Critics Fret About Smith-Mundt Modernization Act

by Steven R. Corman

The House of Representatives has been working to amend the laws that govern the dissemination of “propaganda” materials in the U.S.  What seemed like a good idea to me and others–one long overdue–is being spun by some observers as a dark effort by the DoD and State Department who want authorization to brainwash Americans.

Last night Buzzfeed posted an article claiming that the changes were being quietly inserted into a defense authorization bill. However, as Matt Armstrong reported, the changes were also part of a stand-alone bill (H.R. 5736) introduced last week.  I confess I am no expert on the arcania of legislative machinery, but the fact that this bill was introduced a week ago and published by the Library of Congress–then later attached to the defense bill–strikes me as more of a procedural move than an effort to sneak something through.

In a further effort to build a sinister narrative, Buzzfeed frets that this is some sort of effort to enable unfettered psychological operations by the military and government on the U.S. population.  Assorted quotes from the article:

The bill’s supporters say the informational material used overseas to influence foreign audiences is too good to not use at home, and that new techniques are needed to help fight Al-Qaeda, a borderless enemy whose own propaganda reaches Americans online.

The new law would give sweeping powers to the State Department and Pentagon to push television, radio, newspaper, and social media onto the U.S. public.

“Senior public affairs” officers within the Department of Defense want to “get rid” of Smith-Mundt and other restrictions because it prevents information activities designed to prop up unpopular policies—like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I am not a legal expert, and I suppose changes could have these kinds of consequences if not made carefully.  But I doubt these these are the intended outcomes.

People in the strategic communication and public diplomacy arena (including me) have agreed for some time that changes to Smith-Mundt are needed.  Nobody I know wants changes so they can–MWAHAAHAAHAA!–run propaganda ops on Americans.  It’s more of an effort to recognize the reality of the modern situation.

The law in question was passed after World War II and the intent of the sections under review was originally indeed to prevent State Department communication from influencing the U.S. government.  But since then an interpretation has evolved that the law forbids propaganda destined for foreign audiences from being disseminated domestically, that it applies to the military as well, and that it applies to the most innocuous kind of information.  As Matt points out, “legally, the American public is not supposed to know what Michelle Kwon, for example, does when she is traveling abroad on behalf of the State Department as that is a public diplomacy trip.”

Maintaining a firewall between foreign and domestic audiences was perhaps more feasible when the Internet hadn’t even been conceived.  Today it is impossible.  Any communication by the U.S. government or military anywhere can make it back to the United States in a matter of seconds.  Changes in law are needed to recognize reality and prevent our strategic communication agencies from spending time/resources trying to stop the inevitable.  Not only is this a waste of resources but it inhibits our ability to respond to events in a timely manner when communication plans have to be reviewed by teams of lawyers in an effort to comply with an archaic law (I have been told this is something that happens regularly).

Unintentional domestic dissemination is one thing, but what about more intentional efforts critics are claiming this legislation would enable?  The language in the House bill seems clear enough that it only applies to “materials prepared for dissemination abroad” and does not in any way authorize expenditures for targeted influence of domestic audiences.

Update May 20

Other posts on this topic:

Update May 23

This story continues to generate buzz.  Here is a selection of recent opinion:

  • NDAA 2013: Congress approves domestic deceptive propaganda (rt.com, Russian “anonymous nonprofit organization.” Hmm.)  Reauthorizing the indefinite detention of US citizens without charge might be the scariest provision in next year’s defense spending bill, but it certainly isn’t the only one worth worrying about. An amendment tagged on the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 would allow for the United States government to create and distribute pro-American propaganda within the country’s own borders under the alleged purpose of putting al-Qaeda’s attempts at persuading the world against Western ideals on ice.
  • Democrat Defends “Propaganda” Bill (Rebecca Elliot, BuzzFeed) Rep. Adam Smith from Washington championed the defense bill amendment that will “strike the current ban on domestic dissemination” of propaganda in an interview with Salon’s Glenn Greenwald earlier today.Repealing the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 is “not about trying to influence domestic audiences,” Smith emphaized. Rather, he intends the amendment to free up current restrictions placed on foreign information campaigns.
  • U.S. declares propaganda war on citizens (David Pruitt, The Alestle). I can appreciate security, and I’m sure some good arguments could be brought forward for a change in the policy. However, the government’s sexy smile and little wink does nothing to reassure me of any noble intentions. I have grown tired of overused phrases like “you can trust me” and “everybody else is doing it.”  The government has a major image problem when it comes to being considered trustworthy. It would be just a matter of time before a self-serving politician used the bill to start another war or bail out another bank and tell us — well, whatever.
  • Smith-Mundt Modernization: Better Late than Never (Helle Dale, Heritage).  Critics have already voiced concerns that this will open the floodgates of propaganda by the U.S. government. This is hardly likely. Indeed, access to programs and materials produced by the State and the BBG will allow Congress and the public a better understanding of what we are funding. Much of it is high-quality journalism, which deserves support, and some programming could have a positive impact on certain immigrant communities in the United States that are vulnerable to radicalization. As for programming and materials that are controversial, questionable, or wasteful, doesn’t the U.S. public deserve to know what is being published or broadcast in its name?
  • Are Government’s ‘Strategic Communications’ Coming to American Airwaves? (Rachel Marsden, Townhall).  I see. So the Smith-Mundt Act was strictly limited to countering communist propaganda overseas, because the idea of conducting government propaganda operations within a country at a time when Joseph Goebbels was a household name would have triggered post-traumatic stress.
  •  Our View: Truth The Best Tool In Our Defense Efforts (Yankton Press & Dakotan editorial). Does issuing distorted information to our own public make us any better than those who spew out misinformation for their own ends? Americans are better served by the truth. Whether we’re truly getting that now from our own defense department (let alone our news organizations) is certainly debatable, but that debate is just as important and vital to public morale as any news release or communiqué. Keep the laws as they are — strengthen them, in fact — and maintain an America with eyes wide open. The truth is the best antidote to distortion. It may not set as free, but it will certainly keep us free to think.
  • Consider this: American Dollars on American Propaganda to Brainwash American Citizens (Lisa Cerda, City Watch LA).  y striking the existing ban on domestic misinformation campaigns, Americans can expect to be programmed on an even greater scale than ever before. Many would argue that the most prolific misinformation campaign comes in the way of our American History books in our schools. Others would say it is the gag order fueled by corporate interests on our mainstream media.
  • NDAA Amendment Would Legalize War Propaganda (John Glaser, Antiwar Blog).  In other words, people are getting information online that we don’t want people to have – therefore, legalize domestic propaganda. So NDAA is the latest effort by Congress (after SOPA, CISPA and the others) to take control of the best resource the American people have. The Internet is too open, too free, too…subversive. We need information the government wants us to have, not all that other stuff.
  • Proposed US law makes domestic propaganda legal (Cory Doctrow, BoingBoing).  The amendment, sponsored by Rep. Mac Thornberry from Texas and Rep. Adam Smith from Washington State, would allow the US government to knowingly tell lies to its people in order to promote the government’s own policies.
  • Misleading Your Own (“The Reverend,” Akron Beakon Journal Online).  So, I guess giving U.S. government and military officials the power to purposely deceive and mislead Americans into accepting policies which are unpopular….like more war….is just the natural flow of events for a rotted, bloated and declining Empire. The Soviets regularly lied to, deceived and misled their citizens about military adventurism, about worker productivity,…about the United States. The Soviets misled their people to help bolster acceptance of their policies, foreign and domestic. In the long run, that didn’t work. And it will not work for the U.S.A. either.

3 Responses to “Critics Fret About Smith-Mundt Modernization Act”

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  1. Joel Harding says:

    Well said, excellent!

  2. john brown says:

    Steve — Thank you for your informative piece. While I think that SM is anachronistic, I do have some concern about “psyops” being imposed on the American people by eager beavers at DoD. We all remember the sad story of Bush II’s Office of Strategic Influence.
    http://www.fas.org/sgp/news/2002/02/dod022602.html Best, John

  3. Ted Lipien says:

    While I do support changes in the Smith-Mundt Act, there are very legitimate concerns that officials of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) will use the new legislation to abandon foreign audiences to focus on the domestic one. This is a real threat considering their track record of seeking easy mass audiences by downplaying hard news, eliminating broadcasting services to countries like Russia and China, and focusing on providing entertainment and educational programming. The new legislation will make it easier for them to turn away from foreign audiences. I’m also concerned that the same officials will try to remove more programs paid for by U.S. taxpayers from public domain. Currently, Voice of America programs are in public domain but Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are not. Finally, BBG officials are also trying to weaken public and Congressional scrutiny by, for example, attempting to eliminate the requirement that the new proposed CEO position at the BBG be subject to Presidential appointment and Senate confirmation. Who will keep an eye on the BBG if they are allowed to broadcasts and publish in the US? They should at least be prevented from actively marketing their programs domestically, because that’s where taxpayers’ money will go, rather than serving international audiences. I do, however, support the idea that Americans should have full access to BBG programs if they want them. In fact, the current law does not prevent individual American citizens and US broadcasters from using Voice of America programs if they can find them. (They are on the Internet.) It does prevent the BBG from making them available to those who request them. That part of the current law should be changed. But allowing the BBG to market their programs in the US is a bad idea because you can’t trust government bureaucrats to restrain themselves on their own.