Smith-Mundt: a symposium to discuss its purpose, intent, and impact (the symposium that isn’t likely)

Policy and strategy makers from all corners of America are finally realizing that the so-called “War on Terror” is a war of ideas – a war of information.  It is now accepted that cultural understanding and public opinion are equally as important as any bullet or any bomb.  Indeed, the ability of the United States to collect and disseminate information will be vital to the security of the nation for the foreseeable future.  Yet the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, an outdated Cold War relic designed to create an effective counter-propaganda capability through information activities and exchanges, to protect the American people from communist sympathizers (mostly within State), and to protect the American broadcast industry from government-funded competition, is hamstringing U.S. information capabilities.  It is one of the most influential laws affecting America’s ability to fight the War of Ideas, and it is not helping.  And yet, so few really understand this law, it’s purpose, their intent, or even worse, its real impact today.

The “little” matter of Pentagon Public Affairs “co-opting” media analysts has brought to the public sphere — once again — the issue of Smith-Mundt, whether realized it or not.  The amount of misinformation about legislation designed to counter misinformation, ah the irony, is enormous and reverberates through Congress, the Pentagon, and across the traditional and new media discussion spheres. 

Last year, John Brown, formerly of USC’s Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review, and I began talking about putting together a conference in the sixtieth anniversary year of Smith-Mundt.  Six months ago, we began sending out a proposal for an academic conference to promote and discuss new scholarly research on the subject.  No takers so we changed the format to a more accessible symposium (with shorter lead time required for speakers… no longer would papers be required) and despite significant interest (most of the panels are tentatively filled and many have expressed interest in attending), we could not find an organization to fund our modest event. 

Academic institutions claimed their calendars were already full or that this was outside their area of interest (despite their own faculty expressing significant interest).  Think tanks were interested, and have informally offered conference space (but no money).  There were (are) likely several opportunities through Defense, but that would right off the bat taint the discussion regardless of content and the participants.  This is even more true today in the aftermath of the New York Times Hidden Hand article.

In light of our failure to find a sponsor for the symposium, John and I decided to simply post the proposal online and let you see discussion we tried create.  Comments or suggestions are still welcome and we’d still like to make this happen, preferably before the election.  Whatever your thoughts on the Act, it is not serving your interests in its present form. 

The Smith-Mundt Act: Past, Present, Future

Public Law 402, more commonly known as the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, is one of the most influential Acts on American national security. It was the authorizing legislation that laid the foundation for the US Government’s information, education, and cultural programs during the Cold War – and which still is in effect today as the law setting the parameters of US “public diplomacy.”

Prohibiting the US government from domestic dissemination of information produced or supported by the USG intended for overseas distribution, the Act states in its section 501:

The Secretary [of State] is authorized, when he finds it appropriate, to provide for the preparation, and dissemination abroad, of information about the United States, its people, and its policies, though press, publications, radio, motion pictures, and other information media, and through information centers and instructors abroad. …any such information … shall not be disseminated within the United States, its territories, or possessions…

Smith-Mundt has institutionalized a “firewall” between foreign and domestic information dissemination that is uniquely American. No other industrialized democracy, such as the U.K. and France, makes a similar distinction. While the Voice of America (VOA) can only be directed to foreign audiences, the BBC broadcasts its programs both at home and abroad.

The Smith-Mundt Act is particularly relevant today at a time when the US finds itself committed to a global struggle for the minds and wills of men and women as it was in the early years of the Cold War. Scholars and practitioners of public diplomacy argue about the need to update or modify the Smith-Mundt Act in the New Media environment, where virtual geography has displaced the physical. New Media collapses traditional concepts of time and space as information moves around the world in an instant. Websites, blogs, SMS, and search engines provide instant access to persistent not seen in traditional media. A world of “precision-guided media” has been displaced by global reach communications that are easily overheard.

Held in the 60th Anniversary year of the Act’s passage, this one-day event will consist of four sessions: the Purpose and Intent of the Act, how the Act shapes Present day activities, how the Act shapes Future engagement, and Can or Should the Act be Changed.

Symposium schedule (tentative):

This is a one day event.

7:00 – 8:00   Continental Breakfast / Registration

8:00 – 8:15  Welcome and Opening Remarks

8:15 – 8:45  Morning Keynote

8:45 – 9:00  Break

9:00 – 10:30  First Panel: Purpose and Intent

10:30 – 10:45  Break

10:45 – 12:15  Second Panel: Present

12:15 – 1:45  Lunchtime Keynote

1:45 – 2:00  Break

2:00 – 3:30  Third Panel: Future

3:30 – 3:45  Break

3:45 – 5:15  Fourth Panel: Changing Smith-Mundt

5:15 – 5:30  Close / Concluding Remarks

First Panel: Purpose and Intent of Legislating Communication and Exchange

Generally only historians and the Old Guard of USIA are conversant in the original purpose and intent of then-Representative Karl Mundt and Senator Alexander Smith, but the arguments and the environment that created Public Law 402: United States Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948, commonly known as the Smith-Mundt Act, is significant in how it parallels our contemporary situation.

This panel is likely to discuss:

  • Why the Act was passed and the intentions of its framers
  • The role of commercial media as well as private-sector considerations in crafting the Act
  • The influence of Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s use of government-funded/distributed “information”
  • How the Act reflected Republican/Democratic politics in the late 1940s
  • What was the role of Soviet propaganda and how did the debate on the National Security Act of 1947 influence the debate of the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948?
  • The propagandizing of America through other channels

Discussants: Former Senior USIA, historian, Archivist, Journalist (informal invites for all tentatively accepted)
Moderator: John Brown

Second Panel: Present Day Bifurcated Strategic Communication

The U.S. is unique in maintaining a strict “inside/outside” communications model. How has the Act shaped the firewall between Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy in the State Department? Also, why has the Defense Department been brought under the Smith-Mundt limitations and how has the Act influenced the distinct separation between Public Affairs and everything else?

This panel is likely to discuss:

  • How the Act is being implemented today
  • How has it contributed in defining the communications between the U.S. government and American citizens (e.g., to what extent, if any, should the USG be allowed to propagandize Americans)?
  • Would certain communications, like Video News Releases and some statements by the President’s Press Secretary, be considered ‘propaganda’ by a broad application of the Act?
  • Does the Act imply we may distort the truth, as is the popular definition of ‘propaganda,’ overseas but not here? Does this pose a challenge for State public diplomacy and Defense public affairs officers overseas?
  • Are State’s Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) working for Washington-based State Department Public Affairs, which has outreach to US audiences, or overseas-focused State Department Public Diplomacy, which has outreach to foreign audiences?
  • Does this result in American conversations with the world that are more concerned with how they are received in the U.S. than the foreign audience it is being delivered to?

Discussants: Practicing/retired FSOs; foreign diplomats serving in Washington; Pentagon reps; State Department lawyer(s); journalists concerned with the issue. (several informal invites sent all with tentative acceptance)
Moderator: TBD

Third Panel: A Future with Smith-Mundt in a War of Ideas

The U.S. is up against “DYI Network Centric Warfare” that gives strategic reach over friends, foes, and neutrals in physically meaningful ways. YouTube, blogs, SMS and traditional pulp and broadcast, makes every GI Joe and Jihadi a communicator, public diplomat, and persuader. Our adversaries understand and exploit this reality. Writing to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2005, Al-Qaeda #2 Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote that “we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media.”

This panel is likely to discuss:

  • Does the Act shape how the U.S. engages adversarial messages?
  • What parallels are there with the early years of the Cold War
  • Has New Media made the Act irrelevant?
  • Does the Act shape our perception through its influence on how we engage the world?

Discussants: Practicing/retired FSOs; State Department lawyer (s); Defense Department (PA, OGC, or Policy); journalists/commentators concerned with the issues.
Moderator: Matt Armstrong

Fourth Panel: Changing Smith-Mundt, Can We and Should We?

We are far removed from the global and domestic information distribution models of the 1940’s in which Smith-Mundt was crafted. Has Smith-Mundt outlived its usefulness or is it too restrictive in the 21st Century New Media environment that marginalizes states and democratizes information in a “market of loyalties”? American “public diplomacy”, “strategic communication”, “public affairs”, and the other similar word pairs associated to shaping perceptions are quaint in the context of the modern conflict. Should the Act be updated or dropped?

This panel is likely to discuss:

  • If the Act is to be replaced, should a legal framework take its place? If so, how would it look?
  • It is useful to recall Smith-Mundt is “owned” by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Should a revision come from the pertinent telecommunications committees?
  • Is it still important to make a distinction between USG foreign propaganda/public diplomacy and the USG’s domestic information dissemination, or has this “firewall” become anachronistic and indeed is an impediment to successful 21st century public diplomacy?

Discussants: Practicing/retired FSOs; State Department lawyer (s); Defense Department (PA, OGC, or Policy); journalists/commentators concerned with the issues.
Moderator: TBD


Washington, D.C.


The symposium will be scheduled for either May/June [ed: missed this target] or September/October. Holding the symposium earlier would make it a part of possible legacy efforts in the form of legislation and later would keep it relevant in the election year.

The proceedings of the conference will be posted on the Internet.

Contact information and budget omitted.  Contact Matt for details. 

See Also:

One thought on “Smith-Mundt: a symposium to discuss its purpose, intent, and impact (the symposium that isn’t likely)

  1. Booz, SAIC, RAND…It always struck me that the Secretary of State appears to be the only one restricted by Smith-Mundt and I’m sure there are many folks in our administration that see it that way as well.

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