Poisoning public discourse in the USA


By Lawrence Davidson

Lawrence Davidson argues that the US National Defence Authorization Act will not only curtail civil liberties by allowing the military to indefinitely detain, without charge or trial, citizens and non-citizens alike, but will also allow the government to direct the same kind of massive propaganda campaigns domestically that are presently waged as part of American war efforts overseas.

National Defence Authorization Act redux

The National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA) is misnamed. The act has less to do with defence than offence The offensive it wages is not just against a growing list of alleged enemies but also, from a constitutional perspective, against the rights of American citizens and residents. Major parts of the legislation are based on the assumption that key legal protections for individuals are incompatible with the requirements of national security. The result is that Americans are now caught between “the terrorists” and the authoritarian propensities of their own government. If one does not get you, the other will.

The NDAA – specifically Section 1021(b)(2) – has already institutionalized the US military’s ability to indefinitely detain, without charge or trial, citizens and non-citizens alike. This is a serious abuse of power. The monarchical authority our founding fathers sought to escape practised such a “disappearance” of people. The contemporary dictatorships Washington has so consistently supported practice this horror as well. Now we, having no patience or imagination to seek routes to security compatible with our own legal principles, begin to illegally imprison without recourse those we (rightly or wrongly) fear.

recent decision by New York Appellate Court Judge Katherine Forrest suspended this part of the NDAA. This was the result of a law suit brought against the act by seven journalists and anti-war activists and it came as an embarrassing surprise to “Justice” Department lawyers defending indefinite detention. What will now follow will be an effort to overturn or minimize Judge Forrest’s ruling because it “restrains future military operations that might be ordered by the commander-in-chief during wartime”. At first the government asserted that the judge’s ruling applied only to the seven plaintiffs in the suit. She quickly clarified her ruling to make it plain that her ruling “enjoined enforcement of Section 1021(b)(2) against anyone…” The government lawyers will certainly appeal Forrest’s decision. If necessary, they will declare to the Supreme Court the necessity of eroding the very constitution they are sworn to uphold, and so presently myopic is that court of last resort, that it will almost certainly agree.

However, the negative potential of the NDAA does not stop with the issue of indefinite detention. It has now come to light that the 2013 version of the act (passed by the House of Representatives but yet to be taken up by the Senate) allows the State Department and Department of Defence to direct the same kind of massive propaganda campaigns here in the US that are presently waged as part of American war efforts in foreign lands. This latest manoeuvre is the bipartisan work of two congressmen: Mac Thornberry (Republican) of Texas and Adam Smith (Democrat) of Washington State. Both claim that current law, which prohibits these government agencies from propagandizing within the US, “ties the hands of America’s diplomatic officials, military and others by inhibiting our ability to effectively communicate in a credible way”.

What of public discourse?

Thornberry’s and Smith’s action raises the question of the role of public discourse. Of course, the discourse coming from government has always been skewed. Yet up to this point there has been legislative recognition that the government should not lie to its own people the way it does to foreign audiences. It is this distinction that Thornberry and Smith would eliminate by writing into the institutional job-descriptions of the departments of state and defence the mission of selling US government foreign policy and its accompanying wars to Americans through massive advertising campaigns.

Of course, Thornberry and Smith do not see their effort as sponsoring ever more sophisticated efforts at misinformation. These two congressmen have obviously swallowed whole the official patriotic storyline and now have concluded that every one else must do likewise. This is what happens when elected officials fail to distinguish between propaganda and “communicating in a credible way”. Their gullibility is not a good sign. It suggests that what often does not work in foreign lands is quite likely to work well here at home.

People in places like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan know that the US is or was in their countries as a military conqueror. A few might approve of that position, but we can safely say that most do not. The mayhem that surrounds conquest and occupation is so immediate, so close to home, that the millions of American dollars spent on planted news stories and other forms of misrepresentation are not going to counter that reality so as to help improve the US image and win wars.

However, when and if the departments of state and defence launch professional misinformation campaigns here in the US, success is all but guaranteed. That is because there is no countervailing context in which most Americans, including most in Congress, can judge the psychological warfare message. The violence and brutality of invasion, occupation and resistance do not impact the local lives of Americans (except the families of US soldiers who are always considered heroes), and so you are left with a relentlessly repeated patriotic message from sources you have been taught to trust.

It is an interesting and certainly significant fact that although the propaganda campaigns of the departments of state and defence are presently prohibited by law in the homeland, a comparable process of government misinformation takes place nonetheless. Neither the state nor the defence department could have done better than the administration of George W. Bush in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Washington’s consistent lying, abetted by compliant media allies, paved the way for a popularly supported bloody debacle. In Iraq, the same propaganda, contextualized as it was by widespread violence, brought forth scepticism and disgust.

Whatever the record of such efforts abroad, there seems little doubt that Bush’s success in 2003 now inspires the governments “information operatives” to seek legal authority to wage professionally designed “giant marketing campaigns” to effectively sell the nation’s foreign policy and wars to its own citizens. Hence the bipartisan efforts of Thornberry and Smith.


It should be kept in mind that government bureaucracies, be they civilian or military, are not places of free discourse. They are “get with the mission and follow orders” environments. While their representatives, drawn as they are from the American public, might give lip service to democracy, honesty and meaningful discussion, they really do not practice these tenets and probably do not believe in them either. That is why, in an era when money stands for free speech and bellicose conservatives own more and more of the media, Thornberry’s and Smith’s legislation appears obvious and logical. If passed into law it will become the capstone of an ongoing process that is turning public discourse into a poisoned well of indoctrination.

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