Everyone agrees that information warfare is an important part of fighting terrorism. If so, how does "the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 [which] specifies when the US government can and cannot use propaganda as part of a strategic communications campaign" affect this idea. The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 forbids the domestic dissemination of government-authored propaganda or "official news" deliberately designed to influence public opinion or policy. The law singles out materials that serve "a solely partisan purpose." Andrew Exum, writing in the Guardian, thinks that not only is the US substantively innocent of employing propaganda, it has not employed it enough:
If you just glanced at the front page of Sunday's New York Times, you could be forgiven for thinking reporter David Barstow and his editors had uncovered a real scandal at the Pentagon: had the department of defence been waging a propaganda campaign against the American people in the early years of the Iraq war?
In the end, though, all the 8,500-word article revealed was that the department of defence had (very cleverly) manipulated popular opinion by targeting opinion makers - in this case, the retired generals who often turn up on television news as "military experts" - with the same kind of positive "spin" everyday Americans are subjected to every waking hour during a presidential campaign.
Given a broad view of American history, this is pretty tame stuff. During the first world war, the first neoconservative, President Woodrow Wilson, imprisoned 170,000 Americans for making "disloyal" statements during wartime. Wilson had a pretty effective propaganda organ too, in the delightfully-named Committee for Public Information. (Neither of these things gets much mention in US history textbooks.)
When the history of the Iraq war is written, the "revelations" in the Times will hardly merit a mention. There was nothing illegal in what the department of defence did. The Pentagon merely identified generals and pundits likely to buy into their rosy picture of events on the ground in Iraq and fed them talking points they had every right to either embrace or reject.
Exum believes that in fact "the United States and its allies have largely ceded the strategic communications battlefield to the insurgents and terrorists since 2001. If the Pentagon invested as much time and effort communicating to the audience of al-Jazeera as it does communicating to the audience of Fox News, more Americans soldiers in Iraq might be home by now."
Smith-Mundt was probably intended to prevent the use of government funds for partisan political purposes by insulating domestic audiences from "propaganda" aimed at foreign nationals. In 1948 you could split the message. Leaflets distributed in Korea were not going to be read in Topeka, Kansas. And domestic debates in Topeka, Kansas would not have much currency in Korea. But several things have changed since then. The most obvious is that technology has eliminated the clear distinction between a domestic and foreign audience. Anything US government information campaign overseas will be instantly pounced on and parsed before to an American audience. The more subtle consequence of the dissolution of the distinction between foreign and domestic channels is that anything domestic political debate simultaneously becomes a form of propaganda.
Taken together those developments means that the content domestic debate becomes the de facto propaganda projection of America at war. The two have merged. That explains why the US military has sought to provide bloggers with access to information that was heretofore available only to "accredited" (do you remember the term) journalists. It also explains why enemy propagandists go out of their way to influence the terms of the domestic American political debate as a way of projecting their global message. Why? Because it is one single information pool, that's why.
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