Online propaganda and the National Defense Authorization Act

The National Defense Authorization Act has proposed amendments that would let the government wage a propaganda war online ... in the history of bad political ideas, this is epic.

When it comes to the government we accept, at least theoretically, that it should keep us ignorant of some things; these are things that we conceive of as being so dangerous that we are better off not knowing about them.

Of course the problem with this tacit knowledge of state secrets is it makes it really easy to hide stuff we should know about. Ignorance often only feels like bliss.

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But when it comes to our government telling us lies -- for example, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction so we needed to attack Iraq -- that's where we run into really dangerous territory. Where the government can "get away" or, worse, is allowed to misrepresent the facts, the potential for intentional manipulation of public perception is enormous and, many would argue, inevitable.

Now, in 1948 the Smith-Mundt Act was passed. This act was intended to allow the United States government to counter the perceived communist threat by allowing the use of propaganda. The act included specific prohibitions to prevent the State Department from using propaganda within the U.S. In other words, the potential for propaganda to violate citizens' rights was recognized and dealt with.

Fast-forward to today and consider the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), also known as the "Homeland Battlefield" law, which would permanently suspend due process and habeas corpus for anyone the federal government accuses of being involved in hostile actions against the United States, or being an "associated force" of terrorists. In other words, if you're accused and detained you can be held indefinitely.

That's a pretty bad idea, eh? Wait! It gets better! Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., and Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, have offered amendments to the NDAA which would allow the United States to counter al-Qaeda's spreading of anti-American ideas. Sound like a slippery slope? You bet, but wait again, there's more! What medium is being targeted as the battleground for a propaganda war? Yep, you guessed it: the Internet.

Smith argues that al-Qaeda is infiltrating the Internet in order to drive anti-American sentiments: "Effective strategic communication and public diplomacy should be front-and-center as we work to roll back al-Qaeda's and other violent extremists' influence among disaffected populations. An essential part of our efforts must be a coordinated, comprehensive, adequately resourced plan to counter their radical messages and undermine their recruitment abilities. To do this, Smith-Mundt must be updated to bolster our strategic communications and public diplomacy capacity on all fronts and mediums - especially online."

I don't know about you. but the idea of a U.S.-sanctioned online propaganda war is extremely worrying to me. If there was ever a case where a government program could overreach, this is it. We need government that is transparent and accountable, not an Orwellian state machine that tells us war is right and that having secrets and spreading misinformation will keep us safe.

Gibbs, in Ventura, Calif., knows the truth is out there. Set him free at gearhead@gibbs.com and follow him on Twitter (@quistuipater) and on Facebook (quistuipater).

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