Since 1948, Cold War legislation has been tying the hands of practitioners of U.S. public diplomacy and international broadcasting. The law in question is the Smith-Mundt Act, which was intended to allow the State Department to counter Soviet propaganda in foreign media, while at the same time forbidding it from aiming propaganda at Americans at home through print or airwaves. This made sense at the time, but the world and—and the world of communication technology—has changed greatly.
Considering that changed international environment, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R–TX) and Adam Smith (D–WA), both members of the House Intelligence and Armed Services Committees, have introduced the “Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2010” (H.R. 5729). “It is time—past time really—to update this law that ties the hands of our diplomats, military, and intelligence professionals.
This bill removes legal hurdles and helps bring America’s public diplomacy and communications efforts into the information age,” Congressman Thornberry said as the legislation was unveiled this week. “Smith-Mundt must be updated to bolster our strategic communications and public diplomacy capacity on all fronts and mediums—especially online.”
Co-sponsors of the bill were Reps. Dan Boren (D–OK), Gabrielle Giffords (D–AZ), James Langevin (D–RI), Jeff Miller (R–FL), Ted Poe (R–TX), Dennis Rehberg (R–MT), and John Tanner (D–TN).
For one thing, the Smith Mundt-Act prevents any content from Voice of America from being broadcast to immigrant communities in the United States, who may be subject to radicalization and terrorist equipment—a real and immediate problem. Content on the international broadcasting service is often tailored to communities in Muslim countries and may be highly relevant here at home as well.
Additionally, many State Department and Pentagon officials exert a certain self-censorship as they formulate and conduct foreign policy so as to avoid conflict with the Smith-Mundt Act. A June 2009 House Armed Services Committee report expressed concern “that over the past sixty years, applicability of this law has affected the development of Department of Defense policy…The committee does not believe that Public Law 80–402 should constrain the Department of Defense and its partners’ strategic communication and messaging efforts abroad.”
For U.S. global communications strategy to be effective and competitive in the 21st century, we need to use all the tools in the media box if we want to out recruit al-Qaeda.