On the day before Christmas Eve last year, President Obama signed the annual National Defense Authorization Act, which this year included a $160 million revamping of the “Global Engagement Center” to combat what officials claimed was a uptick in Russian propaganda. Originally created in March of last year for anti-ISIL messaging, the Global Engagement Center distributes “counter” propaganda, social-media messaging, and original journalistic content. The revamp would—according to the author of the NDAA language Senator Rob Portman’s office—“increase the authority, resources, and mandate of the Global Engagement Center to include state actors like Russia and China.”
What isn’t clear is if the Global Engagement Center, with all of its new “authority, resources and mandate,” will be used to target American audiences or pay American journalists. In 2013, Congress repealed major sections of the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act, which had previously instituted a ban on the State Department and related agencies from “propagandizing” directly to Americans. The 2013 changes, which were first reported by the late Michael Hastings in Buzzfeed, led to much confusion at the time as to what the repeal did and didn’t do (some thought it deeply pernicious, others not so much). Subsequent attempts to clear up the current law on targeting Americans haven’t resulted in a clear consensus, a problem that’s becoming increasingly urgent as the US government doubles its efforts to combat the much-publicized Russian propaganda machine.
When asked by The Nation if the State Department was targeting Americans or paying American journalists, State Department spokesperson Nicole Thompson wouldn’t say they weren’t, only that, “the Global Engagement Center targets its messaging at foreign audiences abroad.”
When asked in two follow up e-mails if the Global Engagement Center would also target Americans and/or pay American journalists, Thompson did not respond. Similarly, Senator Portman’s office insisted the “focus and intent” was foreign audiences but would not respond to follow-up questions asking if the Global Engagement Center would specifically target Americans and/or fund American journalists.
The consistent line from the government is that the Global Engagement Center is targeting foreign audiences (which, of course, is widely assumed), but it won’t say it’s not aiming its efforts at Americans.
New York attorney Weston R. Sager, who authored one of the rare detailed legal breakdowns of the Smith-Mundt Act changes of 2013 while a student at Northwestern University School of Law, tells The Nation that the primary problem with the current rule set is that they are too vague and, above all, don’t require attribution—which is to say, the government is typically not obligated to disclose to the reader or viewer that the media they’re consuming originates from the US government.