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Congress Should Strengthen Laws Outlawing Domestic Government Propaganda

Vigorous congressional oversight is critical to ensuring the government doesn’t use covert propaganda to mold U.S. public opinion.

October 21, 2019
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The piece was origin­ally published in The Hill

News has been a cent­ral preoc­cu­pa­tion for Pres­id­ent Donald Trump, who closely follows the cable chan­nels, tweets his reac­tions many times a day, and has berated media outlets — even Fox News — for report­ing he does­n’t like. Now, Trump may have his sights on a medium with a global audi­ence of 345 million people that provides a new, multi-lingual mega­phone: the U.S. Agency for Global Media, the govern­ment-funded inter­na­tional news agency.

A legacy of the Cold War, the agency broad­casts news from a U.S. perspect­ive abroad. It was foun­ded on the prin­ciple that promot­ing free­dom of the press around the world requires balanced, object­ive news cover­age — includ­ing report­ing crit­ic­ally on the U.S. and its foreign policyTo do its work, the agency must remain inde­pend­ent from the White House.

But now vigor­ous congres­sional over­sight is crit­ical to prevent the agency from devolving into an inter­na­tional Trump propa­ganda machine and dissem­in­at­ing its news directly to Amer­ican audi­ences in viol­a­tion of a long­stand­ing law.

The Senate has begun hear­ings on the nomin­a­tion as agency CEO of Michael Pack, a conser­vat­ive film­maker, Trump fan, and close collab­or­ator of former Trump advisor Steve Bannon. The Trump loyal­ist would take the reins of an agency with an $808 million budget and that over­sees five news networks with 3,500 journ­al­ists broad­cast­ing on radio, tele­vi­sion, and the inter­net in 61 languages. Pack was asked during his nomin­a­tion hear­ing in mid-Septem­ber whether he would be able to resist pres­sure from the pres­id­ent to promote favor­able cover­age, and Pack replied that he thinks he can.

That’s hardly reas­sur­ing. Recent legis­la­tion concen­trated author­ity with the agency’s chief exec­ut­ive, giving the new CEO unpre­ced­en­ted control over the commu­nic­a­tions appar­atus, and no law — only decades of norms — stops a pres­id­ent from direct­ing what the agency dissem­in­ates.

Career employ­ees have already voiced concerns about the agency’s “Breit­bar­tiz­a­tion,” even without a Trump appointee at the helm. Most notably, the agency’s office in Cuba produced a multi-part broad­cast in May 2018 promot­ing anti-Semitic conspir­acy theor­ies about George Soros. (Full disclos­ure: The Bren­nan Center receives fund­ing from Soros’ Open Soci­ety Found­a­tion.) In a speech on Octo­ber 3, Trump called for “our own network [to] put some real news out there because they [CNN] are so bad,” express­ing interest in further under­min­ing the agency’s balanced and inde­pend­ent report­ing.

To make matters worse, Trump-approved news may also be targeted at Amer­ic­ans, which would be illegal. The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, the domestic propa­ganda ban, prohib­ited the global news agency from dissem­in­at­ing its program­ming within the U.S. The ban stemmed from lawmakers’ fear of the propa­gand­istic power of govern­ment messaging to unduly influ­ence U.S. public opin­ion and discourse.

However, a 2013 amend­ment to the law intro­duced several excep­tions to the ban, includ­ing that the agency’s mater­i­als can be made avail­able in the U.S. “upon request,” for example to research­ers, although it tech­nic­ally still prohib­its using agency funds to influ­ence U.S. public opin­ion. The amend­ment sought to modern­ize the ban for the inter­net age, when much of the agency’s content can be found online, but the agency is still not permit­ted to create or dissem­in­ate mater­i­als specific­ally target­ing Amer­ic­ans.

In appar­ent viol­a­tion of the domestic propa­ganda ban, one of the U.S. Agency for Global Media networks — Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty — bought advert­ise­ments on Face­book in July 2018 specific­ally aimed at Amer­ic­ans, the New York Times repor­tedOne ad, which ran imme­di­ately after the pres­id­ent criti­cized numer­ous NATO members at a summit in Brus­sels, included a chart high­light­ing NATO’s unpop­ular­ity. A subsequent House Foreign Affairs Commit­tee review of the agency’s advert­ising uncovered that another network, Voice of Amer­ica, bought at least six ads that exclus­ively targeted audi­ences in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., in viol­a­tion of the ban.

The 2013 amend­ment also enables the admin­is­tra­tion to covertly spread the media agency’s mater­i­als within the United States. Private entit­ies, such as news stations, can subscribe to the agency’s mater­i­als — and then rebroad­cast the content in the U.S. The main restric­tions are that the govern­ment-produced program­ming can’t be used to “develop audi­ences” within the U.S., which remains undefined, and that the program­ming must not be covert — that is, it must be attrib­uted to its govern­mental source — unless the agency has been given author­iz­a­tion from Congress. Viol­a­tions of this covert propa­ganda restric­tion are diffi­cult to prove and unlikely to spur mean­ing­ful reper­cus­sions.

Accord­ingly, govern­ment news and advert­ise­ments can be craf­ted to be indis­tin­guish­able from speech by private broad­casters, seam­lessly integ­rated into a broad­cast, and presen­ted to Amer­ican audi­ences covertly, without attri­bu­tion. The Bush admin­is­tra­tion did just that in the early 2000s through its Depart­ments of State, Defense, and Health and Human Services, among others. These federal agen­cies produced and distrib­uted hundreds of video news releases designed to be indis­tin­guish­able from inde­pend­ent news segments in support of invad­ing Iraq and other govern­ment object­ives, which were broad­cast anonym­ously by local news stations across the coun­try. The Obama admin­is­tra­tion’s Envir­on­mental Protec­tion Agency was simil­arly found to be promot­ing covert propa­ganda on social media in 2015.

Now, the U.S. Agency for Global Medi­a’s target­ing of Amer­ic­ans through social media ads under the Trump admin­is­tra­tion demands robust and ongo­ing over­sight for compli­ance with the domestic propa­ganda ban and with the mission of the agency to serve as a beacon of the free press around the world. We need to strengthen laws to impose disclos­ure require­ments for govern­ment messaging to prevent the use of covert domestic propa­ganda to mold U.S. public opin­ion. A healthy demo­cracy depends on the public’s abil­ity to hold the govern­ment account­able for its messages, and govern­ment news must be unmis­tak­ably recog­niz­able for what it is.