Talking about the Principles of Smith-Mundt

I had hoped that my response to Marc Lynch’s challenge would spark a discussion on Smith-Mundt. It did. First, there was a request to fill in some details and do a cross-post. Now, Marc helps with his comments on my post.

Passed sixty years ago as Public Law 402, the United States Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948, the Smith-Mundt Act was to equip the U.S. in a contemporary “war of ideas” and address the danger poised “by the weapons of false propaganda and misinformation and the inability on the part of the United States to deal adequately with those weapons.” It is with some irony that the Act today is itself misunderstood and misrepresented. One might say Smith-Mundt needs, well, its own Smith-Mundt.

Marc raises some issues with my assertions that Smith-Mundt should be revised or abolished. These are best summarized in this paragraph from his post:

…Armstrong's enthusiasm to improve the quality of American international information operations somewhat clouds his recognition of the basic point that the ban on domestic dissemination is there for a reason.   I admit to finding it somewhat alarming when a leading public diplomacy guy in the current administration tried at some length to convince me that Smith-Mundt didn't legally apply to DoD efforts at all.  I'm no lawyer, nor a bureaucrat, so I have no idea if he's right - but the principles behind Smith-Mundt, of protecting the American democratic system from manipulation by the military or intelligence agencies, seem to me to be far more important.

To start, the Act did not “ban” domestic dissemination of information. The Act restricted the State Department from distributing within the United States information used as overseas propaganda. This was not an issue of restricting the message, but of restricting the messenger. There are three general, if unequal, reasons for this.

First, to Representative Karl Mundt (R-SD) and others, the State Department was too soft on the communists. It may seem odd, but Rep. Mundt was concerned the State Department might undermine the government by broadcasting sympathetic messages to the American public. Second, the Act was to “guide [the VOA] to make certain it develops the sturdy American twang” to ensure a more truthful and American image was projected. (For more, see this post.)

Third, and most importantly, the prohibition against domestic dissemination was based on the argument that a government news service would dominate the commercial media industry. This would squeeze the profits of the major media and shutdown smaller media operations. According to Shawn Parry-Giles,

…much of the congressional opposition to the legalization of peacetime propaganda was grounded in the assumption that such an organization threatened the US free press system. Representative William Lemke (D-CT) questioned any governmental attempt to "compete" with private news stations, calling for financial support of short-wave stations and "those who blazed the trail with their own funds." According to Lemke, "Any other procedure would be the rankest kind of injustice." Congressman Hale Boggs (D-LA) also questioned the practice of placing the government in "competition with a free press," reflecting the Russian practice of controlling the "radio and the press".

…Congressman J. Edgar Chenoweth (R-CO) used the conflict between the State Department and the AP as evidence that a constitutional exigency existed over the government’s intrusion into the news business. Referring to the goals of the Smith-Mundt bill as “novel and extraordinary,” Chenoweth cited Kent Cooper, executive director of the AP, emphasizing the “abhorrence of the Government going into the news business,” an act that Cooper equated with “amending the Constitution.”

The information itself was not the problem, hence the use of the word disseminate. The message itself, or approximates of it, was to be shared with Americans through commercial partnerships. William Benton, State Department’s champion for Smith-Mundt, worked closely with American news broadcasters and business leaders to support the Act, and later collaborated with them to shape domestic information activities. It was not about the information, but who delivered it.

The Act’s principles were listed by the House committee that recommended HR 3342, the resolution that became the Smith-Mundt Act:

  • Tell the truth.
  • Explain the motives of the United States.
  • Bolster morale and extend hope.
  • Give a true and convincing picture of American life, methods and ideals.
  • Combat misrepresentation and distortion.
  • Aggressively interpret and support American foreign policy.

General Eisenhower, testifying twice in front of Congress, was emphatic on both the importance of HR 3342 and the importance of telling the truth. Truth was a central facet of the Act. Reports and testimony before and after the passage of HR 3342 stressed the importance of truth and noted the Act would provide the “urgent, forthright, and dynamic measures to disseminate truth.”

Smith-Mundt did not apply to the whole of government such as the various spokesmen (they weren’t spokespersons until later) of the various agencies and departments including the newly created Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency. It did not even apply to the entirety of the State Department. Even after the various amendments of the last couple of decades, its scope has never fully encompassed the State Department, let alone the Defense Department or the rest of the government.

The Defense Department, Marc may be comforted to know, has imposed Smith-Mundt restrictions on itself through legal interpretations and rules. The general rule is the Department lacks authority to engage in domestic influence operations, but public affairs, such as General Petraeus’s presentation to Congress, is a factual delivery of information and thus not covered. However the muting effect of Smith-Mundt is broad, as I’ve noted elsewhere.

No other Western industrialized democracy has a law like Smith-Mundt. None of our peers firewalls conversations with foreign audiences away from conversations with their own people. Perhaps this is because democratic governments are empowered to speak on behalf of its citizens and to let them know what is being said in their name. America’s Smith-Mundt implies that the government may speak for the people but not tell them what is said.

Does this also mean the information the U.S. State Department gives to foreign audiences is not fit for domestic consumption? Is it because our exported information is full of lies and distortions? If so, this flies in the face of both the accepted doctrine of proponents of Smith-Mundt and the United States Information Agency from President Eisenhower to Edward R. Murrow and beyond. It also rejects the re-emerging assertion that truth should be primary focus of information campaigns. If it is not full of lies and distortions, why can’t American citizens hear or see the information?

As an aside, the distinction forced upon the State Department means it must, among other things, maintain a separate website for foreign audiences. Never been there? Check it out, but you’ll be violating Smith-Mundt if you live in the United States (note: veteran journalist Helen Thomas is quoted on USINFO’s home page). Also, to really enter a sensitive area, go to the State Department’s Identifying Misinformation page. The single individual behind this page is, the last I talked to him, prevented from speaking to domestic media because of an i nterpretation of Smith-Mundt. (note: the State Department does have more than one person countering misinformation, there’s the two – three people on their digital outreach team… who are prevented from engaging domestic websites and blogs because of Smith-Mundt.)

Again, the Act’s purpose was never to muzzle the U.S. government from influencing its citizens. The “selective release of information intended to make the current President look good (or bad)” is outside the scope of Smith-Mundt. It is not the State Department that is likely to influence the image of the President. Remember the fear of Rep. Mundt that the State Department might actually undermine, not promote, the President.

On the contrary, the government is constantly influencing American public opinion. From releasing bad news to the press Friday evening to "video news releases" to less than truthful or misleading statements by Press Secretaries, these domestic conversations are not covered by Smith-Mundt. The Sunday talk show circuit exists for this very purpose. The use of General Petraeus to present the Iraq status report in the past and next month is exemplary of the Administration’s shifting responsibility to another speaker as was each time former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld stood at the podium. Examples of the Administration, this or previous, selectively releasing information abound.

It is worth noting that Smith-Mundt is not a product of a House or Senate committee focused on domestic issues, whether telecommunications or government oversight. It is a product of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and it remains their purview today.

In conclusion, the media market of the 1940s is gone and the government can no longer be the dominate news service. It can only get its message out, as it always has been, and rely on the plethora of traditional and new media outlets to propagate the message. Further, the geographic boundaries that contained both people and messages that permitted specific targeting, and thus explicit avoidance of Americans, are a thing of the past. New Media facilitates instantaneous information delivery in multiple languages around the globe.

If you believe that Smith-Mundt was supposed to “protect American democracy” from influence operations intended for overseas consumption, as Marc believes, and he’s not alone in holding this view, then Smith-Mundt is obviously not working and must be revised.

But the purpose of Smith-Mundt was not to provide a prophylactic for American eyes and ears. Its impact today is to inhibit agility and cooperation in American information systems to participate in the modern psychological struggle. Something must be done to address the danger poised “by the weapons of false propaganda and misinformation and the inability on the part of the United States to deal adequately with those weapons.” In this respect, Smith-Mundt is obviously not working and must be revised.

Clearly, the status quo is unacceptable. Smith-Mundt must either be revised or abolished. Either way, more discussion is required and now is the time to spark it.

See also: