Rethinking Smith-Mundt: a look back at its purpose

Small Wars Journal published my paper “Rethinking Smith-Mundt” in which I researched the historical record, scholarly books and articles and media reports surrounding the information activities portion of the US law commonly referred to as the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. After two years (1946-1947) of debates, testimony, amendments and a European fact finding trip, the Act was passed in January 1948. The result was legislation that institutionalized America’s international engagement. It mandated controls and oversight to improve the quality of America’s international broadcasting and as well as cultural and educational exchanges. To the modern reader, the concerns of the 80th Congress are remarkably similar to those of the 110th, right down to the public statements. However, the 80th Congress had deeper concerns than today’s Congress and managed to deal with a far more comprehensive package than being considered today.

The purpose of “Rethinking Smith-Mundt” is to see through the haze of misunderstanding surrounding the Act and understand its original intentions. These intentions were not to prohibit the role of government in information engagement but rather to enhance its role, though in very proscribed ways. In fact, the media and the private sector recognized and supported the notion that engaging the world required assets beyond their capacity. The prohibition against domestic dissemination of news by the State Department’s (and later the the United States Information Agency, created five years after Smith-Mundt) was not an outright prohibition but rather an allocation of responsibilities that let private sector media do what it did best and governmental media do what it did best. The wall between public and private was far more porous than we imagine today, something that only becomes clear when we re-examine the debates surrounding the formulation and passage of the Act. Such a re-examination also reveals why such prohibitions are no longer needed today.

The impact of Smith-Mundt in how the United States engages in the modern information environment — call it a War of Ideas or simply the effort of making sure economic and military partners and threats know what you’re doing and why — is significant and felt in obvious and not so obvious ways. Smith-Mundt, as it has been transformed since the 1972 amendment pushed through by Senator J. William Fulbright and reinforced by the Zorinsky Amendment of 1985, bifurcates the global audience not on ideology or a determination of friend or foe but on physical geography. The modern form of the legislation and indeed the modern interpretation transformed the law from the enabler it was intended to be and into a prophylactic of such proportions so as to be out of touch not only with the modern virtual geography but also of the world in which it was written.

It may be that after looking back at the purpose and intent of the 80th Congress, the 110th Congress and researchers might see that new writing new legislation to avoid Smith-Mundt is unnecessary if the law is returned to its original purpose and updated to reflect the changed domestic conditions. The original Act was remarkably flexible and arguably more prepared for the modern information age than some of the bills and even reports in progress may be. It is important to remember that the Act was written for and in response to a telecommunications revolution. The “fast” communications authorized in the information activities part of the legislation as well as the “slow” engagement of cultural and educational exchange were viewed as complimentary and essential to global engagement.  To be sure, the Act was not perfect (arguably the function was improved five years later with the creation of the United States Information Agency), but it was far better than the distorted version most know today.

Download the paper here as a PDF. This paper is a work in progress, so any comments or criticisms or corrections are appreciated.