The VOICE Act: Victims of Iranian Censorship

Senator Ted Kaufman (D-DE), chairing a hearing with four past and present Under Secretaries for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, mentioned the VOICE Act in his opening remarks. From my experience, unless you've sat in on one of my presentations sometime in the last eight months, odds are you don't know what it is. The VOICE Act is a product of Senators in the Armed Services Committee: John McCain (R-AZ), Joseph Lieberman (ID-CT), Ted Kaufman (D-DE), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Robert Casey (D-PA).

(Interesting note: Senators Kaufman and Wicker - plus Senator Jim Webb - are the only Congressman (House or Senate) that are on both an armed services committee and a foreign relations (Senate) or foreign affairs (House) committee. These two Senators chaired the recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing titled The Future of Public Diplomacy.)

The VOICE Act, also known as the Victims of Iranian Censorship Act, was passed by the Senate in S. 1391 on July 23, 2009. It passed the conference between House and Senate armed services committees on October 8, 2009 and with the President's signature on October 28, 2009, it became Public Law 111-84: the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010.

The VOICE Act is a notable (and rare) example of Defense Department-focused entities - the armed services committees - authorizing substantial funding for the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors. However, the $55 million (details are below) authorized is not yet funded. In what could have been a very visible demonstration of putting his money where his mouth is, to the best of my knowledge, the late Congressman John Murtha (D-PA), chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee, did not push to fund the VOICE Act despite saying the State Department should be doing more.

The VOICE Act is on the books, but it lacks funding.

So what does the VOICE Act authorize? On his website, Sen McCain touts the VOICE Act as "bipartisan legislation that will help strengthen the ability of the Iranian people get access to news and information and overcome the electronic censorship and monitoring efforts of the Iranian regime."

Here are the details (also available in this 34kb PDF extracted from PL 111-84: the NDAA for FY2010):

  • $15,000,000 to expand Farsi language programming and to provide for the dissemination of accurate and independent information to the Iranian people through radio, television, Internet, cellular telephone, short message service, and other communications.
  • $15,000,000 to expand transmissions of Farsi language programs to Iran.
  • $20,000,000 to established in the Treasury of the United States the Iranian Electronic Education, Exchange, and Media Fund to support the development of technologies, including Internet Web sites, that will aid the ability of the Iranian people to gain access to and share information; exercise freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly through the Internet and other electronic media; engage in Internet-based education programs and other exchanges between Americans and Iranians; and counter efforts to block, censor, and monitor the Internet; and counter efforts to disrupt or monitor cellular phone networks or SMS text exchanges. These may be accomplished by funding grants to US or foreign universities, nonprofits organizations, or companies to develop Farsi-language versions of existing social-networking Web sites; develop technologies, including Internet-based applications,
    to counter efforts to block, censor, and monitor the Internet; and to disrupt or monitor cellular phone networks or SMS text message exchanges; develop Internet-based, distance learning programs for Iranian students at United States universities; and promote Internet-based, people-to-people educational, professional, religious, or cultural exchanges and dialogues between United States citizens and Iranians.

The Act also requires a report within 90 days of passage (which has passed) and then every 5 years that provides of US broadcasting and online engagement with Iran, including the activities of the Iranian Electronic Education, Exchange, and Media Fund.

The Act also requires another report within 180 days of passage (which has not passed) "non-Iranian persons", including US corporations, that have assisted Iran to "filter online political content; disrupt cell phone and Internet communications; and monitor the online activities of Iranian citizens."

You may noticed $5 million of the $55 million is not accounted for. I saved the best part of last. Section 1266 of the NDAA for FY2010 states

There are authorized to be appropriated $5,000,000 to the Secretary of State to document, collect, and disseminate information about human rights in Iran, including abuses of human rights that have taken place since the Iranian presidential election conducted on June 12, 2009.

I frequently refer to this $5m authorization in my talks on the organizational dysfunction within the State Department, so no cheating if you've sat in one of those presentations. So, if this gets funded, who do you think will receive this money?

Most assume it would be the Office of the Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, known within State as "R" (all Under Secretary level offices in State have single-letter designations). Some savvy people suggest "G", as in the Office of the Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs because G has the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (or DRL if you're keeping tabs). (G also has claims on private-public partnership, which is why it's the lead on the public diplomacy project the China Expo pavilion). Arguably neither G nor R have the capacity to spend $5 million should it be dropped in their lap.

I've been told the foreign operations appropriators, the committees that fund the State Department, will take up funding these authorizations. My hopes aren't high.

Either way, I'd just like to see the VOICE Act funded just to see who gets the money and how it is spent. Now you know about the VOICE Act.