Cracking Down On Dissent: The U.S. Government Has Essentially Created A Ministry of Truth
Obama’s Recently-Signed National Defense Authorization Act Includes A ‘Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act’. The Intercept’s Alex Emmons Explains…
KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Kim Brown in Baltimore.
Last Friday, President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act into law. The NDAA allocates almost $19 billion in military and war spending. Now, within this massive piece of legislation is a law that will create an anti-propaganda agency known as the Global Engagement Center. That’s right, within the NDAA is another law known as the Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act. Now, this Act was initially introduced by Senators Rob Portman, Republican, from Ohio and Democrat, Chris Murphy from Connecticut. This was back in March.
Now, this was before it was integrated into the NDAA. Now, this Act creates a center run by the US State Department whose goal will be to, “expose and counter, foreign disinformation operations by our enemies, and proactively advance fact-based narratives that support the US allies and interests.” The Propaganda Act also establishes a fund to train a local journalists and provide grants and contracts to NGOs, civil society organizations, think tanks, private sector companies, media organizations – that will participate in countering propaganda and advance fact-based narratives that support US allies and interests.
And joining us today to discuss the very serious implications of countering this Information and Propaganda Act is Alex Emmons. Alex is a senior reporter covering national security and foreign affairs, human rights and politics. Now, prior to joining the “Intercept” he worked for Amnesty International and the ACLU on their campaigns against targeted killing, mass surveillance and Guantanamo Bay. Alex, we appreciate you being here, thank you.
ALEX EMMONS: Thanks for having me.
KIM BROWN: So, Alex, what can you tell us about this law and the senators that first created it?
ALEX EMMONS: So, essentially the law does what you said, it creates this Global Engagement Center, led by the State Department, to counter what it sees as Russian propaganda overseas. And exactly what that means is unclear. You can imagine it would be something similar to their countering violent extremism programs overseas, where they try and counter ISIS propaganda by putting out their own forms of anti-ISIS propaganda. It’s difficult to imagine exactly what it would entail, but essentially it’s sponsoring this US propaganda effort overseas. What’s a little bit ironic about it is that it comes on the heels of so many political figures in this country denouncing Russia-sponsored media outlets and Russian propaganda in this country. And what’s ironic is that the answer that those people have to that is essentially to do the same thing by the US overseas.
KIM BROWN: So, doesn’t the United States already have, at least some similar propaganda arms? I’m thinking of the Voice of America, for example.
ALEX EMMONS: Uh huh.
KIM BROWN: A US government-funded radio operation, also Radio Free Asia. These are broadcast entities owned by the US government that I imagine promote American interests, you know, American policies within Russia, within China and other places.
ALEX EMMONS: Yeah, it’s something that the State Department has poured millions of dollars into for a long time. I mean, Voice of America is probably the most prominent example, a US-funded radio network that started broadcasting in 1947 to get a US-backed narrative out there in the Soviet Union.
Another good example, a more recent example, is that the State Department funded anti-insurgent propaganda during the Iraq War, you know, among the Iraqi journalists’ community. So, there are lots of examples of the US doing things like this. But I just think that it’s ironic that it comes as a response to other countries doing the same thing in the US. Our political figures are denouncing it, and then they’re saying that our answer to that is to ramp up the exact same thing overseas.
KIM BROWN: So, Alex for over 40 years the Smith Mundt Act has explicitly prohibited the US government from directing propaganda towards its own citizenry. However, in 2013, that year’s version of a National Defense Authorization Act, incorporated the Smith Mundt Modernization Act of 2012. Now, this law repealed the anti-propaganda rules of the Smith Mundt Act. So, we’re now in a position where the government is able to openly fund propaganda directed towards its own citizens. So, how concerned are you about this?
ALEX EMMONS: That’s not really a law I’m that familiar with. That question might be better directed elsewhere but, I mean, through various channels, through leaks and whatnot, the US government already tries to reshape political narratives in this country. One bill that’s of particular concern that’s coming up, is something that the Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act is frequently conflated with, Section 501 of the Intelligence Authorization Act, which has passed the House, but has not yet gotten a hearing in the Senate, actually has some really alarming provisions from the civil liberties perspective.
It actually creates a similar inter-agency body similar to the Global Engagement Center that you’re talking about. But that would be actually directed at Americans, and specifically directs it, and I’m reading so I don’t get this wrong, to “expose falsehoods,” which include, “media manipulation and covert broadcasting.” So, that law certainly echoes some of the worst components of McCarthyism.
KIM BROWN: So, what do you think are some of the most concerning aspects about the Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act, and to what extent is it a ministry of truth being created as a result of this Act?
ALEX EMMONS: Well, I don’t think it has any concrete alarming civil liberties concerns within the United States. Like you said, the US has been engaged in propaganda efforts overseas, for a very long time and has poured a lot of money into it. I see it as slightly hypocritical. I see other nascent efforts like the law I just described, to try and investigate domestic media organizations, as much more of a threat to civil liberties and free speech in this country.
KIM BROWN: So, clearly this law has some bipartisan support, as it was introduced by a Republican Senator and a Democratic Senator.
ALEX EMMONS: Uh huh.
KIM BROWN: So, give us an idea… Give us the temperature, rather, of the amount of support or opposition this law seems to have among senators. As you said, it’s already… Well, I think you said the Intelligence Act has already passed the House. So the Countering Disinformation Act, it’s still pending in front of Congress, is that accurate?
ALEX EMMONS: Yeah, Countering Disinformation Act is the one that was included in the NDAA, and it’s already been signed by the president. That’s the one that’s directed overseas. Section 501 of the Intelligence Authorization Act is the one that’s passed the house, and that’s the one that is potentially directed at American media companies. I think that both of these bills are evidence of I think, a very anti-Russian political climate right now, or a political climate that is being exploited both by Democratic partisans who want to undermine the sort of perceived legitimacy of Trump’s election and by Cold War hawks on the right, like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who would just love to see more aggressive foreign policy towards Russia.
And I think the combination of those factors backing an anti-Russian narrative has really, sort of propelled both these laws to near unanimous support in Congress.
KIM BROWN: Indeed, and given what we have seen in recent days, especially coming on Thursday with the announcement of sanctions imposed by the White House on Russia, with some 35 Russian operatives and diplomats being given their moving papers, so to speak, to be expelled from the United States. Do we see this ratcheting up? Or even possibly simmering down, with the impending inauguration of President-elect Trump, who seems to have a much more friendlier relationship with Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin, than does President Obama who is been somewhat, an adversarial position with Vladimir Putin for some time, ever since the sort of collapse of the Russian reset?
ALEX EMMONS: Well, it’s really difficult to know what’s going to happen, and it’s worth noting that President Obama has yet to present any real evidence that those hacks were from the Russians. We’ve seen anonymous leaks from multiple intelligence agencies. We’ve seen the intelligence community come forward with its opinion, but we have yet to see any real evidence that the hacks were directed by Russian intelligence, that they were on the orders of senior Russian officials.
The White House has said they’re going to present that evidence in coming days, so we’ll see what happens. But I think that’s an important caveat to keep in mind. Now, in terms of what’s going to happen in the next administration, I think your guess is as good as mine. But, returning to the sort of, Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act, I think it’s kind of telling that Congress is giving this power to a future president that seems disinterested in investigating covert Russian influence in this country. So, I think that really heightens the level of civil liberties concerns that something like this could be directed for nefarious purposes.
KIM BROWN: Indeed. We’ve been speaking with Alex Emmons. Alex is a reporter covering national security, foreign affairs, human rights and politics for the “Intercept”. Alex, we appreciate you joining us today. Thank you.
ALEX EMMONS: Of course, thanks for having me.
KIM BROWN: And thanks for tuning in to The Real News Network.