Much ado about State Department ‘propaganda’

Josh Rogin by Josh Rogin on May 25th, 2012

This is article 301 of 571 in the topic Media

The congressional drive to update a 1948 law on how the U.S. government manages its public diplomacy has kicked off a heated debate over whether Congress is about to allow the State Department to propagandize Americans. But the actual impact of the change is less sinister than it might seem.

On May 18, Buzzfeed published a story by reporter Michael Hastings about the bipartisan congressional effort to change the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 (as amended by the Foreign Relations Authorization Act in 1987). The story was entitled, “Congressmen seek to lift propaganda ban,” and focuses on the successful effort by Reps. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) and Adam Smith (D-WA) to add their Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 as an amendment to the House version of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act.

The new legislation would “authorize the domestic dissemination of information and material about the United States intended primarily for foreign audiences.” The Buzzfeed article outlines concerns inside the defense community that the Pentagon might now be allowed to use information operations and propaganda operations against U.S. citizens. A correction added to the story notes that Smith-Mundt doesn’t apply to the Pentagon in the first place.

In fact, the Smith-Mundt act (as amended in 1987) only covers the select parts of the State Department that are engaged in public diplomacy efforts abroad, such as the public diplomacy section of the “R” bureau, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the body that oversees the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and other U.S. government-funded media organizations.

Implementation of the law over the years has been selective, haphazard, and at times confusing, because even State Department bureaus often aren’t sure if they have to abide by it. The Thornberry-Smith language is meant to fix that by applying Smith-Mundt to the entire State Department and USAID.

The Defense Department, meanwhile, has its own “no propaganda” rider, enshrined in the part of U.S. code that covers the Pentagon, and that is not affected in any way by either Smith-Mundt as it stands or by the proposed update now found in the defense bill. The only reason the Smith-Mundt modernization bill was attached to the defense bill was because that bill is one that’s sure to move and Congress hasn’t actually passed a foreign affairs authorization bill in years.

“To me, it’s a fascinating case study in how one blogger was pretty sloppy, not understanding the issue and then it got picked up by Politico‘s Playbook, and you had one level of sloppiness on top of another. And once something sensational gets out there, it just spreads like wildfire,” Thornberry told The Cable in an interview today.

He said the update for Smith-Mundt was intended to recognize that U.S. public diplomacy needs to compete on the Internet and through satellite channels and therefore the law preventing this information from being available to U.S. citizens was simply obsolete.

“It should be completely obvious that a law first passed in 1948 might need to be updated to reflect a world of the Internet and satellite [TV],” he said. “If you want the State Department to engage on the war of ideas, it has to do it over the Internet and satellite channels, which don’t have geographical borders.”

Salon writer Glenn Greenwald interviewed Smith Tuesday and wrote a story questioning whether the law would allow the State Department to try to influence American public opinion though “propaganda.” He noted a press release on the Thornberry-Smith legislation which complained that Smith-Mundt had prevented a Minneapolis radio station from replaying VOA broadcasts to Somali-Americans to rebut terrorist propaganda.

Thornberry’s response was to say that the 21st century media environment is already so diverse and open that opening Americans’ access to one more source of information, State Department-produced news and information, was not likely to propagandize American citizens.

“It makes me chuckle. This is not 1948 when everybody was tuned to a few radio stations and the fear was that the information we were sending to Eastern Bloc countries was going to affect American politics,” he said. “The idea that the State Department could be so effective as to impact domestic politics is just silly. This gives Americans the chance to see what the State Department is saying to people all over the world.”

In fact, advocates of the bill tout the issue of transparency and oversight of U.S. public diplomacy as one of the main benefits of the new bill. Previously, oversight of State Department public diplomacy efforts abroad was done by an advisory commission inside the State Department that was shut down last year, while Congress and the media has little to no direct access to the material.

Thornberry said that domestic dissemination of the material will actually increase the transparency and oversight of U.S. public diplomacy by laying it bare for Americans to chew over.

“If all these bloggers see the State Department trying to influence something domestically, they will be the first to raise the alarm,” he said. “It is always going to be true that you have to look at the effectiveness and truthfulness of the content of the information. But it would no longer be against the law that the American people can see it.”

Matt Armstrong, who was the executive director of the State Department’s advisory commission on public diplomacy before it got shut down because Congress declined to reauthorize it, explained on his Mountainrunner blog that Smith-Mundt was designed by a Cold War U.S. government that simply didn’t trust the State Department to talk directly to the American people.

“The Smith-Mundt Act is misunderstood and often mistaken for ‘anti-propaganda’ legislation intended to censor the Government. The reality is the original prohibition on the State Department disseminating inside the U.S. its own information products designed for audiences abroad was, first, to protect the Government from the State Department and, second, to protect commercial media,” he wrote.

In an interview today, Armstrong pointed out that the Thornberry-Smith bill explicitly notes that two existing provisions of Smith-Mundt, both of which would remain intact, address concerns that the State Department might overreach in trying to influence Americans. Section 1437 of the existing legislation requires the State Department to defer to private media whenever possible and Section 1462 requires State to withdraw from a government information activity whenever a private media source is found as an adequate replacement.

He said the law as it stands is just not working and doesn’t make a lot of sense. “When Cal Ripkin or Michele Kwan go to China, Americans aren’t supposed to know that they went or what they did there. In addition, virtually anything that’s on a U.S. embassy website is off limits,” he said.

The discussion over Smith-Mundt is further distorted by a lack of understanding about what public diplomacy is and when it crosses over into “propaganda.”

“Let’s face it, it is impossible to communicate and not influence.. The idea here is that U.S. public diplomacy is not based on lies,” said Armstrong. “There’s this misconception that public diplomacy is propaganda. Propaganda is a lie, a deception, or intentional ambiguity, none of which can be lead to effective public diplomacy by any country, let alone the U.S.”

Of course, the State Department’s Public Affairs bureaucracy, which speaks to Americans every day in various forms, is capable of “propaganda,” but is not covered by Smith-Mundt. The Cable asked State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland at today’s press briefing if State supported the Thornberry-Smith legislation.

“We have long thought that aspects of Smith-Mundt need to be modernized, that in a 24-7 Internet age it’s hard to draw hard lines like the original Smith-Mundt [Act] did in the ‘40s,” she said.

We then asked Nuland whether the State Department has any intent to propagandize American citizens.

“We do not and never have,” she said with a smile.

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