A State Department unit created two years ago to lead the U.S. fight against anti-democratic propaganda abroad, including Russian disinformation campaigns, still has not received millions of dollars in funding allocated to it by Congress.
And even if some money comes through for the Global Engagement Center before the end of the fiscal year, it will now be just one-sixth of the amount originally directed to the center to counteract terrorist messaging and foreign efforts to influence elections. Russia, in particular, has been accused of attempting to interfere with elections not only in the U.S. but in Germany, France, Norway and multiple former Soviet states.
Foreign policy experts suggest that the funding delay is a combination of previous disinterest at the State Department and current foot-dragging at the Defense Department.
Back in 2016, Congress allocated $120 million to cover two years of the Global Engagement Center’s efforts. The money was to be shifted from the Defense Department’s coffers to the State Department.
But last year then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson chose not to access the first $60 million, as Politico reported in August 2017. Congressional lawmakers expressed outrage that the unit was not getting the repurposed funds.
This March, after additional complaints from lawmakers, the Defense Department agreed to send over $40 million. The reduced sum was supposed to arrive in April, according to The New York Times.
But Senate Foreign Relations Committee members Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) noted last week that the money had still not arrived more than four months later. And two sources with knowledge of the situation told HuffPost that the center didn’t have the funds a week later.
Furthermore, a Senate aide told HuffPost that the undelivered $40 million has since been halved to $20 million during the congressional appropriations process necessary when repurposing money.
A State Department official told HuffPost that while they were disappointed with the latest cut as the Global Engagement Center was prepared to utilize the larger amount, the center will “be fine.” The unit is waiting for another $20 million to come through soon from the State Department’s budget, the official said, as they have used up the vast majority of the nearly $40 million in seed money they started with.
Brett Bruen, a former U.S. diplomat in touch with State Department employees involved in the funding matter, is worried that if none of the money allocated for 2018 is transferred by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, the center will be stuck waiting for Congress to repurpose or appropriate funds for 2019.
“If this was a priority, it would be solved in a matter of days,” Bruen told HuffPost. “So we’re in a situation where you have a threat that’s not just theoretical, but has already inflicted exceptional damage on our institutions, and our democracy and our government is still fumbling around trying to figure out how to write the check.”
The State Department official told HuffPost that they were optimistic they would get the repurposed Defense Department funds before the end of the fiscal year and that they have programs in place they’re “ready to push the button on.” But if the funds don’t come in time, the official said the unit would be “singing a different tune.”
The Defense Department did not immediately answer HuffPost’s questions about the matter.
Former Obama State Department official and Russia expert Max Bergmann suggested that the Pentagon, after watching Tillerson fail to access the initial money and losing faith in the State Department’s effort, was purposefully withholding the funds.
“The Department of Defense is reticent as they don’t quite believe the State Department will be able to implement [the Global Engagement Center’s] mission, and that’s because they can look at leadership of the State Department where there’s an unwillingness to counter the president’s views on countering Russia,” he told HuffPost, citing signaling by Adm. Mike Rogers, formerly head of the National Security Agency, that this is something Defense wants to work on. “I think this is a reflection that the Pentagon does not trust the State Department’s effort to counter Russian disinformation.”
To try to get things moving, Murphy and Portman offered an amendment to the Senate version of the fiscal 2019 Defense Department appropriations bill that would have transferred $40 million from the Defense Department to the State Department. It was not included in the Senate’s final bill.
“We must ensure the State Department’s Global Engagement Center has the resources to counter efforts to undermine our, and our allies’, democratic institutions and values,” Portman said in a statement last week about the amendment. “The fact that Russia continues to advance their disinformation efforts makes clear the need to ramp up these programs. Now is not the time for us to shortchange them through lack of funding.”
The Global Engagement Center was originally intended to act as a governmental coordinator of messaging efforts against propaganda by terrorist groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda when it was established to replace the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications in early 2016. Congress expanded its mandate later that year to include combating foreign disinformation campaigns, primarily in the Balkans and Eastern Europe.
Yet these efforts have been hamstrung not only by insufficient funding but by a previous lack of buy-in from the top of the State Department.
“It would be as if our Air Force was authorized by Congress, the money was appropriated, but we simply failed to procure any planes or missiles,” Bruen said. “And instead we had a bunch of people sitting in a hangar coming up with good ideas on a chalkboard but not actually running any missions.”
And even if the money arrives tomorrow, the center has been waiting around for it for two years, Bergmann said.
“The fact that there’s been no progress I think is reflective of the administration’s broader position to Russia, which is that they’re not really interested in countering them,” he said. “This is a political hot potato it seems from the get-go and it appears that that has continued under [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo.”
The story has been updated with comment from the State Department.