Americans deserve transparency about what their government is doing, as long as that transparency doesn’t threaten national security. Transparency should also be the guiding principle of the State Department’s public diplomacy and U.S. international broadcasting.
But since 1948, the U.S. Information and Educational Exchange Act, also know as the Smith–Mundt Act for its two co-sponsors, has included provisions that prohibit Americans from knowing what the government is doing in the name of public diplomacy. Smith–Mundt established, among other things, Voice of America, Radio Liberty, and Radio Free Europe.
Coming out of the experience of World War II, Congress feared then that the U.S. government might aim propaganda at its own citizens through its new broadcasting capacities. The masters of propaganda were, of course, the Nazis and the Soviets, and though Americans assuredly did not think of their government as totalitarian, it was an understandable concern at the time. That was then and this is now; we live in a vastly different world today.
It is past time to modernize the institutions of U.S. public diplomacy. A critical element in this modernization process is revision of the Smith–Mundt Act, which passed the House in June as an amendment to Department of Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 5736, the Smith–Mundt-Modernization Act of 2012). An identical version of the legislation is pending in the Senate Defense authorization bill.
The Smith–Mundt Modernization Act would remove the decade-long prohibition on the dissemination to Americans of material produced by the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the U.S. agency that oversees U.S. international broadcasting. Other U.S. agencies, such as the Defense Department, are not covered by this bill.
Critics of the Smith–Mundt Modernization Act, on the right as well as left, have charged that it would open the “floodgates for U.S. government propaganda.” As noted, this argument might have been valid 50 years ago, but in today’s media environment, it has no validity.
For one thing, Americans have a seemingly infinite number of sources of information through their cable systems and Internet applications. Adding broadcasting from the BBG to this cacophonous mix would hardly to lead to brainwashing and marching in lockstep. Furthermore, the State Department’s 135 websites and blogs are already available to anyone with a computer, whether here or abroad.
With so much information already widely available, why even bother to tamper with Smith–Mundt’s decades-old prohibition against propaganda? The reason is transparency. Smith–Mundt is routinely cited by government officials and lawyers—even from the Pentagon, which it does not legally cover—as a convenient excuse not to share information or to nix innovative programs that might involve American citizens. The dreaded words “It is against Smith–Mundt” create a chilling effect on transparency.
There is absolutely no reason why Americans should not be able to access the information that the U.S. government broadcasts to the rest of the world every single day. Americans may like what they hear and see. Americans may not like it. But they deserve the chance to be informed.