U.S. Information Agency

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U.S. Information Agency

The U.S. Information Agency (USIA) was the public diplomacy arm of the U.S. government. The USIA existed "to further the national interest by improving United States relations with other countries and peoples through the broadest possible sharing of ideas, information, and educational and cultural activities" (22 U.S.C.A. § 1461 [1988]). Generally, this intention meant that the USIA was responsible for sharing information about the United States with the citizens of other countries.

The roots of the USIA developed from information efforts made during World War I and World War II. During World War I, the Committee on Public Information was created to inform the world of U.S. aims in the war. In 1938 the federal government began to promote cultural relations with Latin America through the State Department's Division of Cultural Cooperation. In 1940 the government sent its first international radio broadcasts into Latin America.

During World War II, the Office of War Information conducted information and propaganda campaigns aimed at enemy countries and occupied territories. To assist in the campaign, the government expanded its radio broadcasts. In 1942, during a broadcast in the German language, an announcer first used the term "voice of America" to describe the broadcast. The name stuck, and the international news and information broadcast was called the Voice of America ever afterward.

In 1948 Congress passed the United States Information and Educational Exchange Act (ch. 36, 62 Stat. 6, [codified as amended at 22 U.S.C.A. § 1431 et seq. (1988 & Supp. V 1993)]). This act, known as the Smith-Mundt Act, created the U.S. International Communication Agency (USICA). According to the Smith-Mundt Act, the USICA was created to distribute information to other countries about the "United States, its people, and [its] policies" (Pub. L. No. 80-402, § 501 1948 U.S.C.C.A.N. [79 Stat.] 6, 9 [1948] [codified at 22 U.S.C.A. § 1431 et seq., as amended]).

The USICA gained status as an independent federal agency under President dwight d. eisenhower's Reorganization Plan No. 8 of 1953 (18 Fed. Reg. 4562 [1953], reprinted in 22 U.S.C.A. § 1461 app. at 763 [West 1990]). The USICA was renamed the U.S. Information Agency in 1982, but the function of the agency remained the same.

The USIA used a variety of methods to disseminate information. These included the Voice of America radio broadcast system, radio and television broadcast service to Cuba, the World-net Satellite television service, educational and cultural exchanges, and magazines, films, and information centers in foreign countries.

Until 1994, when Congress modified this rule, the USIA was prohibited from disseminating its program materials within the United States (22 U.S.C.A. § 1461-1a [1988]). The primary reason for this restriction was the desire to avoid creating a powerful propaganda agency to guide public opinion, such as the information ministries in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Congress also wanted to isolate government-sponsored programming from competition with domestic commercial media outlets.

The fall of Communism and technological advances prompted a reorganization of the USIA structure and activities. In 1992 the USIA stopped publishing Problems of Communism, an anti-Communist magazine. Problems of Communism was the only USIA material ever disseminated within the United States. In 1994 Congress created the Broadcasting Board of Governors to oversee a new USIA International Broadcasting Bureau. Under the International Broadcasting Act (Foreign Relations Authorization Act, Fiscal Years 1994 and 1995, Pub. L. No. 103-236 [1994]), the bureau was charged with oversight of the property and programming of government broadcasting, including the Voice of America and its commercial counterparts, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. The bureau was also put in charge of a newly created Radio Free Asia.

Congress has also modified the ban on dissemination of USIA materials within the United States. In a 1994 amendment to the Smith-Mundt Act, Congress provided that the ban "shall not prohibit the [USIA] from responding to inquiries from members of the public about its operations, policies, or programs" (22 U.S.C.A. § 1461-1a). The wording of this amendment does not require the USIA to distribute its materials within the United States. Rather, it requires only that the USIA respond to inquiries about its materials.

Also in 1994, the USIA began publishing its English-language news stories on the Internet computer system. Though the stories include a disclaimer stating that the information is intended for international audiences only, the USIA has no way to enforce this restriction. Furthermore, Worldnet, the federal government television service, was transmitted by satellite, and anyone who had a satellite dish could receive the broadcast. Thus, technology circumvented the prohibition on domestic dissemination of USIA programs.

In 2000 a settlement was announced in a Class Action in which 1,100 women claimed that they had faced Sex Discrimination while seeking employment with the USIA and VOA. In one of the nation's largest discrimination settlements, the government agreed to pay $508 million plus back pay to the plaintiffs.

In October 1999, under a plan advanced by then-Senator jesse helms, the 47-year-old USIA was integrated into the State Department. The work of the USIA is now carried out by the State Department Office of International Information Programs.

Further readings

Gormly, Charles F. 1995. "The United States Information Agency Domestic Dissemination Ban: Arguments for Repeal." Administrative Law Journal of American University 9.

Kupchan, Charles A. 2002. The End of the American Era: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Geopolitics of the Twenty-First Century. New York: Knopf.

Mead, Walter Russell. 2001. Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World. New York: Knopf.

State Department Office of International Information Programs. Available online at <usinfo.state.gov> (accessed August 13, 2003).


State Department.

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