WASHINGTON — As Russia’s virtual war against the United States continues unabated with the midterm elections approaching, the State Department has yet to spend any of the $120 million it has been allocated since late 2016 to counter foreign efforts to meddle in elections or sow distrust in democracy.
As a result, not one of the 23 analysts working in the department’s Global Engagement Center — which has been tasked with countering Moscow’s disinformation campaign — speaks Russian, and a department hiring freeze has hindered efforts to recruit the computer experts needed to track the Russian efforts.
The delay is just one symptom of the largely passive response to the Russian interference by President Donald Trump, who has made little if any public effort to rally the nation to confront Moscow and defend democratic institutions. More broadly, the funding lag reflects a deep lack of confidence by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in his department’s ability to execute its historically wide-ranging mission and spend its money wisely.
Tillerson has voiced skepticism that the United States is even capable of doing anything to counter the Russian threat.
"If it’s their intention to interfere, they’re going to find ways to do that," Tillerson said in an interview last month with Fox News.
The United States spends billions of dollars on secret cybercapabilities, but these weapons have proved largely ineffective against Russian efforts on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere that simply amplify or distort divisive but genuine voices in the United States and elsewhere.
The role for the Global Engagement Center would be to assess Russian efforts and then set about amplifying a different set of voices to counter them, perhaps creating a network of anti-propaganda projects dispersed around the world, experts said.
"There are now thousands of former Russian journalists who have been exiled or fired who are doing counter-Russian stuff in exile who we could help," said Richard Stengel, who as the undersecretary for public diplomacy in the Obama administration had oversight of the Global Engagement Center.
At the end of the Obama administration, Congress directed the Pentagon to send $60 million to the State Department so it could coordinate governmentwide efforts, including those by the Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security, to counter anti-democratic propaganda by Russia and China. This messaging effort is separate from other potential government actions like cyberattacks.
Tillerson spent seven months trying to decide whether to spend any of the money. The State Department finally sent a request to the Defense Department on Sept. 18 to transfer the funds, but with just days left in the fiscal year, Pentagon officials decided the State Department had lost its shot at the money.
With another $60 million available for the next fiscal year, the two departments dickered for another five months over how much the State Department could have.
After the New York Times, following a report on the issue by Politico in August, began asking about the delayed money, the State Department announced Feb. 26 that the Pentagon had agreed to transfer $40 million for the effort, just a third of what was originally intended.
The delays have infuriated some members of Congress, which approved the funding transfer with bipartisan support.
"It is well past time that the State Department’s Global Engagement Center gets the resources Congress intended for it to effectively fight Kremlin-sponsored disinformation and other foreign propaganda operations," Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Wednesday.
Most of the center’s leaders are working in temporary assignments, a product of Tillerson’s halt in promotions. The analysts work in a warren of cubicles in the basement of a tired building that once housed the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II predecessor to the CIA.
James K. Glassman, undersecretary for public diplomacy during the George W. Bush administration, said the center’s uncertain funding and temporary leadership reflected the administration’s lack of interest in countering either jihadi or Russian propaganda.
"They’ve got the vehicle to do this work in the center," Glassman said. "What they don’t have is a secretary of state or a president who’s interested in doing this work."