An old Cold War argument has been resurrected with the news that an amendment allowing U.S. propaganda to be broadcast within our borders has been passed out of the house along with the Defense Authorization Act.

Should the State Department be authorized to allow its propaganda to be broadcast to us in the U.S.?

Or, should we maintain the separation barring U.S. propaganda produced for foreign audiences from being broadcast in the U.S.?

Representatives Mac Thornberry (R-TX) and Adam Smith (D-WA) in their “The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012” (H.R. 5736), suggest the former–that it is time to free up the authority to broadcast U.S.-produced foreign propaganda in the U.S.

Their bill was included as amendment 114 to the Defense Authorization Act and passed out of the House on Friday, May 18. It would amend two existing acts: the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 and the Foreign Relations Authorization Act (1987).

The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 provides for the terms of public diplomacy (non-military) by authorizing the State Department to communicate with foreign audiences through a variety of means, from broadcast to publishing of books, media, and online sources of information. Its original supporters argued that it was needed during the Cold War in order to combat Soviet propaganda. In the 1990s, the mission took on the form of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. In 1972, it was amended to prohibit domestic access to the information that was intended for foreign audiences.

The text of the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act (2012) provides:

Sec. 501. (a) The Secretary and the Broadcasting Board of Governors are authorized to use funds appropriated or otherwise made available for public diplomacy information programs to provide for the preparation, dissemination, and use of information intended for foreign audiences abroad about the United States, its people, and its policies, through press, publications, radio, motion pictures, the Internet, and other information media, including social media, and through information centers, instructors, and other direct or indirect means of communication.

(b)(1) Except as provided in paragraph (2), the Secretary and the Broadcasting Board of Governors may, upon request and reimbursement of the reasonable costs incurred in fulfilling such a request, make available, in the United States, motion pictures, films, video, audio, and other materials prepared for dissemination abroad or disseminated abroad.

A press release from Representative Thornberry stresses the need to modernize the law:

“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.”

Because the amendment was attached to the Defense Authorization Act, it didn’t garner much attention. Michael Hastings at Buzzfeed writes:

The new law would give sweeping powers to the State Department and Pentagon to push television, radio, newspaper, and social media onto the U.S. public. “It removes the protection for Americans,” says a Pentagon official who is concerned about the law. “It removes oversight from the people who want to put out this information. There are no checks and balances. No one knows if the information is accurate, partially accurate, or entirely false.”

Historically, there were concerns about the powers it the Smith-Mundt Act originally provided the federal government, especially in times of peace. According to the book The Voice of America and the Domestic Propaganda Battles, 1945-1953:

Underlying Truman’s actions was the liberal proposition that the federal government could promote peace and correct misunderstandings about the United States by disseminating “full and fair” information to foreign publics….Truman’s executive order challenged the argument that propaganda was required only during war.

From the conservative point of view, liberal Democrats had spread, at great financial cost, the powers and responsibilities of the federal government into areas in which it had no prerogative, and the VOA was just another exanmple of this encroachments.

And, take a look at the Broadcasting Board of Governors website. There is an error in their mission statement. While it may seem insignificant, if they’re in charge of communicating, among other things, American values, they ought to be more specific:

To inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.

As we have seen with the Occupy protesters, who are calling for “democracy,” there is a world of difference between democracy and representative republic. But Matt Armstrong at MountainRunner argues that Smith-Mundt “creates and encourages opposing views in how we operate and organize.”

Would you like to have greater access to U.S.-produced foreign propaganda, or does that allow the federal government powers it ought not have?