The Senate Armed Services Committee is expected to mark up the defense authorization bill tomorrow morning, making crucial decisions on an amendment that seeks to “strike the current ban on domestic dissemination” of propaganda.
The amendment received bi-partisan support in the House of Representatives last wek and was voted on en bloc along with 15 other amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), whose other controversial, Republican-backed provisions include indefinite detention and banning same sex marriage on military facilities.
Although it remains unclear whether the Democrat-led Senate committee will introduce an amendment similar to the one sponsored by Rep. Mac Thornberry from Texas and Rep. Adam Smith from Washington, the Senate has traditionally advanced versions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that align closely with Administration policy preferences.
The amendment’s passage in the House as part of a group indicated that key members in both parties either back it or haven’t been paying attention. The change — which would give the Department of State and Broadcasting Board of Governors a free hand in what it sees as a borderless Internet propaganda war against Al Qaeda — has been on the intelligence community’s wish list for years.
The House amendment repeals the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 and Foreign Relations Authorization Act in 1987, which were enacted during the Cold War to prevent against the spreading of propaganda to U.S. audiences.
The law has raised concerns among human rights activists, Congressional officials, and even those inside the Pentagon.
“This continues a trend that hands the government increasing control of our population and continues the genuine erosion of our 1st Amendment freedoms,” says one Pentagon official critical of the Thornberry-Smith Amendment.
“No American wants their tax dollars spent on US Government propaganda directed at him or her,” says Michael Shank, Vice President at the Institute for Economics and Peace in Washington D.C. “Indeed, what does distinguish America from foreign governments where domestic propaganda is a primary government activity?”
The Amendment’s sponsors referred BuzzFeed to a press release that casts the move as “modernization” to “help counter threats in the information age.”
The bill focuses on relatively innocuous instances, complaining that in 2009 the current law “prohibited a Minneapolis-based radio station with a large Somali-American audience from replaying a Voice of America-produced piece rebutting terrorist propaganda.”
This is not the first time that some in Congress have sought to allow the State Department and Broadcasting Board of Governors to target propaganda at domestic audiences.
Thornberry sponsored another incarnation of the amendment in 2010 titled Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2010, but the bill failed to make it out of committee.
Critics point to contradictions between the text of the amendment and its stated purpose.
Though the amendment says, “No funds…shall be used to influence public opinion in the United States,” public statements issued by Thornberry and Smith promise just the opposite: the ability to use taxpayer dollars to spread government-issued material produced overseas at home, especially online.
Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services committee and likely the key decision-maker in the Senate, declined to comment.
In 2010, Levin was the target of a military information operations campaign during his visits to Kabul. Members of the team responsible for trying to influence Levin had been trained in psychological operations.
Levin strenuously denied the military’s campaign had any impact on his views after the news of this operation was revealed last year.
Markup in the Senate Armed Services Committee will likely wrap up by the end of the week.
CORRECTION: The amendment under consideration would not apply to the Department of Defense, though the it is attached to a defense authorization bill.