Smith-Mundt Act: Facts, Myths and Recommendations

The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 is the authorizing legislation for America’s public diplomacy and strategic communication. This three-page information sheet addresses confusion surrounding the Act and makes recommendations that are fundamental to any improvement to US public diplomacy and strategic communication. It is ironic that legislation intended to counter misinformation is itself subject to misinformation to the point few know the Act’s purpose and true application.

The following is a short three page overview written at the request of and for a (pro bono) client who is neither the State Department nor the Defense Department. Download here or read below or at Scribd.

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Can Facebook defeat terrorism?

Maybe. From Gutenberg to pre-Revolutionary pamphleteers to the Internet, increasing the access to information has been a catalyst for change. Yesterday, Steve Corman looked at this question and noted that

[w]hile Facebook played an important role in the development of the protest march, it can be better described as a catalyst than a cause.

The media, formal and informal, new and old, is the oxygen both terrorist and counter-terrorist movements require to exist and thrive. The advantage of the latter over the former is truth, transparency, and promising futures. New Media’s ability to engage, mobilize, and empower transcends geography and time. It simultaneously reaches locally and globally, providing instant and “time-shifted” access to text, pictures, and videos. It also fosters trusting peer relationships that add credibility to messages and the movement itself.

Today, the State Department announced an event to facilitate more catalysts for change:

Facebook, Google, YouTube, MTV, Howcast, Columbia Law School and the U.S. Department of State Convene the Alliance of Youth Movements Summit

Dec. 3-5 Summit in New York to Bring Together Global Youth Groups, Tech Experts to Find Best Ways to Use Digital Media to Promote Freedom and Justice, Counter Violence, Extremism and Oppression

New York, NY, November 18, 2008—Facebook, Google, YouTube, MTV, Howcast, Columbia Law School, the U.S. Department of State and Access 360 Media are bringing leaders of 17 pioneering organizations from 15 countries together with technology experts next month in New York for the first-ever conclave to empower youth against violence and oppression through the use of the latest online tools. 

Rising star Jared Cohen (author of Children of Jihad: A Young American’s Travels Among the Youth of the Middle East) is a major force behind this event. The rest of the press release is below the fold.

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Unasked in NYT’s “photography as a weapon”: does the media have an obligation to check its facts?

Relying on the mainstream media to debunk foreign propaganda is increasingly difficult. Errol Morris, writing on the New York Times opinion blog, discusses the Photoshopped Iranian missile launch. This case, like an increasing number, was caught by “New Media” effectively acting as an “Old Media” watchdog. While many papers issued retractions after the catch, the impression was set. The clarifications that rarely, if ever, received the same front-page treatment as the error they were correcting may not have been noticed.

Twenty years ago, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman noted that changes in the media were changing the information landscape in the United States. The increased concentration of media ownership changed the motive from a duty to inform the public to one of profit and an increased dependency on outside sources from the government, corporations, or “elite” experts for analysis. The recent Pew Research report shows that twenty years later the trend is worse as media has further retreated from the realm foreign affairs.

The result is easy manipulation of domestic by foreign and domestic communicators. The photography as a weapon discussion is aspect of this. Another is the Pentagon Pundits (aka “Hidden Hand”) scandal where substantial blame properly rests on the media as forewarned by Chomsky, although they have deflected much of what they’re due. (On this subject, see also this post.)

Outside the scope of this post is how do you reconcile the trashing of transparency and truth by Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Victoria Clarke who both orchestrated the leveraging the military analysts and “outed” the Office of Strategic Influence to protect her turf. Her skill at manipulation and disinformation in exposing an office that was essentially a public diplomacy office within the Pentagon (no, the place it should be, but it was 2001 and State is just now stepping up in 2008, so cut some slack) had no place in strategic communication, public diplomacy, or public affairs. Clarke manipulation highlights the failure of the media to investigate and understand the news it covers.

Read the discussion at the New York Times.

Also, for the truly interested, I suggest Robert Entman’s Projections of Power: Framing News, Public Opinion, and U.S. Foreign Policy.

Strengthening State by Making It More like Defense

AmericanDiplomacy.org has an interesting article by three students at the Joint Forces Staff College, LTC Shannon Caudill, USAF, MAJ Andrew Leonard, USA, and SgtMaj Richard Thresher (what, nobody from the Navy or a Coastie?), titled Interagency Leadership: The Case for Strengthening the Department of State.

In short, they argue State’s geographic focus should drop its early-20th (arguably late-19th) Century European view of the world and adopt the map of the Defense Department’s Combatant Commands.  The authors argue State “should be the pre-eminent diplomatic and interagency leader abroad, but it must be reorganized to become more relevant, robust, and effective.”  They also note Congress’s reticence to fully fund State… They also note Congress’s reticence to fully fund State (no, that’s not a typo, that’s history repeating itself). 

Their recommendation is a smart one.  In fact, CSIS would recognize it as a means to implement Smart Power:

DOS should create a Regional Chief of Mission (RCM), responsible for leading and synchronizing interagency capabilities to project the full range of national power elements. This diplomatic post would work in tandem with the geographic combatant commander and ensure a diplomatic face is planted on the region, not just a military one. It would also provide a regional leader for coordinating the non-military elements of national power and take the lead role in integrating interagency approaches to fulfill government objectives.

However, beyond the importance of having leadership that understands the importance and utility of the full range of national power, there are several structural issues at State that must be dealt with, arguably before the reorganization.  These include updating the personnel system, including increasing interagency billets, and increasing professional and academic education opportunities.  Changes to these would really put State on par with Defense and would facilitate State’s New Map (a book idea for somebody… may Tom’s fifth).  This would really strengthen State and complete the transformation the authors imply is necessary.

I recommend the essay.