Information Operations: Successes and Failures
Robert R. Reilly
Senior Fellow, American Foreign Policy Council & Former Director, Voice of America
September 6, 2013
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’ll 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. Don’t go into a war of ideas unless you understand the ideas you are at war with. Don’t go into a war of ideas unless you have an idea. Wars of ideas are fought by people who think. People who don’t 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’m going to do today is reflect briefly on what we’ve done that’s worked, on what hasn’t 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’m invariably drawn to some operations in which I’ve been personally involved. There were several huge failures and some tiny successes. I’ve 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’re 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 won’t 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’s 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’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s 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 didn’t want to miss a program. He said, “I too, of course, used to listen to it, the Voice of America. Of course, I don’t 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.