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Smith Mundt Act

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The US Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948 (Public Law 402), popularly referred to as the Smith-Mundt Act, specifies the terms in which the U.S. government can engage in public diplomacy. The Smith-Mundt Act institutionalized the Voice of America and create additional exchange programs beyond the original Fulbright programs.


The act was originally introduced at the request of the U.S. State Department as the Bloom Bill, after Rep. Sol Bloom (D-IL), the chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, in October 1945. The purpose of the bill was to make various existing information and exchange activities permanent, such as the Voice of America radio broadcasts that began in 1942, and to create the institutional framework to grow the programs as required. In other words, its purpose was to institutionalize America’s communication and engagement programs with audiences around the world. The bill would reintroduce informational and cultural programming as a new peacetime instrument of foreign policy. The bill was met with resistance by a Congress that had concerns greater than the recent 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.

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 and disseminate these products. When the Bloom Bill (HR 4982) went to the House of Representatives 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."
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.


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." The FBI was also concerned over the ability of State to monitor and control participants in the exchange programs.

The State Department was in new territory. The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs had just been created in 1944, the result of a self-reorganization to meet the needs of the 20th century. The office was originally the Assistant Secretary for Cultural and Public Affairs, but Benton, the second occupant of the office, the first being Archibald MacLeish, previously the Librarian of Congress, removed the “Cultural and” to avoid the immediate conflicts with the Congress. Benton focused on the information aspects of engagement.

In July 1946, the Bloom Bill passed the House (272 to 97) only to die in the Senate on August 2 at the hands of Sen. Robert Taft. While Taft never gave a reason for blocking the bill, he was an isolationist who held virtually everything supported by the Truman Administration in disdain. For example, he opposed sending US forces overseas for training after the war.


The day before the Bloom Bill died in the Senate, an amendment to the Surplus Property Act of 1944 was passed. Promoted by Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-AR), this law expanded funding and mandates for previously authorized exchange programs.

At the request of the State Department, who was struggling through appropriations hearings and defending its activities to Congress, the Bloom Bill was introduced by Congressman Karl Mundt (R-SD) on March 21, 1947. 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.


The State Department's information and exchange activities were continuing, although without explicit 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.


A pre-Pearl Harbor isolationist, Mundt sought to formalize the State Department's information activities to ensure both funding and quality thresholds. Cosponsoring the now-Mundt bill was Sen. 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.


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.


Between March 1947 and January 1948 when the bill became law, several significant events helped move the legislation forward. In May 1947, the rhetoric between the State Department and the Associated Press, who had cut off access to the State Department in January 1946 in response to the Bloom Bill, notched up. The result was several other newspaper and radio publishers and presidents lining up against the Associated Press and supporting the government. Secretary of State George C. Marshall announced the Marshall Plan in June 1947, which resulted in increased volume and tempo of Communist propaganda around the world, particularly in Europe when a Congressional delegation comprising both houses traveled to the continent to see the “front lines” in August 1947. Reconciliation between the House and Senate versions took place in early January 1948 and on January 27, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed the bill into law.


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.


In the Act, Congress added three major 'protections.’


1. The first was to protect the American media by requiring the State Department to maximize its use of private resources.

2. The second was to ensure the State Department would not have a monopoly on broadcasting. The third, the prohibition on domestic dissemination by the State Department, was put in place because Congress feared the State Department - full of "loafers, incompetents" and "men of strong Soviet leaning" - could undermine the US Government. The second and third restrictions were of greater interest to the Congress as they answered their critical concerns about a deep pocket government engaging domestic audiences. These two provisions remain unamended and in force and were the true prophylactic intended to prevent Nazi-style propaganda or President Wilson's Committee for Public Information activities. 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 principle objections to the information activities the Congress intended to authorize. 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.


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 statutes specifically forbidding making USIA materials available to American audiences. Rather, what began as caution has hardened into policy."[i] This changed in 1972 when Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-AR) argued America’s international broadcasting should take its "rightful place in the graveyard of Cold War relics." That year, Fulbright declared that America's information broadcasters, the "Radios", "should be given an opportunity to take their rightful place in the graveyard of Cold War relics." Trying to dis-establish America's international broadcasting, Fulbright asked the US Attorney General to block a domestic broadcast by a U.S. senator to his constituents of a movie produced by the United States Information Agency. The Attorney General, Richard Kleindienst, did not while noting the "apparent purpose" of the section prohibiting domestic dissemination applied to the State Department only and that Congress did intend that "USIA materials available to the American public through the press and members of Congress." Fulbright would fight the Nixon Administration to first get rid of the Radios and then attempt to abolish USIA. The Administration responded by moving the Radios out of USIA into a precursor to today's BBG and ultimately successfully battling Fulbright to that the once-powerful Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would not even go to the floor for his pet projects, "why bother?" he would ask. Fulbright realized the Cold War had shifted. It was no longer a struggle for the minds and wills of people, as President's Truman and Eisenhower had described it.


The Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1972 amended the Smith-Mundt Act to include a ban on disseminating within the United States any "information about the United States, its people, and its policies" prepared for dissemination abroad.


The "loop hole" was further tightened in 1985 when Sen. Edward Zorinsky (D-NE), inspecting USIA for nepotism and fighting the establishment of Radio MARTI, was unhappy with what he thought was a tactical use of "public diplomacy" - namely the USIA - to support immediate policies goals of the Reagan Administration. On the floor of the Senate, Zorinsky declared that the "American taxpayer certainly does not need or want his tax dollars used to support the US government propaganda directed at him or her." This quote, often cited, was offered in a context that is often not cited. A breath or two before the aforementioned quote, Zorinsky said, referring to the 1972 amendment, "By law, the USIA cannot engage in domestic propaganda. This distinguishes us, a free society, from the Soviet Union where domestic propaganda is a principle government activity."


The Zorinsky Amendment added a new prohibition: "no funds authorized to be appropriated to the United States Information Agency shall be used to influence public opinion in the United States, and no program material prepared by the United States Information Agency shall be distributed within the United States." This amendment also added that domestic access to USIA products be "for examination only." For several years, Zorinsky Amendment was interpreted as a Congressional intention to exempt USIA products from the Freedom of Information Act. An act of Congress, through legislation or verbal agreement, is traditionally used permit a program for domestic release in less than 12 years.


As a Cold War measure, the act was intended to counter and inoculate against propaganda from the Soviet Union and Communist organizations primarily in Europe. The principle 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.


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.


Today, the Smith-Mundt Act's most well-known component is Section 501, as it was labeled in the original bill. In its original form, Section 501 directed the Secretary of State to disseminate information abroad. As the Smith-Mundt ban on domestic dissemination has been tightened over the years by subsequent legislation, Section 501 has been challenged on several grounds. Many argue that the introduction of the Internet and related advances in communication technologies have rendered the prohibition on domestic propaganda anachronistic. U.S. cultural and information programs meant for foreign audiences are now readily accessible via the web. It is important to note that the Smitht-Mundt Act does not define or use the word propaganda.


In 1994 when the USIA launched its Internet service, providing access to the text of news dispatches, and audio feeds from VOA radio programs, Senator Jesse Helms objected on the grounds that it violated the Smith Mundt Act. In response, the USIA moved these services from a domestic to a foreign server. Employees of overseas and cultural programs were also forbidden from giving out the URL address of their websites to US citizens. However, these websites remain easily accessible via Google and other Internet search engines.


Others have challenged Smith Mundt on the grounds that it violates the Freedom of Information Act. In February 1996, Essential Information, Inc., a non-profit citizen activist group founded in 1982 by Ralph Nader asked the USIA for six months records. The USIA refused citing the Smith Mundt Act as the reason for noncompliance. Essential Information Inc. then filed suit. In November 1996 the federal District Court in Washington, D.C., ruled that the material under the Smith-Mundt Act is not to be available, applying the Freedom of Information Act's Exemption 3 to block access.


Recently, Smith-Mundt has resurfaced as a serious topic of discussion in Washington, D.C. On Jan. 13, 2009, the first-ever Smith-Mundt Symposium took place on Capitol Hill in the largest room of the Reserve Officers Association and gathered public diplomacy and strategic communication practitioners from governmental and non-governmental groups, including the Departments of State, Defense and Homeland Security; Congress; academia; and media. Four panels of public diplomacy professionals provided: History of Smith-Mundt, America's Bifurcated Engagement, Rebuilding the Arsenal of Persuasion, and The View From the Hill, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Support to Public Diplomacy Mike Doran delivered the keynote speech. Matthew Armstrong, public diplomacy advisor and publisher of the MountainRunner blog, convened and chaired the symposium.


On July 13, 2010, U.S. Congressmen Mac Thornberry (TX-13) and Adam Smith (D-WA), members of the House Intelligence and Armed Services Committees, introduced "The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2010" (H.R. 5729), a bipartisan bill to revise the outdated restriction that interferes with U.S. diplomatic and military efforts.

On Congressman Thornberry's website, Congressman Smith said, "While the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 was developed to counter communism during the Cold War, it is outdated for the wars of today. 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.”


This updated act is more reflective of current times and the modern strategic information environment, by also acknowledging the Internet as an information medium. Armstrong says this act by Reps. Thornberry and Smith will help move the United States toward a more modern information environment involving the Internet and 24/7 news cycles.


Further Reading

  • Read Essential Information, INC's Appeal

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