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Thornberry and Smith Introduce bill to help counter threats in information age

Bill updates Cold-War Era law that hampers diplomatic, military efforts

Washington, May 15, 2012
Congressmen Mac Thornberry (R-TX) and Adam Smith (D-WA) recently introduced “The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012” (H.R. 5736). The bill modifies a Cold War-era law that hampers diplomatic, defense, and other agencies’ ability to communicate in the 21st century.

“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,” said Rep. Thornberry.  “This outdated law ties the hands of America’s diplomatic officials, military, and others by inhibiting our ability to effectively communicate in a credible and transparent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,” Thornberry said.  

“While the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 was developed to counter communism during the Cold War, it is outdated for the conflicts of today,” said Congressman Adam Smith. “Effective strategic 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.  An essential part of our efforts must be a coordinated, comprehensive, adequately resourced plan to counter their radical messages and undermine their recruitment abilities. To do this, Smith-Mundt must be updated to bolster our strategic communications and public diplomacy capacity on all fronts and mediums – especially online.”

At issue is the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which was created during the Cold War to provide the State Department authority to counter Soviet propaganda in foreign media.  The bill was later amended to restrict the dissemination of public diplomacy information material within the United States.

Contemporary interpretations of the law interfere with a range of communications activities, including public diplomacy, military communication efforts, and emergency and disaster response activities.  It has also led to inaccurate reporting by American media about issues affecting global security.

For example, in 2009 the law prohibited a Minneapolis-based radio station with a large Somali-American audience from replaying a Voice of America-produced piece rebutting terrorist propaganda.  Even after the community was targeted for recruitment by al-Shabab and other extremists, government lawyers refused the replay request, noting that Smith-Mundt tied their hands.
Due to legal questions surrounding interpretations of the law, domestic news organizations have been reluctant to use U.S. international broadcasters for source material.  Private news organizations are also hampered by some of the restrictions. In 2009, the Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Reuters each inaccurately reported poll results, based on a single Honduran newspaper source, that a plurality of Hondurans supported the coup against the government.  VOA reported the Gallup poll results about the coup accurately.  

Emergency response capabilities have been impacted as well.  The 2010 earthquake in Haiti required Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) to provide emergency transmission in Creole.  An offer from Sirius satellite radio to carry the broadcasts was bogged down by concerns of domestic dissemination.  In 1992, the Department of Defense was advised that it would be unable to use its information operations capabilities to support civil authorities following Hurricane Andrew.

To help address multiple barriers to effective communication, H.R. 5736 eliminates the existing ban on domestic dissemination of public diplomacy material, which prohibits such material from being viewed in the United States.  Eliminating the ban updates the law to reflect technology advances, removes a barrier to more effective and efficient public diplomacy programs, provides transparency of these programs to U.S. citizens, and allows the material to be available to inform domestic audiences.

The legislation also strengthens current law preventing the State Department and BBG from targeting domestic audiences by stating specifically that public diplomacy programs are intended for foreign audiences abroad and emphasizing that the State Department and BBG shall not influence public opinion in the United States.

Additionally, the measure stipulates that provisions related to dissemination of public diplomacy information material apply only to the State Department and BBG to prevent misinterpretation by other agencies, particularly the Department of Defense.  Finally, it emphasizes that the State Department and BBG are not to compete with private news organizations.

Scholars, public officials, and affected agencies have stated that they believe changes to the law are needed.  A June 2009 House Armed Services Committee report suggested that the law is hindering ongoing military efforts, suggesting that “over the past sixty years, applicability of this law has affected the development of Department of Defense policy…The Committee does not believe that Public Law 80–402 [Smith-Mundt] should constrain the Department of Defense and its partners’ strategic communication and messaging efforts abroad.”

The U.S Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy in a July 2011 also identified Smith-Mundt as one of the “challenges to a unified U.S. public diplomacy” and suggested changes may be required. In addition, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), at its meeting in October 2011, adopted a new five-year strategic plan that calls for repealing the ban on domestic dissemination of BBG programs contained in the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act.

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