Heritage on Smith-Mundt

I read through Juliana Geran Pilon’s Smith-Mundt article and I agree with Kim Andrew Elliott’s assessment that it has little to do with Smith-Mundt (for background on Smith-Mundt, see my post at Small Wars Journalpart one and one-half is here, part II is forthcoming).

While her intentions are laudable, her examples miss the point and her arguments conflate description of action with the action itself. In the end, she ironically she seems to be making the same arguments that brought about Smith-Mundt in the first place.

Most of what Pilon describes as caused by Smith-Mundt simply aren’t. She raises the issue of fighting the information war within the U.S., but provides little evidence or argument on how Smith-Mundt has limited the domestic conversation. Indeed, she ignores the propaganda values of the Sunday talk show circuit and the Press Secretary’s twice-daily pulpit. That "American generosity is virtually unknown at home" is based more in institutional, bureaucratic, and leadership shortcomings that prevent fighting the "war of ideas like a real war" than Smith-Mundt itself (for the source of this phrase, I recommend Fighting the War of Ideas like a Real War, also available as PDF).

The problems are more nuanced than Pilon leads her readers to believe. For example, her lead example of the USAID testimony is not a result of Smith-Mundt directly, but at most stems from subtle influences rooted in the last thirty years of government distrust and not the Act itself (for more on this, see my post at SWJ).

Her prominent USAID example is drawn from the Djerejian Report (available here, note the 2003 Djerejian report thought the Shared Values campaign "was well conceived and based on solid research."; although as she’s may have drawn the example out of this required PD resource, The Public Diplomacy Reader, also by Mike Waller). Oddly, the testimony used regarding USAID’s lack of effort in public diplomacy was not a result of a Smith-Mundt prophylactic. The USAID administrator did respond with "Almost none" to the question about how much of his budget was for public diplomacy, but his answer was not rooted in an aversion to domestic propaganda. The response was unfortunate as well as correct if read in context: USAID operates independently America’s public diplomacy efforts.

She may have been well served to read the 2003 GAO Report on U.S. Public Diplomacy, based on a GAO survey of State’s public affairs officers, get a better context on the institutional ills of American public diplomacy. Some of the most important elements of this GAO report were survey questions that were not referenced by the report or its conclusions:

  • Does the public diplomacy effort in [the public affairs officer’s] country increase U.S. understanding of foreign publics?
    • 75% answered PD efforts as having a "moderate" impact or less
  • [Does the public affairs officer] Coordinate with USAID or the US Military?
    • 42% "very much" to a "great extent" with USAID
    • 59% "very much" to a "great extent" with the U.S. military

(Not directly related, but also important to the point of Deeds versus Words:

  • [Is] Opposition to current US policies elsewhere [an impediment to American public diplomacy]?
    • 61% said it was a "Moderate" to "Very Major" impediment)

Perhaps more important and more to the point of systemic problems with the guts of the American public diplomacy apparatus and thinking was this GAO survey question to the public affairs officers that was not discussed in the report:

  • Does your FY04 Plan include the strategic goal of “mutual understanding”?
    • 77% said No

These responses go to the real issues behind the line of questions to the USAID representative above: it was not U.S. policy for USAID to conduct public diplomacy or to even consider USAID in the public diplomacy apparatus. That doesn’t mean it’s not public diplomacy or not understood to be public diplomacy, just that there were bureaucratic reasons, not legal, that dictated the practice. Keep in mind Smith-Mundt created and funded the agencies to participate and shape overseas discourse and what we have is a fundamental failure overseas to conduct public diplomacy with the tools available. While Smith-Mundt does hinder U.S. outreach and strategy, but not in the areas she describes nor in the manner she suggests.

The most important issue of Smith-Mundt today is the "chilling effect" it has tactical, operational, as well as strategic communications. This is, however, most apparent in the artificial but by way of accepting contemporary interpretations of the Act. She accepts Defense is covered by the Act when, in fact, it is not, a point President Kennedy made clear in his interpretation of the Act. After 1953, USIA, the agency Smith-Mundt created (remember Smith-Mundt was more about creating a capability than creating limits), was to advise on "foreign psychological aspects of public statements and actions in the defense field" and to work with the combatant commands abroad "to increase psychological support for U.S. policies." There was no prohibition on DOD, possibly in large part because when Smith-Mundt was written, the military was just starting to exercise its own voice and play its two bosses (the President and the Congress) against each other as necessary.

A better assessment of the negative impact of Smith-Mundt is something she makes almost in passing. While her ‘talking points’ draw a connection to DOD, only one real reference appears in her paper. She quotes MountainRunner friend Andrew Garfield in his Middle East Quarterly article from a few months ago:

U.S. authorities handicap themselves. U.S. military lawyers fear "blowback" to U.S. domestic audiences, which they interpret as a violation of the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948…

But here’s the rest of the paragraph:

…which prohibited domestic distribution of propaganda meant for foreign audiences. As a result, U.S. commanders forbid coalition authorities to openly engage on the Internet. This decision has ceded this key tool to the Iraqi insurgents. The insurgents now provide, over the Internet, self-starter kits to transform any disaffected Muslim youth, be he in Ramadi, Rabat or Rochester, into an effective propagandist. Such mass mobilization allows the insurgents to overwhelm at minimal cost the expensive, pedestrian, and ineffective strategic advertising campaigns of the coalition. For example, production of a DVD highlighting insurgent attacks on U.S. troops may cost less than US$100 to make using equipment that costs less than $1,000. Maintaining an Internet bulletin board with postings picked up by Al-Jazeera television and then, perhaps, CNN, may cost as little as $1,500 and certainly no more than $10,000. In contrast, the value of the U.S. military’s information contracts exceeds $250,000,000 per year, with only a fraction of the effectiveness of their adversaries.

While Andrew includes the U.S. audience (e.g. Rochester), the major focus is the global audience and competing with the enemy information services. The "market share" of enemy messaging within the U.S. is questionable and not drawn out. Suggesting that CNN coverage is an exclusive result of fears of "blo
wback" ignores the lack of confidence in the Administration’s narrative reaching back six years. This is captured succinctly in the picture of a whiteboard in Ramadi: "America is not at war. The Marines are at war. America is a war." (Also see Thomas Friedman’s op-ed from several years ago.)

This influence of Smith-Mundt on the information apparatus of the U.S. is far more important than anything else in her paper and yet is virtually ignored in favor of unsubstantiated connections that have little to do with Smith-Mundt. This is reinforced by her recommendations. Of her eight conclusions, only one actually involves Smith-Mundt.

#1: "Congress should immediately repeal Section 501"

I’m not in agreement, as I say here and will get into deeper later. More importantly, she hasn’t laid out the case why or how it actually hurts.

#2: "…Alhurra TV should then immediately be permitted to broadcast in the United States…"

Ok, why? Is the battleground for the minds and wills of Arabic speakers really in the U.S.? Does Al-Jazeera really have such a dominating market share? Is our warfighting effort really limited by not allowing U.S. researcher full access to the materials and not cluing in the American public into every details of foreign aid? Isn’t the real problem the failure to understand the importance of perceptions and coordinating efforts across the whole of government (as USIA was designed and updated to do in its early decades)?

#3: "Congress should require all agencies involved in any form of public diplomacy to report these activities to the National Security Adviser…"

This is an important recommendation, but it isn’t prohibited by Smith-Mundt, and more importantly, can the NSA handle this burden? Smith-Mundt did create USIA to be this hub, a position reiterated by presidents until perhaps LBJ. Everything the government does is arguably public diplomacy and USIA’s role was to be an advisor to the whole of government. Again, let’s go back to the purpose of Smith-Mundt and remove the unrelated blankets of misperceptions that have laid on top of it. Putting this onto the NSA would overwhelm the NSA, and more importantly isn’t related to her main contention. 

#4: "…Congress should require the State Department, USAID, and all other agencies conducting public diplomacy to submit or post on the Web an annual report listing all relevant publications and activities…"

First, everything element of the government that interacts with foreign audiences, home or abroad, practices public diplomacy. DHS is a big public diplomat, as is the military. The only Smith-Mundt related issue here is the publications (i.e. images and audio) of "traditional" public diplomacy agencies. Their activities are not secret or prohibited.

#5: "Congress should mandate that all public servants who engage in public diplomacy must receive specific training and should expressly allocate "career enhancement" funds to that purpose."

This is not prevented by Smith-Mundt and it is an issue of support and bureaucracy. When and if State moves into the 21st Century (or late 20th), they’ll budget training and floater positions like DoD.

#6: "Current ambassadors [etc]…engaged in public diplomacy outreach should be required to undergo intensive additional training prior to their next deployment overseas.

Same as above. Neither of these fit with her arguments. They are good and necessary recommendations, but have nothing to do with Smith-Mundt.

#7: "U.S. government grantees and contractors should be required, rather than be forbidden, to inform the public about their activities, contingent on security considerations."

This is the only Smith-Mundt-related issue she raises in her conclusion, but even this is so broad as to include much that isn’t covered by the Act.

#8: "The U.S. government should expand its efforts to encourage the private sector to engage in public diplomacy activities and to provide citizen ambassadors with relevant information to help them in this task."

Again, nothing to do with Smith-Mundt and already happens (or is encouraged). Apparently she wants "propaganda" of certain agencies to be shared.

The media is "half the battle" but the examples Pilon cites have nothing to do with Smith-Mundt. From her arguments and her concluding recommendations, she seems to want transparency more than increasing the effectiveness of American informational capabilities.