(MintPress) — A provision buried in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2013 would strip the U.S. of its anti-propaganda laws, which limit the ability of the government to domestically disseminate pro-American informational material dispersed overseas.
A bipartisan duo of House representatives introduced a provision to nix the law, claiming internet hampers the ability of the U.S. government to disseminate information worldwide, while at the same time keeping in line with legislation that does not allow for the same material to reach its domestic audience. The Smith Mundt Act of 1948, which NDAA 2013 would overturn, was initially created to protect Americans against communist propaganda and to prevent propaganda as a tool for fascism, as seen in Nazi Germany.
The House version NDAA 2013, which included the propaganda provision, passed last week with wide support. If similar provisions clear the Senate and President Barack Obama’s desk, the U.S. government could be allowed to disseminate the same propaganda it distributes overseas within the U.S. — a move some claim could be dangerous for a free society and others say will close loopholes that don’t always allow Americans full disclosure on what information is being distributed overseas.
Rolling back the bill
The provision of NDAA is known as the Smith Mundt Modernization Act of 2013, considered a provision to the previous Smith Mundt Act of 1948 and the revised Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1972. Sponsored by Texas Republican Rep. Mac Thornberry and Washington Democratic Rep. Adam Smith, the act seeks to overturn provisions in the 1948 bill, a move the two congressmen say will allow the government more freedom to communicate with the public in the ‘information age’.
“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,” Thornberry said in a press release. “This outdated law ties the hands of America’s diplomatic officials, military, and others by inhibiting our ability to effectively communicate in a credible and transparent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.”
In the same press release, Smith argues that America cannot be held to the same law, intended to combat communism. Smith cites al-Qaeda, specifically,
“While the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 was developed to counter communism during the Cold War, it is outdated for the conflicts of today,” Smith said in the press release. “Effective strategy 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.”
Smith and Thornberry argue that the law prohibits news outlets from using U.S. government information dispersed overseas as a source — a claim they attempt to back up through the story of a 2009 Honduran election, in which some American news organizations inaccurately referred to a Honduran newspaper poll for information regarding the number of citizens there who supported a coup to overthrow the government. The poll showed that a plurality supported the overthrow. The U.S. claimed the poll was false and said use of its own poll would have been beneficial to the U.S. news outlets.
The senators also address use of broadcast information services, used overseas and not allowed in the U.S., which could be beneficial during the time of national emergencies, citing Hurricane Andrew in 2002 as a main example.
Those concerned with the precedent this legislation could set warn against it, claiming it would roll back citizens’ protections from government propaganda, which has been proven as detrimental to a free-thinking society.
But Smith and Thornberry claim that won’t happen. Their joint issued press release says the legislation addresses concerns and prevents the government still from “targeting domestic audiences by stating specifically that public diplomacy programs are intended for foreign audiences abroad and emphasizing that the State Department and Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) shall not influence public opinion in the United States.”
Regulating that, however, could prove to be difficult, considering information can now technically reach the U.S. population, even if the government claims it does not specifically target the domestic audience.
Still others, including military personnel and freedom of information activists, claim it could be a good thing. Those within the military claim it will allow military efforts to inform populations around the world of their intent. Those seeking the content of such information may now be able to retrieve it through the freedom of information act — the Smith-Mundt Act had previously been used as justification for not releasing documents to those seeking such in the U.S.
Green party member Ralph Nader was one such person who attempted to retrieve information — and was denied. On The Issues website quotes Nader as saying, “Powerless people often aggravate their situation by giving up on themselves. This makes them all the more susceptible to manipulation and flattery by unscrupulous power-brokers and their political proxies. The vulnerability results from the absence of an adsorbed information base to provide a shield against artful propaganda and deception.”
A USA Today investigation into propaganda used overseas found that the Pentagon is at the forefront of efforts to create 11 hours of radio programming per day, intended for use on Afghani populations — all broadcasts are unattributed. The same investigation discovered the government hired contracting companies that were responsible for dispersing information in Iraq and Afghanistan through the use of billboards, radios, leaflets and concerts — all intended to spread a pro-American message.
Following the USA Today article, the journalists responsible for the report were the subject of an alleged smear campaign, according to the Army Times. A fake Facebook page, Twitter account and website was set up, with the auspices that it was created for the reporter, although it was not. No one has taken responsibility for the fake sites, although they were taken down after the Pentagon was alerted.
The life of the bill — restricting government control over information
The bill, initially passed in 1948, included two provisions that indicated the State Department was prohibited from dispensing information to the public, largely because many at the time suspected the department was full of communists.
Any authority given to the department to dish out information to the American public was seen as potentially dangerous, and a move that could undermine democracy. The bill essentially required the State Department to disperse information to the public through a private, independent media, which would presumably weed out propaganda.
The 1948 bill was revisited a number of times for clarification, and was amended in 1972 by the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, which clarified that the government could not disperse information about its policies, intended for use abroad, within the U.S.
The Act was addressed again in 1985 when Sen. Edward Zorinsky, a Democrat from Nebraska, argued that the United States Information Agency (USIA) could not use taxpayer funds to disseminate propaganda and that its information be used by the public for examination only. In what was known as the Zorinsky Amendment, language was added that stated funds appropriated to the USIA could not be used to influence public opinion domestically.
The argument now is that such information intended for international audiences can easily be accessed by the domestic population through the internet and that the law therefore hampers military efforts overseas. Language in the legislation says it will not be used to directly target a U.S. audience, although technically it will still have a reach into the American scene.
At the time of the bill’s initial passage in 1948, the Legislature was divided — not unlike today — with many in the political system concerned that communists had infiltrated the U.S. government. In what was known as McCarthyism, named after Sen. Joseph McCarthy, members of the legislature sought to rid government and every other aspect of society from the threat of communism. The mistrust within the government led to the passage of the Smith Mundt Act, as it ensured them that those within the State Department, whom many mistrusted, would not have the right to release communist propaganda among the masses.
Today, the threat isn’t communism, but the country’s legislature is as divided as ever, calling into question why both Republicans and Democrats would trust the State Department enough to rid it of restrictions that have prohibited it from disseminating propaganda throughout the nation.