This post appeared at mountainrunner.substack.com on 22 February 2023. It has been slightlymodified here for clarity. Subscribe to my free substack for new posts through email, the web, or through the substack app. Posts are copied here when I get around to it.
The misinformation around the Smith-Mundt Act now borders on willful disinformation. It is really quite fantastic. Unfortunately, at some point, much of it, including public legal analyses and especially internal legal and other guidance, seems bent on earning the label of disinformation. I had not planned on publishing this screed, but I was, I’ll admit, triggered to do so by a reference to the Smith-Mundt Act.
This is the first of an occasional, and limited, run of posts comparing the present with the past to suggest – though perhaps reveal is a better word – how far into the margins “public diplomacy” is today. The subject of this post is the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, formerly known as the Board of Foreign Scholarships.
In the recent issue of Foreign Affairs, Charles King wrote on the competing realities of the legacy of Senator J. William Fulbright. However, as good I think King’s “The Fulbright Paradox – Race and the Road to a New American Internationalism” is in correcting some of the fallacies, problems, and inflationary tales around the Fulbright legacy, he repeats a myth that is central to the Fulbright story. Inexplicably, King also fails to convey Fulbright’s rejection that Russia and communism pose a threat to US national security. While King goes a good way to correct the selective biographical stories of Fulbright that should generally get the label of hagiography (or even cult-like) for their selective telling in elevating Fulbright to deity, King’s essay requires a few corrections, clarifications, and filling in of omissions. That said, King’s essay should be required alongside the number of biographies of Fulbright.
The US Agency for Global Media, formerly named the Broadcasting Board of Governors, is often in the news these days. The usually quiet, forgotten (even across the government) independent federal agency, where “independent” means it is not subordinate to a cabinet secretary while still under the authority of the White House, is not generally well known. Its mission and utility to U.S. national security, not just foreign policy, is particularly not well understood. The confusion around, and even ignorance of, the USAGM generally engenders a couple of questions. Both are fair and foundational but when asked by foreign policy observers they not only highlight the misinformation around an agency established to proactively combat misinformation (and disinformation), they can have troubling consequences if not answered.
The White House, in typical fashion, very publicly lashed out at reporting it did not like. In this case, it was reporting from the Voice of America, a government-funded and managed news service, on Wuhan in China. The White House was triggered by a story published by VOA that did not come from the network, or its sister operation covering China, Radio Free Asia. VOA had republished a story from the Associated Press which VOA distributes under contract. Yesterday, I framed the situation as a failure of VOA’s leadership, and by extension a failure of VOA’s parent organization, the US Agency for Global Media, to focus on the mission and parameters of VOA. That mission and those parameters do not include providing coverage that is redundant to commercial media and does include focusing on audiences relevant to US foreign policy. Below, I continue the conversation by focusing on the “safeguards” Congress implemented around VOA to prevent and correct such failures, safeguards ignored by Congress and the White House abdicating their responsibilities.
There is considerable confusion around what the Smith-Mundt Act does and does not do, specifically with regards to the United States government disseminating information within nation’s borders. The irony of this misunderstanding is thick and multilayered.
A newer version of this topic, published 3 December 2020, may be found here.
The Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs was created in 1999 to lead the State Department’s existing public affairs operations and the reintegration of most of the global public affairs activities previously based in the department. These global activities had been removed in 1953 and rebranded in the late 1960s as “public diplomacy.” (Edmund Gullion is often credited with this rebranding, but proper attribution should go to Rep. Dante Fascell (D-FL), but that’s for another post.)
Since the office was established and the first Under Secretary was sworn-in on October 1, 1999, the office has been vacant 36% of the time. To be more precise, the office has been “unencumbered” with a confirmed Under Secretary for 35.8% of the days since October 1, 1999, with an average gap between appointments of 289 days (over 9.5 months). In December 2011, the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy released a report about this vacancy issue (at the time, I served as the Executive Director of the commission) and the next month I published a less restrained commentary on the topic, R we there yet? A look at the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy (and Public Affairs). Above is an updated chart showing the tenure and vacancies of the office as of August 26, 2019.
Found on page 7 of the Spring/Summer 2010 issue of USC College Magazineis a violation of federal law, specifically the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, as amended. This magazine contains a quote from the Voice of America, a US Government broadcaster that is not permitted to be disseminated within the territory of the US (see image at right). Concern over USIA and US Government broadcasters like VOA led the DC Circuit court in 1998 to exempt USIA from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Think of the damage Wikileaks could have caused if it was around in the 1990s to “expose” Americans to VOA!
I want to thank Matt for his thoughts on my paper. I appreciate his comments and strongly respect his scholarship on the Smith-Mundt Act. I would like to discuss a few of the ideas he raised in his critique. I believe some of his criticism is well-founded and I could have more precisely conveyed my ideas in certain areas. Yet, I also believe that some of his criticism is misguided either due to simple disagreements or misunderstandings of my paper.
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.”
Below is the report on the Smith-Mundt Symposium of January 13, 2009. Subtitled “A Discourse to Shape America’s Discourse”, it was a frank and open discussion across a diverse group of stakeholders, practitioners, and observers from Congress, the Departments of State, Defense, and Homeland Security, and outside of government, many of whom never had a reason to be in the same room with one another before. Ostensibly on the law that authorized what we now call public diplomacy, it was really a way to foster an interagency, public‐private, and inter‐tribal discussion was on the purpose, structure, and direction of America’s global engagement. The report has been online since April. It is republished at Scribd for greater attention and comment. Please contribute your comments below.
For Americans, “influence” or “persuasion” in the context of foreign affairs is unseemly and even distasteful. While it is the responsibility – the requirement even – of a democratic leader to marshal and manage public opinion behind an issue or a platform, we have an uneasy relationship with this concept in the area of foreign affairs.
Using carefully selected words for carefully selected audiences, leveraging social media, traditional media, and personal engagement to build support for an issue are the hallmarks of political campaigns. Whether running for office or pushing legislation, politicians and their advisors explore the psychology of constituents to push emotional buttons to influence and mobilize audiences.
The propagation of accidental misinformation or intentional disinformation is a healthy business in America, as is the business of uncovering the same. It is legal to “swift boat” in the US is legal, the President can solicit my support through electronic media (see image above, ostensibly from a private entity) and through weekly radio addresses, I can watch government influence operations (from the Administration and Congress alike) on Sunday Talk Shows, and the President’s own press secretary can master the art of obfuscation (must more prominent in the previous Administration).
But change the target audience to be outside the US and all of a sudden the color of the discourse changes and we assume what our own government says and does in our name is “dirty” and unfit to be viewed by Americans, even through the filter of our own media.
Why is this? Craig Hayden says it is because we harbor “the phantom fears of the propaganda state”. But, as he points out,
…we already live in a propaganda state, where mainstream media reporting caters to narrow-cast markets with news and opinions framed to be marketable. So the dangers that Smith-Mundt supposedly protects U.S. citizens from is non-unique. At the same time, the U.S. clings to a phantom hope that its journalistic institutions adhere to a kind of impartial “objectivity” to serve the interests of public debate. Objectivity has been watered down to artificially bisect all issues as politically debatable, with few evaluative standards other than those posed by stakeholders with conveniently contrasting views on the “news.” Put simply – current U.S. media institutions produce propaganda – for better or worse.
The “inconvenient ignorance” of the “propaganda state” limits our ways, means, and purposes of engaging global audiences. We imply certain discourse is unsavory for Americans and label it “propaganda” or “psychological operations” simply because the conversation is with non-US audiences. The result is that we censor our Government, and only our Government, in the area of foreign affairs and yet domestically, we have a vibrant industry targeting individuals in far less savory ways (seriously, “death panels”?).
Censoring the Voice of America at ForeignPolicy.com
Below is the beginning of short op-ed from The New York Times on a recent report on what would later be called public diplomacy by the Advisory Commission on Information, to be known decades later as the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.
Every American interested in a strong information program for this country would do well to study the latest report of the United States Advisory Commission on Information. The Commission’s four members … have clarified the key problems we face in attempting to counter Communist propaganda throughout the world and have spoken plainly on matters that require plain speech.
…[R]eferring to Senator McCarthy’s television circus last year, the Commission says, “The wide and unfavorable publicity … gave the agency such a bad name that professionally competent persons were reluctant to accept employment in it.” The Commission adds that the result of periodic Congressional attacks is that those who prepare our counter-propaganda for overseas “are perforce more cautious of how the messages will sound or appear to the investigators and completely lose sight of whether they will be effective with their intended audience.”
To let the American public get updates to the President’s speech via SMS is dangerous and, presumably, equivalent to Al Qaeda and Taleban propaganda. No wait, those messages come through just fine so it must be worse than that and even Iranian, Russian, and Chinese Government propaganda. If you’re an American, you cannot sign up for SMS updates to what surely will be an excellent speech by the President – nor could you sign up for the previous much anticipated and lauded speeches – because the Smith-Mundt Act prevents American public diplomacy activities from reaching sensitive and impressionable American eyes and ears. If you’re in the 50 United States ("US minor outlying islands" don’t count) then you’ll have to hope the State Department’s Public Affairs
does something, but, call me a pessimist, I wouldn’t hold your breath.
"Understand the difference between public diplomacy and strategic communication. For the former, the audience is outside the geographic territory of the United States. For the latter, the audience is global. Science and Technology solutions do not generally discriminate based on geographic location, nor should they. The domains of strategic communication can not be limited to those with public affairs authority – everyone should be viewed as a strategic communicator." Brilliant. This report has found a way to work around the Smith-Mundt clause prohibiting the domestic dissemination of public diplomacy. Just call it "strategic communication."
Kim’s statement is based on the belief that American public diplomacy is unfit for American audiences because it is a) deceitful, b) illegal influence, or c) damaging to the domestic news market. None of these are valid reasons today.
"Repairing America’s image" is a popular mantra these days, but discussions on revamping America’s public diplomacy are futile if the legislative foundation of what we are attempting to fix is ignored. A sixty year old law affects virtually all U.S. engagement with foreign audiences by putting constraints on what we say and how we say it. Perhaps more importantly, it limits the oversight by the American public, Congress, and the whole of government into what is said and done in America’s name abroad. The impact of this law, the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, must not be ignored if policymakers hope to improve how the United States communicates overseas.
Registration for the Smith-Mundt Symposium – A Discourse to Shape America’s Discourse – is now open. Registration is free, open to the public, and required to attend the event on Tuesday, January 13, 2009.
The Symposium will be held at the Reserve Officer’s Association across the street from the Senate and House office buildings in Washington, D.C.
There is also a discussion forum built specifically for this event: http://mountainrunner.us/symposium/. From here you can register to attend the Symposium as well as discuss the Smith-Mundt Act and suggest and discuss questions for the different panels. This site will host the electronic library to be available to registered attendees prior to the Symposium.
To register for the Symposium, go to http://mountainrunner.us/symposium/ and click on Registration in the menu bar near the top. Even if you cannot attend the Symposium, because you are reading this you will probably find the discourse at the website interesting and your contribution will increase the value for everyone.
Send any questions, comments, or issues, including registration problems, to Matt Armstrong at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For timely updates on my writing, subscribe to my substack "Arming for the War We're In". Most posts there will eventually get copied here... "most" and "eventually"...