Obsolete arguments to keep an obsolete law

By all means, let's keep a law designed for another era on the books because, well, it's there. That's the argument many have offered in defense of the restrictive provisions added to the Smith-Mundt Act in 1972 and 1985. My friend Kim Andrew Elliot makes this argument while reviewing the Defense Department paper on strategic communication I posted this week.

"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. 

What is most odd and rarely acknowledged is the examples put forward of undue influence on the American public comes not from public diplomacy but from public affairs or highly tactical military uses. Sheldon Rampton and Diane Farsetta argue, for example, that the so-called geographic firewall in the Smith-Mundt Act is required because of activities by military public affairs and tactical information operations, none of which are actually covered by Smith-Mundt or intended to be covered by Smith-Mundt. As far as the Rumsfeld-era Information Operations Roadmap is concerned, take a look instead at new doctrine and discussions that understands that global nature of the informational and perceptual struggle.

It is interesting that critics of "propaganda" cite the activities of public affairs and public diplomacy "defenders" fear a take-over by public affairs if the wall were to come down. 

This is not about propaganda or is about supporting the Defense Department, as some have suggested. This is about realizing we are in a global information environment and responding accordingly. Face the fact: if you want to communicate to Latin America one of the best ways of doing so is to broadcast on a Spanish language radio or television station within the US.

As the inane coverage of Michael Jackson's death and death ceremonies consumes mainstream news, isn't it more apparent that Americans are simply not getting the insights into what is happening overseas?

It wasn't that long ago that the courts interpreted the Zorinsky Amendment to the Smith-Mundt Act as meaning that much of what the United States said and did overseas could not be shared with the American public to the extent that these activities and broadcasts were not subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). I doubt that is what Kim or Sheldon are suggesting. 

If you really want to prevent "propaganda", which is code for influence, then seriously, make a move to stop Administration officials from going on Sunday talk shows, Nightline, Jim Lehrer, and the like.

Go a step farther. Why not prevent foreign government broadcasts in the US by foreign agents and US media?

Instead push for greater transparency in activities as the Smith-Mundt Act requires. This is a global environment and the US is not neutral ground and the American public is not well-informed.

We must return to the principles and purpose of public diplomacy: 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; and aggressively interpret and support American foreign policy. At the same time, it would be worthwhile to resurrect Edward R. Murrow's mantra (which the Defense Department has largely adopted): "Truth is the best propaganda...To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful."

imagePersonally, I think America.gov has some interesting products more Americans should be keen on reading. In fact, I know Americans are interested but if the public diplomacy apparatus creates information then it was illegal for America.gov to tweet about the publication at the right if they knew Americans were the primary audience (the argument has been made that "intention" is all that is required, as in the tweet was intended for audiences not on American soil) and it is illegal for you, if you are on American soil, to access the publication.

It is time to really understand what the purpose of the restriction was and accept that purpose is gone, destroyed by both technology and basic reality of the purpose of public diplomacy, and yes strategic communication, today.

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