This is the first of two parts. The second part will be a response by Jeremy Berkowitz to be posted shortly. This post will be updated with that link when it is available.
“Raising the Iron Curtain on Twitter: why the United States must revise the Smith-Mundt Act to improve public diplomacy” (PDF, 415kb) is an intelligent and thoughtful paper from law student Jeremy Berkowitz. It is a valuable contribution to the too-sparse knowledgebase of legislation that shapes much of the US Government’s engagement with the world, including Americans. Written from a legal perspective – in May 2010 Jeremy will receive a Communications Law Studies Certificate from the Columbus School of Law at The Catholic University of America – this paper delves into juridical actions related to the Smith-Mundt Act not found anywhere else. Jeremy also explores some of wrangling between the legislative and executive branch, specifically the confrontation between Senator Fulbright and US Attorney General Kleindienst. I was pleased to see his discussion on the 1998 DC Circuit Court decision in Essential Information v. United States Information Agency. In this case, the Court failed to distinguish “dissemination” and “disclosure”, ruling that “it seems unlikely that these two terms were meant to bear different meanings.”
However, Jeremy’s paper contains a major defect that perpetuates an unfounded myth and undermines the strength of his paper. The dissemination prohibition in the Smith-Mundt Act was not because “some members of Congress had concerns about the perception of the United States indoctrinating its own citizens, particularly in light of the domestic propaganda campaigns that took place in Germany and Japan during World War II.” Jeremy’s was an 1998 article by a friend of mine that appeared in the quarterly journal Peace Review that drew on conventional wisdom rather than facts (in 2008, my friend acknowledged the myth).
The section “concerns about propaganda remain in the US” is built on the above argument without noting most, if not all, of the examples are completely out of the scope of Smith-Mundt, original or revised, which only covers certain activities of the State Department. The anti-propaganda riders in the legislation that covers the Defense Department are not intended to be extensions of Smith-Mundt or to block information operations targeting overseas audiences from reaching into the territorial US, as my conversations with Congressman Paul Hodes confirmed.
This is not merely semantic but a significant fact that shapes the modern debate over public diplomacy and strategic communication. Missing this point weakens his subsequent arguments and (likely) caused him to fail to cast domestic influence operations in the proper context. Concerns over State Department activities were real, but the prohibition on domestic dissemination was not the solution.
Smith-Mundt began as an idea in 1943 when the State Department sought to make its foreign information programs permanent after the end of the war. Momentum picked up with State’s 1944 reorganization that created the Office of Public Affairs and the position of Assistant Secretary of State for Cultural and Public Affairs. In 1945, “Cultural” was dropped to focus on information activities. In October 1945, the Bloom Bill was introduced at the request of the State Department and encouraged by the President who moved wartime information offices into State.
The prophylactic to prevent Nazi-style propaganda or President Wilson’s Committee for Public Information activities were addressed when the bill was amended in June 1946 by Representative John M. Vorys (R-OH) “to remove the stigma of propaganda” and address the principle objections to the information activities it was authorizing. The amendment said the information activities should only be conducted if needed to supplement international information dissemination of private agencies; that the State Department was not to acquire a monopoly of broadcasting or any other information medium; and that private sector leaders should be invited to review and advise the State Department in this work. (The last point would create what is now the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.) The Bloom Bill passed the House in July 1946 but was blocked by one Senator who opposed much of the President’s foreign policy. In March 1947, the legislation resurfaced in the 80th Congress, again at the request of State, as the Smith-Mundt Bill. Pressure to pass it increased substantially as a direct result of increased Communist propaganda responding to the June 1947 announcement of the Marshall Plan.
The first two points of the Vorys amendment are largely forgotten but remain and address the domestic influence issue too often aimed at the dissemination provision. Section 1437 of the Act requires the State Department to maximize its use of “private agencies.” Section 1462 requires “reducing Government information activities whenever corresponding private information dissemination is found to be adequate” and prohibits the State Department from having monopoly in any “medium of information” (a prescient phrase). Combined, these provide not only protection against government’s domination of domestic discourse, but interestingly a “sunset clause” for governmental activities that Rep. Karl Mundt (R-SD) and Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs William Benton stated clearly: as private media stood up, government media would stand down. (This by itself should create an interesting argument today as private media retreats from around the globe. There were several inquiries into privatizing the entire information program but private media pushed back saying they could not do it.)
The historical record firmly grounds Section 1461 in Congressional concerns over the loyalty and capability of the State Department to conduct its operations. The media, Congress, and academia were to mediate State information programs entering the US to protect the Government against “Communist infiltration and pro-Russian policy” of the State Department.
“Raising the Iron Curtain on Twitter” projects the current reading of Section 1461, the firewall provision to the past, by implying the modern language “for examination only” existed in the original legislation. It did not. This was inserted by Senate actions in 1972 and 1985 that transformed a filter based on “we don’t trust State” to a firewall derived from “we don’t trust the Government” by one Senator trying to abolish America’s international broadcasting and another who objected to the President’s tactical use of USIA.
In 1972, Senator Fulbright (D-AR) recognized the change in the Cold War and sought to eliminate the Government’s foreign broadcasters and demanded that they “be given the opportunity to take their rightful place in the graveyard of Cold War relics.” Fulbright and the Nixon Administration went to war over the existence of the Radios and the United States Information Agency.
In the 1985, Senator Edward Zorinsky (D-NE) did not approve of the USIA or its activities. Zorinksy’s famous quote that Jeremy and many others use – “The American taxpayer certainly does not need or want his tax dollars used to support U.S. Government propaganda directed at him or her” – followed a comparison USIA to a Soviet propaganda agency, an important point of clarification.
The false premise of Congressional concerns stemming from Goebbels led to a failure to properly contextualize examples of domestic influence and ignores pervasive Government “indoctrination” in the 1940s and 1950s, fondly recalled in campy movies and posters (far better examples are easily found that those at these links). The domestic propaganda examples of the Pentagon analyst program and Armstrong Williams were not and are not covered by the Act that covers exclusively State’s discourse with foreign publics today, or more accurately, audiences located outside the territorial boundaries of the US and audiences using Internet service located outside the territorial boundaries of the US. Jeremy could have used the recent domestic examples to show the folly of the “firewall.” One of several examples I typically provide that demonstrate Congress did and does not intend to block domestic propaganda is the Sunday talk show circuit.
The Iron Curtain on Twitter is based largely from the myth that Congress is protecting the American public from the Government. Failing to understand the different meanings of the legislation and the legislators is highly germane to debating and addressing the issues.
In the end, however, it is truly a superb paper with excellent case research and analysis, such as the discussion on the Court’s ruling that USIA products are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, not found anywhere else. It should be required reading for legislators and legal departments, provided they understand the limitations in the paper.
- Smith-Mundt: Facts, Myths, & Recommendations – 202kb PDF written at the request of and for Congress
- Report on the 2009 Smith-Mundt Symposium (frequently cited by Jeremy Berkowitz)
- The rising importance of people and public opinion (Oct 1945 testimony)
- Rethinking Smith-Mundt follow up (specifically Point #1)
- Additional Resources, Recommended Reading
- See also “Rethinking Smith-Mundt” (PDF, 140kb) but know this paper is undergoing a major rewrite in preparation for publication.
- Signed into law in January 1948, the act, contrary to popular belief, did not authorize “the creation of a new governmental communications infrastructure” but more accurately authorized existing programs that were, in 1946 and 1947, funded but not authorized by Congress.
- Further, the Act did not lead to the establishment of the United States Information Agency. State’s failure to embrace the activities required by the Act played a far greater role.
- Lastly, unbeknownst to Jeremy at the time, but one of his citations, “US Public Diplomacy and Smith-Mundt Act” from the Asian Tribune, was plagiarized from www.MountainRunner.us, as I noted the day after the plagiarized text first appeared (the MountainRunner page in question has evolved since it was plagiarized).
- What is propaganda? – a MountainRunner post with 22 comments