Senators on Thursday praised the recent work done by the State Department’s anti-disinformation office to counter conspiracy theories from Russia about the coronavirus and said they were supportive of more than doubling the office’s budget in the next fiscal year.
“Information is power today and we see it all over the globe,” said Sen. Rob Portman at the start of a special hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee. “When it’s used improperly, it’s used as a weapon. . . . If left unchecked, it can be devastatingly effective.”
In 2016, the Ohio Republican co-wrote a bipartisan law making the Global Engagement Center a permanent office within the State Department and tasking it with the mission of countering the propaganda and disinformation pushed by foreign governments.
Since then, the center has gone through multiple growing pains related to having an inadequate number of foreign language linguists on staff, difficulty accessing the full funding levels provided by Congress, and coping with the embarrassing aftermath of an outside contractor who harassed journalists, human rights researchers and Iranian-Americans on social media.
But recently, the center worked to share information with partner governments and the U.S. media about a widespread disinformation campaign it had documented by Russian state media, Russian government accounts, and botnets and fake social media accounts linked to Russia that were disseminating a conspiracy theory about the origins of the latest coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.
“The coronavirus is an example of where we’ve seen adversaries take advantage of a health crisis where people are terrified worldwide to try to advance their priorities,” Global Engagement Center head Lea Gabrielle testified at the hearing. “We saw the entire [disinformation] ecosystem of Russia at play.”
For fiscal 2021, the State Department has proposed more than doubling the center’s budget to $138 million, an increase of some $76 million over current funding levels. The Trump administration is also pushing to do away with the current unwieldy funding mechanism for the GEC, which in previous fiscal years saw much of its funding come from the Pentagon through a special transfer authority provided by Congress.
The administration is now asking that the Global Engagement Center be directly funded by Congress, a reflection of the growing faith by senior administration officials such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the effectiveness of the center’s anti-propaganda efforts, which Democrats and Republican senators said they welcomed at the hearing.
“We have made a choice over the years to not equip our forces and our foreign policy infrastructure overseas with the capacities that they need to compete,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, who co-wrote the law with Portman establishing the center. “The reach of the GEC is, frankly, meager compared to the need that is out there.”
The Connecticut Democrat, who is also a member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee with responsibility for funding the State Department, said he was “glad to see the proposed increase in funding and hope that we can get that through.”
Added Portman: “My hope is that we can support the mission more strongly and be sure [the increased funding] is spent wisely.”
Murphy applauded Gabrielle, who has been on the job for about a year, for what she has done “with a fairly skimpy budget” to extend the reach of the center.
Gabrielle said the process of trying to obtain funding for the center from the Pentagon has been “extremely cumbersome” even when all of the principals, including the secretaries of Defense and State, are supportive of transferring the monies. She estimated that between 70-75 percent of the center's current funding is used “in-house” with the remainder going to contractors.
“We need more of everything in order to be able to execute this mission on a global scale,” said Gabrielle, a former Navy human intelligence operations officer and television news reporter. She noted that many of the technology solutions her office is developing to identify social media disinformation campaigns are not cheap.
The center performs several activities around the core mission of combating the propaganda and disinformation efforts of foreign governments and terrorists. Those activities include building, using and sharing with allies and partners data-driven platforms and digital analytic tools that can be used to identify and expose disinformation campaigns on social media.
Gabrielle said if her office’s funding is increased, she would like to expand its activities in Africa, where both Russia and China have been mounting major influence operations.
“I think that we need to be focused on the continent of Africa and we should be shifting some focus there. We are seeing some Russian disinformation campaigns on the continent,” she said. “We’ve got to put the ‘G’ back in the GEC and make it global."