Bipartisan Senators question State and Defense Departments on funding delays, inadequate staffing for efforts to counter Russian propaganda and disinformation
Senators Young, Coons, Portman, Murphy, Rubio, Shaheen respond to New York Times report of unspent money intended to counter Russian aggression
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Six bipartisan members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee have urged the State Department and the Department of Defense to explain why tens of millions in federal funds designated to counter disinformation and propaganda from foreign governments like Russia have not been spent. The Senators’ letter comes in response to a New York Times report that the State Department has not spent any of the $120 million Congress allocated to the Department to combat foreign meddling in U.S. elections.
The Global Engagement Center (GEC), which Congress gave the statutory responsibility for countering foreign disinformation in 2016, has still not received congressionally-authorized funds and lacks sufficient staff to execute its mission. Despite the recent signing of an interagency agreement between the State Department and Department of Defense that will serve as a blueprint for conducting operations, the Department of Defense has still not transferred the $40 million to support the effort promised in the agreement and called for by Congress. At the same time, the hiring freeze has handicapped efforts to fully staff the GEC with the personnel it needs to effectively counter Russian and other sources of disinformation and propaganda.
U.S. Senators Todd Young (R-Ind.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) requested a timeline and spending plan for congressionally authorized funds.
“[Russia’s] activities form part of an ongoing, long-term effort to undermine American institutions, weaken our alliances, and manipulate public perceptions,” the Senators wrote. “With less than nine months until the 2018 midterm elections and with Russia continuing its extensive influence operations against U.S. allies and interests around the globe, we urge you to take the necessary steps to counter this urgent threat to our nation’s democratic processes, including by fully expending congressionally authorized funds to combat Russian malign aggression.”
The full letter from the Senators is below:
March 15, 2018
The Honorable John J. Sullivan
Deputy Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street NW
The Honorable James Mattis
Secretary of Defense
1000 Defense Pentagon
Washington, DC 20301-1000
Dear Deputy Secretary Sullivan and Secretary Mattis:
As members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, we write with concern regarding reports of significant delays in the full implementation of Section 1287 of the FY 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, which established the Global Engagement Center’s mission to counter disinformation and propaganda from foreign governments like Russia. In particular, we respectfully request that you provide Congress with a timeline and spending plans for the transfer of all congressionally authorized funds, including the $40 million pledged by the Department of Defense, as well as a timeline for full implementation of the new interagency Memorandum of Agreement between the Department of State and the Department of Defense. Additionally, we ask for further information on plans to ensure the Global Engagement Center is staffed appropriately to carry out both the counter-terror and counter-state mission.
On February 13, 2018, National Security Agency Director and U.S. Cyber Command Chief Mike Rogers, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray, Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Robert Ashley, and National Geospatial Intelligence Agency Director Robert Cardillo, all confirmed that Russia used "active measures" to influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential election and that the upcoming 2018 midterm elections are a significant potential target. These activities form part of an ongoing, long-term effort to undermine American institutions, weaken our alliances, and manipulate public perceptions. We urge you to use the full force of the Department of State and the Department of Defense as well as the resources provided by Congress to defend our country’s democratic institutions and to develop a cohesive, unified approach to combat Russia's malicious cyber activity.
We are particularly concerned that the apparent lack of urgency in transferring authorized funds from the Department of Defense to the Global Engagement Center has left the Center ill-equipped to carry out its mandate. The Department of State requested these funds from the Department of Defense in August 2017, and Congress authorized these funds because we see this mechanism as a critical component of a government-wide response to Russian malign influence. We urge you to immediately take steps to ensure the Global Engagement Center receives the resources intended by Congress to carry out its mandate and is able to hire the necessary subject matter experts to do so.
We are also gravely concerned about the crippling impact of the self-imposed hiring and promotion freezes on the Global Engagement Center and across the Department of State, which have left large sums of appropriated funds unspent. While we welcome the additional $20 million for the Global Engagement Center’s counter-state mission requested in the Department of State’s FY 2019 budget request, this important increase will not be effective without the additional personnel. According to an analysis of data from the Office of Management and Budget, last year, the Department of State spent just 79 percent of the money that Congress had authorized for the conduct of foreign affairs, the lowest such level in at least fifteen years.
With less than nine months until the 2018 midterm elections and with Russia continuing its extensive influence operations against U.S. allies and interests around the globe, we urge you to take the necessary steps to counter this urgent threat to our nation’s democratic processes, including by fully expending congressionally authorized funds to combat Russian malign aggression.
Thank you for your consideration of this important matter. We look forward to your response.
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