Smith–Mundt Act

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The US Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948 (Public Law 80-402), popularly referred to as the Smith–Mundt Act, specifies the terms in which the United States government can engage global audiences, also known as public diplomacy. The act was first introduced as the Bloom Bill in December 1945 in the 79th Congress and subsequently passed by the 80th Congress and signed into law by President Harry S. Truman on January 27, 1948.

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 (section 1078 (a)) amended the US Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948 and the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1987, allowing for materials produced by the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) to be released within U.S. borders for the Archivist of the United States.[1]

NDAA 2013 (HR 4310, Section 1078 (c)) does not make legal the dissemination of propaganda within the US that the Smith-Mundt Act has outlawed: "No funds authorized to be appropriated to the Department of State or the Broadcasting Board of Governors shall be used to influence public opinion in the United States."[2]


History[edit]

Origins of the bill[edit]

The original legislation authorizes the U.S. State Department to communicate to audiences outside of the borders of the United States through broadcasting, face-to-face contacts, exchanges (including educational, cultural, and technical), online activities, the publishing of books, magazines, and other media of communication and engagement. Funding for these activities comes from other legislation passed by the U.S. Congress called appropriations.

The legislation was introduced in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in October 1945 at the request of the State Department. It passed the committee onto the floor of the House of Representatives and became known as the Bloom Bill after the committee's chairman, Rep. Sol Bloom (D-NY). The purpose was to make permanent various information and exchange activities that began as early as a decade before, including the Voice of America radio broadcasts that began in 1942. The bill was to make permanent global engagement. On the cultural side, the so-called "slow" communications, it reintroduced cultural programming Bloom had attempted to pass the year before. On the "fast" side of communications, it would provide legislative approval for a new peacetime instrument of foreign policy.

The shift from wartime to peacetime "propaganda" operations was not taken lightly by Congress, especially with fresh memories of President Woodrow Wilson’s Committee for Public Information (CPI), President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Office of War Information (OWI), and the Nazi propaganda machine. But there were other, deeper concerns the Congress focused on.[according to whom?]

Congressional concerns[edit]

Congress harbored significant reservations about empowering the State Department. The key issue was not whether US Government information activities should be known to the American public, but whether the State Department could be trusted to create, manage and disseminate these products. When the Bloom Bill (HR 4982) went to the House Rules Committee in February 1946, committee Chairman Eugene Cox (D-GA) informed Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs William J. Benton that ten of the twelve committee members were against anything the State Department favored because of its "Communist infiltration and pro-Russian policy." That the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously reported the bill out was meaningless. Cox told Benton that the Foreign Affairs Committee was "a worthless committee consisting of worthless impotent Congressmen; it was a kind of ghetto of the House of Representatives."[3]

Cox publicly characterized the State Department as "chock full of Reds" and "the lousiest outfit in town". The information component of the Bloom Bill was seen as a revitalization of the Office of War Information, for which many in Congress held contempt as a New Deal "transgression". The cultural component was held in greater disdain, which caused Benton to change the name of his office from the Office of Cultural and Public Affairs a year after it was created to the Office of Public Affairs.[4]

Other comments were similarly tough. The ranking minority member of the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee, Rep. John Taber (D-NY), called for a "house-cleaning" of "some folks" in the State Department to "keep only those people whose first loyalty is to the United States."[5] The FBI was also concerned over the ability of State to monitor and control participants in the exchange programs.[6]

Debate and passage[edit]

In July 1946, the Bloom Bill passed the House, only to be blocked in the Senate by Senator Taft. Taft never gave a reason for his action.

On March 21, 1947, pre-Pearl Harbor isolationist and former teacher Representative Karl Mundt (R-SD) introduced H.R. 3342 at the request of the State Department. The State Department's information and exchange activities were still ongoing, although without authorization from the Congress. The authority was derived from Congressional appropriations legislation. In other words, the activities continued because they received money from Congress, which carried implicit authority but actual authority was still lacking. Co-sponsoring the Mundt bill in the Senate was Senator H. Alexander Smith (R-NJ). The stated purpose of the reintroduced legislation was not to curtail the overall information activities of the United States, but to raise the quality and volume of the government’s information programs. As the State Department admitted to lax oversight due to personnel and budget constraints, Congress voiced its frustration and slashed State’s information budget. This time, Taber said if the "drones, the loafers, and the incompetents" were weeded out, he would allow a few million dollars for international broadcasting.[7]

Several significant leaders went to the House to testify in support of the bill, including Secretary of State George Marshall, Chief of Staff General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Secretary of Commerce W. Averell Harriman (formerly the Ambassador to Russia), and Ambassador to Russia Walter Bedell Smith. They agreed that it was "folly" to spend millions for foreign aid and relief without explaining America’s aims.[8]

Congress, in recommending passage of the bill, declared that "truth can be a powerful weapon." Congress further declared six principles were required for the legislation to be successful in action: tell the truth; explain the motives of the United States; bolster morale and extend hope; give a true and convincing picture of American life, methods, and ideals; combat misrepresentation and distortion; and aggressively interpret and support American foreign policy. As a Cold War measure, it was intended to counter and inoculate against propaganda from the Soviet Union and Communist organizations primarily in Europe. The principal purpose of the legislation was to engage in a global struggle for minds and wills, a phrase used by Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

It established the programming mandate that still serves as the foundation for U.S. overseas information and cultural programs at the Department of State.

Cold War era[edit]

Since 1972, the act prohibits domestic access to information intended for foreign audiences. Prior to this, the State Department and then the USIA beginning in 1952, were prohibited from disseminating information intended for foreign audiences, with the express intent that Congress, the American media, or academia would be the distributors of such information.[9]

The act expanded the Fulbright Program to include countries other than those Lend-Lease countries originally specified in the original 1946 amendment to the Surplus Property Act of 1944. It also facilitated the establishment of bi-national centers around the world to coordinate international exchanges between the countries.[10]

Amendments to the Act in 1972 and 1985 reflected the Cold War’s departure from the “struggle for minds and wills” (a phrase used by both President Truman and President Eisenhower) to a balance of power based on “traditional diplomacy” and counting missiles, bombers, and tanks. As a result, Senator J. William Fulbright argued America’s international broadcasting should take its “rightful place in the graveyard of Cold War relics”.[11] A decade later, Senator Edward Zorinsky (D-NE) successfully blocked taxpayer access to USIA materials, even through Freedom of Information Act requests, as he compared the USIA to an organ of Soviet propaganda.[12]

Provisions[edit]

There are three key restrictions on the U.S. State Department in the Smith–Mundt Act.

The first and most well-known restriction was originally a prohibition on domestic dissemination of materials intended for foreign audiences by the State Department. The original intent was the Congress, the media and academia would be the filter to bring inside what the State Department said overseas. In 1967, the Advisory Commission on Information (later renamed the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy) recommended the de facto prohibition on domestic distribution be removed noting that there is "nothing in the statues specifically forbidding making USIA materials available to American audiences. Rather, what began as caution has hardened into policy."[5] This changed in 1972 when Senator J. William Fulbright (D-AR) argued that America’s international broadcasting should take its "rightful place in the graveyard of Cold War relics" as he successfully amended the Act to read that any program material "shall not be disseminated" within the U.S. and that material shall be available "for examination only" to the media, academia, and Congress (P.L. 95-352 Sec. 204). In 1985, Senator Edward Zorinsky (D-NE) declared USIA would be no different than an organ of Soviet propaganda if its products were to be available domestically.[6] The Act was amended to read: "no program material prepared by the United States Information Agency shall be distributed within the United States" (P.L. 99-93). At least one court interpreted this language to mean USIA products were to be exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests. In response, the Act was amended again in 1990 to permit domestic distribution of program material "12 years after the initial dissemination" abroad (P.L. 101-246 Sec 202).

The second and third provisions were of greater interest to the Congress as they answered critical concerns about a deep-pocket government engaging domestic audiences. Added to the Bloom Bill, the predecessor to the Smith-Mundt Bill in June 1946 by Representative John M. Vorys (R-OH) "to remove the stigma of propaganda" and address the principal objections to the information activities the Congress intended to authorize. These provisions remain unamended and were the real prophylactic to address concerns the U.S. Government would create Nazi-style propaganda or resurrect President Wilson's CPI-style activities. The amendment said the information activities should only be conducted if needed to supplement international information dissemination of private agencies; that the State Department was not to acquire a monopoly of broadcasting or any other information medium; and that private sector leaders should be invited to review and advise the State Department in this work.

Section 1437 of the Act requires the State Department to maximize its use of "private agencies." Section 1462 requires "reducing Government information activities whenever corresponding private information dissemination is found to be adequate" and prohibits the State Department from having monopoly in any "medium of information" (a prescient phrase). Combined, these provide not only protection against government's domination of domestic discourse, but interestingly a "sunset clause" for governmental activities that Rep. Karl Mundt (R-SD) and Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs William Benton stated clearly: as private media stood up, government media would stand down.

Excerpt[edit]

Section 501(a) of the Act (care of the Voice of America website) provides that

"information produced by VOA for audiences outside the United States shall not be disseminated within the United States … but, on request, shall be available in the English language at VOA, at all reasonable times following its release as information abroad, for examination only by representatives of United States press associations, newspapers, magazines, radio systems, and stations, and by research students and scholars, and, on request, shall be made available for examination only to Members of Congress."

"This means that VOA is forbidden to broadcast within the United States." In reality, of course, any American with a shortwave receiver or an Internet connection can listen to VOA. That's incidental, however. VOA cannot direct or intend its programs to be "for" Americans. This distinction is often lost on experts who see the letter of the law but with no real understanding of the media. George W. Bush-era State Department official James K. Glassman has called for directing VOA at American audiences.

Entities Covered by the Act[edit]

The following are administered by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an agency of the US government.

No other department or agency of the US government is covered by the Smith–Mundt Act. The United States Agency for International Development and Millennium Challenge Corporation have said they are not sure whether they are covered.[7].

Recent Interpretations[edit]

A 1998 U.S. Court of Appeals ruling indicated that this act exempts Voice of America from releasing transcripts in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

The act does not prohibit the entirety of the Executive Branch from distributing information at home, just the State Department and Broadcasting Board of Governors. The result of the amendments to the Act means that most US taxpayers do not know how the VOA (and its successor agencies) operate or what their programming content was, as was noted in 1967 by the Stanton Commission report noted above. The act both insulates the American public from being targeted by the government-sponsored information and broadcasting which is directed at audiences beyond America's borders. Some "experts" claim that the U.S. is "the only industrialized democracy to do this, and creates mistrust of the same activities in these audiences who increasingly question why Americans cannot read or hear the same material." However, anyone with an Internet connection can access VOA programs and articles for the web, radio and TV (VOA increasingly emphasizes television programming now) in English and other languages.

References[edit]

  • Voice of America News's online press kit, retrieved March 22, 2005
  • rcfp.org media update on the Court of Appeals ruling, Feb 23, 1998
  • Kenneth Osgood, Total Cold War: Eisenhower's Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad, (University Press of Kansas, 2005) p. 37.
  1. ^ Text of HR 4310, Section 1078. https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr4310/text.
  2. ^ Text of H.R. 5736 authorizing "the domestic dissemination of information and material about the United States intended primarily for foreign audiences, and for other purposes".
  3. ^ Ninkovich, Frank (1981). The diplomacy of ideas : U.S. foreign policy and cultural relations, 1938-1950. Cambridge University Press. p. 122. ISBN 0-521-23241-4. 
  4. ^ Ninkovich, Frank (1981). The diplomacy of ideas : U.S. foreign policy and cultural relations, 1938-1950. Cambridge University Press. p. 122. ISBN 0-521-23241-4. 
  5. ^ Morris, John D. (April 11, 1946). "Seek to Halt Fund for Federal News: Republicans Say Department of State Lacks Authority to Use $10,000,000 Would Kill $10,000,000 Fund Harriman Testimony Secret". The New York Times. 
  6. ^ Ninkovich, Frank (1981). The diplomacy of ideas : U.S. foreign policy and cultural relations, 1938-1950. Cambridge University Press. p. 147. ISBN 0-521-23241-4. 
  7. ^ "The American Twang". Time Magazine XLIX (21). May 26, 1947. 
  8. ^ "The American Twang". Time Magazine XLIX (21). May 26, 1947. 
  9. ^ [1]
  10. ^ [2]
  11. ^ [3]
  12. ^ [4]

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