Recently, Secretary Tillerson was sharply criticized by members of Congress and State Department observers because his office refuses to allow State’s Global Engagement Center to spend nearly $80 million in appropriated funds. The argument made by some is that Secretary Tillerson was putting “Russian interests above America’s.” But a more likely justification is that Secretary Tillerson has recognized what President Obama came to know as well—the Global Engagement Center was and still is dysfunctional and a waste of taxpayer money.
In September 2011, President Obama established the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Coordination (CSCC) to “reduce radicalization by terrorists” using tools of mass communication. In practice, the CSCC engaged in direct online rebuttals of terrorist messaging and put out pithy (sometimes sarcastic) counter messages. The CSCC’s mission was narrowly focused albeit difficult to implement and even more difficult to identify successes.
From its earliest days, the CSCC was bashed by counterterrorism experts for “engaging in useless argument with jihadists” and being “not only ineffective, but also provid[ing] jihadist[s] with a megaphone to voice their arguments.” By 2014, the CSCC was largely seen as a failure and in 2015 a panel of experts commissioned by President Obama recommended a complete rethink of the effort.
However, rather than shutter the CSCC as many had recommended, in 2016 President Obama relaunched the effort under a new name: the Global Engagement Center (GEC). The GEC was given new leadership and a bigger budget ($15 million annually, up from $5 million for the CSCC) but essentially the same mission as the CSCC—“to counter the messaging and diminish the influence of international terrorist organizations, including ISIL, al-Qa’ida, and other violent extremists abroad…” After a little more than a year under its new moniker, the GEC had demonstrated only anecdotal successes, frustrating members of Congress who openly questioned the continued value of the office.
Prior to the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, Congressional interest in information warfare focused almost exclusively on terrorist recruitment and incitement online; there were few Congressional voices that appreciated what Russia was doing to “weaponize information.” In the House, Chairman Ed Royce and Ranking Member Eliot Engel pushed for an overhaul of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG)—the agency Secretary Clinton called “defunct” but charged with leading U.S. international communications and counter foreign propaganda efforts. Senators Portman and Murphy pushed for the creation of a new interagency organization that would fight Russian propaganda.
Following the intelligence community’s assessment on Russian interference in U.S. elections, many in Congress felt a need to demonstrate responsiveness to Russian propaganda and “fake news.” As a result, the National Defense Authorization Act of fiscal year 2017 (section 1287) greatly expanded the GEC’s mission beyond combating terrorist recruitment and incitement online. The GEC’s new mission is to “lead, synchronize, and coordinate efforts of the Federal Government to recognize, understand, expose, and counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts aimed at undermining United States national security interests [emphasis added].” Because the relevant provision came through the Armed Services committees and not the committees of jurisdiction, it also authorized the Department of Defense to transfer up to $80 million to the new GEC, an insignificant sum of money in terms of Defense appropriations but an overwhelming level for a single office at State.
Now, the GEC is responsible for combating Iran, North Korea, China, Russia and any other state actor as well as every terrorist organization or individual (presumably including teenagers in Macedonia) that uses communication tools to undermine U.S. national security interests. That’s a lot to ask of an office that up until this point has demonstrated few, if any, successes and has a history of colossal failures dating back to its CSCC days.
The $80 million proposed for the new GEC is almost three times what it received the previous fiscal year, raising serious questions about the office’s ability to manage such an increase effectively. And, like most offices at State, the GEC is still led by someone serving in an acting capacity. Just last month, it was reported that staff were fleeing the office because of its lack of direction and leadership. Earlier this summer, it was rumored that Katharine Gorka (wife of former Deputy Assistant to the President Sebastian Gorka) would be tapped to lead the GEC which surely raised concerns for some.
Allowing the GEC to survive the change in administrations was a mistake, made worse by Congress’ decision to exponentially expand the GEC’s mission and budget. As a result, there are now two dysfunctional federal entities (the BBG and GEC) with overlapping missions and bloated budgets, unable to meet the challenge of Russian propaganda.
Rather than browbeat Secretary Tillerson into wasting $80 million on the GEC, an office that’s had three mission statements and three different directors in six years, Congress should fix the Broadcasting Board of Governors—the agency with a long-standing mandate to deal with state-sponsored propaganda. Legislation to fix the BBG unanimously passed the House in 2014 and the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 2015. That legislation should be reintroduced and pushed through to the president’s desk for signature. The GEC should go back to focusing on countering terrorist recruitment and incitement online, a job that’s hard enough already.
Secretary Tillerson’s brief tenure at State has been rocky, marred by a promised redesign plan that has little support either in or outside of Main State. But his decision to withhold funding appropriated for the GEC is the right move. Those clamoring for the release of the $80 million should reconsider their position because, in this instance, Secretary Tillerson is doing the American taxpayers a favor.
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