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Banning Domestic Propaganda

“I want to make sure that we strengthen prohibitions against domestic covert propaganda campaigns aimed essentially at breaking down the Constitutional barriers between who controls policy and who makes war,” stressed Representative Paul Hodes. “It’s an important point, given the recent history.”

Rep. Hodes was speaking at a conference on public diplomacy, held in Washington, DC on January 13. Public diplomacy is a catch-all term for the various ways in which the United States promotes itself to international audiences (as opposed to “regular” diplomacy, which targets foreign governments). These include international media, like the Voice of America; cultural and educational exchanges, such as the Fulbright Program; and a wide range of information activities, including foreign press centers, speaking events and publications. As the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy notes, the term “was developed partly to distance overseas governmental information activities from the term propaganda, which had acquired pejorative connotations.”

In the United States, public diplomacy’s legislative history also involves propaganda. The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which provided a legal framework for public diplomacy activities, forbids the government from disseminating within the United States information intended for foreign audiences. Other legislation, such as appropriation bills, theoretically reinforces the ban on using taxpayer money for “publicity or propaganda purposes.” (The ban on domestic propaganda can’t be considered more than theoretical, unfortunately, because there’s no mechanism to enforce it, as Sheldon Rampton and I noted previously.)

The recent public diplomacy conference was organized to critically reconsider Smith-Mundt. Many presenters supported changing the Act; specifically, removing or watering down its restriction on domestic dissemination. Among the reasons given were that the restriction, which effectively divides the world into U.S. residents and everyone else, is outdated in the global information age; that it hampers public diplomacy efforts; that it suggests to foreign audiences that U.S. government-provided information is suspect, since it can’t be shared with U.S. residents; that it denies U.S. residents useful information; and that it keeps U.S. residents from accessing information necessary to evaluate work done overseas, in their name and with their tax dollars. On the other side, there were conference attendees who argued that the Smith-Mundt restriction doesn’t impact work in the field, and that it helps insulate sensitive international work from domestic political pressures.

It was an informed, in-depth debate, led by people with extensive State Department and military experience. But until Rep. Hodes spoke — during the last session of the day — no one had mentioned that, until just nine months ago, there had been an active covert campaign to influence U.S. public opinion: the Pentagon’s pundit program.

Paved with good intentions

“Let me posit what I believe should be the rule,” said outgoing Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs James Glassman, a keynote speaker at the conference. Domestic dissemination should be permissible, he suggested, “if the intent of the work involving domestic audiences is to influence foreign audiences.”

For Glassman, the government’s motivation behind engaging U.S. residents is key. “The reasonable way to judge whether the State Department should be prohibited from disseminating a film, or a television program, or a speech, or a magazine, is the intention of the department,” he declared. While “traditional American concerns about government involvement — not merely in influence, but in information — are deeply rooted and appropriate … intent should be our guide. If our target is foreign audiences, as it must be in public diplomacy, then we should be able to engage domestic individuals and groups in this effort.”

Glassman’s emphasis on intent is nothing new. For example, the Bush administration — and the Clinton administration before it — funded video news releases (VNRs) that television stations across the United States aired as independent “reports” during their news programming. Not surprisingly, the VNRs portrayed government actions and policies in a favorable light. One on educational assistance under No Child Left Behind concluded, “This is a program that gets an A-plus.”

Congress’ investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), repeatedly ruled that government VNRs are illegal covert propaganda, unless their source is made clear to viewers. The Bush administration rejected the GAO’s rulings, substituting their own intent-based standard. They argued that government VNRs are permissible, whether disclosed or not, as long as the intent behind them is to inform, not to persuade.

The Defense Department has also relied on intent, to dismiss concerns about propaganda blowback. The department’s 2003 Information Operations Roadmap admits, “Information intended for foreign audiences, including public diplomacy and PSYOP [psychological operations], increasingly is consumed by our domestic audience and vice-versa.” However, it argues that “the distinction between foreign and domestic audiences becomes more a question of USG [U.S. government] intent rather than information dissemination practices.”

In other words, it doesn’t matter whether material designed to influence foreign audiences — including, in the case of military information operations and psychological operations campaigns, material that may be misleading — is conveyed to U.S. residents as “news.” All that matters is that the responsible government officials’ hearts are pure.

We know that the conveniently slippery standard of intent has already resulted in fake TV news that would make Soviet-era propagandists proud. As professor Marc Lynch noted at the conference, “Who knows what evil lurks in the minds of men? The Shadow knows, but State Department lawyers don’t, which makes it very difficult to build a regulatory foundation on questions of intent, particularly when … intent can be multi-faceted and highly complex.”

Instead of loosening propaganda restrictions by relying on intent, why not adjust to the global information era by ensuring clear attribution of all government communications? Truth is an obvious second standard, but public diplomacy, by definition, deals with issues in which the U.S. government is an interested party. It’s therefore naive to claim that a standard of “truth” — which must transcend, or at least fairly acknowledge, competing interests — could be upheld.

Propaganda 2.0

Heading into the public diplomacy conference, I wondered how government officials could possibly feel constrained by Smith-Mundt. After all, blatant media deception was one of the hallmarks of the Bush administration, including by VNR, payola pundit, fake reporter, multi-faceted campaigns to sell war and numerous ploys to hide the real costs of war. While there have been attempts to investigate and legislate against these transgressions, there has been no real accountability.

James Glassman answered my question. “Today’s public diplomacy, 2.0, involves interaction, a deep multi-sided conversation. It uses the tools of digital social networking,” he explained. “We often want to engage both Americans and non-Americans.” He admitted that “one could certainly argue” that this approach, in “actively disseminating information purposely to Americans, [is] in violation of Smith-Mundt.” However, he warned, “if such an argument were to succeed, then American foreign policy would be the loser.”

One example of public diplomacy 2.0 is a State Department partnership “with such private sector organizations as NBC Universal, the Directors Guild of America, [and] the Tisch School [of the Arts] at NYU, to launch what’s called the Democracy Video Challenge. Entrants in this contest make their own three-minute videos, which are posted to a site on YouTube, with the topic ‘democracy is,'” explained Glassman. “We see this project as part of a global conversation about democracy. We don’t want to exclude Americans. In fact, we think that the presence of Americans is helpful in meeting our foreign policy goals. But could encouraging Americans to submit videos be a nefarious plot to influence them in a particular way about the nature of democracy, in violation of Smith-Mundt?”

Glassman’s question assumes that the only thing that could possibly be wrong would be if the video contest were designed with “nefarious” intent. That ignores the many issues inherent to the U.S. government’s strategic engagement of individuals, especially when using a medium as fluid, far-reaching and as easily manipulated as the Internet.

Looking at the video contest’s YouTube page, it’s difficult to tell that it’s organized and sponsored by the U.S. government. The written description makes no mention of U.S. government involvement. A small State Department emblem does appear under the “partners” section, but only after the logos of ten other entities, most of which are wholly private and not usually associated with government initiatives. Admittedly, it’s difficult to imagine what damage could be done by short video reflections on democracy, no matter who submits the videos or what they say. But it’s important to ask what precedent is being set, where it could lead and how to ensure that it doesn’t go too far.

Glassman’s second example hints at thornier issues. “About a year ago, a young, unemployed computer technician in Colombia named Oscar Morales spontaneously started a Facebook group … called One Million Voices Against the FARC,” he recounted. The group “put 12 million people into the streets in a single day last February, in 190 cities around the world, just two months after it was set up, in protest against the FARC, a violent extremist group that had been terrorizing Colombia for more than 40 years. A few months ago, after I visited Oscar in Bogota, we had put together a partnership with such firms as Google, Facebook, AT&T, MTV and Howcast, and convened a conference for representatives from groups like Oscar’s. … Two dozen youth empowerment groups were represented at the meeting of what is now called the Alliance of Youth Movements. … Nearly all of these groups were foreign, but we wanted American organizations to attend, too, and we invited some. But did we violate the letter or the intent of Smith-Mundt?”

Civil society groups play an important role in healthy democracies, organizing and educating citizens, and often serving as independent critics of their governments. When the U.S. government supports civil society groups in other countries, it can undermine the groups’ perceived integrity and effectiveness, as Iranian dissidents have warned. Moreover, it can complicate efforts to achieve U.S. policy goals, by entangling those efforts in other countries’ domestic politics.

In the case of Colombia, the FARC, while indeed “a violent extremist group,” is one of three actors responsible for “violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes and crimes against humanity,” according to Amnesty International. The United States isn’t likely to promote groups condemning the other violent actors: the Colombian security forces and army-backed paramilitaries. Colombian president Alvaro Uribe is a strong U.S. ally, despite his poor human rights record and his political allies’ paramilitary ties. During his last week in office, George Bush honored Uribe with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, leading international human rights groups to say the award “only further tarnishes the Bush administration’s own reputation on human rights issues in the region.”

The Colombia example illustrates a frequent dilemma in public diplomacy work: how to craft and communicate strategic, pleasing messages for international audiences, when U.S. foreign policy is well understood and widely condemned overseas. Conference speakers called for a greater role for public diplomacy practitioners in policymaking, but stressed that opinion polls can’t determine U.S. policy. Left unmentioned was the simple but perhaps inconvenient truth that a more just foreign policy would be easier to explain, to international and domestic audiences alike.

The messenger and the message

Much of the conference dealt with the increasingly-muddied distinction between U.S. and foreign audiences. Yet, another dichotomy seems at least as critical to the future of U.S. public diplomacy: the military versus the State Department.

The State Department — and the U.S. Information Agency, before it was folded into State — used to be responsible for public diplomacy. In 1999, then-president Clinton tasked numerous federal agencies with “influenc[ing] foreign audiences.” He established an International Public Information group, comprised of officials from the State, Defense, Justice, Commerce and Treasury departments, along with the FBI and CIA. Post-9/11, the Pentagon’s budget ballooned and then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld proclaimed that communications must be “a central component of every aspect of this struggle.” As a result, the U.S. military has become increasingly involved in public diplomacy.

“The Defense Department has assumed a greater role, the last several years,” Rear Admiral Greg Smith admitted at the conference. Smith is Director of Communications at U.S. Central Command, and also served as the spokesman and head of public affairs for the U.S.-led military forces in Iraq.

“We entered a war, some years ago now, that began with an information environment that had collapsed,” Smith said, referring to Iraq. “We’ve created some of our own institutions, some of our own mediums of delivery: Al Hurra, Radio Sawa. We’ve certainly created a tremendous amount of capacity, in the information environment, both in the traditional public affairs lanes and also in information operations. In fact, the art of information operations has truly grown up in this conflict.”

Smith unapologetically defended two controversial practices. One is the close association of public affairs and public diplomacy communications with information operations and psychological operations. Smith warned against “an unnecessary discretion about firewalls,” saying “the counterinsurgency game we play” isn’t “built along firewall discussions.” He also defended intentionally obscuring the source of military communications, saying doing so gives “more opportunity to reach an audience who would be tone-deaf to the U.S. government, once again, messaging to them. … If everything that we did had to be completely divulged … I think our effectiveness would be very, very much marginalized.”

While these tactics may be helpful on the battlefield, what is their role in public diplomacy? Over time, will the military’s use of deceptive tactics deligitimize public diplomacy efforts? More fundamentally, should the military be involved in public diplomacy?

On the question of Smith-Mundt, its ban on domestic dissemination has clearly been rendered moot by Google. Instead of using that as an excuse to burn down firewalls, the U.S. government should follow strict media ethics standards, regardless of whether its intended audience is in Iowa or Islamabad. All public diplomacy communications and activities should be clearly attributed. Information operations and psychological operations, which require a lack of transparency, should be kept completely separate from public diplomacy and public affairs. Lastly, the military’s role in public diplomacy should be decreased and, perhaps, ended.

In the short term, it may be effective to pay Iraqi newspapers to run columns by U.S. military officers, printing them as though they were written by Iraqis. But, in the long run, such tactics undermine the integrity of the local media and the reputation of the U.S. government.

DIANE FARSETTA is the Center for Media and Democracy’s senior researcher. She participated in the “stridently anti-American” National Conference on Media Reform in Minneapolis, on a panel titled, “The Changing Role of Media Critics.” She can be reached at:

More articles by:

DIANE FARSETTA is the Center for Media and Democracy’s senior researcher. She can be reached at:

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