Tuesday, April 22, 2008

One world

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.

The Belmont Club is supported largely by donations from its readers.


Blogger Teresita said...

W: 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

Yes, but in a recent poll 32% of respondents said that internet news blogs were "mostly opinion" while only 20% said it was "mostly fact" and 3% said both or neither. 45% had never surfed to a news blog.

On the other end of the spectrum, local newspapers had a familiarity rate of 100%. Only 31% of respondents said it was "mostly opinion" while 54% said it was "mostly facts" and 7% said both or neither.

Blogs are movin' on up, but they ain't ready for the East Side yet.

4/22/2008 05:45:00 PM  
Blogger whiskey_199 said...

Except that newspapers recorded nationwide a decline of about 8% in advertising, similar declines on their web advertising, and the NYT, DNC East, recorded a 10% decline in Advertising.

Newspapers and broadcast media are widely seen as biased and unreliable. I've seen reports that show around 54% of people get their information from the internet (probably Drudge I'd suspect).

The media falls into the same commercial din as advertising, which is tawdry, disgusting, and often repulsive.

Witness Dan Rather's "Fake but Accurate."

4/22/2008 06:30:00 PM  
Blogger Cannoneer No. 4 said...

Now ya hit my hot button, Wretchard. I beg your indulgence in permitting me to post some links on this thread germaine to the topic.

Matt Armstrong on Smith-Mundt

Smith-Mundt Is Killing Us

The Regulars’ RFI On USIA

Short version: The current "Loyal Opposition" has done all it could to impede the progress of the counterinsurgent and deny legitimacy. A significant and vocal element within the "Loyal Opposition" actively seeks counterinsurgent defeat. The "Loyal Opposition's" version of As Sahab partners with the original As Sahab to put as many eyes on the bleeding and leading as possible.

Nobody inside the government / military Public Affairs/Public Diplomacy/Strategic Communications/Perception Management/persuader-changer-influencer bureaucracies can succeed in countering the propaganda of the Far Enemy, because powerful and vindictive insurgent supportive elements within the "Loyal Opposition" see political profit in failure.

But don't question their patriotism!

4/22/2008 08:08:00 PM  
Blogger Cannoneer No. 4 said...

Terrorism is really an information war disguised as a military conflict

4/22/2008 08:17:00 PM  
Blogger Cannoneer No. 4 said...

We’ve been unable to deny the enemy the information battlefield in our own country because the American media is, consciously or subconsciously (it makes no difference, the effect is the same), in the tank for them.

4/22/2008 08:48:00 PM  
Blogger Cannoneer No. 4 said...

The Propaganda Advantage: Why the Terrorists Still Have It

4/22/2008 08:55:00 PM  
Blogger Kurgan said...


we should beware the unintended consequences of adjusting the status quo.

yes, there are many clowns in the media and yes, they can be muted with critical reading.

we are at a distinct disadvantage with our enenmies, but that goes for the entire societal openess, not just the nyt.

however, the non-answer and subsequent wild conclsuions drawn from the lack of real information is likely working to our advantage.

at the end of the day, part of the decision making process for much of our gub'ment is whether they would be busted by the press if it get's out.

that is often a good thing.


4/22/2008 09:08:00 PM  
Blogger weswinger said...

Cannoneer #4: I agree with your assessment of the current imbalance in propaganda effectiveness, but I think the causes are simpler and basically twofold. 1. Multi-Culti and P.C. inspired reluctance to call things by their proper names, and 2. The lack of "bully pulpit" leadership from the Bush administration.

4/23/2008 02:53:00 AM  
Blogger Cannoneer No. 4 said...

How much of this failure is due to deficiencies in the character and personality of George W. Bush, and how valuable is it really to blame it all on him? And valuable to whom?

4/23/2008 04:23:00 AM  
Blogger Rivenshield said...

Andrew Exum is full of chattering-class beans. 170,000 Americans probably represents the total prison population of the country at the time. About two thousand were actually put on trial, mostly for campaigning aggressively against the draft; about half that number were actually prosecuted. I looked this up in three minutes. Poor old Andy has no excuse.

BTW, truth in advertising: I'm a (Bill) Clinton Democrat. This statistic of the imprisoned 170,000 is an old Berzerkelyite chestnut that had been laid to rest long ago, I thought. It is a tribute to feeble-minded parochialism that a grandiose falsehood like this would ever make it into print, and even more so that anyone would actually believe it.


4/23/2008 03:11:00 PM  

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