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

Background on the Smith-Mundt “Firewall”

The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 did not contain a ‘firewall’, despite many modern interpretations and assertions, to prohibit domestic access to the information programs authorized by the Act, such as shortwave broadcasting that became known during the time the Act was debated and passed as Voice of America.

The ‘controls’ in the Act to make sure the program was run properly were:

1) The Advisory Commission on Information, which in 1977 merged with the its sister advisory commission that looked at educational and cultural affairs to become the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.

2) The language in the Act that the government will defer to private media whenever that media is deemed adequate by the Secretary.

3) That the U.S. media, academia, interested private citizens, and the Congress would have near-immediate access to material that was transmitted overseas.

4) Focus in the Secretary of State the responsibility for ‘over-all control of this program.’ This was the most important point.

On the third point, there were discussions to make all broadcasts automatically translated into English and made available, but it was decided the bureaucracy to support that would be too great.

Contemporaneously, there were no concerns about State’s information programs being used domestically. The whole discussion behind the legislation was to grant authorizing, thus controlling and guiding, legislation over a ‘fly-by-night’ operation then operating under appropriations.

The ‘shall disseminate abroad’ text in the Act was an requested authority specifically requested by the State Department and not a restriction imposed by the Congress. Without ‘abroad’, the State Department’s authorities to go abroad were limited to the ‘American republics’, the Philippines, and Liberia. It should also be noted that the State Department was under increasing pressure to be more open to the American public in general, and that the American media, except for the Associate Press (and to a far lesser extent the United Press), expressed vocal support in favor of these programs.

While the Congress broadly questioned the loyalty and competence at the State Department, the Congress believed adequate mechanisms were in place, including ‘loyalty checks’ (today’s security clearance), the advisory commission, and trust placed in the Secretary of State.

See Congress, the State Department, and “communistic, fascistic, and other alien influences” for a short backgrounder on these three points.

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The modern “firewall” came about legislatively in 1972. This shift was several years in the making. A 1967 U.S. Advisory Commission on Information report recommended relaxing the de facto prohibition, in the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act passed the year before, to create transparency in the domestic activities of the federal government. Chaired by the president of CBS, Edward Stanton, the Commission declared the “American taxpayer should no longer be prohibited from seeing and studying the product a government agency produces with public funds for overseas audiences.”

However, ‘The Great Dissenter’ had other ideas. Never a fan of the information programs, he sought first to abolish the Government’s international media and then USIA. By 1972, the nature of international affairs shifted from international relations between people to closed door diplomacy between superpowers. Senator Fulbright, who proudly wore the title The Great Dissenter, tried to eliminate both the VOA (and other U.S. “Radios”) and the USIA as he declared ‘the Radios should be given the opportunity to take their rightful place in the graveyard of Cold War relics.’

Fulbright’s loudest shot in his long-running battle against the Radios was trying to block a fellow Senator from showing a USIA film in New York. Senator Buckley (I-NY) sought to air the film on his monthly show to constituents. The U.S. Attorney General disagreed with Fulbright, stating Smith-Mundt “prohibited USIA from actively disseminating its materials in the United States but required the agency to make materials available upon request by the press or by members of Congress.” A fight ensued between Fulbright and the Nixon Administration as Fulbright pressed harder. While it ended up being Fulbright’s last term in office, he ‘won’ by successfully amending Smith-Mundt to permit USIA material to be disseminated within the U.S. only with explicit an authorization by the Congress.

In 1985, Senator Zorinsky sought to close the “loopholes” left by Senator Fulbright’s amendment. At the time, Zorinsky was investigating USIA for nepotism, looking into questionable and imperious spending by USIA Director Charles Wick, and voicing concerns over other activities labeled as “public diplomacy,” such as the Office of Public Diplomacy run by Otto Reich that had nothing to do with either the practice or the bureaucracy of USIA or public diplomacy. Zorinsky said the “Second Mandate” of USIA, which was to inform Americans about the world abroad (the first “mandate” was informing foreign publics about America) should never be allowed.

The Zorinsky amendment would result in federal court ruling that USIA material is exempt from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, a decision that was relaxed years later. When the material was available, through FOIA for example, the “for examination only” clause meant those who successfully petitioned to review USIA material could do so without taking notes or copies of the material (such as a VOA script).

It is worth noting that the Congress decided in 1994 that the “political propaganda” of foreign governments no longer required to be labeled as such.