Two weeks ago, I spoke to a reporter from Inside the Pentagon, a subscription only news service. We had a long conversation on the phone as I explained to her the salient (and not so salient) points of the Smith-Mundt Act. The purpose of her investigation was talk about legislating (or creating a rule for) an exception from Smith-Mundt for the Defense Department.
The second article (there is a third due soon) for which I was interviewed is below the fold. However, let me throw out some comments now. Feel free to jump and read the article and come back.
First, let’s start with the facts that have been seemingly lost to history.
Fact: the Defense Department is not covered by Smith-Mundt.
Fact: Smith-Mundt was not a law to prevent propaganda, but rather Public Law 402 institutionalized information activities (propaganda) as well as creating the capability to counter adversarial propaganda.
Despite our conversation emphasizing both the above and more, she opened her article buying into the popular, if immensely wrong, perception about a law designed to prevent misperceptions. So, to fill in some of the blanks and to add some important context left out of the article, “Smith-Mundt Act Causes Confusion For DOD, Prompts Talk Of Revision.”
No where was the Act itself discussed. Again, it was not an anti-propaganda law, but a law to make permanent, institutionalize, and raise the quality of cultural and education exchange and information activities. There’s a reason the official name of the Act was the United States Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948. The domestic dissemination provision, dissemination being a very key work, was to a) prevent a Government News Agency from crushing domestic media, and b) not an issue because of the good relationship between Government and the media at the time. The continental U.S. was an ideological battleground, even if not with the same level of contestation as in Europe and elsewhere around the globe. On the whole, the “partnered” domestic media didn’t have the international reach the U.S. needed to increase its “whisper”. It is arguable that because of the cozy relationship, once U.S. media could adequately reach international audiences, the government news agency would slip away.
There was an important third reason for the prohibition against domestic dissemination: Senators and Congressmen frequently alleged the State Department was infested with Communists and the risk that cultural, education, and information programs under there watch would be too soft on communism. The concern that State would be sympathetic to enemy positions risked, in the minds of many, undermining the President and the Government. In other words, a key pillar of the dissemination prohibition was a distrust of the State. Thus, as it is now laughable to think a U.S. government news agency could push aside domestic media, we’re left with the argument behind the prohibition that State is infested with sympathizers of the enemy’s message. As the Defense Department has become a key communicator for the United States, this means that, if we blindly accept the prohibition, “Defense and State are full of al Qaeda sympathizers — because we can’t trust what they’re going to say to the American public.”
By the way, the 1972 Amendment that tightened the restrictions against domestic dissemination wasn’t the result of a domestic influence campaign, but the product of a tug-of-war between the USIA and an angry Senator J. William Fulbright (yes, that Fulbright) who was attempting to eliminate America’s ability to broadcast overseas.
Misunderstanding Congressional intent was complete with PDD-68, which finally killed the USIA, and was formed by a lack of knowledge and investigation into the 1972 amendment and later the Zorinsky Amendment (which is conceptually similar to the Hodes Amendment).
The article also captures, but does not expand on, the indirect effect of Smith-Mundt. In the interview with MAJ Matt Morgan, note the influence of Smith-Mundt, as it conceived today, and the friction it adds. It’s also noteworthy that in light of his comments, his boss raised the issue that visiting members of Congress to Task Force 134 did not know what was going on.
Imposing present day concepts onto the past isn’t restricted to the media or Congress. Academia is equally susceptible. The only substantial investigation into Smith-Mundt to date seemingly ignores the historical works cited failing to acknowledge what they said, and sometimes more importantly, didn’t say.
To be sure, this isn’t a simple subject. Critical is understanding the role and importance of information, a lesson we’re re-learning albeit slowly.
The global information environment is, surprisingly enough, global.
More to come. Read the 5 June 2008 article after the fold.
Last word on this for now: if propagandizing the American public is really a concern, let’s talk about campaign season, Harry and Louise-style ads, post cards from the IRS reminding us to thank someone for a check we may or may not receive, and for Heaven’s sake, prevent the Air Force from speaking publicly about Cyber Command and distributing its operations.