Briefly, Andrew Exum wrote a very good response over at the Guardian’s Comment is Free to the media’s recoil that some their analysts, who weren’t vetted, may have been influenced by a skilled influence operation to manage the perceptions of Americans of the war. What a shock. Isn’t that why the media is supposed to vet their analysts in the first place? In the rush to get a face on the air, and keep him (any “hers”?) there, they skipped the background checks or simply ignored what came back. I can understand the one-off, but this was systemic and ongoing.
To my surprise, Smith-Mundt has not been recalled as often as I expected. However, Andrew does highlight Smith-Mundt and its purpose of preventing the government from using information created for overseas broadcast from being used within our borders. He makes the argument that “the most significant clause in the act remains a good one: propaganda cannot and should not be directed by government officials toward the people they represent.”
If we, in fact, look back we’ll find something interesting. Smith-Mundt intended, if implicitly and through behind the scenes handshakes, that propaganda designed for overseas broadcast to be shared with the people through the American media.
There are two important aspects of Smith-Mundt to consider here. First, one of the pillars of Smith-Mundt was preventing the U.S. government from bypassing the media in its conversations with the general public. Various reasons were given, the most notable of which was the foreseen impact on the profits of newspaper and radio companies both large and small and the infringing on their First Amendment rights to speak. The latter was directly related to concerns that the dominance of previous government agencies, the Committee for Public Information (President Wilson’s domestic propaganda office) and the Office of War Information (President Roosevelt’s domestic propaganda office), in speaking to the public would drown out private media, and oh yeah, alternative views.
Second, Smith-Mundt’s prohibition was against direct dissemination of materials designed for overseas information campaigns by specific U.S. information and exchange agencies (i.e. VOA, later USIA, parts of the Department of Stateetc). The media, scholars, the public, and Congress, were permitted to view and access the material. It was not until 1972, 24 years after Smith-Mundt was enacted, were the limitation expanded to prohibit virtually all access and dissemination of information created for overseas use by the same agencies. Also keep in mind that Smith-Mundt came out of the Foreign Relations / Foreign Affairs Committee in the Senate and House and not a domestic oversight committee, such as telecommunications.
Propagandizing the American people was never off limits. Just briefly, consider the monthly tests of air raid sirens, the now-campy warnings of communism and atomic warfare, deep cooperation between the military and Hollywood, and a slew of other campaigns of influence and persuasion undertaken by the government or by private parties on behalf of the government. Those were intended for overseas consumption and weren’t created by government overseas broadcasters, so were fair game to be broadcast at home, in schools or through the media.
In other words, Smith-Mundt is not, and never was, applicable and would not have prevented the “Hidden Hand.” The generals were not sharing information designed for or intended for overseas consumption, they where not sharing information from State, and the government itself was not directly informing the public.
This doesn’t make what they did excusable. Far from it, as Andrew capably points out. The biggest concern we should take-away from David Barstow’s Hidden Hand, is what Andrew closes with (and I mention here):
In the end, I was more heartened by the revelations about the Pentagon’s strategic communications programme than I was disgusted. What disgusted me, by contrast, was that while this well-oiled effort was underway in America, our strategic communications efforts in Iraq and the greater Middle East remained bumbling and inept.
In 2004, for example, when the US mistakenly and horrifically targeted a wedding party in Iraq, killing 40 innocent people, the spokesman in Iraq at the time lamely insisted that “bad people have parties too.”
Now that was something to get upset about.
The fact is, the United States and its allies have largely ceded the strategic communications battlefield to the insurgents and terrorists since 2001. If the Pentagon invested as much time and effort communicating to the audience of al-Jazeera as it does communicating to the audience of Fox News, more Americans soldiers in Iraq might be home by now.