, the sheer number of websites and social platforms we maintain that don’t talk to each other, that don’t coordinate with each other, that don’t amplify each other … that don’t speak in a cohesive way.”
He said the proliferation “limits the effectiveness” of the sites. “They’re stepping on each others’ messages, they’re confusing that broader effort that we should be putting out there.”
“There probably is a little bit of over-proliferation,” Henick acknowledged, “When we first engaged [with social media] we were very forward leaning … We might have leaned forward a bit too far.”
On the other hand, he said, his office supported and provided content for U.S. embassies in 200 countries. “Whether it’s promoting our values, promoting trade, whatever our goals are in a particular country, our communication is going to look different. You can’t talk to the whole world with a single voice.”
Also a problem for governance, Rinat said, was the legal framework in which the State Department worked. “We’re limited in what we’re gonna be able to do to counter the dark side, by law, by regulation, by our own values.”
As an example, he mentioned personalization of web content — a technique widely used in the private sector that he said was largely unavailable to the State Department because of privacy rules.
“We’re limited right now in how we can do those things, so we need to have a conversation now around modernizing the [legal] frameworks were working in, things like the privacy act, the paperwork reduction act and [other] rules that we as practitioners run up against every day and are worth a second look,” he said.
The current members of the advisory commission are Chairman Sim Farar, Vice Chairman William Hybl, Amb. Lyndon Olson, Amb. Penne Korth-Peacock, Anne Terman Wedner and Georgette Mosbacher. One seat is currently vacant.