I have heard from several constituents regarding an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) I co-sponsored with Congressman Mac Thornberry that would modernize the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. Unfortunately, recent articles have misinterpreted the intent and impact of the Thornberry-Smith amendment to the NDAA and I would like to take this opportunity to clarify misconceptions about what the amendment does.
First let me say, that the Thornberry-Smith amendment does not authorize any U.S. government agency to develop propaganda for a domestic audience nor is that our intent. As an amendment to the House version of the NDAA, this language is early in the legislative process. As such, I am very open to the possibility that adjustments to the language may need to be made and I would encourage anyone with concerns to look at the language and offer recommendations. As the NDAA continues to make its way through the Senate and then conference between the House and Senate, if there is a possibility this language could be misinterpreted to allow a U.S. government agency to develop propaganda for a domestic audience please be assured, changes will be made to make sure it does not happen.
This amendment is intended to provide greater transparency and to ensure the U.S. government can get factual information out to foreign audiences in a timely manner for many reasons including countering extremist misinformation and propaganda. It does not and is not in any way intended to ‘legalize the use of propaganda on American audiences,’ it does not neutralize or repeal Smith-Mundt and, in fact, it specifically ensures that the content to be rebroadcast or republished domestically by the Department of State and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) shall not influence public opinion in the U.S. It clearly states, no funds authorized to be appropriated to State Department or BBG for any activity shall be used to influence public opinion. Further, beyond the scope of the State Department and BBG, restrictions are passed into law each year that would prevent taxpayer dollars from being spent by the U.S. government for propaganda purposes.
As background, the United States Information and Education and Exchange Act of 1948, also known as the Smith-Mundt Act, was written during the Cold War and provided the State Department authority to engage in peacetime overseas information and education exchange activities to “promote a better understanding of the United States in other countries, and to increase mutual understanding….”
While it provides the State Department the authority to communicate abroad, the Smith-Mundt Act also restricts that same information from being disseminated within the U.S. by all accounts to protect American citizens from propaganda. With the availability of the internet and satellite broadcast systems however, the restrictions that Smith-Mundt places on domestic dissemination of material for foreign viewers and listeners hampers U.S. public diplomacy efforts by preventing the State Department and BBG from distributing information developed for a foreign audience on the internet, satellite broadcasts and other new media. The State Department and BBG are barred from distributing fair and factual information to foreign audiences on these new technologies because an American citizen could, for example, through an internet search have access to this information that was developed for overseas consumption. The Thornberry-Smith amendment would modernize Smith-Mundt to allow the State Department and BBG to distribute information designed for a foreign audience through new methods even if an American citizen may somehow be able to access that information. However, requirements that the information must be fair, factual, prepared for, and aimed at a foreign audience would remain.
Smith-Mundt restrictions are incredibly problematic when trying to combat the spread of violent extremist ideologies and extremist recruitment efforts. Progress cannot be achieved solely by combat operations. To succeed against the misinformation spread by those who would do us harm and their potential recruits, we must be able to rapidly, effectively, and accurately communicate overseas, especially over new media avenues which terrorists readily use. Smith-Mundt’s restrictions on domestic distribution of material for foreign audiences through new technologies directly interferes with our efforts to get factual information out in a timely manner to counter the misinformation spread by violent extremists. Further, these restrictions limit transparency by prohibiting American citizens’ direct access to the government’s overseas communications efforts.
Smith-Mundt has also interfered with the spread of information that could have assisted emergency response efforts, public service announcements and provided accurate updates for family members here in the U.S. After the earthquake in Haiti, BBG provided emergency transmissions in Creole. However, an offer from Sirius satellite radio to carry the broadcasts was bogged down by concerns of Smith-Mundt’s domestic dissemination restrictions.
In another example, Smith-Mundt prohibited a request made by a Minneapolis radio station to replay, in the Somali language, a Voice of America (VOA)-produced broadcast developed for distribution in Somalia that would have provided fair, accurate and timely information to the large Somali diaspora. While it was developed for a foreign audience, this information was requested here in the U.S. because it would have essentially rebutted the propaganda and disinformation they were exposed to from al-Shabaab and other extremists. VOA declined the station’s request to rebroadcast the material, citing the Smith-Mundt ban on domestic dissemination. Our amendment would modernize these restrictions to allow the rebroadcast of VOA overseas material, but only upon request and only if they were originally developed for a foreign audience. The State Department, the BBG, and any other agency under their purview such as the VOA will still not be allowed to develop information for a domestic audience.
Again, thank you for the opportunity to explain this important issue and let me reiterate, if there is any possibility that the language of the Thornberry-Smith amendment could be used by the U.S. government to develop domestic propaganda, I will make the necessary changes or, if changes cannot be made, I will abandon my efforts to modernize Smith-Mundt.