Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) is the co-sponsor of two controversial amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act: one which would ban the use of indefinite detention for any accused Terrorist apprehended on U.S. soil (the House rejected that amendment earlier this week), and the other, as Michael Hastings first reported, which would repeal a long-standing prohibition under the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 on the dissemination inside the U.S. of State Department information campaigns (what the State Department calls “public diplomacy” and what others call “state propaganda”). Rep. Smith was my guest today on Salon Radio to discuss both of his proposed amendments, and the 15-minute interview, which heavily focuses on his Smith-Mundt proposal, can be heard on the player below (the Smith-Mundt discussion begins at 5:15).
A few of points on the domestic propaganda issue that we discussed:
(1) Rep. Smith claimed that legal prohibitions on the domestic dissemination of government propaganda apply only to the State Department, whereas other agencies (such as the Pentagon) are already free of such restrictions; I explained that I believed that was untrue, that there are clear legal frameworks in place barring the use of domestic propaganda by all agencies, and this was what I was referencing;
(2) Rep. Smith repeatedly insisted that his bill would not permit the domestic dssemination of any State Department program “intended to” influence public opinion inisde the U.S., but only ones intended for a foreign audience; aside from the impossibility of enforcing that distinction, I pointed out that the Press Release distributed by him and his GOP co-sponsor clearly argues that one reason this repeal was needed was to enable the State Department to influence public opinion among certain population segments within the U.S. The Press Release I referenced is here, and it 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.
If one of the problems this bill seeks to solve is the inability of the State Department to “rebut terrorist propaganda” by targeting U.S. citizens with its own information campaign, then, by definition, the bill seeks to allow the State Department to attempt to influence public opinion within the U.S.
(3) This morning, Mother Jones published a piece defending this legislation. It was written by Adam Weinstein, a former Navy vet and ex-Iraq contractor who (as he acknowledged) himself wrote propagnada for the U.S. military in Iraq (what Weinstein calls “upbeat, if technically accurate, press releases for the US Army in Iraq”). Rep. Smith unsurprisingly touted this article, and it is here.
Everyone can, and should, listen for themselves to Rep. Smith’s defense of the bill and decide if they are persuaded by his assurances that this bill would not legally empower the State Department to propagandize the U.S. citizenry directly.