A little-noticed amendment to the $642 billion defense appropriation bill approved on Friday in Congress would make it easier the federal government to use propaganda and, if necessary, misinformation against foreign enemies — and U.S. citizens, too.
Co-sponsored by Washington State Rep. Adam Smith, a Democrat, and Texas Republican Rep. Mac Thornberry, the measure would “amend the United States Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948 to authorize the domestic dissemination of information and material about the United States intended primarily for foreign audiences, and for other purposes.”
According to a story Monday on the Buzzfeed website, backers of the amendment say the “informational material used overseas to influence foreign audiences is too good to not use at home, and that new techniques are needed to help fight Al-Qaeda, a borderless enemy whose own propaganda reaches Americans online.”
Critics, however, say turning the massive information operations apparatus within the federal government against American citizens is an ironic way to ensure “freedom.”
“Clearly there are ways to modernize for the information age without wiping out the distinction between domestic and foreign audiences,” said Michael Shank, vice president at the Institute for Economics and Peace in Washington, D.C.
“That Reps. Adam Smith and Mac Thornberry want to roll back protections put in place by previously serving senators – who, in their wisdom, ensured limits to taxpayer-funded propaganda promulgated by the U.S. government – is disconcerting and dangerous.”
The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 was designed “to counter communism during the Cold War, (and) is outdated for the conflicts of today,” said Smith.
“This outdated law ties the hands of America’s diplomatic officials, military and others,” added Thornberry. “Congress has a responsibility to fix the situation.”
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 quoted in the Buzzfeed story. “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.”
According to the same spokesman, “senior public affairs” officers within the Department of Defense want to “get rid” of Smith-Mundt and other restrictions because it prevents information activities designed to prop up unpopular policies — like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Smith-Mundt must be updated,” Smith said, “to bolster our strategic communications and public diplomacy capacity on all fronts and mediums — especially online.”