“Get Me the Defence Department, Entertainment Division!”

I didn’t come up with the title of this post. No, I stole it from a Canuck writing the Queen’s English. Besides enjoying the slight accuracy of title (I’m thinking of the Pentagon’s Hollywood liaison, a position a friend of mine is aiming for… a good use of his Ranger tab, don’t you think?), this bit caught my eye (as well as John Brown’s):

One of the problems that [RAND’s Enlisting Madison Avenue by Todd Helmus, Chris Paul, and Russell Glenn (see this post and this post)] aims to address is the military’s general failure to project a unified message about their product (euphemism=war) to their consumer (euphemism=foreign civilian). The book’s authors suggest more coordination between Public Affairs and Information Operations, but cites “legal barriers” as an obstacle. The book’s treatment of this issue is rather delicate, but it does cite the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act as one of these barriers. Here’s what the book says:

PSYOP suffers from additional barriers to successful shaping. First, Public Law 402, the U.S. Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948 (the Smith-Mundt Act), prohibits DoD from targeting U.S. audiences. With the reach of the Internet and 24-hour news, however, many of the Pentagon’s information efforts can wind up in the U.S. media. Currently, PSYOP forces need to obtain the direct permission of the Secretary of Defense before distributing material on the Internet, even in a foreign language.

(On a side note, this is interesting because the book has a section dedicated to military use of blogs as a means of persuasion. The book notes that blogging, like word of mouth advertising, is an extremely credulous medium because the reader generally believes that the opinions are presented honestly, without ulterior motives.)

While the book was fairly cautious about this issue, there are other voices that are less so. The Mountain Runner, a blog with the subtitle, “Public diplomacy, unrestricted warfare, privatization of force, and civil-military relations”, has been a vocal opponent of the Smith-Mundt act, and has something of a following in the military community.

I have two big concerns about this. First, this law, though it seems very [important] to me, is very obscure, and it seems that the only people who really know about it are trying to get rid of it. Second, I wonder how such a law could even be enforced.

If a military is caught lying outright to its own people, presumably a law against propaganda could be enforced. But what’s tricky about public relations, or PYSOP, or propaganda, is that it’s often very hard to identify it as such. We’ve come a long way since reefer-mad red scares, and these early propaganda campaigns now seem ridiculous precisely because the persuasion industry has become so sophisticated. Operation Sterling Silver – the Canadian Forces’ grey cup stunt – is particularly brilliant from a PSYOP perspective because it makes no propositional assertions at all. It simply presents a series of images for the spectator, and these images resonate on a pre-rational, emotional level.

I am unaware of any Canadian law prohibiting the dissemination of domestic propaganda, and even if there is, Operation Sterling Silver obviously flew well below the radar.

MKultra makes some important observations here. However, to start with an error, albeit an understandable error, I am not a "vocal opponent" of Smith-Mundt. I am a vocal opponent to the misinterpretation of Smith-Mundt. MKultra’s first concern about this "obscure" law is on the mark.

MKultra and others might be surprised to learn that while the military see themselves as severely handicapped by Smith-Mundt, many in the civilian side (i.e. the State Department and the former USIA) do not believe Smith-Mundt applies at all to the Defense Department (DoD). In my discussions with DoD elements, it is clear they see themselves as bound and restricted by Smith-Mundt. Todd and Chris, both of whom I know, heard the same thing in their interviews. There is a very real concern of how "propaganda", including one-use leaflets, photos, etc, might appear in the U.S. media market. Real or not, this concern has a significant impact on the United States’ ability to participate in the war of ideas in the fast-paced environment of New Media.

Senior leaders in State and former top senior USIA officials, however, have no idea that the military is in any way impacted by Smith-Mundt. Or, they have only very recently learned of this self-imposed restriction, as was the case of former Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes who learned DoD saw itself as under Smith-Mundt restrictions as recently as September of last year, just a few months before she left Washington.

It is easy to confuse Public Affairs (reach out to the home population for a variety of reasons, including good will and recruiting) with foreign perception management. Call it propaganda or call it public affairs, it is about communicating and anytime you communicate, or fail to communicate, you influence and shape perceptions. MKultra’s focus on the embedding of the Canadian military into local sports may be propagandizing to one person and nothing like it to another. In the U.S., we have long had a color guard at sporting events, sometimes with similar protests.

MKultra gets it right on Canada not having a law like the Smith-Mundt Act. Among all the industrial countries, only the U.S. has anything like the Smith-Mundt Act.

Am I opposed to the Act? Yes, because it’s misunderstand and wrongly applied. As I’ve said before, my opposition isn’t about allowing domestic propaganda (there is already ample opportunity for that: compare the roles of the President’s Press Secretary with the U.K. Prime Minister’s official spokesman; the Sunday morning circuit; video news releases by various government agencies; etc.) this is about understanding the communication revolution of the 1940s is different than the communication revolution of today. Our enemies, and even our allies, understand the new rules of engagement. It’s about time we did too.

This may have rambled a bit, but hopefully you get the idea. There’s more to come on this subject. Much more to come.

See also:

3 thoughts on ““Get Me the Defence Department, Entertainment Division!”

  1. Original post hereThe title is a slight variation on a line from 1987’s ‘The Running Man’, where the dystopic show’s producer angrily picks up the phone and shouts, “get me the justice department, entertainment division!”

  2. Jeff, thanks for reminding me of the Running Man reference. I forgot about that line. Also, thanks for reminding me that I neglected to link to MKultra’s post.

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