The 1948 Smith-Mundt Act was intended to shield U.S. citizens from American propaganda, which the State Department has been broadcasting abroad for decades. This month, the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act takes effect, allowing that material to be broadcast stateside. Bob talks with Washington State Democrat and bill co-sponsor Adam Smith who says there is no need to worry.
BOB GARFIELD: The Smith-Mundt Act, passed in 1948, was intended to shield US citizens from US propaganda or, if you like, public diplomacy. That is, the original law authorized the State Department to conduct public diplomacy in person, in print and over the airwaves, but it also barred the dissemination of those materials on American shores, because some lawmakers distrusted the State Department. One congressman said it was, quote, “Chock-full of Reds.” Thus, our radios could never broadcast say Voice of America, which is overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, until now. The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act lifts that domestic broadcast band - a little - spurring BuzzFeed to charge that, quote, “Propaganda that was supposed to target foreigners can now be aimed at Americans.”
But Washington state congressional Democrat and bill cosponsor Adam Smith says not to worry.
CONGRESSMAN ADAM SMITH: The bar on the US government doing domestic propaganda remains in place. What we amended was the ability of them, if asked, to provide that same content domestically. So one of the examples was that Voice of America had been providing, in Somalia and in those areas, sort of a counter-radicalization method. And in Minnesota, where they have a substantial Somali population, they had asked, you know, well, can we have that information. Smith-Mundt barred them from providing it. So we amended it to say if somebody asks and if it's information that has already been created for an international audience, then yes, you can provide it. The government still cannot provide purely for domestic consumption any sort of information campaigns, so it was a very limited exception.
BOB GARFIELD: The Internet is what has changed the conditions worldwide that prompted you to cosponsor this amendment, but is it not equally true that, let’s just say, those in the Somalian Diaspora in Minnesota who wish to see information that is not coming from some radical Islamist group –
CONGRESSMAN ADAM SMITH: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: - need but go onto the Internet to find a drazillion sources of uninflected news and information from all over the world, without the assistance of the Broadcast Board of Governors or any other arm of the state?
CONGRESSMAN ADAM SMITH: Yeah, and I mean, look, there’s a thousand different sources. I just don’t see why the Broadcast Board of Governors - what they’re providing for a foreign audience shouldn’t be one of them.
And that’s the other thing about the notion of somehow the Broadcast Board of Governors having some sort of control [LAUGHS] over what information we as Americans receive. In this era, it’s absurd. They are but one voice out of gosh, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands. But what they’re providing for a foreign audience, if the domestic audience requests it, I see no reason why they shouldn’t be open to hear it.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Now, you have been in Congress for 17 years. You have seen a number of administrations be granted certain powers and authority and immediately overreach. Are you not concerned that the State Department, either under the Obama administration or under a future administration, will use these revisions to do exactly what the BuzzFeeds of the world fear, which is to use State Department resources to try to influence the opinion of Americans in America?
CONGRESSMAN ADAM SMITH: Well, they would be violating the law if they did that. I mean, I'm always concerned about the Executive Branch violating the law. This law doesn’t make it any easier to do that. I mean, they could have done that already. You can always violate the law, but the law here is very clear. Anything created purely for domestic consumption is illegal. It can’t be done.
BOB GARFIELD: Congressman, thank you very much.
CONGRESSMAN ADAM SMITH: Thanks, appreciate the chance.
BOB GARFIELD: Congressman Adam Smith of Washington cosponsored the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act.