#12 US Quietly Established New “Anti-Propaganda” Center

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On December 23, 2016, then-president Obama signed the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). As Sarah Lazare reported for AlterNet, the 2017 NDAA included a provision to create a new federal center with “sweeping” surveillance powers to counter foreign “propaganda and disinformation.” The Global Engagement Center, Lazare wrote, will be granted “broad and ill-defined powers to surveil the ‘populations most susceptible to propaganda,’ compile reporting and social media messaging critical of the U.S. government and disseminate pro-American propaganda.” The NDAA set aside $160 million to be used in fighting propaganda and disinformation deemed unfavorable to US interests.

The NDAA stated, “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.” For example, the Center will be responsible for keeping track of “counterfactual narratives abroad that threaten the national security interests of the United States and United States allies and partner nations.” As Lazare noted, the imprecise wording of the NDAA “could be interpreted as targeting information and communications critical of the U.S. government.”

The AlterNet report quoted Michael Macleod-Ball, chief of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office: “We have big concerns with the retention of that information and how it might be shared across agencies . . . Whether you’re talking about law enforcement or intelligence officials, having the government in the business of monitoring individual communications is very troubling to us.”

The NDAA specified that the president shall appoint the Global Engagement Center’s director. As Lazare noted, passage of the NDAA took place at the very end of 2016, with “little debate or notice,” despite its “broad implications.” Ohio Republican senator Rob Portman and Connecticut Democratic senator Chris Murphy initially proposed the Global Engagement Center in separate legislation.

The NDAA authorized the Global Engagement Center 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.” These groups, Rick Sterling of Consortium News wrote, would be hired to identify and investigate print and online news sources deemed to be distributing propaganda and misinformation directed at the US and its allies.

Identifying a set of “propaganda themes” that have “permeated” the coverage of Syria by Western media—including, he noted, the “generally progressive” radio and TV program Democracy Now!—Sterling wrote that, with establishment of the new Global Engagement Center, we should expect to see an “escalation” of the information war, including “even more aggressive and better-financed assaults” on the “few voices” that dare to challenge US media narratives on critical foreign policy issues.

In November 2016, the Washington Post ran a story that described the proposed program as being “aimed at foreign information sources, not ones based in the United States. But independent coverage by other sources called this claim into question. Writing for Naked Capitalism, Lambert Strether noted that ambiguity in the statute’s language could indeed allow action against US-based sources. Strether compared the language in the 2017 NDAA with the wording of the Intelligence Authorization Act for 2015. Where the latter featured precise wording—“including threats from foreign countries and foreign non-state actors”—Section 1287(2) of the 2017 law applied to “foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts.” Strether noted the difference, stressing the addition of the phrase “non-state propaganda.” He further noted that Snopes had attempted to debunk a “rumor” that this law could be enforced on US media, but had relied on a press release from Senator Rob Portman about the earlier proposed legislation which did not examine the actual language of the NDAA. Strether concluded that a “careful reading” of the 2017 NDAA provides “good reason to fear an impact on American independent or alternative media,” because they could be categorized as “non-state actors.”

MintPress News was among the only outlets that ran a story critical of the original House bill, and the 2017 NDAA and its implications for freedom of speech passed virtually without mention in the corporate press.

Claire Bernish, “Propaganda Bill in Congress Could Give America Its Very Own Ministry of Truth,” MintPress News, June 7, 2016, http://www.MintPressnews.com/propaganda-bill-congress-give-america-ministry-truth/217016/.

Sarah Lazare, “Obama Just Signed Off on a Shadowy New ‘Anti-Propaganda’ Center That will be Handed Over to Trump,” AlterNet, December 30, 2016, http://www.alternet.org/human-rights/obama-just-signed-shadowy-new-anti-propaganda-center-will-be-handed-over-trump.

Rick Sterling, “The War Against Alternative Information,” Consortium News, January 1, 2017, https://consortiumnews.com/2017/01/01/the-war-against-alternative-information/.

Lambert Strether, “Does the ‘Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act’ Apply to American Independent or Alternative Media?,” Naked Capitalism, January 3, 2017, http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2017/01/100755.html.

Student Researchers: Samuel Mathias Ditlinger (Citrus College) and Tom Field (Diablo Valley College)

Faculty Evaluators: Andy Lee Roth (Citrus College) and Mickey Huff (Diablo Valley College)