Controversy has swirled around the Smith–Mundt Modernization Act since it passed mark-up as an amendment to the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act last Friday. Smith–Mundt has prohibited U.S. citizens from accessing the public diplomacy products of the U.S. government, whether in print or on the airwaves, since 1948.
Critics on the left and right alike have charged that modernizing the act will lift the floodgates for U.S. government propaganda aimed at U.S. citizens. Not so. Rather, the amended act will force greater transparency and accountability regarding the work of the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which would have no excuse to evade questions asked by Members of Congress.
Critics have cited prominently one of the first articles on the subject to appear last Friday, “Congressmen Seek to Lift Propaganda Ban.” The article ran on BuzzFeed and was authored by Michael Hastings, whose main claim to fame, as an embedded reporter in Afghanistan, was the Rolling Stone article that got General Stanley McChrystal in hot water.
Hastings’s article therefore bears specific examination:
The tweak to the bill would essentially neutralize two previous acts—the Smith–Mundt Act of 1948 and Foreign Relations Authorization Act in 1987—that had been passed to protect U.S. audiences from our own government’s misinformation campaigns.
Misinformation campaigns? The overwhelming majority of U.S. government publications and broadcasts aim at furthering positive—sometimes rather bland, but accurate—information about the United States.
Critics of the bill say there are ways to keep America safe without turning the massive information operations apparatus within the federal government against American citizens.
This assumes that the U.S. government does not already address the American people. It does so every day, ad nauseam. U.S. citizens should be able to know what their government is telling the rest of the world.
“I just don’t want to see something this significant—whatever the pros and cons—go through without anyone noticing,” says one source on the Hill, who is disturbed by the law.
This is spoken out of pure ignorance. Smith–Mundt revision has been discussed for years. In 2007, Heritage published a seminal paper in favor of it, and the Smith–Thornberry bill has been around since 2009.
According to this official, “senior public affairs” officers within the Department of Defense want to “get rid” of Smith–Mundt and other restrictions because it prevents information activities designed to prop up unpopular policies—like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As noted in a correction to the article, Smith–Mundt does not now—nor did it ever—apply to the Department of Defense, so the point is moot. This has not, however, spurred the author to rewrite the article, the second half of which is an attack on the Department of Defense.
As we debate Smith–Mundt and its pros and cons, at the very least let us have the facts on the table.