Real vs. False Distinctions in Rethinking Smith-Mundt

by Steven R. Corman

Matt Armstrong recently posted  an essay on the Smith-Mundt Act that has been getting a lot of attention.  In it he claims that the Act has outlived its usefulness, and I am on record as agreeing with him. Sharon Weinberger over at Danger Room has just finished posting a three part critique of Matt’s paper.  Her response is thoughtful and impassioned, the kind of discussion we should be having about this important but under-discussed issue.

As a way of furthering that discussion, I’d like to point out three ways that I think Sharon’s critique misses the mark by either underplaying or overplaying important distinctions, and one distinction that Matt’s essay may underplay too.  Since part III of Sharon’s critique focuses more on public diplomacy than Smith-Mundt, I’ll stick to part I and part II.

Constraints vs. Efforts

One underplayed distinction in Sharon’s critique is between removing a constraint and mounting an effort.  She agrees with Matt that there is little distinction between foreign and domestic audiences, but says this does not justify removing the constraints on government communication:

In effect, Armstrong asserts what I find to be the scariest of all worlds: a U.S. government bureaucracy that focuses not only on propagandizing abroad, but propagandizing at home. “The territory of the United States is not neutral territory,” Matt writes, in one of several scary statements in the essay.

It’s worth noting that we already have a scary government propaganda bureaucracy called the White House Office of Presidential Communications.  It routinely operates on listeners at home and abroad, and its propaganda accomplishments are well known.  Given this, changing one old law hardly risks unleashing a propaganda pandemic against which Americans have no immune response.

I have personally heard people in the DoD worry about whether, for example, they could legally distribute a leaflet in Afghanistan because of the danger that it might be posted on the Internet and be viewed by citizens back home.  Mitigating this worry is not the same thing as launching a PSYOP campaign on U.S. citizens.  We could find a way to both remove the constraint and prevent abuse.

Structures vs. Practices

A second, and related, distinction that Sharon underplays is between structures and practices.  Matt’s argument is about the constraining legal structures imposed by Smith-Mundt, how these are perverse given the original intent, and their unrealism given present day conditions.  Kevin Dooley and I have further made the argument that these constraints make the strategic communication landscape unnecessarily complicated in cases, like counterterrorism, where few would question the propriety of government efforts to influence the discussion.

Sharon’s concerns seem to be more about practices than structures.  For example, she worries about military public affairs officers giving misinformation to cover up problems and failures.  That’s a valid worry, but misinformation can be given whether or not we maintain a legal myth that foreign audiences can be walled off from domestic ones.  Practices are a separate issue, and they’re one reason why Matt is right to call for a comprehensive

critical examination on the purpose, management, and methodology of global, not just international, government information activities, education and cultural exchange programs, including reviewing how they are monitored and evaluated by Congress and the American public.

Truths vs. Interpretations

The third distinction is one that Sharon overplays, that between truths and interpretations.  She says that if we do anything differently

the change, in my view, should be to to do away with the notion of “strategic communication,” not to bolster it.

But the idea that we could have unstrategic communication is misguided.  It presumes that there is a clear difference between giving information and trying to strategically influence what people believe. This functionalist view that the main role of mass media is to objectively inform the public was popular in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  It’s no coincidence that this is when the Smith-Mundt Act, with its admonition to “tell the truth,” was passed.

A more contemporary view is that all “truths” are really just interpretations.  The mass media offer meanings from which the audience picks and chooses in constructing its own idea of what is true.  If you accept this social construction view of the media you can’t separate information and influence because they are essentially the same thing.

There are plenty of examples of this in Sharon’s own blog, Danger Room.  One is the framing created by the very name of the blog.  Another is a post from yesterday on New York City’s security measures.  It not only tells us what things are being done but invites us to interpret the system as a Panopticon.

If a Predator drone blows up a house in Afghanistan and kills a family whose father is a Bad Guy, the basic facts will probably not be much in dispute.  What is more at issue is how the facts are interpreted: Was it the intentional murder of innocent people or a legitimate strike against a dangerous terrorist?  If a suicide bomber kills innocent Muslim bystanders while attacking an American patrol, is that apostasy or collateral damage?  In both cases, which interpretation comes to be accepted is important.  That is what strategic communication tries to influence, and in my view it would be foolish to let our opponents do all the framing.

Legalities vs. Ethics

If we can fault Matt’s essay for anything, it is perhaps taking a somewhat legalistic approach to Smith-Mundt, i.e. arguing that its re-examination

must be based on a proper understanding of Congressional intent when it passed a comprehensive bill of greater impact than anything being considered today.

I don’t think we should worry too much about last-century legislative intent to protect private media interests and reign-in suspected pinkos in the State Department.  As Sharon’s posts emphasize, we also have to guard against an “anything goes” culture when it comes to influence efforts (Matt would surely agree).  What we need is a loosening of antiquated legal constraints coupled with standards of practice that allow us to ethically compete with the framings of our enemies.

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  1. [...] would open the door to create institutions of domestic propaganda. Steven Corman’s developed defense of Matt’s essay observes that we already have such institutions within the U.S. government – [...]