After months of delays that angered lawmakers, the U.S. State and Defense departments have reached a deal on spending at least $40 million to fight foreign government-sponsored propaganda, in part with help from the private sector.
And although Monday’s announcement didn’t mention Russia by name, the U.S. plan is expected to focus heavily on battling Kremlin-backed disinformation.
The two departments have signed a memorandum of understanding on transferring the money from the Pentagon to the State-based Global Engagement Center. The center was established in 2016 to tackle Islamist propaganda, but its mandate was later broadened to include countering state-sponsored disinformation.
“This funding is critical to ensuring that we continue an aggressive response to malign influence and disinformation and that we can leverage deeper partnerships with our allies, Silicon Valley, and other partners in this fight,” said Steve Goldstein, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. “It is not merely a defensive posture that we should take. We also need to be on the offensive.”
Last year, POLITICO detailed how Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had held off for months on requesting that the Pentagon transfer up to $60 million available for the center this fiscal year. Current and former officials said their interpretation of the law was that the money would disappear if not transferred by Sept. 30, 2017. According to a former State official, a top Tillerson aide had expressed hesitation about using the money in part because it could damage the secretary’s efforts to patch up relations with Moscow.
Following searing criticism from Democrats and Republicans in Congress, Tillerson approved submitting a request for $40 million of the funds in the weeks before Sept. 30.
It wasn’t immediately clear Monday why it took so long for the memorandum to be signed. But lawmakers following the issue hinted that the Pentagon bureaucracy may have slowed down the process; administrations also have some flexibility in how they read budget laws.
The State Department said the counterpropaganda initiative will include at least $5 million for an “Information Access Fund” that offers competitive grants to private companies, civil society groups, academic institutions and other entities who wish to help with the mission.
U.S.-Russian ties have been badly strained by allegations that Moscow used hacking, propaganda and other means to influence the 2016 election. President Donald Trump has downplayed the accusations against Russia, going against the U.S. intelligence community’s findings.
Senators Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, and Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, who spearheaded key legislation related to the Global Engagement Center’s funding and mission, cheered the news Monday.
Both said it was “long overdue.”
“I hope this announcement is a sign that the Trump administration will finally start to make use of the tools Congress gave them to fight back against Russian disinformation and terrorist propaganda,” Murphy said.
Russia is expected to be a major focus of the Global Engagement Center, despite the lack of a reference to any specific country in Monday’s announcement. Propaganda efforts by other countries such as China and Iran also are likely to be scrutinized.