Yesterday, my fiancé and I were shopping at Wal-Mart and sure enough, after about an hour, my phone blinged with three quick text messages. I knew without looking that it was my daughter, because I’ve set my iPhone to announce her texts with a cheerful sounding quasi-musical electronic signal. But what I read was anything but cheerful.
“Mom… I checked and cross checked this thinking it was a holidays spoof… but it’s not, oh shit—” Using Holidays as a Distraction, Obama Just Signed NDAA ‘Propaganda’ Provision to Destroy Free Press.
“Okay,” I typed back, “Lemme read it.”
“K,” she sent, “I’m checking checking more articles on the Mac, here’s two I found:” Obama Quietly Signs The “Countering Disinformation And Propaganda Act” Into Law, and Obama’s Christmas Gift: Dangerous ‘Anti-Propaganda’ Bill Signed Into Law With 2017 NDAA. And she added, “these seem like credible sites, I swear, at first, I thought this was a joke, it’s so horrible, can it be real, can it Mom?”
I almost cursed under my breath when I started reading the first article, which was written by the Free Thought Project. This website generally gives good news—I reckon it leans to the left, but their articles tend to be well-researched and fairly written. And as I have tried to teach my daughter, you need to fact-check anything you read anywhere, and you always need to ask yourself who stands to gain from what’s alleged, as well as who stands to gain from opposing a proposed or actual governmental action. The other two websites my daughter linked to are not so well-respected; in fact, one of the articles my daughter cited (from wearechange.org) went too far in one respect: the author argued that those of us who oppose the government’s policies could be jailed for such opposition. We are not in fact facing jail time for writing critical pieces about U.S. governmental interventions.
In the case at hand, nonetheless, lovers of freedom (whether they lean right or left) stand to lose quite a bit from the latest bill that’s been passed by Congress and signed by outgoing President Obama. On December 23, 2016, Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act (“NDAA”), which was passed to “Authorize appropriations for fiscal year 2017 for military activities of the Department of Defense, for military construction, for defense activities of the Department of Energy, to prescribe military personnel strengths for such fiscal year, and for other purposes.” See https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/senate-bill/2943/text.
The problem with the NDAA is that it buries some of the scariest language I’ve seen into its provisions. The former bill, the Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act, was introduced by Senators Portman (R-OH) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) in March, and was designed to help American allies counter foreign government propaganda from Russia, China, and other nations. This bill stalled when opponents cited its Orwellian overtones.
Specifically, the 619 billion dollar NDAA sets up a new institution, the not so frightening sounding “Global Engagement Center.” The Secretaries of State and Defense and other “pertinent officials” will be tasked with creating the Global Engagement Center to “counter propaganda and disinformation directed at the United States.”
Section 1287 of the NDAA provides:
The purpose of the Center shall be to lead, synchronize, and coordinate efforts of the Federal Government to recognize, understand, expose, and counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts aimed at undermining United States national security interests.
(b)FUNCTIONS.—The Center shall carry out the following functions: (1) Integrate interagency and international efforts to track and evaluate counterfactual narratives abroad that threaten the national security interests of the United States and United States allies and partner nations.
(2) Analyze relevant information, data, analysis, and analytics from United States Government agencies, United States allies and partner nations, think tanks, academic institutions, civil society groups, and other nongovernmental organizations.
(3) As needed, support the development and dissemination of fact-based narratives and analysis to counter propaganda and disinformation directed at the United States and United States allies and partner nations.
(4) Identify current and emerging trends in foreign propaganda and disinformation in order to coordinate and shape the development of tactics, techniques, and procedures to expose and refute foreign misinformation and disinformation and proactively promote fact-based narratives and policies to audiences outside the United States.
In other words, the U.S. Government is getting into the business of countering propaganda by creating its own “fact-based” machine. I realize the text of the NDAA refers to the dissemination of “fact-based narratives,” but this begs the question of who determines what is factual, and what standards are used to discern the truth? How will the U.S. government determine the truth? What ranks or matters to a governmental actor who is now in the business of influencing the media, or in the case of the Center, running a facet of the national media? Who determines the truth? Why, the government—but how?
This question is answered later in the Act. The Center is in the business of “counter[ing] efforts by foreign entities to use disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda to influence the policies and social and political stability of the United States and United States allies and partner nations.” In other words, anything that appears in print, on television, on radio, or on the internet that the U.S. government considers false that influences the policies and social or political stability of either the U.S. government or its allies or its “partner nations” will cause the Center to unleash its own “truths.” Nothing in the NDAA explains how or who will limit the Center’s efforts to define these truths.
We can only assume, therefore, that the U.S. Government will (to at least some extent) define truth through the lens of its own self-interest. And truly we need to ask if we can trust the government to recognize that it alone cannot be an objector arbiter of what amounts to truthful commentary about American policy. Indeed, given how extensively the United States and its allies interact in other countries, it stands to reason that both domestic and foreign commentators will often criticize the policies of the United States or its allies, and it also stands to reason that the U.S. Government will dislike the criticism (valid or otherwise) expressed by commentators. Certainly there will be and have been Russian, Chinese, or North Korean propaganda directed at U.S. efforts, and this is the sort of thing the NDAA is seeking to prevent: the dissemination of harmful disinformation or propaganda by tyrannical foes.
But the NDAA also could counter “disinformation” created within free countries, written by free people. In other words, the Center (created by the NDAA) could be used to contradict truths that our government finds inconvenient. Truth, after all, is profoundly inconvenient, to good politicians and to tyrants alike. But the way a free press should work is to create a marketplace of ideas (and a marketplace is always a messy concatenation of gems and junk) that gives each consumer or private citizen the chance to form their own opinions amid the uproar of competing ideas. Such freedom to choose cannot be found when the government controls the marketplace or even sells its own goods at the store.
In fact, the Center is entering the marketplace of ideas and both purchasing storefront and selling its own variety of “news.” With a $80 million budget, the Center is authorized to approve grants to think tanks, civil society groups, academic institutions and other organizations. S. 2943—548. States Section 2943-549:
(1) AUTHORITY FOR GRANTS.—The Center is authorized to provide grants or contracts of financial support to civil society groups, media content providers, nongovernmental organizations, federally funded research and development centers, private companies, or academic institutions for the following purposes:
(A) To support local independent media who are best placed to refute foreign disinformation and manipulation in their own communities.
(B) To collect and store examples in print, online, and social media, disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda directed at the United States and its allies and partners.
(C) To analyze and report on tactics, techniques, and procedures of foreign information warfare with respect to disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda.
(D) To support efforts by the Center to counter efforts by foreign entities to use disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda to influence the policies and social and political stability of the United States and United States allies and partner nations.
The Center is allowed to give money or sign contracts with any institution or organization it chooses to do business with to support media outlets who will further U.S. interests, both at home and abroad. I would like to think I am interpreting this over broadly, but that is how the provision reads. The Center can give grants or contracts to civil society groups (or to think tanks like the Cato Institute), to federally funded R&D centers, to universities, or to any media content provider. So long as the recipient is supporting American efforts to counteract acts taken by foreign actors who are using misinformation, disinformation, or propaganda to influence policies, social or political stability of America or American allies or partners, the recipient can receive funding. The question here is who defines what is misinformation, disinformation, or propaganda?
If, for example, someone in Palestine reads Noam Chomsky or Naomi Klein and opposes Israel’s policies in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, does the Center then pay great thinkers at the Cato Institute or the Heritage Foundation to write a rebuttal? Or what if rebels in Syria continue to publish “letters from Aleppo,” and the Center decides these heartfelt cries for assistance amount to syrupy propaganda fuel? Then will the Center have the power to fund videos by well-off Syrians, who, supposedly welcome the drone attacks or the Russian air strikes? Speaking of the Russians, aren’t they the ones who inspired George Orwell to depict the Ministry of Truth in his chilling novel, 1984?
George Orwell warned of a world where the government ran the press. The reason why the government should be kept strictly separate from the press starts and ends with one word: freedom. In a world where freedom reigns and the object of government is securing our freedom, state interference with the media cannot be allowed. The NDAA doesn’t protect our freedom, nor does it even try to; instead, the Act speaks of protecting American interests. Or as Trump promised in his campaign, “we will make America great again.” If greatness is defined as strength, as power, as the keeping and gaining of territory and influence, then the NDAA will make America greater. But if American greatness is defined through the lens of securing our liberties and protecting individual rights, then the NDAA is an ominous step on the path to tyranny.
 See http://wearechange.org/obama-christmas-gift-anti-propaganda-bill-signed-into-law/. “What does that mean for you if you are an independent journalist or blogger? You can read more here, but it means that for simply writing this and asking questions and pointing out that Obama always signs these bills around the holidays like I did in this poem, if I am accused of “fake news” or propaganda, I could face criminal charges.”