When History Repeats: Troubles at VOA in 1946 are Remarkably Similar to the Troubles at VOA in 2008 (Updated)

image Sixty-two years ago, Congress was so troubled by the operations of the Voice of America that it slashed the appropriation for the State Department’s Office of International Information and Cultural Affairs, known as OIC, in half.  At the time, not only were broadcasts of dubious quality hitting the airwaves (including many from private media contractors), but a lack of accountability of the personnel and content producers.  Congress was not questioning the act or need to propagandize, it was simply responding to the extremely poor quality and haphazard nature of U.S. efforts in light of communist inroads into Western public opinion.
Some Congressional Republicans feared a peacetime VOA would be bias towards a Democratic Administration.  Others thought the “whispers” from State in the war of contemporary war of ideas at the beginning of the Cold War were symptomatic of a larger problem of communist sympathizers within State, a problem made worse by a rash of spy scandals.  America’s information systems were ill and the cure was the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, formally known as Public Law 402: The United States Information and Educations Exchange Act of 1948.

In 2008, and again there’s trouble at VOA.  I have a copy of the five-page letter dated 4 April 2008 Senator Tom Coburn, MD, (R-KY) sent to Stephen Hadley, the National Security Advisor, detailing his issues with VOA’s Farsi broadcasts.  The Senator is troubled by not just the VOA but its oversight organization, the Broadcasting Board of Governors.  His three major concerns are:

  1. A lack of transparency in both VOA and BBG
  2. A lack of accountability in both VOA and BBG
  3. Absence of guidance and coordination from Key Policy-Making Agencies (State, Defense, Homeland Security, National Security Council, etc)

I agree with the essence of his arguments: we’re paying too much for services, the quality of staff and content is questionable, and there’s no accountability or transparency. Each of these, ironically, were foundational reasons for Smith-Mundt!  In other words, most of the Senators complaints are rooted in modern distortions of Smith-Mundt that institutionalized VOA to address the same problems sixty years ago.

Sixty years ago, Smith-Mundt imposed in-sourcing and citizenship requirements in the face of questions of loyalty and counter-productive broadcasts.  The absence of transparency can be traced to distorting and ill-conceived amendments to the Act in 1972 and 1985 that were contrary to the purpose of the act.  I could go on, but I won’t here (go here for more).

One interesting example, not related to Smith-Mundt, the Senator highlights is the VOA’s “terrorists are freedom fighters” policy posted on VOA’s blog (VOA’s blog would a) violated Smith-Mundt if they ever post any part of a transcript online and b) didn’t host it on a free service like blogspot).  The discussion of the use of the “t-word” is, well, interesting.  See for yourself.

In addition to long overdue reforms of BBG, the Senator wants to install three new governors (he doesn’t say who he wants to replace): Cliff May, Scott Carpenter, and Enders Wimbush.

However, while I agree with the Senator’s criticism of VOA, I suspect he wants to swing the pendulum too far to the other side.  Regardless, the cure from the doctor from Oklahoma is not holding up Jim Glassman’s nomination.  The position of Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy (and, by the way, for Public Affairs) should not remain empty any longer.

Instead, I urge the good Senator to instead convince his House colleagues (I understand from discussions last year that his colleagues in the Senate are already open to the idea) to revisit Smith-Mundt, especially the distorted modern perception that pervades not just our civilian information agencies but our military services as well.  This Act, the fix for similar complaints nearly exactly sixty years ago, is the root of most of his complaints.  Any promises the Senator extracts from the White House to satisfy his valid concerns laid out in his letter will be met, under current conditions, by artificial and false firewalls stemming from modern incorrect interpretations of Smith-Mundt.