Filling in the gaps of ITP’s article on Smith-Mundt and the Defense Department

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



Date: June 5, 2008

An antipropaganda law on the books since 1948 that excludes the Defense Department has still spawned much confusion about the Pentagon’s freedom to convey its overseas strategic communications efforts to an American audience, leading some public diplomacy experts to argue the law should be revised.

Positive U.S. government efforts around the world cannot be relayed to the American public and tend only to “seep out,” charged Matthew Armstrong, an independent analyst and publisher of the MountainRunner blog. He covers public diplomacy, irregular warfare and counterinsurgency, among other issues.

Armstrong is a fellow at Proteus USA, a think tank established by the the National Intelligence University, Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Center for Strategic Leadership at the U.S. Army War College. Proteus works on advanced research concepts addressing national security, military and intelligence challenges. He is also a member of a U.K.-based think tank called the International Institute of Strategic Studies.

Clearer rules governing communication with Americans may one day result if DOD’s efforts to adopt a new document on carrying out strategic communications eventually revises the Smith-Mundt Act, Armstrong says.

The only hitch is that changing the law is not exactly a pressing issue to the government, congressional sources tell Inside the Pentagon. Moreover, they add, tweaking the act or scrapping it entirely would elicit heated opposition from certain quarters.

DOD is working on what’s known as a Joint Integrating Concept detailing the future of strategic communications from 2016 to 2028. ITP reviewed an April 25 draft version, which notes that the potential policy implication of implementing this new concept may be to revise the law. U.S. Joint Forces Command is taking the lead on the strategy.

The draft document asserts American statutes barring the release of information from “certain military resources” to U.S. audiences may need to be updated.

The Smith-Mundt Act, prohibiting domestic distribution of information intended for foreign audiences, is based on “an outdated model of global communication,” U.S. Joint Forces Command argues.

“The principle of not misleading domestic audiences remains valid — in fact, misleading any audience is unusually counterproductive in the long run — but this could be achieved by other ways than arbitrarily prohibiting any domestic use of some capabilities,” the concept states.

Although the Smith-Mundt Act applies only to parts of the State Department, it has always been perceived to extend to the Pentagon, Armstrong said.

“I think it’s necessary to repeal it because the impact of the artificial perception of this law — the over-expansion of this law — is that all we can do is give the facts,” Armstrong explained. “You know, ‘Just the facts, ma’am,’ to quote Dragnet’s [Sgt. Joe Friday].”

As adversarial messages creep into the United States, “we perceive that we cannot speak to the Americans in the same way that we create a narrative and tell our story and counter misinformation overseas,” he charged. “So we have a public affairs person speaking just the facts without attempting to really connect any sort of dots at all.”

Revoking the law, he said, would enable the United States to conduct public diplomacy and strategic communications as a full-force effort.

There have also been some questions about whether the law has had an impact in theater.

Marine Corps Maj. Matt Morgan, the strategic communication policy adviser to Maj. Gen. Douglas Stone, commander of Task Force 134 in Iraq, dismisses the idea that Smith-Mundt has affected the way he does his job at the command overseeing detainee operations.

Yet he did concede there are often concerns about running afoul of the law.

Most in public diplomacy, military information operations and “areas in between” find it difficult to determine the restrictions in practice because they know little about the law, said Morgan in an interview from Iraq. He is poised to assume a new post at the Pentagon most likely working in the joint communication area.

Most public affairs officers in the military will say they cannot lie to the American people and that psychological operations must not be carried out in the United States, he said. But they would be hard-pressed to articulate which law such deception would break, he added.

“You oftentimes will have people make a comment, or people will look at something you’re doing and say, ‘Well, wait a minute, can we even do this? Is this against the law?'” he explained.

As an example, one of the task force’s theater internment facilities created an information product to explain a series of concepts, he said, speaking vaguely due to classification issues. Discussions then ensued regarding to whom the Arabic and English materials could be distributed, he continued.

“Can I provide that to Iraqis that work on the facility? Can I provide it to detainees? We can certainly provide it to detainees as an information operation product because they are a fair target. Can we provide that, then, to members of the Iraqi government? How will we provide it to them?” he said.

But he said questions emerged about whether it would be against the law to give materials developed as a psychological operations product to a U.S. senator visiting the command.

In the end, public affairs developed an English-language version and information operations produced an Arabic adaptation — two separate products that were nearly identical, Morgan said.

Although Task Force 134 is usually on safe ground as long as it does not design and target the American people, he said, “it’s commonly accepted” any materials produced at the command may be picked up by an audience prohibited under the law.

While the Smith-Mundt Act has introduced gray areas around conveying information, the spirit of the law is “well intended,” Morgan admitted.

The American people need to know their military is not attempting to deceive them, he said.

But at the same time, the information environment has changed so rapidly since the law was written in the 1940s that “it certainly would probably benefit from some updating. But that’s a pretty complex undertaking.”

Indeed, such a move would no doubt spur a sharp reaction from some stakeholders, observers say.

Armstrong, the blogger, told ITP he has spoken to cultural diplomacy experts — “the USIA veterans” — who are adamant that Smith-Mundt should not be touched.

The U.S. Information Agency was disbanded (or merged or abolished, take your pick) under the Clinton administration in 1999.

Others, however, “haven’t a clue” about the antipropaganda law, Armstrong said. He said his discussions have revealed that some congressmen “don’t understand really what’s going on.”

But some senators are open to the idea of revising the legislation, he added.

As to whether the law is killed, Armstrong believes people are beginning to realize that the United States already propagates “information, ideas and news.”

The legislation falls under the domain of the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs Committees.

A congressional staffer familiar with Smith-Mundt admitted it would not be impossible to revise it, but that it was just a question of how to tweak it.

“I do know that there are members on the Foreign Affairs Committee who may have tossed the idea around but nobody has actually introduced legislation about it, and I haven’t seen anything like that on the Republican side either,” the staffer said.

“Tailoring it or altering it would have
to be done very carefully because there are those who would be concerned about an agency or a department spreading propaganda to Americans. Where would that come from? I think anybody who’s aware of the issue would be concerned about that. Anyone in Congress,” the staffer added.

A second congressional staffer versed in the law indicated that changing the act has been discussed for years but has not yet yielded anything. He said the last serious talks took place when USIA was disbanded.

“Usually the people who want to do it are the people who are in power, and the people who are out of power and don’t have the White House are suspicious about it,” he said.

Moreover, the second staffer added, stories like the one involving the Pentagon’s dealings with retired U.S. generals “reinforces the hesitation to change it.”

He was referring to an April New York Times report that revealed the Pentagon has paid some 75 retired military officers to act as paid television commentators since the the Iraq war began.

Dennis Murphy, who teaches information in warfare at the Center for Strategic Leadership at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, PA, is not sure the law must be repealed but said dialogue needs to occur among “people at high levels.”

The government definitely faces a dilemma, Murphy told ITP.

Any proposed alterations to Smith-Mundt need to consider whether it is healthier to tell Americans about public diplomacy efforts overseas in a bid to increase transparency, or whether the risk of propagandizing a U.S. audience is so great that Americans should be denied access to this information, he said.

Yet Armstrong was more certain about the consequences of continuing to adhere to Smith-Mundt’s restrictions on barring the spread of information at home.

Putting it bluntly, he said the United States is effectively sending a message that “Defense and State are full of al Qaeda sympathizers — because we can’t trust what they’re going to say to the American public.” — Fawzia Sheikh

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2 thoughts on “Filling in the gaps of ITP’s article on Smith-Mundt and the Defense Department

  1. Darren,You’re right, the functional word I should have used and is the common selection is “merged” into the State Department. By “disbanded” I meant to indicate that in practice the USIA went away. It’s personnel system, expertise, and capabilities were diluted from the merger. Another word to describe the merger is “abolish” as the reference you provided uses.

  2. Thank you for the interesting article. Two comments: It is my understanding that USIA was not so much “disbanded” as merged into the State Department as the Bureau of International Information Programs (where I work). A good number of the people here are former USIA staffers.Also, just for reference, I found the original text of the 1948 law:
    Considering how difficult it was to find, I thought I might share it here (I also added it to the Wikipedia article on Smith-Mundt).

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