Lawmakers reacted angrily to reports that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is not spending money at his disposal to counter Russian disinformation and propaganda put out by violent extremists.
The news, first reported by Politico, comes as President Donald Trump signed into law legislation that would sanction Russia for its interference in the US election, curb Trump’s ability to independently ease penalties against Moscow, and bolster the Global Engagement Center (GEC) created to push back against Russian agitprop and other lies.
All the more reason, then, for bipartisan ire that Tillerson is choosing not to spend the almost $80 million already set aside for the GEC this year, a choice one lawmaker called “indefensible.”
State Department officials said that the delay is part of a broader policy review intended to give Tillerson time to figure out what policies are best pursued and where money is best spent. The GEC is “just one part of the overall review,” Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, told CNN’s Michelle Kosinski.
“The secretary, from day one, has been very clear with all of us that everything we’re doing has to be subject to the highest level of scrutiny,” McGurk said. “Before you put that money in the pot, you want to make sure that it’s delivering the results you want it to deliver.”
A State Department official added on background that the GEC “continues to execute its mission” and that “there is a process underway to ensure any future funding or programs account for the most appropriate tactics and strategy — especially in countering propaganda from countries such as Russia that have minimal protections for free speech or the media.”
That explanation isn’t sitting well with lawmakers, particularly since Tillerson had singled out countering violent extremism as a major priority as ISIS loses on the battlefield and moves to inspire attacks on Europe and beyond.
“Countering foreign propaganda should be a top priority and it is very concerning that progress on combating this problem is being delayed because the State Department isn’t tapping into these resources,” said Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman.
He and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut wrote the legislation that established the GEC. Murphy said that a failure to follow through and use the center “is indefensible.”
“Every day, ISIS is spreading terrorist propaganda and Russia is implementing a sophisticated disinformation campaign to undermine the United States and our allies,” Murphy said. “There should be no doubt these are critical challenges to our national security.”
The burgeoning controversy surrounding Tillerson’s inaction is generating concern that, at a time of heightened global tension and amid administration plans to cut the State Department’s budget by up to 30 percent, the agency isn’t functioning properly.
And it once again raises questions about the Trump administration’s commitment to pushing back against Russia. The President only reluctantly signed the sanctions bill, calling it “deeply flawed,” as a DOJ investigation continues into possible ties between Trump campaign associates and Russia.
Tillerson himself built some of the most significant parts of his career as ExxonMobil CEO through energy deals with Russia, earning the highest civilian honor for a non-citizen from President Vladimir Putin. In recent weeks, the top US diplomat has been conducting talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that are meant to reduce “irritants” in the relationship and deepen areas of potential cooperation.
“Really not serious”
Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina questioned the message Tillerson’s decision sends.
“This idea I may not use money to help democratic states under siege by Russia adds up to a signal that we’re really not serious in the Trump administration about dealing with Russian interference in our home,” he said. “Here in our backyard and abroad and that just invites more aggression.”
Graham said he would be writing Tillerson a letter to ask for an explanation.
Sen. Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate foreign relations committee, said he was puzzled and concerned. “The authorities for these funds were explicitly spelled out in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act,” he said, “reflecting the broad and bipartisan will of Congress. The intent of Congress could not have been more clear, and the State Department must ensure that there is a robust effort to carry out this work.”
“Any delay is unacceptable and ignores the attacks Russia has carried out on our country and our allies,” Cardin added. “I urge Secretary Tillerson to immediately develop and carry out a strategy for the use of these anti-propaganda funds to protect our nation and the American people.”
Senior Democratic Congressional sources said they have no evidence this is about placating Russia, but given this administration’s refusal to get tough on Moscow, they can’t rule it out.
“You would think this would be a higher priority and it has to make you wonder,” a Congressional source said. “We don’t have direct information on that, but its within the realm of possibility. We can’t rule it out. ”
Funding for the counter-Russia efforts was appropriated in May, making it a relatively new program. But many GEC staffers have left since the new administration took over amid Tillerson’s hiring freeze and pending cuts, there has been no hiring. Democratic sources said the lack of State Department staff to design and execute programs is seen as part of the problem.
Democratic Congressional sources also say lawmakers were clear about what they want the State Department to use the money for and they want them to use it as soon as possible.
“It is possible that they are legitimately still figuring out how they will use the funds,” said a Democratic source on Capitol Hill. “We don’t want them to throw the money out the door, but it’s been seven months and we haven’t heard anything from them,” the source said. “Time is going by, the funds are there. The money exists. The needs exists. Why isn’t anything happening?”
Spotty track record
Previous State Department efforts to counter violent extremism with information blitzes weren’t seen as a success.
Congressional sources said similar programs under the Obama administration weren’t seen as well designed or effective. They said that those problems are now being compounded by a lack of coherent policy or strategy coming out of Tillerson’s State Department, a criticism echoed by former State Department employees.
“There is no sense of their thinking, no sense of a plan how to use the funds,” another Congressional source said. “And we have no confidence it would be well spent. This administration says countering extremist propaganda is a priority, but slogans and rhetoric is one thing. It’s another to come out with a coherent strategy.”
A senior State Department official said the GEC itself was the problem. This official said the goals the Center outlined for the funding weren’t considered in line with administration objectives or adequate for solving the problem. The office has repeatedly been sent back to the drawing board, this official said.
“We have no problem using the money and we have no problem with programs that counter Russia propaganda,” the official said. “In fact other programs in the building are already doing that. What we aren’t going to do is throw good money after bad. We aren’t going to spend money ineffectively.”
According to a source who spoke with Politico, Tillerson adviser R.C. Hammond was among those at the State Department who pushed back against using the money, saying that to do so would needle Russia.
“We do not consider it accurate,” Hammond told CNN Wednesday, denying that he made that statement, and insisting the US-Russia relationship was not part of the equation.
When the GEC was set up at the State Department it was handed a budget of $16 million to start, with another $19.8 in supplemental funding on the table. Additionally, the Defense Department is able to transfer $60 million in fiscal year 2017 and again in 2018.
Hammond said Tillerson’s staff are considering a proposal to use the additional funds and are not concerned by a September 30 deadline by which they have to request the $60 million or lose it.
And he added that South Carolina’s Graham “would be wasting his ink” on a letter.