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March 12, 2008



the principles behind Smith-Mundt, of protecting the American democratic system from manipulation by the military or intelligence agencies, seem to me to be far more important.

On what basis do you make that judgment, Mr. Lynch? The U.S. can't do much in the PD sphere because of S-M restrictions. Unlike the 1940s, American media operates using worldwide sources, so the likelihood the American democratic system could be snowed by PD work if low - far lower, in my opinion, than the opportunities for manipulation demonstrated by members of the U.S. intelligence community through the use of selective and anonymous leaks.

On the other hand, a democracy like France which, to my limited knowledge, has no domestic dissemination restrictions, is much better regarded worldwide than the U.S.

Finally, it is difficult to dispute that there is no value at all to PD officers speaking up in the domestic sphere. Currently the only counter available to gross misinformation spouted by errant politicians to ordinary Americans is to resign one's post and write a book, or maybe run for Congress. I wonder how America could have developed such statesmen as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, or John Quincy Adams (all of whom served abroad) had Smith-Mundt's provisions be in effect.

In short, it is worth pondering whether or not the restrictions of Smith-Mundt have damaged, are damaging, or may damage American democracy more than S-M's repeal or modification.


(Not the world's happiest acronym, that S-M!)

If Rear-Colonel Mountainrunner has any solution to the problem that he himself announces as having afflicted PubDip in the past, he does not mention it:

"... weak attempts to explain policy, but with a partisan bent. Truth is obfuscated or sterilized to be almost worthless." [Emboldenment added]

How would "a seat in the cabinet, .. a staff, and a substantial budget" improve the partisanship situation? Mightn't the militant Republicans just insist on some equivalent bureaucratic plaything for themselves?

Happy days.


"We have created an information architecture that cares more about how a broadcast, flyer, or message will play in Iowa than in the primary center of gravity of the fight"

I have no idea one way or the other, but is this true? Is it common knowledge that our international propaganda efforts are hamstrung because of this prohibition?

"Suppose, in a purely hypothetical example, that the US military does some PsyOp work in the field in Iraq to persuade Iraqis of the brutality of al-Qaeda"

We all have, long ago, read the Washington Post story on the US military's disinformation campaign to exaggerate al Qaeda's role in Iraq (using Zarqawi, for instance), wherein they specifically stated that the US domestic population was one of the targets for this propaganda. I've been surprised, that even though there are stories periodically claiming that al Qaeda is not what we think it is, that the media goes straight on, uncritically, repeating every unverifiable claim about this group. Every time I read "al Qaeda in Iraq," I think, "yeah. right."


If we are to, as Matt Armstrong says, stop telling foreign audiences what we want our own people to hear, how to we prevent ourselves from drowning out our own message?

The Bush administration did not create this problem, but it has become notorious over the last several years for sending out senior officials to explain American foreign policy in terms designed to appeal to American audiences. The President himself has made more statements along the lines of "freedom is on the march" than I can count; for some time these struck a chord with Americans, as they were intended to, with language that Americans associate with what we admire in our own country's government and society. Their impact on foreign audiences, if it was not actually an afterthought, might as well have been.

I wrote in an earlier post here about the culture of the permanent campaign. Products of that culture -- of whom President Bush is not just an example but practically a caricature -- will inevitably focus like a laser on addressing domestic audiences. It's what they know. But just as inevitably most of what a President, Vice President, or Secretary of State has to say about foreign policy will find its way before foreign audiences. How does a lowly public diplomacy professional, no matter what department he reports to, compete with that? Can an entire public diplomacy agency compete with that?

Maybe this consideration makes Smith-Mundt moot, and maybe we have to accept that no mere structural change in how we organize American public diplomacy will help much if we keep putting people like George Bush in the White House. At any rate, even a more sophisticated President could easily step on a public diplomacy that attempted to do too much, just because of the way global communications have evolved.


What about the role of the private sector? Does Smith-Munt apply to them?

Common PR tactics on US domestic scene today (think rent-a crowds, phony news reports, partisan scientific studies) would have shocked postwar America. These activities are largely handled by private sector PR firms and consultancies that cut their teeth working for corporate America.

I think we need to recognize that much of US information ops (for sure in Iraq and Afghanistan) have been contracted out to private firms that do things like plant stories in newspapers, fund friendly media outlets. Abu Aardvark’s anecdote about the Pentagon believing Smith-Munt doesn’t apply to them points in this direction.

We are now seeing the reverse of the problem Smith Munt was worried about: rather than our foreign propaganda activities coming home to bite us, the US is exporting propaganda strategies it developed in-house.

In this context, US public diplomacy projects like Radio Farda and al-Hurra are largely irrelevant. I’ve watched them. They mostly broadcast recycled wire stories with slightly pro-US framings, bland human interest stories about America, or entertainment programming.

The real hard-core propaganda is being handled in the private sector. Those who worry about this should work on regulating this with new legislation. Those who don’t should rest assured that Smith-Munt is doing nothing to restrain these activities.



posted pre-coffee, please excuse.

john brown

May I recommend Kenneth Osgood, Total Cold War: Eisenhower’s Secret Propaganda Battle at
Home and Abroad (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 2006) re the actual relevance of the Smith-Mundt Act in the years following its enactment in 1948. See also
http://www.h-net.org/~diplo/roundtables/PDF/TotalColdWar-OsgoodResponse.pdf , in which Osgood notes that reviewers of his book "see connections between my historical analysis of the Cold War era
and the foreign policy dilemmas facing us today."


Marc et al,
You raise some important issues which I've addressed in my response here.

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