The House Armed Services Committee clearly acted in the U.S. interest when it voted to modernize the Smith–Mundt Act last week, as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act. Since 1948, Smith–Mundt has prohibited agencies of the U.S. government from informing the U.S. public in print or on the airwaves about their activities. In the age of the information revolution and the global war of ideas, these prohibitions have become obsolete and worse. As noted by Juliana Pilon in the Heritage paper “Obsolete Restrictions on Public Diplomacy Hurt U.S. Outreach and Strategy”:
In the war on terrorism, this restriction is worse than an anachronism: It amounts to self-sabotage. Until Congress relegates this piece of legislation to the dustbin of history, the U.S. cannot expect to conduct public diplomacy effectively.
For instance, Americans cannot order English-language materials from the State Department. If they try, they will be informed that “the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs is prohibited from distributing its print materials in the United States by the Smith–Mundt Act.” This bureau is among many U.S. agencies affected by Smith–Mundt; Americans are by law prevented from learning about taxpayer-funded humanitarian and democracy-assistance programs, including the grantees and contractors of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Or consider this: Today, listeners of National Public Radio (funded in part by the U.S. government) can and do get their international news from the BBC (funded by the British government), but not from Voice of America (funded by the U.S. government and therefore prohibited by Smith–Mundt).
So, changes are overdue. Authored by Representatives Mac Thornberry (R–TX) and Adam Smith (D–WA), H.R5736—Smith–Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 (Introduced in House, IH) removes the prohibition on public diplomacy materials being available to Americans. This bill, though, specifies that the changes in Smith–Mundt apply only to the Department of State and the Broadcasting Board of Governors. As these are the primary public diplomacy agencies of the United States, at least this is a good start. The bill has been several years in the works, and while it should have been included in a State Department authorization bill, such a bill has not been passed by Congress in years.
Critics have already voiced concerns that this will open the floodgates of propaganda by the U.S. government. This is hardly likely. Indeed, access to programs and materials produced by the State and the BBG will allow Congress and the public a better understanding of what we are funding. Much of it is high-quality journalism, which deserves support, and some programming could have a positive impact on certain immigrant communities in the United States that are vulnerable to radicalization. As for programming and materials that are controversial, questionable, or wasteful, doesn’t the U.S. public deserve to know what is being published or broadcast in its name?
Another positive consequence of the changes to Smith–Mundt should be to level the global media playing field. As things have stood for the past half-century, Congress created a situation in which the U.S. public could freely receive news from foreign governments but not legally receive news and information produced by their own government. The result is that today, China’s CCTV, Russia Today, Al-Jazeera, France 1, BBC America, and even Iran’s IRIB are available on American cable networks, but not Voice of America. This situation is bizarre and contorted.
So, kudos to the authors of the Smith–Mundt Modernization Act. They have tackled a thorny issue left unresolved for far too long.