On Smith-Mundt, Part III

The following is Part III of a discussion between Jeremy Berkowitz and Matt Armstrong on Jeremy’s paper "Raising the Iron Curtain on Twitter: why the United States must revise the Smith-Mundt Act to improve public diplomacy" (PDF, 415kb). Part I is Matt Armstrong’s critique of the paper and Part II is Jeremy’s response.

Below is Part III, my response:

I challenged Jeremy on the veracity of his argument that Congressional (or general public) concern over the US Government propagandizing American citizens was the purpose of the prohibition of domestic dissemination by the State Department. The contemporary record does not support his argument. The concern was real, but the remedy was found in two other provisions in the law, put in place in 1946 in the 79th Congress when the bill was known as the Bloom Bill, introduced in committee in October of 1945 at the request of the State Department. The first provision become Section 1437 of US law. This requires the State Department “to utilize, to the maximum extent practicable, the services and facilities of private agencies.” Second, 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.” These amendments to the Bloom Bill were inserted by Rep. John Vorys (R-OH) in June 1946 “to remove the stigma of propaganda” and address the principle objections to the information activities the bill was authorizing. (At the time, US information activities, such as Voice of America, were operating under Congressional appropriations and not Congressional authorization.)

To Jeremy’s point, the issue of government in competition with domestic broadcasters was not taken lightly. The issue was stoked by the Associated Press who took the position in January 1946, a month after the Bloom Bill was introduced on the House floor, that for VOA to broadcast AP news would color the AP – a claim State and other newspaper and magazine publishers questioned as the AP didn’t have such a concern with Russia’s Tass or the BBC or Reuters. In 1947, when the Bloom Bill was resurrected as the Smith-Mundt Bill as the request of the State Department, Congressman William Lemke (D-CT) again echoed the issue of competition as he called for financial support of radio stations and “those who blazed the trail with their own funds.” Failure to protect private and commercial broadcasters against the government’s proposed entry into dissemination, Lemke said, “would be the rankest kind of injustice.” Rep. Hale Boggs (D-LA) said placing the government in “competition with a free press” would be little different than the Russian practice of controlling the “radio and the press.” Hence, the no-compete agreement that also served as a sunset clause for Government broadcasting, a point frequently made by the State Department and the co-sponsor of the bill in the 80th Congress, Rep. Karl Mundt (R-SD). (It’s worthwhile to note that support was bipartisan as was resistance. President Truman was a Democrat and the House was Democrat in 1946 but Republican in 1947, when the bill ultimately passed. Support or lack of tended to coincide with exposure to the international arena, as noted by contemporary news reporting.)

Jeremy gave four sources for his contention, one in his paper and three more in his response. I addressed Jeremy’s citation of Nancy Snow’s work in my first response – she was a replaying of the myth without any citation. As for Jeremy’s other three sources, I have not read Bryan Hill’s paper so I cannot respond to that, but his other two sources are really one: both Jeremy and Juliana Pilon refer to Alvin Snyder’s article at USC, which also makes the unsubstantiated claim. To reiterate, Jeremy’s is right to note the concern but the remedy was not what he says it is.

As I stated in my first response, this is not an merely an academic argument but one of substance. It was not the intent of Congress to isolate Americans. The public was constantly being informed by the Government. Further, the public was demanding more information from the Government, later even demanding State’s foreign service officers be trained in the war of information and ideology (more on that later). It is therefore important to give the necessary context to the dissemination prohibition and understand the intent of the 79th and 80th Congresses as well as to know the motivation of Fulbright in 1972 and Zorinsky in 1985. The actions of both Senators are held as examples – explicitly or implicitly – as to why the ‘firewall’ is on the books and necessary today, but these two were acting on their personal views and events of the day, neither of which reflect the public diplomacy as it was before 1970s or as it is today.

Jeremy says the motives of Fulbright and Zorinsky are irrelevant. I ardently disagree. Their motive is paramount, just as the motive for the non-compete provisions and the dissemination prohibition. Fulbright was trying to do away with international broadcasting not prevent its influence on Americans and understanding this undermines Jeremy’s basic premise that Congress intended to insulate the American public. Zorinsky was responding to the USIA of his time, rightly or wrongly, as well as building on the efforts of Fulbright. The context and purpose of both Fulbright and Zorinsky undermines their application today and to the 79th and 80th Congresses that wrote what is now known as the Smith-Mundt Act.

As far as the public affairs and being “out of scope” as Jeremy quotes me, he misses the point. The examples of government influence he provides were not covered by Smith-Mundt and were never intended to be covered. By failing to provide this context he leads the reader to believe the Act intended to censor the government, which was not the purpose, not even in 1972 or 1985. They are useful examples in the overall context of influence and highlight Congress does not view his examples as part of Smith-Mundt. It is ironic (to me at least) that egregious examples of influence on the US public are nearly exclusively the activities of public affairs and not public diplomacy, information operations, or psychological operations. The propaganda riders in defense authorizations are reactionary to specific activities, not the entirety of activities. The misunderstanding of the global information environment, by both the subject of control and Congress further perpetuates the distinction that passive information activities are the only ones that are legal. But this is haphazard as well as the reader is probably already listing examples in his or her head now. This is lost in Jeremy’s paper as he comingles issues that perpetuates the myth of the purpose of the firewall. If the intent of Congress was to prevent influence, then why has it not dealt with the Sunday talk show circuit (mushroom clouds anyone?) or holding the President accountable for the words of his press secretary (less an issue today than it was a decade ago, but compare the press secretary’s role – both functional and rhetorical – with the UK prime minster’s official spokesman).

To reiterate, Jeremy’s paper is the best legal analysis of the Act, particularly in regard to juridical view of the Act, there is. However, he is a victim of the myth of Act and failed to provide solid evidence contradicting my criticism. The result is continuing confusion when lawmakers and policymakers rely on the intent of Congress, which was not as Jeremy and others continue to say it was.

We should not – and probably cannot – repeal the Smith-Mundt Act, as Jeremy suggests (which surely must be a typo as Jeremy conflates the firewall provision with the purpose, intent, and letter of the Act). Changing the firewall will not automatically create a new public diplomacy strategy, it would, however, make possible greater understa
nding, support, and oversight – in Congress, across Government, the media, and in the public – of US public diplomacy. In the age of global information and increased accountability (and ironically decreased accountability with a media bent on quantity and speed over accuracy and depth combined with the continuation of “it must be true – I heard it on the Internet”) we cannot continue to imagine America is in an information bubble.