Senator Edward Zorinsky and Banning Domestic Access to USIA in 1985

Senator Edward Zorinsky, D-NE
Senator Edward Zorinsky, D-NE 

If you’ve looked into public diplomacy or the Smith-Mundt Act, you have likely come across this quote by Senator Edward Zorinsky (D-NE), or some paraphrased reference to it:

The American taxpayer certainly does not need or want his tax dollars used to support U.S. Government propaganda directed at him or her.

Most likely, the text was standing alone and without any context of when and why the Senator said it, or perhaps even without a reference to who said it. In my experience, I have seen the quote in perhaps a dozen books, and some scholarly articles, and yet most of the time Zorinsky’s name is not given and never, not once, was a source given. The reader was left hanging.

The logical — and only — implication to be drawn from the quote when devoid of the original context was that the Government should not propagandize its people, then or today. Americans are comfortable with this idea, but the context here, like many other instances, really matters. The whole statement may cause you to reconsider what this line means.

Senator Zorinsky said these words on the floor of the Senate as he successfully amended the Smith-Mundt Act to close a “loophole” of domestic dissemination by USIA. Below is his statement in its entirety, from which the sentence above was drawn. The transcript below includes his proposed (and subsequently accepted) amendment to the Smith-Mundt Act. The source is the Congressional Record of the 99th Congress, 1st Session, June 7, 1985 (legislative day of June 3, 1985):

Mr. ZORINSKY. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that further reading of the amendment be dispensed with.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.

The amendment is as follows:

On page 19, after line 9 add the following new section:


No funds authorized to be appropriated to the United States Information Agency shall be used to influence public opinion in the United States. No program material prepared by the United States Information Agency shall be distributed within the United States. This section shall not apply to programs carried out pursuant to the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961, as amended (Public Law 87-256).

Mr. ZORINSKY. Mr. President, I offer this amendment to prohibit USIA from engaging in domestic propaganda and to restate the existing prohibitions on domestic dissemination of USIA products.

By law, the USIA cannot engage in domestic propaganda. This distinguishes us, as a free society, from the Soviet Union where domestic propaganda is a principal government activity.

There is considerable discussion within USIA about using the Agency’s so-called second mandate to engage in domestic propaganda. The second mandate — “telling America about the world” — has never been implemented. It should not now be implemented as part of a USIA strategy to propagandize the American people on foreign policy issues.

The American taxpayer certainly does not need or want his tax dollars used to support U.S. Government propaganda directed at him or her. My amendment ensures that this will not occur.

Mr. President, I have checked with the majority floor manager and the minority floor manager and they have indicated this may be acceptable to them.

Mr. LUGAR. Mr. President, the amendment of the distinguished Senator from Nebraska essentially restates law with regard to the USIA. The Senator feels that it is important that this law be not only restated but perhaps reenforced by the emphasis of this amendment. We accept the amendment and commend it to the Senate.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. Is there further debate? If not, the question is on agreeing to the amendment.

The amendment (No. 296) was agreed to.

Mr. ZORINSKY. Mr. President, I move to reconsider the vote by which the amendment was agreed to.

Mr. LUGAR. I move to lay that motion on the table.

The motion to lay on the table was agreed to.

Does anything leap out at you? Perhaps it was Senator Zorinsky’s comparison of USIA to an instrument of Soviet propaganda or the acknowledgment that USIA was to help educate the American people to foreign affairs. Most of those who know about USIA know about the Second Mandate, but how many people knew about the first?

Perhaps it was the statement by Senator Richard Lugar, Republican of Indiana, who said the amendment essentially restates the law. This is true because the original law from 1948 barred the covered activities from competing with domestic media and to be drawn down in areas were domestic or alternative activities were deemed to be adequate. And, it’s worth noting now that “dissemination” and “broadcasting” are not synomyms, nor is “availability” synonmous with either “dissemination” or “broadcasting.”

So why did Zorinsky go there? Well, there are several triggers for his amendment.

Senator Zorinsky was aggressively, and arguably right so, exercising an oversight role over USIA. This included actively investigating USIA for nepotism and opposing the new Radio MARTI for technical, more than political, reasons: the new radio station, though broadcasting to Cuba, would either directly interfere with mid-west radio (i.e. constituents) or cause a retaliatory action by Cuba that would. The Senator also opposed President Reagan’s highly tactical use of USIA and international communications. And, the Senator was not happy with the Office of Public Diplomacy setup in the State Department, even though that office had nothing to do with USIA or public diplomacy.

Congressional frustration with the USIA Director, Charles Wick, went beyond making the agency a landing place for family members of the administration. In 1983, Wick, for example, was pressured to reimburse the agency for the $31,713 for a home burglar system he charged to USIA’s budget (repaid most, but not all, of it). In 1984, there was a lot of attention and inquiry into telephone recordings made by Wick, which Rep. Dante Fascell described as “if not illegal, were clearly unethical.” Rep. Tom Lantos said of the recording situation and the effect Wick’s actions had on the USIA: “I think Edward R. Murrow is turning in his grave this morning.” Wick’s actions led directly to the Federal Telecommunications Privacy Act of 1984.

Zorinsky stated that he was following the lead of Senator J. William Fulbright who, thirteen years earlier, fought the Nixon Administration to abolish USIA and America’s international broadcasting to have the “Radios [VOA, RFE, & RL] take their rightful place in the graveyard of Cold War relics.”

Fulbright recognized the shift in the international environment. Never supportive of public diplomacy beyond exchanges and refusing to admit the Soviet Union or Communism was a threat to the United States, believed the “Cold War relics” were no longer needed in the then-new era of closed-door diplomacy.

However, looking back from today, it is easy to put the comments of Zorinsky and Fulbright in their appropriate contemporary context. The perceived utility of direct engagement with publics was not what it had been at the end of World War II and through the first two decades of the Cold War. In the world of the 1970’s and 1980’s, it was bipolar power politics, with its tanks, bombers, and missiles, that mattered more than minds and wills.

Today is not like yesterday. However, to today is more like yesterday’s yesterday than yesterday.

Image source: Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
Originally published May 28, 2009. Updated December 11, 2016.

2 thoughts on “Senator Edward Zorinsky and Banning Domestic Access to USIA in 1985

  1. Would be very grateful for your thoughts on:
    Is the U.S. military all talk?
    Attempts to win Afghan hearts and minds with “stratcom” have fallen flat.
    KABUL, Afghanistan — “You’ve all heard of strategic communications,” said the high-ranking U.S. official, holding an off-the-record briefing for journalists in Kabul last month. “It used to be called ‘psyops,’ and before that, ‘propaganda.’ Well, the United States is about to unroll a major stratcom initiative. We cannot let men on motorcycles and flatbed trucks win the information war.”
    Welcome to the Battle for Afghan Hearts and Minds, where — using the language of strategic communications, or “stratcom” — combat becomes “kinetics,” an accidental shooting becomes an “escalation of force” and assassination squads are known as “counterinsurgency operations.”

  2. @anon: I intend to post more on this when I have a bit more info, but there are a few thoughts I want to share by way of reaction to the above GlobalPost article.First, I don’t know who the “high-ranking U.S. official” was making these not-so-off-the-record remarks, but I think that—based upon the context of the reporting—it’s reasonably safe to conclude this is a GO/SES-level Defense or State official. And if we take Ms. MacKenzie at her word and assume her quotation is accurate, then what we are dealing with is a senior leader with little more than a boot camp-level (mis)understanding of strategic communication.
    This would be merely sad, were it not that at this point in the game it represents a significant strategic weakness. This kind of density at senior levels usually drives me to explicatives, but I am doing my best to maintain a reasonable tone for the benefit of conversation. Unfortunately, this shallow approach is unbearably frequent among too many officers and bureaucrats in DoD and DOS.
    I am not enamored by Jean McKenzie as a journalist, but she is articulating quite clearly what many have already identified as a critical flaw in our strategic approach—not just in Afghanistan, but around the world. Treating “strategic communications” (sic) as a euphemism for “psyops” or “propaganda” (or “public affairs” or “defense support to public diplomacy”) is a crutch for the intellectually lame and lazy.
    We are judged on what we do, not what we say. Yeah, this has been said so many times it’s basically becoming cliché. But that does not mean it is any less true.
    We complain that the Taliban use people as shields. We scream that they twist the truth and exploit our mistakes. And it infuriates us when they lie about white phosphorous or inflate civilian casualties. But why, after nearly eight years of this, should any of this surprise us?
    “Everything is playing into our hands,” [Qari Yusuf Ahmadi] said. “All Afghans now hate the foreigners. They are occupiers, who do not value people’s lives and honor.”
    Indeed. We can only hope that the un-named official McKenzie cites is now out of a job, and that the new leadership in Afghanistan really gets it. Strategic communication means living up to the promises we’ve already made, not just finding a new way to package the promises we are already appear to have trouble keeping.

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