Congress should strengthen laws outlawing domestic government propaganda
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 policy. To 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 reported. One 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.
Raya Koreh is a Research and Program Associate in the Brennan Center’s Liberty & National Security Program. She co-authored the Brennan Center report “Social Media Monitoring: How the Department of Homeland Security Uses Digital Data in the Name of National Security” (2019). Follow her on Twitter @Raya_Koreh