Sunday, June 3, 2012

Public Diplomacy: The most unsettling section of the Smith-Mundt "modernization bill"

From the proposed "modernized" Smith-Mundt Act, which creates a firewall between the domestic and foreign dissemination of certain US government information:

"10 (c) APPLICATION.—The provisions of this section [line] 11 shall apply only to the Department of State and the [line] 12  Broadcasting Board of Governors and to no other depart-[line]13 ment or agency of the Federal Government.’’

Question, to reiterate the main point of my earlier piece on this subject: Should not, in fact, the Smith-Mundt Act (if modernized, understandingly stripped of some of its Cold-War idiocies/anachronisms, e.g., American citizens can't listen to the Voice of America [VOA]), actually, and far more importantly, be reinforced in order for our government to make it clear to the US public from where USG non-State Department information pertaining to foreign policy -- e.g. Pentagon grey/black propaganda reaching our shores -- is coming?

Illustration of this issue: What about retired Pentagon military enlightening us in the USA on spending billions on senseless wars? To what extent are they "unofficial spokesmen" for the Department of Defense?

Would such full disclosures (and, granted, there may be no "disclosures" to be made; if so, why not reassure the public that's the case) not be true "transparency"? Would it be against the Republic's "national interests"?

These are my main questions to Reps. Thornberry and Smith, the sponsors of the above-mentioned bipartisan Smith-Mundt "modernization" bill.

Why am I concerned about what could be to some a minor legislative issue? (Few are those, among the American public, understandingly so concerned about the economy, who could care less 60+year old Act dealing with foreigners)?

Because I, among many others, witnessed a White House/Pentagon domestic propaganda campaign that got us into the senseless war in Iraq, and that certainly has not helped the US economy, although Iraqi oil is apparently flowing.

Still, to me, the Iraq propaganda campaign was a lesson, perhaps learned too late (I was a "public diplomacy" Foreign Service officer for over twenty years when I left the State Department in opposition to the planned invasion) that, indeed, the US government -- any branches of it -- should not, repeat not, propagandize the American people.

Yes, I must confess, it was embarrassing, as an American diplomat in Eastern Europe for some twenty years, to "explain" to local interlocutors why VOA's immensely popular Willis Conover, its jazz DJ, was "banned" in the United States according to the Smith-Mundt Act (few Americans know who Willis is, although Willis was US hero in the Cold War in Eastern Europe for his non-propagandistic jazz program; or should I say subtle propaganda jazz program).

While posted in Russia (1998-2001) as Cultural Affairs Officer I helped organize a festival to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Willis's death, thanks to the coooperation of the brilliant and energetic Director of VOA's European Section. I tried, as "diplomatically" I could, when asked by Russians about Willis and why Americans couldn't listen to him, to turn the conversation to how much Laura Bush loved The Brothers Karamazov (am I embellishing my memory to make my point? Yes.)

Along with information from all sources available on the internet, this we-Americans-never-heard Willis anecdote makes a good case for "modernizing" the SM Act, but still not for abandoning its core principle: a government should not propagandize its own people.

Just ask Chinese dissidents. 

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