Center for Strategic Communication

by Steven R. Corman

Yesterday I participated in a journalists’ roundtable discussion (sponsored by the AOC) on next week’s symposium organized by blogging buddy and Smith-Mundt super-wonk Matt Armstrong.  At issue is what to do about the Smith-Mundt Act (SMA).

In a nutshell, the SMA (among other things) erects a firewall preventing domestic dissemination of U.S. strategic communication directed at foreign audiences.  If you want to know more about it than that, a good place to start is Matt’s essay in Small Wars Journal and numerous posts on his blog.

Everyone seems to agree that this Cold War relic has to go (the firewall, not the whole Act).  The reasons are several:

  • The SMA is based on the obsolete idea that domestic and foreign audiences can be kept separate.  Once upon a time, before satellite television and the Internet, this idea might have been (somewhat) practical.  In today’s communication techology environment it’s a fantasy.  If you don’t believe me, just ask the Lincoln Group.
  • The SMA creates unhelpful complexity in the strategic communication landscape.  As we have argued, dependencies between communication actions make the landscape rugged, and this in turn complicates U.S. efforts to find effective messages in both domestic and international communication.  Legal constraints like those created by the SMA are one source of dependency that we have the ability to control. Eliminating them will make the search for the right messages more effective.
  • The SMA puts restrictions on U.S. communicators that are just plain silly.  Roundtable panelist George Clack, Director of the  Office of Publications in the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs, regaled us with the latest example.  When the State Department launched the website, lawyers were in a quandary about how to keep this domestic web site, which is intended for foreign audiences, from “influencing” people here in the U.S.  Their solution was basically that the State Department couldn’t announce or advertise the site, presumably on the theory that this would keep anyone in the U.S. from finding out about it.
  • The SMA impairs domestic oversight.  In response to a “so what” question from Spencer Ackerman, the panelists pointed out that the SMA prevents proper oversght of U.S. strategic communication by those outside the government.  For example if the press has questions about specific overseas communication efforts, the State Department can’t answer them for fear of violating the SMA.

Everyone seems to realize these problems and there is widespread agreement that the SMA firewall should be torn down.  So why hasn’t it happened?  I have discerned two answers to this question that suggest important agenda items for next week’s conference.

First, credible sources argue that if we dismantle the SMA firewall, we will essentially be destroying a sort of force-field that keeps public diplomacy efforts from being assimilated into undifferentiated communication from the State Department.  During the discussion Clack put it this way:

I do think messages need to be tailored for foreign audiences.  And my concern, if Smith-Mundt were to disappear, if Congress were to repeal it, my concern would be–having seen the latest State Department operations in the PA office, that the gravitational force of the daily briefing and the daily spin message–to mostly the American Public–would take over all the work that you do.  And that the fundamental work of public diplomacy–which in my view is a kind of long term work explaning values much more than explaining particular policies of the moment or the day–I’m afraid that the Public Affairs Office would win the resource competition and within five years or so people who are dedicating their lives to trying to craft messages for foreign audiences, that might disappear.  So that is my big concern about having Smith-Mundt just plain disappear.

He is not alone in this assessment.  He is the third State Department official from whom I’ve heard essentially the same argument this year.  If this is true it signals a serious path-dependency problem in dealing with Smith-Mundt: We are faced with keeping a counterproductive firewall in place because it would be even more counterproductive to eliminate it and thereby bleed our public diplomacy communication efforts to death.

In my question to the panel I noted the irony of keeping a SMA provision that hinders public diplomacy in order to protect it.  I asked whether this meant we should both get rid of the firewall and address organizational issues to guarantee a robust public diplomacy effort.  For example in its last two reports (the most recent published this year) the Defense Sciences Board Task Force on Strategic Communication has called for establishment of an independent organization to coordinate U.S. strategic communication.  During the last Presidential campaign, Senator McCain called for reconstituting the USIA.

David Firestein, of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, was opposed to that kind of reorganization:

I think that the need for a new agency or to reconstitute a USIA-type organization is overstated.  In my view–and I do think this is a kind of unconventional and minority view within the foreign affairs community–I think that the problem is the opposite.  I think the problem is that the consolidation that was envisioned with the 1999 amalgamation of the USIA into the State Department never really occurred.  What did occur was that offices came over within the walls of main State at Foggy Bottom but the actual process of sitting down and kind of re-thinking  the policy-making process to bring publc diplomacy considerations in, in a much more integral way, that never occurred.   So I would argue that the opposite needs to happen, that what should have happened or was supposed to happen in 1999 and that didn’t happen that’s what still needs to happen.  Namely, a much greater level of integration between the public diplomacy function, which is nominally housed in the State Department but which in fact is largely sort of independent in its operation.  We’ve got to bring the function into the policy making process.

I wholeheartedly agree (and have argued elsewhere) that public diplomacy needs to be more integrated into the policy making process.  However, that doesn’t address the worry about the PD messaging function being undermined.  So this is clearly one important agenda item for next week’s conference: How do we eliminate the SMA firewall while maintaining a distinct and vigorous effort to communicate messages tailored for foreign audiences?

Second, there has been a lack of political will to reform the SMA.  An official I spoke with at a recent conference said that people in the State Department have recognized the problem with the SMA for years, and have made previous attempts to reform it.  However, doing this requires congressional action.  The official said the pattern is that whichever party of out of power at the time of attempted reform is lukewarm, insuring that idea never gets political traction.  Living 1977 miles outside the Beltway I find this hard to understand, but there you have it.  Perhaps someone reading this can enlighten by posting a comment.

In any case, it is clear that it will not be enough for the conferees to merely recognize the problem and develop a workable plan that will preserve the public diplomacy mandate.  A second important agenda item is:  How will they marshal enough political concern to effectively push the issue to congressional action?

The good news is that I spoke this afternoon with Matt,  who has been making the rounds with members of Congress.  He thinks there is bipartisan support to finally do something.  Though that is a positive sign, I fear this will still be a tough nut to crack because of the various and sundry crises demanding the attention of  Washington at present.

Those worries notwithstanding, congratulations to Matt for organizing what is shaping up to be an important conference.  May it actually help dispose of the old, rusty, and dull saw that is the SMA firewall.