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WASHINGTON — Leaders of the military's services and combatant commands are scrambling to interpret a new initiative from the Pentagon that seeks to contain a poorly understood communication program that has taken root in some commands.
Strategic communication offices have proliferated throughout the military in recent years, including in the Army and at some of the military's geographical combatant commands. In essence, strategic communication was designed to help the military coordinate its operations with its messages.
In practice, some these offices "actually added a layer of staffing and planning — and resulted in confusion and inefficiencies," Assistant Secretary of Defense George Little wrote late last week in a memo to commanders. He added that the Pentagon would avoid using the term and that public affairs offices should take the lead in communicating for the military.
Late Thursday, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, the chief of naval information, told his public affairs spokesmen in an e-mail obtained by USA TODAY to seize the initiative offered by Little's memo and take the lead in communicating for their commanders.
"If I've heard it once, I've heard it a thousand times: "(Public Affairs) is tactical, reactive, short-fused. It's the daily grind. What the boss needs is strategic thinking. You guys just don't do that, and we shouldn't expect it of you," Kirby wrote. "Malarkey. We can be and should be providing more than that. And I'm convinced that in most cases we are."
Military leaders at the commands carved up geographically around the world also responded to the memo by Little, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's chief spokesman.
A sampling of responses from the military's geographically aligned commands:
Northern Command, which directs military activities domestically, followed Little's lead and changed the name of its strategic communication directorate to communication synchronization, according to Navy Capt. Jeff Davis. The six personnel assigned to the directorate will continue to help plan strategies to highlight the command's top priorities, Davis said in an e-mail. The office has a budget, excluding salaries, of $36,000 for travel and supplies.
European Command, which leads military operations in Europe, has a strategic communication office with a staff of six, including a director, a deputy director, an administrative executive officer, and three strategists, according to Maj. Ryan Donald, a spokesman. The staffers help ensure that messages conveyed by military actions are taken into account by commanders. The office has a budget, excluding salaries, of $248,000 for travel, supplies and professional development.
Central Command, which is responsible for the Middle East, including the war in Afghanistan, does not have an office for strategic communication, according to Col. John Robinson, a Centcom spokesman.
The issue of strategic communication has been controversial since it began gaining momentum about 10 years ago. Contractors specializing in marketing began winning work to provide the military with advice on how to portray its activities to the public. Among them was The Rendon Group, which has earned more than $100 million in advising the military.
By the end of the last decade, a backlash against the strategic communication was evident at the highest levels of command. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, derided strategic communication as a "cottage industry." In an interview last year with the paper, he said the term itself had become meaningless and that he refused to use it.
"It has become a thing unto itself," Mullen said. "If it is taking resources from the fight, I don't have time for it."
On the website Foreign Policy, Rosa Brooks, a former Pentagon strategic communications official from 2009 to 2011, took issue with Little's memo and its portrayal in USA TODAY.
Strategic communication is a "simple plea," she wrote. The U.S. government should try to understand how its actions are perceived abroad, plan for it, and attempt not to antagonize foreign audiences unnecessarily.
"In fact, the memo isn't even a good example of 'communication synchronization': It's badly out of sync with the rest of the Defense Department, which for the most part has — slowly but surely — begun to integrate the concept of strategic communication into day-to-day planning and operations," Brooks wrote. "The good news? Combatant commanders are likely to give the memo the treatment it deserves, and place it right in the circular file."