Rethinking Smith-Mundt: responding to Sharon Weinberger

I appreciate Sharon Weinberger’s thoughtful three-part response at Wired’s Danger Room (Part I, Part II, Part III) to my interim paper “Rethinking Smith-Mundt” over at Small Wars Journal. Several points in her impassioned response deserve attention. However, to begin, it is important to understand that researching and writing “Rethinking Smith-Mundt” was more than an “esoteric” pursuit. Derisively labeling our adversaries exploitation of information as “asymmetric conflict” as if it was something unfair, we clung to our guns as it were as we continued to imagine a bureaucratically controlled global environment (more on asymmetry here). However, even as the Russians roll into Ossetia and Sarkozy recreates the part of Chamberlain, the Russians have not neglected the power of information to affect foreign public opinion. They have used cyber-warfare to block access to Georgian information while actively propagating Russian messages and images.

The fact of the matter is we have just begun to realize that the comfortable world we, as Americans, grew accustomed to since the late-1960’s and early 1970’s, is gone. The global information environment, with its satellite communications, 24/7 news, text messaging, and immediate access to video and images has substantially reduced the autonomy of leaders provided by the raw, supreme power of militaries provided over the last four decades. With few exceptions, war is no longer war among leaders but among the people and between the people. Small groups now have an amplified voice and strategic reach to run the show. Increased communications skills of our adversaries better leverage the digital age, as well as the analog age’s culturally attuned rumors, has changed the objective of war. Whether restricting access to information through cyber-warfare, inserting distortions into the information ecosystem with distortions, the purpose of conflict has become not to destroy the enemy while preserving oneself, but a contest “in spirit, will, and intelligence on a silent battlefield.” Conflict through bullets or economies is transformed as “attitude warfare” or “perception warfare.” It is now organized processes of persuasion.

The U.S. Government, consultancies, and the presidential candidates are all finally realizing the tremendous value of information and the informational effects of policy and actions. While bureaucratic inertia has prevented systemic changes for years, this may be changing. There are several major reports, and a couple of pieces of draft bills, that look to revamp America’s architecture of engagement (think variations on USIA 2.0). Virtually any discussion on restructuring America’s informational engagement with the world includes at least one (almost always) erroneous statement on Smith-Mundt. “Rethinking Smith-Mundt” was written with this in mind.

As described in “Rethinking Smith-Mundt,” the Act was written and debated during a time when “hot war” was unlikely between the major powers, a time before “Us” and “Them” were firmly established. But this was not the Cold War so many invoke today (it was not 1968) with massive military power at the ready and missiles aimed at the other’s capitals. Economies were not substantially linked and the key threat was not invasion but subversion. As our Ambassador to Russia said in 1946, the most important “fact in the field of foreign policy today…is the fact the Russians have declared psychological war on the United States, all over the world.” It was, he continued, “a war of ideology and a fight unto the death.” The struggle for authority and relevance had shifted from the arena of power to the arena of ideas and international persuasion.

However, Sharon’s impassioned critiques of my recommendations are based not on the lessons learned from the past, of a holistic approach to informational activities based on truth. Her comments are based on a selective, band-aid approach to the modern beauty contest known as public diplomacy today. I know we both agree that what is called “public diplomacy” today is broken. Many believe the term itself has become so burdened to be nearly as radioactive as “propaganda.” Even the United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy rebuked the State Department for not tasking its public diplomacy officers with “public diplomacy.” Sharon experienced this and the failure of the bureaucracy to even comprehend “public diplomacy” during her brief stint as a Foreign Service Officer.

For a high-level thematic response to Sharon’s posts, see Steve Corman’s Real vs. False Distinctions in Rethinking Smith-Mundt. As Steve notes, Sharon is concerned about an “anything goes atmosphere.” I share this concern, which is why I want oversight and transparency, two elements previously central to the Act (related: 1948 Brookings report). TO be honest, “Rethinking Smith-Mundt” was less about modern recommendations than about dispelling myths about the Act. It was more about finding (surprising) common ground with history for today’s policy makers and report writers. The similarities between past and present were implicit as I didn’t want to bang the reader on the head in an already long and dense read. With that, below I go into more detail to respond to two of Sharon’s more significant of assertions.

Point #1: Current restrictions are based on reactions to government propaganda

Sharon’s assertion that the perversion of Smith-Mundt from an Act facilitating active engagement to active restraint is right, but for reasons very different than she suggests. While the focus of the paper was 1946-1947, it was necessary to mention later revisions, which were intentionally brief as the paper was already long and dense.

Sharon is right that there was a change in the mood on government information, but it was not the change as most people think. It had nothing to do with the government speaking to the American public. The unilateral disarmament in the areas of advocacy, influence, and persuasion of the 1990’s capped a thirty year trend of dismembering America’s “arsenal of persuasion” that had, in response to the conditions, transformed from aggressive institutions to a passive or reactive means of engagement more akin to a “beauty contest” than a struggle for minds and wills that is must be, which is what the adversary is practicing.

First, consider the context of the 1972 amendment. By the time President Nixon entered office in 1969, four years after “public diplomacy” was coined, the practice of international relations were shifting. Contrary to his earlier doctoral candidate view that the “predominant aspect of the new diplomacy is its psychological dimension,” National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger would help usher the return of secret and personal diplomacy. The result was a diminished importance of, and even the room for, public rhetoric in international relations. Kissinger’s détente lowered the level of publicly expressed antagonism and thus the utility of international information activities.

Subversion was gone and proxy wars were in as World War III was planned. The power of, and even the concept of, public opinion faded in international politics in the face of brute force. American public diplomacy accordingly shifted primarily not to the struggle for minds and wills of the previous decades but to justification, explanation, and exchange, a far cry from the active and government-wide original purpose. Anything more aggressive was seen as propaganda, and thus “wrong”, or worse, something that belonged to the military, and labeled “Psychological Operations”, and later, “Information Operations.”

It was in this environment that Senator Fulbright saw an opportunity to end American international broadcasting. He, like Kent Cooper of the Associated Press in the 1940’s, disagreed with “mass opinion control” and never approved of America’s information activities (see “Rethinking Smith-Mundt” for more on Cooper, including how he felt information could not be a factor in international relations). Fulbright made his position on international broadcasting very clear: “these Radios [Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Liberty] should be given an opportunity to take their rightful place in the graveyard of Cold War relics.” Blocked from dismantling the radios by political maneuvering, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee turned his attention on shutting down the United States Information Agency. In this regard, Sharon is right: Senator Fulbright and other sought to terminate “government propaganda,” but this was propaganda aimed overseas, not domestically.

After a New York Senator showed a USIA film on his monthly statewide television show for his constituents, Fulbright pounced and claimed the screening violated the Smith-Mundt Act. Acting Attorney General Richard Kleindienst demurred and noted the language and “apparent purpose” of the section that prohibited the State Department from domestic dissemination “was to make USIA materials available to the American public through the press and members of Congress.” Despite this, the Senator battled the Nixon Administration over USIA. The Administration actively responded with creating an anti-Fulbright faction that eventually won out. The Senator spent the last of his political capital on an amendment to close this “loophole.” The Foreign Relations Act of 1972 changed the clause on distribution. Previously, material “shall be available” to the media, academia, the public, and Congress. It now read that “any such information shall not be disseminated within the United States.” More importantly, it established a changed perception of the intent and purpose the Act.

As noted above, the changing political environment changed the requirement of public diplomacy to something much more subtle from the aggressive engagement of before. The result was a much more tactical application of informational engagement. This set the stage for the second major change to the Act in 1985.

The Zorinsky Amendment of 1985 was a response to the increasing tactical use of “public diplomacy” in the state-centric environment, such as the international information campaign surrounding the shooting down of KAL 007 by the Soviet Union and even apparent nepotism at USIA. Senator Edward Zorinsky (D-NE) was very concerned about the then-proposed Radio Marti, but not primarily because American’s might hear it. The Radio Marti debates focused more on “heavy-handed” nature of broadcasting to Cuba, the interference with domestic broadcasters (including those in the Mid-West) by Radio Marti transmissions and the expected Cuban response, as well as simply the cost of such a program.

By this time, the need for Smith-Mundt was largely gone. There was little need to actively promote American interests, policies, and ideals. The principles of the Act, as well as the oversight, were accurately relics in the state-centric environment. Little attention was paid to the tightening of the restriction. Neither the media nor academia hardly noticed, or cared.

Point #2: Let the media mediate because the government lies

Sharon asserts that the media must mediate and that direct government communication to the American public is wrong. Sharon’s argument is based on a) the assumption that America lies and distorts in its overseas engagement and thus disseminates content unfit for American eyes and ears, and b) that proactive engagement with an audience is wrong.

Let’s step back to before public diplomacy became a “neutered beauty contest.” Recommending passage of the Smith-Mundt Bill, the Smith-Committee wrote that “truth can be a powerful weapon on behalf of peace.” It was clear in the debates that most in Congress understood the importance of telling the truth and to be accountable for both the words and deeds in international engagement. Then, as now, the truth was a particularly useful weapon.

But the truth is not what the distorted Smith-Mundt restricts. It prevents Americans from knowing one of the most famous Americans in Eastern Europe (Willis Conover), it requires special clearance for an image used in an overseas publication to be shown in a PowerPoint presentation to a small group of American citizens, and it even prevents access to the same material from Freedom of Information Act requests.

On the second point, Sharon elsewhere suggests a self-righteous model of “how the media works.” It is, she writes, to be the mediator between the government and the people. Twenty years ago Noam Chomsky pointed out the increased concentration of media ownership changed the motive from a duty to inform the public to one of profit. As bureaus shrunk, the media increasingly relied on others to do their reporting, from the government, corporations, or “elite” experts for analysis. The recent Pew Research report shows that after twenty years the media has further retreated from the realm foreign affairs. The rise in popularity of shows like Jon Stewart, NPR’s Wait Wait, Wired’s Danger Room is more than just entertainment from witty writing, but the value of informing. As Steve Corman notes, this informing is not done without suggestive influence.

In an example she gives about querying a public affairs officer at the Pentagon, the PAO should provide any other assistance Sharon or any other reporter from ABC, Agence France-Presse, Tass, Al-Jazeera, or other media organization requests. However, that does not mean, as Sharon implies, the United States should wait for the media to ask the right questions and hope for the best in reporting.

Overseas, we cannot always be sure the right information, message, or data will get to an audience. This is one of the purposes of the international “Radios.” But this does not mean lies and obfuscations should be the order of business, as Sharon (and others) suggests. However, I understand her concern because, as stated before, the current practice of public diplomacy is broken. My recommendations are part of a comprehensive “re-think” of international engagement based more on the returning to the principles of Smith-Mundt than recreating the wheel. There must be a complete reconceptualization of the value of information and persuasion, and that any act and word will have influence. There must be transparency and truth, lest trust and legitimacy be lost or never gained.

Sharon declared my statement that the U.S. is not neutral territory as “scary,” but it is, in fact, not neutral. Pretending that it is makes no sense. News generated and reported on in the U.S. is broadcast overseas through direct conversation (email, phone, text, etc), international broadcasting (satellite, internet, etc), or direct reports (foreign reporters filing from the U.S).

Of course no amount of information can overcome bad policy. The importance of synchronizing policy and actions was known to be critically important in the emerging information environment of the time. In 1952, presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower said that “as a nation, everything we do and everything we fail to say or do will have its impact in other lands.” Today, the U.S. is just now returning this truth as it continues to struggle to rediscover the importance and utility of information in conflict.

I noted in “Rethinking Smith-Mundt” that the Act was a gap-filler for the media’s shortcoming in communicating with the world. The domestic prohibition was, as described, not about preventing the overseas material from being heard or read by American audiences but about the competitive aspect of domestic dissemination. Even internationally, it was the intent of Congress to further private media’s reach to get the word out. Congress attempted to privatize the international broadcasting, but private media refused. In the Act, Congress intentionally required the Department of State, and later the United States Information Agency, to use private enterprise whenever and wherever possible. As a compliment to the Smith-Mundt Act, the Marshall Plan funded government support for private media through the Informational Media Guarantee program that offset the costs of international distribution for America newspapers, books, and films. (Side note with tongue only slightly in the cheek: as a paying member of my local NPR station, I am not comfortable with Sharon’s blanket rejection of government funded media.)

The purpose of the Act was not just to professionalize America’s ability to engage the world, but to make key principles, such as truth, central in America’s activities, as well as legislating transparency and oversight. As the law is interpreted and applied today, Americans are not permitted to see what the government says in its “voice” nor are some of the materials produced in its name accessible through Freedom of Information Act requests. Both of these are contrary to the purpose and intent of the Act. It also implies that the United States lies overseas.

Through the last thirty to forty years, the concepts of persuasion, influence, and even public diplomacy have become dirty words on par with “propaganda.” It is odd that the use of tools of persuasion as bullets and bombs have less stigma than the use of information. Underlying the purpose of this monograph is the question: is it better to persuade an adversary to not resist by dispelling false rumors and the conveyance of truth or to kill him? Is it preferable, or even possible, to bomb our adversaries to thinking like us? A former Assistant Secretary of State wrote in 1953, “in the contest for men’s minds, truth can be peculiarly the American weapon.” Surely the U.S. can better use information to prevent, shorten, or terminate conflict today in a way that is not opposed to our democratic foundations?

See also:

4 thoughts on “Rethinking Smith-Mundt: responding to Sharon Weinberger

  1. While I am not familiar with the finer points of the Smith Mundt Act, I think the main worry is that broadcasts ostensibly aimed at foreign countries will in reality be used as memetic resonators for US consumption. Point of line: The presidents use of the term islamofascism in his speech served as a strong morale backing for what many of the opposition sees as the islamophobic far right, both here in Europe and in the states. The use of such keywords and keyphrases in foreign broadcasts will give the ruling party a new and unexplored tool for indirect propaganda.Also, while you write that truth is a premise for succesful foreign comunication, this is not always so if one wishes to inflame one part of a conflict. WItnes the Russian IO machine, and the Georgian as well, where both sides are so obviously untrue that they negate each other for the critical listener but drives the point home for the ones not used to critical dissemination of info. I fail to see you examining worst-case scenarios of the changes you are proposing.

  2. But there is yet another source that Russians who want to find out what is going on are turning to. When experts on the post-Soviet space at Moscow State University wanted to keep track of Georgian developments, they turned not to Russian media but to the broadcasts of U.S. funded Radio Liberty (, instead of helping Russians who increasingly cannot learn the facts from their own media, all too many Western governments – including the U.S. – have been cutting back on such broadcasts, thereby unintentionally helping Putin and Medvedev to distort the “reality” on offer on Russian television far more easily and effectively.
    Russian TV’s Distorted Coverage of Georgia Forces Many to Turn to Internet, Western Broadcasts

  3. Editorial: Don’t stop U.S. broadcasts to Russia and GeorgiaTen days before Russian tanks and infantry invaded the democratic and pro-Western Republic of Georgia, the federal government’s Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) terminated all Voice of America (VoA) radio broadcasts to Russia

  4. fnord, the way I see it is too much of what the President, for example, says overseas is designed for U.S. consumption, even as he stands in front of a foreign audience. This discussion is ultimately about understanding the value of information, including the words and grammar that is used. Too often Smith-Mundt prevents discourse with foreign audiences because of a fear of reflection back into the U.S., in no small part because of what is being said overseas is so different than what is being said at home.Remember too that effective information dissemination relies on trust and the truth. Lies and poor grammar, such as Islamo-Fascism (which wasn’t the product of a discussion on international engagement but of short term US public mobilization), won’t work.
    As far as the worse case scenario, I see that happening now in the US. There is an abject failure to understand the power of information to persuade and too great a reliance on private media to frame, interpret, analysis, and even just convey facts, despite their 24-hour news cycle.
    Have both Georgian and Russian IO gone to far and lost their legitimacy? To us, perhaps. To their target audiences, maybe not. One of Russia’s goals is to confuse the opposition. Where is the counter-narrative? Do we continue to rely on soda-straw views of reporters on the ground?

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