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A Blog on Understanding, Informing, Empowering, and Influencing Global Publics, published by Matt Armstrong

Obsolete arguments to keep an obsolete law

By all means, let’s keep a law designed for another era on the books because, well, it’s there. That’s the argument many have offered in defense of the restrictive provisions added to the Smith-Mundt Act in 1972 and 1985. My friend Kim Andrew Elliot makes this argument while reviewing the Defense Department paper on strategic communication I posted this week.

"Understand the difference between public diplomacy and strategic communication. For the former, the audience is outside the geographic territory of the United States. For the latter, the audience is global. Science and Technology solutions do not generally discriminate based on geographic location, nor should they. The domains of strategic communication can not be limited to those with public affairs authority – everyone should be viewed as a strategic communicator."
Brilliant. This report has found a way to work around the Smith-Mundt clause prohibiting the domestic dissemination of public diplomacy. Just call it "strategic communication."

Kim’s statement is based on the belief that American public diplomacy is unfit for American audiences because it is a) deceitful, b) illegal influence, or c) damaging to the domestic news market. None of these are valid reasons today. 

What is most odd and rarely acknowledged is the examples put forward of undue influence on the American public comes not from public diplomacy but from public affairs or highly tactical military uses. Sheldon Rampton and Diane Farsetta argue, for example, that the so-called geographic firewall in the Smith-Mundt Act is required because of activities by military public affairs and tactical information operations, none of which are actually covered by Smith-Mundt or intended to be covered by Smith-Mundt. As far as the Rumsfeld-era Information Operations Roadmap is concerned, take a look instead at new doctrine and discussions that understands that global nature of the informational and perceptual struggle.

It is interesting that critics of "propaganda" cite the activities of public affairs and public diplomacy "defenders" fear a take-over by public affairs if the wall were to come down. 

This is not about propaganda or is about supporting the Defense Department, as some have suggested. This is about realizing we are in a global information environment and responding accordingly. Face the fact: if you want to communicate to Latin America one of the best ways of doing so is to broadcast on a Spanish language radio or television station within the US.

As the inane coverage of Michael Jackson’s death and death ceremonies consumes mainstream news, isn’t it more apparent that Americans are simply not getting the insights into what is happening overseas?

It wasn’t that long ago that the courts interpreted the Zorinsky Amendment to the Smith-Mundt Act as meaning that much of what the United States said and did overseas could not be shared with the American public to the extent that these activities and broadcasts were not subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). I doubt that is what Kim or Sheldon are suggesting. 

If you really want to prevent "propaganda", which is code for influence, then seriously, make a move to stop Administration officials from going on Sunday talk shows, Nightline, Jim Lehrer, and the like.

Go a step farther. Why not prevent foreign government broadcasts in the US by foreign agents and US media?

Instead push for greater transparency in activities as the Smith-Mundt Act requires. This is a global environment and the US is not neutral ground and the American public is not well-informed.

We must return to the principles and purpose of public diplomacy: tell the truth; explain the motives of the United States; bolster morale and extend hope; give a true and convincing picture of American life, methods and ideals; combat misrepresentation and distortion; and aggressively interpret and support American foreign policy. At the same time, it would be worthwhile to resurrect Edward R. Murrow’s mantra (which the Defense Department has largely adopted): "Truth is the best propaganda…To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful."

imagePersonally, I think America.gov has some interesting products more Americans should be keen on reading. In fact, I know Americans are interested but if the public diplomacy apparatus creates information then it was illegal for America.gov to tweet about the publication at the right if they knew Americans were the primary audience (the argument has been made that "intention" is all that is required, as in the tweet was intended for audiences not on American soil) and it is illegal for you, if you are on American soil, to access the publication.

It is time to really understand what the purpose of the restriction was and accept that purpose is gone, destroyed by both technology and basic reality of the purpose of public diplomacy, and yes strategic communication, today.

See also:

  • George Clack says:

    Good points on absurdity of Smith-Mundt in an age of social networking. I think one point you make may be subject to misunderstanding, however: “it is illegal for you, if you are on American soil, to access the publication.” My understanding is that the Smith-Mundt ban on dissemination of content intended for foreign audiences within the USA applies only to the actions of State Department employees. Thus an American citizen who stumbles upon the Web site you cite and checks it out would not be violating the law. If I, however, as a State Department employee were to give you the URL for that publication, it would be a violation. Early in the days of the Internet, USIA lawyers cooked up a sort of figleaf interpretation of the law, which says that it’s OK for PD employees to put up a Web site and advertise it overseas, but we cannot tell Americans how to find it. G. Clack, IIP, State Dept.

    July 9, 2009 at 5:27 pm
  • Dennis Murphy says:

    You’re right about S-M applying only to State. But the perception is that it applies to all USG agencies and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that it has hindered military efforts to tell their story or use websites overseas. IG investigations galore which in the end rule in favor of information activities, but which in the meantime stop efforts dead in their tracks during the investigations.

    July 10, 2009 at 8:37 am
  • Dennis Murphy says:

    One of the most telling things coming out of the Smith-Mundt symposium in January was the perception among foreign populations that we lie to them. Why else would we restrict ourselves from saying the same things we’re telling them to our domestic audience? The lack of transparency further exacerbates a general U.S. perception of mistrust of our own government and certainly a lack of knowledge of what our information efforts are overseas. Consequently people think we do nothing to counter enemy propaganda partly because we feel constrained to tell them about the counter-efforts. Lastly, it was noted that strategic communication efforts lack U.S. advocates for the same reason. Therefore noone in Congress or elsewhere on the hill pushing for resources. It’s crazy.

    July 10, 2009 at 8:26 am

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