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

Congress, the State Department, and “communistic, fascistic, and other alien influences”

The current debate on the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act is filled with misinformation about the history of Smith-Mundt, some of it verging on blatant propaganda, making the overall discussion rich in irony. In 1947, the bipartisan and bicameral Congressional committee assembled to give its recommendation on the Smith-Mundt Act declared that it was a necessary response to the danger posed “by the weapons of false propaganda and misinformation and the inability on the part of the United States to deal adequately with those weapons.” Today, it is the Smith-Mundt Act that is victim to “false propaganda” and “misinformation” that are shaping the perceptions of the the Modernization Act as a whole and its parts.

Many of the negative narratives swirling around the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act are based on assumptions and myths that, like true propaganda, have an anchor in reality but stray from the facts to support false conclusions. These fabrications include the false assertion the Act ever applied to the whole of Government, often specifically the Defense Department (there is a separate “no propaganda” law for the Defense Department), as well the more broad and fundamental confusion, and lack of knowledge, of the nature and content of America’s public diplomacy with foreign audiences.

An honest appraisal of the Modernization Act requires an honest representation of the original Smith-Mundt Act, especially it’s so-called “firewall.” Drawing on my forthcoming book on the history of the Smith-Mundt Act, below is a brief account on the primary cause behind the Congress legislating that the State Department shall “disseminate abroad information about the U.S., the American people, and the policies promulgated by the Congress, the President, the Secretary of State and other responsible officials of Government having to do with matters affecting foreign affairs.”

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How Congress Violated the First Amendment and Got Away With It

By Alex Belida

When I worked at Voice of America, the flagship U.S. international media operation, the biggest legal problems I heard senior managers wring their hands over were possible violations of an obscure 1948 law known as the Smith-Mundt Act.

This isn’t one of those comic regulations, like “it is illegal to wear a fake moustache that causes laughter in a church.”

In fact this one is pretty serious for a news organization. It states “information produced by VOA for audiences outside the United States shall not be disseminated within the United States.” 

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“An inch closer feels like a good mile” – Foreign Relations moves on Tara’s nomination

Today’s business meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee includes Tara Sonenshine, nominee for Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy (and Public Affairs).  While perfunctory and the time spent on Tara and her cohort will be measured in single-digit minutes (all the real work is done before the business meeting), it is a major move toward confirmation.

Indeed, by the time you read this, Tara’s nomination was already referred to the floor.  Next up: confirmation by the Senate.

How long will the Senate take confirm Tara?  No one knows.  The Senate has all but come to a halt on nominations, allowing only a few through.  One insider labeled the GOP hold on nominations as the “How-Dare-the-President-Make-SoCalled-Recess-Appointments Hold.”

The State Department, in a show of its confidence in the Senate last week, named Amb. Kathleenn Stephens as Acting Under Secretary.  Amb. Stephens, by the way, is a good choice, a Foreign Service Officer with the rank of Career Minister, whose service as U/S will undoubtedly be impacted by the unknown of how long she will serve, an unfortunate and common reality of this particular job.  Place your bets: Will she serve until the election, or beyond, or until the end of the month?

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Amb. Kathleen Stephens named Acting Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy (and Public Affairs)

From the State Department:

The Secretary announces that President Obama has designated Ambassador D. Kathleen Stephens as the Acting Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs pending the Senate’s confirmation of the President’s nominee, Tara Sonenshine. Ambassador Stephens will begin work on February 6, 2012, and will exercise all of the authorities of the office for the duration of this designation.

Tara’s nomination remains in limbo as we wait for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to refer her to the floor.  Maybe there will be a business meeting next week to move her to the next step, along with several Ambassadorial nominees.  However, the real challenge is not the Committee but the floor of the Senate where the general sense is few if any confirmations will be allowed in the current less-than-bipartisan environment.  Hence, the appointment of Stephens as Acting Under Secretary.

Amb. Stephens was most recently the U.S. Ambassador to South Korea.

For more on the unencumbered Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy (and Public Affairs), see “R we there yet? A look at the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy (and Public Affairs).”  Unless there is some surprise in the Senate, perhaps a Valentine’s Day gift (to both Tara to give her the office and Amb. Stephens to relieve her of it), this Under Secretary position will have been empty, or not encumbered by person confirmed by the Senate to the position, for 1 out of every 3 days since the position was established in 1999.  The question will be how much more than 1/3 the time will the seat be vacant (no slight to Amb. Stephens intended)?

Note: Amb. Stephens’s bio at state.gov hasn’t been updated in a while.  In fact, “outofdate” is actually in the current URL of her bio: http://www.state.gov/outofdate/bios/109797.htm

Ch-Ch-Changes?

What does leadership change in the House mean for Congressional action on public diplomacy and strategic communication?

First, there is the House Foreign Affairs Committee where Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) (on Twitter) replaces Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) are Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. As Josh Rogin notes at ForeignPolicy.com, Ros-Lehtinen will “change the tone and agenda of the committee and will pose new challenges” for the Obama Administration.

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Reforming Smith-Mundt: Making American Public Diplomacy Safe for Americans

VOA_stamp_1967My latest op-ed on the conceptually and practically out-of-date "firewall" of the Smith-Mundt Act is up at World Politics Review: Reforming Smith-Mundt: Making American Public Diplomacy Safe for Americans. The complete article is available without a subscription.

American public diplomacy has been the subject of many reports and much discussion over the past few years. But one rarely examined element is the true impact of the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which for all practical purposes labels U.S. public diplomacy and government broadcasting as propaganda. The law imposes a geographic segregation of audiences between those inside the U.S. and those outside it, based on the fear that content aimed at audiences abroad might "spill over" into the U.S. This not only shows a lack of confidence and understanding of U.S. public diplomacy and international broadcasting, it also ignores the ways in which information and people now move across porous, often non-existent borders with incredible speed and ease, to both create and empower dynamic diasporas.

The impact of the "firewall" created by Smith-Mundt between domestic and foreign audiences is profound and often ignored. Ask a citizen of any other democracy what they think about this firewall and you’re likely to get a blank, confused stare: Why — and how — would such a thing exist? No other country, except perhaps North Korea and China, prevents its own people from knowing what is said and done in their name. …

The rest at World Politics Review and comment there or here.

It is time this wall, one of the last two remaining walls of the Cold War, the other being the Korean DMZ, came down. If we insist on keeping this wall, a completely un-American and naive approach to global affairs, should Wikileaks be enlisted to let people within the US borders know what its government is doing with its money and in its name?

See also:

  • Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2010 (Updated) on the Thornberry-Smith legislation now pending in Congress
  • Recalling the 2009 Smith-Mundt Symposium on the January 2009 event on US public diplomacy
  • …and the only-somewhat tongue in cheek remark by PJ Crowley, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, at the daily briefing of 27 July 2010. While announcing the new Coordinator of IIP in his opening remarks, Matt Lee from the AP (also only somewhat tongue-in-check) asks whether PJ can talk about this "under the provisions of Smith-Mundt?" PJ’s response: "Yes. I, as the head of Public Affairs, can communicate both domestically and internationally. IIP, on the other hand, can only communicate outside the borders of the United States."

GAO and US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy discuss evaluation tools

The subject of public diplomacy evaluation tools and methodologies has been front and center this week. Debating the difference between “measures of effectiveness” (or MOE), “measures of performance” (or MOP), and throwing spaghetti at a wall can seem like arcane stuff, understanding the value of engagement, and the ability to communicate that value, is extremely important. Measures are fundamental to discussions on what to do and why.

Of course in order to measure, one must not only know the audience (primary, secondary, tertiary as they must be categorized… or do they?), where they are (as they are less likely to be within neat geographic coordinates), and how they communicate, but also the effect, intentional and unintentional, of the activities of allies, adversaries, and neutrals on the audience. The world cannot be put into a laboratory.

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Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2010 (Updated)

On July 13, US Congressmen Mac Thornberry (TX-13) and Adam Smith (D-WA), both members of the House Intelligence and Armed Services Committees, introduced “The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2010” (H.R. 5729), a bipartisan bill to revise an outdated restriction that interferes with the United States’ diplomatic and military efforts. The Smith-Mundt Act, formally known as the United States Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948, was intended to improve and institutionalize information and exchange activities to counter Communist activities around the world that America’s ambassador to Russia described in 1946 as a “war of ideology… a war unto death.” Today, however, the Smith-Mundt Act is invoked not to enable engagement but to limit it.

The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2010 by Reps. Thornberry and Smith seeks to update the so-called “firewall” of the Act to bring it up to date with the modern environment where people, ideas, and information move through porous or non-existent borders with increasing ease.

The impact of the current “firewall” is decreased accountability of what is said and done in the name of the taxpayer and with taxpayer’s money, reduced transparency and scrutiny in the conduct, purpose, and effectiveness of foreign policy, reduced awareness of global affairs, limited understanding of the State Department in general inhibiting the development of constituency.

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