You would be mistaken—and forgiven—if you thought the US hadn’t outlawed the use of propaganda against its own citizens, Judith Miller’s work on weapons of mass destruction for the New York Times leading up to and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq notwithstanding. The US Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948 (Smith-Mundt Act) prohibits the dissemination of propaganda to domestic audiences. It prevents the domestic broadcast of Voice of America, for example.
US Represenatives Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and Adam Smith (D-Washington) have proposed an amendment to the current defense authorization bill (.pdf; 37KB) in the US House of Representatives to “fix” Smith-Mundt and legalize the use of US government-generated propaganda on the American citizenry.
Apparently trying to cover all of their bases, Thornberry and Smith have also introduced their pro-propaganda agenda as a standalone bill, H.R. 5736 (.pdf; 139KB), “to amend the United States Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948 to authorize the domestic dissemination of information and material about the United States intended primarily for foreign audiences, and for other purposes.”
In announcing his proposed legislation, Thornberry notes in a media release, “We continue to face a multitude of threats and we need to be able to counter them in a multitude of ways. Communication is among the most important. This outdated law ties the hands of America’s diplomatic officials, military, and others by inhibiting our ability to effectively communicate in a credible and transparent way. Congress has a responsibility to fix the situation.”
For his part, Smith put a much finer point on the pair’s agenda. “While the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 was developed to counter communism during the Cold War, it is outdated for the conflicts of today,” says Smith in the media release. “Effective strategic communication and public diplomacy should be front-and-center as we work to roll back al-Qaeda’s and other violent extremists’ influence among disaffected populations. An essential part of our efforts must be a coordinated, comprehensive, adequately resourced plan to counter their radical messages and undermine their recruitment abilities. To do this, Smith-Mundt must be updated to bolster our strategic communications and public diplomacy capacity on all fronts and mediums –- especially online.”
Michael Hastings, writing for BuzzFeed, quotes Michael Shank, Institute for Economics and Peace vice president for US operations: “Clearly there are ways to modernize for the information age without wiping out the distinction between domestic and foreign audiences. That Reps Adam Smith and Mac Thornberry want to roll back protections put in place by previously-serving Senators –- who, in their wisdom, ensured limits to taxpayer–funded propaganda promulgated by the US government –- is disconcerting and dangerous.”
Hastings also cites an unnamed Pentagon source as saying, “It removes oversight from the people who want to put out this information. There are no checks and balances. No one knows if the information is accurate, partially accurate, or entirely false.” This same source tells Hastings that senior public affairs officers within the US 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.”
Hastings concludes by tying the legislation proposed by Thornberry and Smith to his own earlier work in Rolling Stone, releasing the unclassified version of a report by US Army Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis on Afghanistan. In the report, Davis writes of a strong movement within the US defense community to reverse Smith-Mundt.