Matt Armstrong's blog on public diplomacy, international journalism, and the struggle against propaganda

Modernization Act FAQ

Part of the challenge of the debate over the Smith-Mundt Act today is that most people don’t know what the Act covers, or what “public diplomacy” is. While “public diplomacy” is liberally used by the media and pundits to apply to any activity by the government aimed at foreign audiences, the Smith-Mundt Act, however, is specific in applying only to a small part of the State Department’s bureaucracy and the BBG. Recent examples may be found here.

The subject requires getting past the hyperbole and propaganda and understand the nuanced issues. This is not a all-or-nothing discussion; there is room for clarifications or changes, if required.

Below are twelve answers to three basic questions on the Smith-Mundt Act, as it exists currently, and the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012:

What does the current Smith-Mundt Act do:

1) Prevents transparency, oversight, and accountability of U.S. international broadcasting and public diplomacy by the public and the Congress as it blocks access to what the BBG and one part of the State Department says and does with taxpayer dollars.

2) Portrays U.S. public diplomacy as bad and deceitful propaganda to both U.S. and foreign audiences.

3) Creates confusion in the government over how to engage global audiences and which part of the government may do so.

What does the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act intend to do:

4) Creates transparency so the taxpayer, and the government, can know the details of U.S. international broadcasting and public diplomacy to increase understanding, oversight, accountability of U.S. policies and programs.

5) Permits Americans – including the general public, the media, academia, and the Congress – to view taxpayer funded material intended for audiences abroad and allows the reuse or dissemination by the public, the media, academia, and the Congress.

6) Increases awareness of both the conduct and context of U.S. foreign affairs which increases understanding, oversight, and accountability of U.S. policies and programs.

7) Modernizes the Smith-Mundt Act by distinguishing between the separate leadership and activities of the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

8) Extends the Smith-Mundt Act over the entire State Department, beyond the  public diplomacy side of the Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.

What does the Modernization Act not do:

9) The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act does not remove oversight over U.S. programs that intend to understand, inform, and influence foreign audiences.  It increases the opportunity for this oversight.

10) The Modernization Act does not reauthorize the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, the only government body charged with oversight over U.S. government activities intending to understand, inform, and influence foreign audiences.

11) The Modernization Act does not remove restrictions on the Defense Department, or any other part of the U.S. government, that prevent domestic propaganda. The Smith-Mundt Act never applied to any other executive branch agency other than a small part of the State Department and the BBG. In fact, the Modernization Act expands Smith-Mundt’s coverage to include the entire State Department.  The Defense Department, and other agencies, were and continue to be covered by other legislation that prohibit domestic propaganda and publicity.

12) The Modernization Act does not give the government a free hand to propagandize domestic audiences. The Modernization Act emphasizes existing legislation to not compete with existing media. The Modernization Act does not authorize or appropriate money for the BBG to use its money for domestic broadcasting, or other means of active dissemination, within the United States.


This page is subject to update and refinement. Visit (and comment on) the other short information pages under the Smith-Mundt drop down at the top of this webpage. 

  • John James says:

    This is patently false. Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who was one of the sponsors of the bill, stated that the bill was meant to counter the dissemination of pro-terrorist propaganda on the internet. He is concerned
    that being unable to rebut their propaganda would lead to American terrorist groups forming, and wants to counter them by allowing the government to spread their own information among the public. The bill says nothing about whether it must be the truth. Do you agree that a democratic government should not propagandize its own people, as was the case with totalitarian states like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and as is true of today’s mainland China?

    The last thing we need is the USG, using Pentagon psyops, to be in a state of perpetual war with its citizens in the name of “access to information in an information age.” This is the stated aim of the Smith-Mundt Modernization act (recently passed by Congress), as mentioned by one of its supporters, Reps. Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon (Texas).

    • Matt Armstrong says:

      The bill authorizes the dissemination of information otherwise prohibited from people in the U.S. The reality is the bill specifically prevents the use of funds to “influence public opinion in the United States.” Further, other funding and authorizing laws for the Department of State and the Broadcasting Board of Governors specifically ban “propaganda and publicity” activities. Even more, the appropriations by the Congress do not permit the BBG to actively broadcast this material domestically.

      In my inquiries and discussions into the perceptions and concerns over changing Smith-Mundt, one thing is constant: the examples come from agencies and actors that are not and never were covered by Smith-Mundt. This is not about “Pentagon psyops,” which is covered by separate legislation, but about allowing you, the public, the media, academia, and even the Congress to see and at your discretion share, or disseminate, the material.

      The current legislation prevents Nazi, Soviet, PRC, and North Korean style propaganda: Smith-Mundt requires deferring to private media whenever possible and it prevents a monopoly. The examples you gave were and are dependent on monopolizing the news and information business by the Government. The Modernization Act specifically highlights the existing law (22 USC 1437 and 22 USC 1462).

      In fact, promotion of the current legislation promotes government secrecy, inhibiting accountability, and forcing the government to speak out of two mouths, one for audiences abroad and another for domestic audiences. What other governments do that? (Hint: see above.) A singular voice, held accountable, may sound remarkably different to Americans.

      Do you feel there should be more restrictions on the government’s ability to disseminate this information on its own? That is a valid concern and worthy of discussion. Or do you believe the material of a part of the State Department and the entire BBG should remain off-limits to the public, the media, academia, and the Congress?

  • Joshua King says:

    Dear Matt,

    I remain anxious about this act, especially Section 208(B):

    “Nothing in this section shall be construed to prohibit the Department of State or the Broadcasting Board of Governors from engaging in any medium or form of communication, either direclty or indirectly, because a United States domestic audience is or may be thereby exposed to program material, or based on a presumption of such exposure. Such material may be made available within the United States and disseminated when appropriate, pursuant to sections 502 and 1005 of the United States Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948.”

    Sections 502 and 1002 of the Educational Exchange Act state, respectively, that the State Department cannot exercise a monopoly over communication and that they must use private American media agencies to spread their materials whenever possible. You note this. Nonetheless, the language of this section permits the State Department to aim “any medium or form of communication” at “a United States domestic audience.” This seems to me dangerously close to authorizing propaganda.

    The issue, as you suggest, is that the Act specifies no limits on the context in which, and the explanation with which, the materials and programs of the Department of State reach the public, “directly or indirectly.” So, feasably, a slanted portrayal of U.S. policy toward Iran, which makes unverifiable claims about our intentions and actions and levies false or sloppy accusations at the government of Iran related to nuclear weapons research, could be released to the public without any explanation of its nature or importance. Of course, the government did this sort of thing direclty in the case of Iraq (weapons of mass destruction, etc.). But feasibly this act would permit State Department operatives to post “opinions” and “reports” on all sorts of social media and information centers on the internet. This could easily skew public perceptions and accomplish what seciton 208(a) forbids (“influcing public opinion in the United States”). Information not originally designed for such a purpose could, released in the right context and way, easily serve that purpose.

    • Matt Armstrong says:

      the section you cite about “nothing in this shall shall be construed to prohibit” is not permission to “aim” as you suggest. Instead, it is directly “aimed” at planners and diplomats who say they should not do something because someone in the U.S. might become aware of it, whatever it is. This could include allowing an American to go on a German radio station, allowing the NATO Channel to show a VOA film (know any people in the U.S. who watch – or even know about – the NATO Channel??), or anything else. The language does not suggest or “permit” the State Department to “aim”.

      On the point of “propaganda”, you may be surprised at the lack of that in the public diplomacy field. Lies and deception don’t go far in a competitive communication environment in which the basic currency is trust. If State’s public diplomacy is lying to foreign audiences, don’t you want to know about it and correct? Or is it good and appropriate your tax dollars are lying to foreigners?

      Thank you for the time to comment.

  • Joshua King says:

    Dear Matt,
    Thanks for your quick reply. I don’t think you really answer my objections. I remain unconvinced that the language of the Act is not specific enough to preclude the kind of repercussions that I indicated in my earlier post. Yes, I do wish to know what the State department is using abroad, especially if, as you suggest, it might be distributing misinformation. But I want to have stricter limits placed on how and in what context that information will be released to the American public.

    Simply do a quick internet search to refresh your memory of the Habbush memo and Agent Curveball. These were, quite clearly, examples of misinformation manufactured and/or encouraged by the U.S. government to justify an unjustifiable war in Iraq. In the case of the Habbush memo, it was deliberately leaked into the public sphere, first reaching the Sunday Telegraph in the UK, and then bouncing back to the U.S. Eventually Newsweek exposed the sham, but the damage, I fear, had already been done, and even now most Americans have a vague sense that in some way the 2003 invasion of Iraq was justified and somehow connected to national security: it was not. Is not that an example of propaganda in the “public diplomacy field”?

    So yes, let’s demand transparency; but why should we not also demand clarification about how, when, and to whom such information will be released? Not to do so seems ridiculous, at least to me.

    Thanks for starting a very good conversation–something one would wish could take place in the mainline media about this very issue. So much confusion, as you say, has surrounded it.


  • Joshua King says:

    Sorry, I mistyped my first sentence: I meant to say “I remain unconvinced that the language of the Act _is_ specific enough to preclude the kind of repercussions that I indicated in my earlier post.”

  • Matt Armstrong says:

    Again, your comments and concerns are valid. It is important to note that the examples you give were not, to the best of my knowledge a product of or disseminated by the public diplomacy bureaucracy which the Smith-Mundt Act covered then, today, or will under the changes in the current Modernization Act. The act currently covers the public diplomacy bureaucracy at State (http://state.gov/r and http://state.gov/iip and http://state.gov/eca) and the government’s international broadcasters (http://bbg.gov). The Modernization Act will expand the coverage to include all of the State Department. In other words, the Modernization Act would not have an effect on the examples you raise. There are other laws that should cover those activities (you’d have to delve into what restrictions or permissions were on the involved money and organizations). used

    The transparency the Modernization Act creates, it seems to me, would allow for the “clarification about how, when, and to whom” information was released, as well as the all-important context. The transparency would permit, possibly even encourage, understanding why something was done. Individuals, reporters, pundits, Congress, etc would have a greater flow of information that is easier to access (including without the burden of bureaucratic filtering).

    What change to the Modernization Act would you propose? An oversight body? Periodic reporting by the covered agencies? A restriction on domestic active dissemination by the agency with full domestic access to content produced for audiences abroad? If so, could State help convene a discussion on a college campus or community hall or foreign policy association to talk about foreign affairs? Should the Modernization Act focus more on the meaning or purpose of content rather than bureaucracy (the current Smith-Mundt does not test content for its suitability, the only test is who produced it)?

  • Joshua King says:


    Thank you for your clarifying response. I think your last suggestion, about the need to focus on the purpose and meaning of content, rather than on the bureaucratic source (State Department), is very good. This gets to the heart of my concern. And as long as the covered bodies were periodically reporting what they release by making, say, a public listing available on an easily accessed website through the State Department, then many of my fears would be allayed. I further believe that the Act could do more to explain to whom the information would be released: simply to interested individuals/parties making specific inquiries into what the State Dep. is disseminating abroad, or–on occasion–to the public in general (through web dissemination, etc.), and without a _clear_ accompanying explanation that the purpose is to inform U.s. citizens what the government is telling foreign audiences. Thanks for the dialogue!