Exploiting the holes in the bubble: understanding Smith-Mundt’s barriers

Last week, Pat Kushlis of Whirled View asked if the Internet made Smith-Mundt moot.  To which, Kim Andrew Elliott responded that short-wave penetrated the apparent bubble of Smith-Mundt’s prohibition against domestic dissemination of Voice of America broadcasts.  VOA programs frequently received call-ins to its radio shows from Americans and didn’t hesitate to put them on the air. 

It is important to recall that our modern interpretation of Smith-Mundt as an overarching prophylactic protecting Americans from Government propaganda was not its primary purpose.  On the contrary, arguments of the 1940s and 1950s indicate minor transgressions of a Government news service, which VOA was, into the American domestic sphere was acceptable to those who sought to improve America’s “whisper”.  The impact to commercial media, from CBS to mom and pop operations, was small enough to not be competition and to not risk undermining the U.S. government with messages sympathetic to America’s adversaries, the two pillars of the prohibition on domestic dissemination.  

Smith-Mundt is not made moot by the Internet.  It was already moot with the rise of global media.  Further, it is arguable that Smith-Mundt was intended to disappear once American media was capable of broadcasting globally, a reality that is now decades old. 

Our unique law, not one other industrialized democracy has a similar law, implies our government lies to overseas audiences (for it can only tell the truth to Americans) and also prevents the U.S. government from explaining its own taxpayers what it does overseas (or telling others for fear the message seeps into the U.S.). 

More important are the modern information barriers attributed to Smith-Mundt and the root causes of Smith-Mundt.  A thoughtful analysis results in a dichotomy.  The former demand dumping the Act while the latter requires updating it to fix our contemporary communications (strategy and message) with the world, which was the purpose of the Act in the first place.  Neither fix would address domestic influence operations by the U.S. government, nor should either address such.  This is dealt with in other legislation and more importantly, by elected officials and their political appointees. 

Focusing exclusively on America’s ability to put out information and counter misinformation for foreign audiences ignores the real tools of shaping public opinion to the detriment of our ability to participate in the modern struggle.  If one’s goal is to protect the American public from influence by its government, then such an effort must address and start with inward-facing activities such as the purpose and practical function of the President’s Press Secretary to Administration officials appearing on Sunday news programs to postcards from the IRS indicating a forthcoming check to the Air Force and Navy speaking directly to the public to explain their relevance (the Air Force with its cyber-push and the Navy’s touring universities). 

The holes are there and information seeps in, but not all of it.  Yet at the same time, other information is blocked for fear of influencing, intentionally or not (usually not), Americans, regardless of truth.  The Internet amplifies the issue, making the law that much more silly.  It also demonstrates the need for a new law that facilitates America’s counter-misinformation capability, just as Smith-Mundt did sixty years ago this year. 

There are holes, but they are the gaps in our capabilities that Smith-Mundt’s foremost purpose was to fill, not the tertiary prohibition that became the sole purpose of the Act in our modern interpretation. 

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