Proposed US law makes domestic propaganda legal

Buzzfeed's Michael Hastings reports on a revision to the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 and Foreign Relations Authorization Act in 1987, which prohibit the use of government disinformation and propaganda campaigns within the USA. The amendment, sponsored by Rep. Mac Thornberry from Texas and Rep. Adam Smith from Washington State, would allow the US government to knowingly tell lies to its people in order to promote the government's own policies.

The new law would give sweeping powers to the State Department and Pentagon to push television, radio, newspaper, and social media onto the U.S. public. “It removes the protection for Americans,” says a Pentagon official who is concerned about the law. “It removes oversight from the people who want to put out this information. There are no checks and balances. No one knows if the information is accurate, partially accurate, or entirely false.”

According to this official, “senior public affairs” officers within the Department of Defense want to “get rid” of Smith-Mundt and other restrictions because it prevents information activities designed to prop up unpopular policies—like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Critics of the bill point out that there was rigorous debate when Smith Mundt passed, and the fact that this is so “under the radar,” as the Pentagon official puts it, is troubling.

The Pentagon spends some $4 billion a year to sway public opinion already, and it was recently revealed by USA Today the DoD spent $202 million on information operations in Iraq and Afghanistan last year.

Congressmen Seek To Lift Propaganda Ban (Thanks, Owlswan!)

(Image: stalin - chinese propaganda booklet, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from uair01's photostream)


    1. FAUX “news” maybe tells people that their guy one in 2000 because it was a cousin in charge?

    1. Only under oath.  And of course those who pull the strings of Congress won’t be asked to swear an oath. Not that it would matter anyway since they’re the ones who tell Congress what is true and untrue, regardless if reality agrees.

  1. Christ, as if we don’t get enough propaganda already.  How hard are they planning to hit us with this shit? Their efforts to date have been highly systematic

    Also, Smith makes a big deal out of being a “progressive” Dem and Thornberry is a Republican. “Bipartisanship” is code for growing the security state.

    1. Rep. Smith is vice-chair of the New Democrat Coalition, which is a DLC-style, blue-dog-in-spirit organization. Hardly politically progressive.

        1. Do progressives vote for him regularly and regard him as like? If so, it seems those voters need to do a bit of cursory research before completing their ballots.

  2. Oh USSR… I mean China… I mean America.  Land of the free, as in free to follow the rules, and the home of the brave, as in to bravely do what the leaders tell you no matter what your personal convictions.

    I’m confused though, hasn’t the US government been feeding its people lies and misinformation for ages now?  I’m just thinking of “The war in Vietnam is to protect American Freedoms, or “The Gulf War is not a personal vendetta”, or, “Iraq has weapons of mass destruction”, or “9/11 was caused by Afghanistan terrorists”,  or “TSA checkpoints make flying safer”, or anything on Fox news.  These are all blatant lies propagated by the US government.

    Those of us who do not live in the US have been aware that “the US government… knowingly tell(s) lies to its people in order to promote the government’s own policies.” Why is this anything new?

    1. Probably cuts down on legal fees from lawyers making stuff legally true before they say it. Sort of like the reclassification of torture to enhanced techniques.

    2. I live there, and I half suspect this is an effort to reinforce for the sheeple the belief that they’re not lied to. If the bill fails, they can go, “Phew! Thank God we’ll still keep getting the truth.”

      1. Thanks for that.

        I note browsing the House web site that amendment #85 was accepted into the bill “en bloc” with a host of other amendments (see House amendment 1111).

        That’s right: not only do legislative rules allow the attachment of random amendments to unrelated bills for the purpose of pushing otherwise-unpopular legislation through, they apparently allow the inclusion of random amendments with a bunch of other amendments for the same purpose.

        Man, the more I learn about how Congress makes laws, the less I like it. And I already didn’t like it a great deal. :(

        Of course, if our own representatives would insist on actually reading everything that they vote on, and refuse to vote for things they wouldn’t vote for in isolation, that would help a lot. But the process itself is in dire need of fixing too.

        1. I found this article interesting. I don’t know anything about the source, so I’m  just reacting to the wisdom of his piece, not any pile of shit he’s standing on while he writes:

          The idea that a government exists to write laws, and therefore writes more of them constantly, whether needed or not, because it doesn’t know how to stop, was not something I’d considered before, believe it or not..

    1. It’s not going to be posters. If it’s anything like what the Pentagon is already doing in the Middle East (legally), it’s going to be random personal accounts on sites like BoingBoing, Reddit or NYTimes posting information to instill doubt when it comes to information that may cast the government in a bad light.  These accounts will have fully fabricated histories/profiles to appear more legitimate and will crowd source each other to appear like there is a quorum upholding a valid piece of information. 

      While I understand people saying “well they already lie to us” to dismiss this, it could get a lot, a lot, worse.  Let’s organize and at least say we tried. This is far more insidious than posters, and making funny jokes about it undermines the seriousness of what we’re being thrust into.

    1. It is refreshing to see someone lumping in all the news sources, not just blaming “Faux News” for all of the evil in America.

      1. We’ve had Security Theater, now we’re getting improved Information Theater, and, coming soon to a Theater near you, Election Theater.

  3. Why do people in these states vote for them?  It seems like half the time these voters are screaming about government interference then they turn around and elect people who want to do something like this.  Someone please give me some insight.

    1. People campaign for office decrying big government spending. The purpose of said campaigning is to get elected to high-paying government positions. The hypocrisy accelerates from there.

    2. Because most American voters are neither informed or engaged. Most have incredibly short political memories, are easily distracted, and are either unwilling or unable to think critically about campaign rhetoric, much less compare it to the actions of their congresspersons. Moreover, most American voters treat electoral politics as a sporting event in which the success of their “team” is paramount, not effectiveness or coherence of policy.

  4. And the difference to now would be…?

    I mean, there’s plenty of propaganda (CSI shows, military movies, Fox, etc…) right now.

    1. The difference is that if the bill passes, Michael Bay movies could be financed by your tax dollars and presented as documentaries.

  5. “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.” – Joseph Goebbels Nazi Propaganda Minister

    1. Nah. The government press conferences will tell outright lies, as opposed t osimply having to be creative and selective about what truths they tell.

      1.  If I understand the story correctly, the US govt lied earlier this month, about details of the Yemen bomb plot. They initially claimed to have stopped a bombing in process. A few days later, they admitted that the “bomber” was a double-agent who had taken the new & improved underwear bomb directly from Al Qaeda to US officials. They might have been trying to protect the family of the double-agent, but it makes you wonder how many statements we hear are bold-faced lies. NPR’s On the Media talked a little about it, but I haven’t heard any other news sources pointing out, by the way, we all just got lied to for a few days.

        1. If I recall correctly they claimed to stop a bomb plot in progress, which they technically did even if they were central to the creation of said plot. I think that one does fall under “creative and highly selective interpretation of the truth” rather than “bald-faced lie.”

          Under the proposed law the new, improved version of that story would probably be “mad bomber apprehended by new TSA screening procedures that you should be totally grateful for.”

          1.  Maybe the media is more to blame, but the initial headlines made it sound like a bomber was caught, unsure of where he was being held, etc.
            “CIA Thwarts New, More Sophisticated Underwear Bomber”

            And it’s complicated by the fact that the AP knew the story and held it for a few days, then released it before the govt could make their official planned statement. Maybe they would have given a more straightfoward (accurate) account if AP hadn’t released details a little earlier than they had planned.

    1. If all “states” were so bad, and stateless places were so awesome you might have a better argument.  Some progressive states are quite good at providing a framework for their citizens to thrive.  On the other hand “states” of some sort have pretty much been with us since recorded history, so I don’t think the world’s going to go Galt any time soon..

      Best to concentrate your efforts on improving your state.

      1. i’m not suggesting elimination of the state. rather, i’m suggesting people recognize the state’s interests are not aligned with their own. any system of governance is going to present incentives that are not tied to the interests of the populace.

        how people cope with that fact is up to them.

  6. Is it just me, or is this the most rabid, freedom hating, anti-American Congress we’ve ever had?  SOPA, NDAA, the debt ceiling debacle, now this!  And when their bills inevitably flop (because they’re so bad they actually motivate an apathetic electorate to action) they just try again with even more extreme bullshit!  It’s times like these I wish we had a more parliamentary system, where Congress could just be dissolved when they’re not looking out for the best interests of the American people.

    1. I would like a system like that too. Barring that, I am content with simply voting these assholes out, and hope other pissed-off sane people will be joining me.

      1. …I am content with simply voting these assholes out…

        Unfortunately that’s only half the equation. There’s always a new asshole waiting to take the old asshole’s place.

  7. lol.

    As anyone at least semi-conscious knows, any and all western countries practice propaganda as much as any one else.

    Even if they didn’t, why do they need the backing of the law?  It’s not like governments or government bodies apply the law to themselves anyway.  What’s the current punishment for pushing propaganda in the US?  Who’s accountable?   And most importantly what judge is willing or even able to rule on such a decision?

    When a country happily makes up lies so they can occupy another country for a decade in the name of FREEDOM™ – and torture at will; you have to wonder why they’d care about a silly little propaganda law.

    1. When a country happily makes up lies so they can occupy another country for a decade in the name of FREEDOM™ – and torture at will; you have to wonder why they’d care about a silly little propaganda law.

      Because we might not even realize those things were happening if no one in government had any obligation to tell the truth.

      Here’s an example: under the system we have now, Bush & Co. were able to use dubious rumors about WMDs to justify the invasion of Iraq. But one thing they weren’t able to do was tell everyone that those weapons had indeed been found after the fact.

      1. Hmm, I don’t think they didn’t claim that due to a law, it was because we would have known they were lying within about 5 minutes.

        I’m sure they’d have happily lied if they thought they’d get away with it.

        Even FOI requests and the such rely on trust and honesty, not law.  Garbage in, garbage out.

      2. But one thing they weren’t able to do was tell everyone that those weapons had indeed been found after the fact.

        Say what now?

        Even if they had been found, why weren’t they able to say so? You’d think they would’ve been anxious to do so.

        1. I think you misunderstand me; they would certainly have been able and anxious to say so if such a thing had been true. But if they had unlimited powers of propaganda, then they probably would have been happy to report finding said weapons even though such a statement would be false. Imagine how much easier the 2004 election would have been for them if they hadn’t had to live down that WMD thing.

  8. thanks for posting these Cory. It’s hard to keep track of all these encroachments day in and day out, and you have the power to mobilize lots of eyeballs. I haven’t received any of the usual emails from CREDO, among others, on this subject. I’m hoping this can garner as much attention as SOPA did.

  9. Nothing more honest than outright dishonesty.

    Now there will be no pretense on either side.

    We can now completely trust and count on their total dishonesty.

    This is a much less confusing relationship.

    1. Yup. That’s why I sometimes prefer outright conservative dickheads to well-meaning liberals.

  10. This is simply part of the process to make government run more like a business. The amount of half truths and outright lies allowed in the world of commerce in this country is shocking. And anyone who stands up against it is accused of being anti-jobs. The right to deceive is what makes our corporations great. The government just wants to get in on the action.

  11. Seems strange. They’re already doing it, so this is just to cover their asses. And yet there are scarier laws they’re already violating seemingly with no fear that they’ll ever be prosecuted. Torture, disappearing people (as in “los desaparecidos”), assassination, mistreatment of POWs by calling them “enemy combatants”, launching war without Congressional authorization is cool as long as it’s just a “limited kinetic military action” instead of “hostilities” or “war”, &c.

    Are they suddenly worried about the possibility of politicians growing a conscience and prosecuting them sometime down the road for propaganda?

  12. Don’t think it matters. Online is the heart of this effort and we’re used to online propaganda. This site, HuffPo, Drudge, NewsMax, Daily Kos, Think Progressive, WorldNetDaily. We’re battle-hardened. Bring it on.

    1. Most of the sites you mentioned are aggregators, they don’t have the resources to do much original reporting. For many important news stories (particularly in places with few on-site bloggers, like war zones or detention centers) we still depend on government (or government-authorized) sources to provide information that is at least tangentially related to the truth. They don’t always do so, but at least they are usually legally supposed to.

      1. “They don’t always do so, but at least they are usually legally supposed to.”

        heh. Noted. But this sounds pretty much like Voice of America domestically as a “counter-terrorist” spin cycle. Shouldn’t affect .gov stuff like census results, court transcripts, bill & law language, statistical facts and other dependable, hard sources. You know, unless it does.

        btw, read aggregators as aggravators.

    2. “HuffPo, Drudge, NewsMax, Daily Kos, Think Progressive, WorldNetDaily”

      … and every single one’s a propaganda rag. At least you’ve got most of the political spectrum covered, so if you read them all, you may get something like a balanced perspective.

  13. Many people don’t really know what propaganda is. It isn’t a lie and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s simply a tool for quickly motivating people to action by appealing to their emotions. Sometimes debating and hashing everything out takes too long. You need to explain why someone would want to act, not why they should act. We experience that every day in political discussions, advertising and even self help programs.

    Like any tool of communication, it can be used for good purposes or bad. It all depends on the reasons it’s being used. When propaganda is used for short term results and it’s paired with intellectual discourse for the long term, it can be very useful. Unfortunately, the word has picked up connotations of Nazis and mind control that aren’t deserved.

    1. Many people don’t really know what propaganda is. It isn’t a lie and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s simply a tool for quickly motivating people to action by appealing to their emotions.

      In a democracy the public are supposed to be the ones forcing their elected officials into action, not the other way around.

      If a President or a Senator can’t convince me to support his policy through reasonable, informed argument then he shouldn’t be able to use a taxpayer-funded ad campaign to do it either. Especially one that has no legal obligation to be truthful.

      1. Re: Democracy forcing elected officials into action

        In a Democracy, we elect officials to *represent* us. They’re expected to serve our interests, not cater to every individual’s demands or enforce the tyranny of the majority. That really isn’t a subtle concept. It’s surprising how many people get it wrong.

  14. This entire concept makes you dumber for trying to understand it, that you would differentiate government domestic propaganda and corporate media. In Germany the words for propaganda and advertising mean the same thing. 

    1. No, they don’t. I’d like to know where you got the idea – perhaps the Germany=Nazis stereotype?
      “Werbung” is advertising and “Propaganda” is propaganda.

  15. Why would they want to change the law?  The current status quo seems to be working admirably well.  The Pentagon has managed to sustain the war in Afghanistan for what seems like forever, and will continue to do so into the indefinite future.  Similarly, they lied through their teeth to get the war on Iraq started, squandered billions of dollars and thousands of lives, and still the American public supported it until the very end, despite all the protests.  

  16. With the massive amount of propaganda that we are exposed to daily, it begs the question, what would the repeal of the Smith-Mundt Act let them do that they currently CANNOT do?

    Subliminal advertising, auditory masking, hidden frames in video, etc etc ETC.

    I don’t profess to know if these types of things really work, but if anyone knew, if would be some branch of the U.S. Government. Your tax dollars at work.

    1. With the massive amount of propaganda that we are exposed to daily, it begs the question, what would the repeal of the Smith-Mundt Act let them do that they currently CANNOT do?

      “Look at all these WMDs we found in Iraq,” comes to mind…

      1. You bring up an excellent point. That didn’t happen – even in that lyin’, thievin’, warrin’ administration of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. No forged photos, videos, nothing. Would’ve made their political lives so much easier. Smith-Mundt? They could give a crap. Why didn’t they do it? Non-believers could’ve been dismissed as cranks.

  17. “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”

    “If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without them knowing it.”

    “Propaganda is the executive arm of the invisible government.”

    Edward Bernays, from his book Propaganda (1928)
    (CD: I like how he equates manipulation with democracy, when it’s kind of NOT democracy.)

     “Joseph Goebbels […] was using my book Crystallizing Public Opinion as a basis for his destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany. This shocked me.”

    Edward Bernays, from his book Biography of an Idea: Memoirs of Public Relations Counsel (1965)
    (CD: I like how he’s “shocked”, just “shocked”,  that someone would manipulate people in a NON-democratic society with his methods.)
    (quotes from Wikiquote)

  18. Don’t discount the possibility that our elected officials believe that the government has not yet begun to to disseminate propaganda.

  19. Rosey the Riveter, Roosevelt’s National Recovery Act and Smokey the Bear involved propaganda campaigns too. Propaganda isn’t automatically a lie intended for evil purposes.

  20. With the economy, blah, blah, mortgage crisis, blah blah, and the unassailable fact that the government propagandizes us constantly, aided and abetted by the media, exactly WHAT is the point to this legislation if not to troll ? Propaganda is so ubiquitous it’s not even remarkable. 

    We’re presented with candidates to vote for who were chosen by special interests, when we email our representatives we’re given “choices” of topics upon which to speak, except the ones we actually care about, and to which they don’t respond, anyway.  Go ahead, ask your rep’s about prosecuting the banksters, see how far YOU get!

    Problem is, most folks don’t WANT to know how little control they are given over their lives. If you want to see what’s really happening in the world, get foreign news broadcasts. If you want the real news, you pretty much won’t get it here in the U.S. All you’re getting is the talking head. Pro tip: our media aren’t owned by the 99%. 

  21. I think it’s funny and ironic that a law that was designed to aid the last witch-hunt, came back 60 years later to impede this witch-hunt.

    Hopefully they pass enough useless laws to really delay the next one.

  22. Domestic Propaganda is, and always has been legal as long as it does not openly and directly advocate violence, or the overthrow of the government by violent or military means. 

  23. You’re interpreting this wrong, sorry. This bill is about easing the restrictions on Department of State from sharing, upon request, Public Diplomacy products and clarifying the Smith-Mundt Act does not restrict Department of Defense. There are multiple bans on propaganda inside the US in various appropriations bills. Please see and for further clarification.

  24. I think that it’s important to note, whether or not this law passes, that they are already using propaganda on us, at least since World War II.
    So, it’s up to to every patriotic citizen to do their part and
    Ronald Reagan had a famous phrase for dealing with the Soviets, “Trust but Verify”.
    So, “Trust” that authorities believe that they are telling you the truth, but “Verify” that they really are (and are not themselves unwittingly complicit in a propaganda campaign) telling the truth.
    It’s always better to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are not lying, and by “not lying” I mean possibly innocently not delivering the truth.
    Got That?

  25. Get Informed:

    Two days after 9/11, George Bush announced America’s new propaganda system when the US Military became a “Media Partner” in the RIAA/MPAA’s “Media Partner Relationship Agreement” mass media anti-competitive news filtering and content forwarding system. Since that time, most all mass media on the planet which receives media content from the American Media Cartel Partners have been under the binding limitations and rules of the MPRA/IPRA, which is to say that if you are competing with the US Military, news favorable to you is filtered out, and if you are a candidate which is not approved by the US Military, media preference is spun in the favor of those the military approves of, compromising election security, which is why George was so upset in 2006, when he said, they told him he would win.

    The whole world has been cast into darkness by the system Bronfman and accomplices at the RIAA concocted initially to filter news that was unfavorable to the big record companies out of the mass media, including news about independent artist competition, and mp3’s, which those holding the reigns of the Industry Partner Relationship Agreement dictated were not to be played on any radio stations, lest RIAA content is cut off to such “media partners”.

    That anti-competitive system designed by the record execs, extended to the Motion Picture Association of America, and then eventually enjoined the US Military, which George Bush characterized publicly as “America’s New Propaganda System”.

    Since that time, North Americans have been witnessing a filtered and false course of modern history in the synchronized mass media, which is why people do not hear about how the continuing war on terror is going, now in it’s 10th year, and it’s 6th year since going 100% covert.

    These words are faithful and true.

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