The death watch has commenced on Smith-Mundt, the 1948 law (P.L. 80-402) establishing a budget and structure for public diplomacy overseas. At a hearing on Capitol Hill this past Tuesday, the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy acted to dismantle a 1985 provision which stated that “No program material prepared in the United States Information Agency shall be distributed within the Unites States” (P.L. 99-93.) The Commission will move ahead to table legislation in Congress and have the evolutionary coccyx removed.
One PD-savvy ambassador in the room said “get rid of it.” No one argued against the measure, and a member of the Commission had to ask three times what possible arguments there might be against it, to get ready just in case.
What was all the fuss about, and what do we lose by canning Smith-Mundt?
Global information is here to stay, and anything going up on the internet is and should be available to all. Before we bury the baby, though, let’s look at why it was born: the creation of the U.S. Information Agency (RIP also, as of 1999) was hatched at the end of World War II, proposed as the Bloom Bill (Sol Bloom (D-NY) in 1945 and later signed as Smith-Mundt by President Harry S. Truman January 27, 1948. I
In 1948, the Cold War was well underway, and Congress openly distrusted the State Department to get any accurate information overseas. The State Department was seen in 1948 as “chock full of Reds,” a denizen of “loafers,” “drones,” “incompetents,” and “the lousiest outfit in town.” (Credit to Commission Executive Director Matt Armstrong for finding these nuggets.) For this reason, and also so as to prevent in perpetuity anything in the United States which might resemble Hitler’s Ministry of Progaganda, the firewall went up de facto.
It became de jure in 1985 when Senator Edward Zorinksy (D-NE) said that if USIA ever worked the domestic public, it would be the same as Soviet propaganda (note the substitution of enemies), and instituted P.L. 99-93 forbidding it to do so.
That was before Internet, Twitter, Facebook, and universal information troughs any public can dip into.
Though the law applies only to the Department of State, most funds for overseas information campaigns, though not line items, are allocated to the Department of Defense. Everyone wants the freedom to do their job, so DoD has worked for some five years to get Smith-Mundt removed, in case it should ever affect other Executive departments. There was no threat of extending Smith-Mundt further, though, and State Department Foreign Service Officer Greg Garland blogged March 3, 2009, “Tear down that firewall, and it will be a matter of time before resources and personnel who focus on talking about America overseas are diverted in favor or domestic ‘public affairs,’ the short-term political imperative of any administration.” Any administration savvy enough to understand this tool would do exactly that, and has done so – both Democratic and Republican.
At the hearing July 12, Jeff Trimble, the able administrator of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (a bipartisan group that oversees the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and other U.S. government broadcast entities) said convincingly that U.S. government broadcasters would “make no particular effort to disseminate in the United States.” Well, that was the point – and the modern meaning – of Smith-Mundt.
One audience member said, “Let’s say we trust Jeff Trimble totally, but don’t want to give carte blanche to all of his successors.”
Smith-Mundt never forbade U.S. individuals and media from picking up information disseminated by U.S. government entities, it just ruled out domestic dissemination as an end in itself.
Hence you could say, “Why the fuss?” No one has ever gone to jail for “violating” Smith-Mundt, but the principle remains: U.S. White Houses and Defense Secretaries should not use overseas information tools to further their own personal political agendas. Sound good?
Well, it’s going, going…gone.
I will not even say I regret the passing of Smith-Mundt, as it would identify me as a crank. But Isaac Newton or John Stuart Mill or somebody surely must have said once, For every new liberty, new adjustments to prevent abuse. Not so in this case.
I guess Smith-Mundt will be snuffed out in its sleep sometime in 2012. This note is not a polemic, because clearly the issue has been settled. I only hope to be there for the eulogy, when we honor those who feared domestic dissemination of government information. Imagine, it could be used to sway voters for daring and debatable overseas adventures. And it wouldn’t be the first time.
Dan Whitman is Assistant Professor of Foreign Policy at the Washington Semester Program, American University. As Public Diplomacy officer in USIA and the Department of State for more than 25 years, he drafted and edited speeches for U.S. ambassadors in Denmark, Spain, South Africa, Cameroon, Haiti, and Guinea-Conakry. A senior Foreign Service Officer, he retired in 2009 from the Bureau of African Affairs, U.S. Department of State.