The Pentagon has agreed to give $40 million to the U.S. State Department to help counter foreign propaganda and disinformation amid ongoing concerns raised by the role of both by Russian operatives accused of interfering in affairs abroad.
The Departments of Defense and State have signed an agreement that will more than double the budget of the latter’s Global Engagement Center (GEC), an office established under the Obama administration initially to counter propaganda attributed to foreign terrorist and extremist groups but subsequently broadened to cover state and non-state disinformation efforts, the State Department announced Monday.
Currently funded for only $35 million, including nearly $20 million earmarked toward specifically countering Islamic State propaganda, the arrangement would significantly expand the GEC’s resources for opposing efforts such as the alleged Russian-sponsored election meddling that plagued the 2016 U.S. presidential race.
“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, the State Department’s undersecretary for public diplomacy. “It is not merely a defensive posture that we should take, we also need to be on the offensive.”
The program will begin with $1 million in seed money, followed by $5 million in grants being awarded by an Information Access Fund created to bring together public and private partners, according to the State Department.
“Under the Information Access Fund, civil society groups, media content providers, non-governmental organizations, federally funded research and development centers, private companies and academic institutions will be eligible to compete for grants from the GEC to advance their important work to counter propaganda and disinformation,” the State Department explained in a statement.
While initially created to target Islamic extremists, the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act broadened the GEC to cover “foreign propaganda and disinformation directed against United States national security interests and proactively advance fact-based narratives that support United States allies and interests.”
The announcement comes on the heels of the Department of Justice recently indicting 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies in connection with conducting “information warfare” against the U.S. political system, including by spreading misinformation and propaganda to Americans audiences during the 2016 presidential election.
U.S. officials have warned that Russia will likely reuse those tactics to target the 2018 midterm elections in November, further raising concerns nearly eight months before Americans cast ballots again.
“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,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who spearheaded legislation related to funding GEC.
“This announcement is an important milestone in the development of an operational capability to counter foreign disinformation being waged against us by our foreign adversaries,” agreed Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican. “While long overdue, I’m pleased we now have a road map in place that operationalizes the GEC and details how the money will be spent and who is responsible for developing and executing these projects.”
Russia has denied meddling in the 2016 election. Its alleged “information warfare” efforts and related measures remain the subject of separate ongoing investigations currently being undertaken by four congressional committees and the Justice Department’s special counsel, Robert Mueller.