By LYDIA DENNETT
An amendment incorporated into the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA, H.R. 4310) would allow propaganda disseminated abroad by the U.S. government to be shared domestically.
The amendment, originally sponsored by Reps. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) and Adam Smith (D-WA), would allow the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors to use taxpayer money to disseminate “information and material about the United States intended primarily foreign audiences”—in other words, U.S. propaganda—to the American public through social media, television, radio, and newspapers.
Although the American propaganda machine is hard at work making sure those abroad are constantly hearing the U.S. spin, it is currently illegal for the government to disseminate the same information to the American public. The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, passed during the Cold War when fears of encroaching communism ran rampant, was intended to protect American audiences from being exposed to propaganda created by the U.S. government for foreign audiences.
Representatives Thornberry and Smith argue that it’s necessary to modify Smith-Mundt because they currently hamper “diplomatic, defense, and other agencies’ ability to communicate in the 21st century.”
Yet some worry the measure could go too far.
On May 18, BuzzFeed’s Michael Hastings wrote that the amendment would expose American citizens to the same messages as a hostile foreign government. One Pentagon official told Hastings that the amendment “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.”
Hastings’ article caused a bit of a stir, as his and other blog posts predicted the amendment would lead to the government knowingly spreading lies to the American people. Juan Cole wrote that it was a sign “of the creeping fascism of American politics.”
However, Mother Jones' Adam Weinstein believes that the amendment is far from a sign of an impending police state and could “conceivably bring more of the government's overseas information operations into the sunlight, a good thing.” In fact, the American people are currently largely in the dark about how we spend our tax dollars on spin abroad. This potentially would better inform taxpayers about propaganda. One provision of the amendment requires the State Dept. and Broadcasting Board to provide the Archivist of the United States with the material in question 12 years after it was originally disseminated.
The provision does make clear that “The provisions of this section shall apply only to the Department of State and the Broadcasting Board of Governors and to no other department or agency of the Federal Government.” So, though Hastings reported that a Pentagon official told him that “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,” the House NDAA provision would not give any additional latitude to the Department of Defense.
It also does not give free rein to the State Department to manufacture films and fliers aimed solely at influencing the American public. Additionally, there are safeguards to make sure that the informational materials are not “available in any format other than in the format disseminated abroad,” and that the Secretary of State and Broadcasting Board of Governors will “issue necessary regulations to establish procedures to maintain such material.”
Still, there is some cause for apprehension should this provision be included in the final version of the NDAA that becomes law. One concern is that the origin of the propaganda for foreign audiences might not be known to the domestic recipient. Might this loosening of the ban on propaganda be a slippery slope? Might it further erode public trust in our government?
Ostensibly this legislation would provide clarity to U.S. information operations abroad but it also would become something to keep an eye on at home. Any materials intended to sway the people could be dangerous in the wrong hands.
Lydia Dennett is a POGO research associate.