NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
The State Department’s Global Engagement Center, a unit set up in 2016 to counter foreign disinformation, has not produced a public report on the topic.
Lea Gabrielle, special envoy and coordinator for the Global Engagement Center, disclosed the center’s lack of published reports in testimony before a Senate subcommittee last week.
The center was initially created within the State Department to counter foreign terrorist propaganda, was reoriented toward countering Russian disinformation and more recently tasked with confronting Chinese propaganda. With a starting budget of $20 million in 2016, the center, with a staff of 118, this year is seeking $138 million.
Asked about one study done by the center on Russian disinformation designed to sow discord in the U.S., Ms. Gabrielle said the report was not released because it might reveal operational secrets.
“Sometimes it makes sense to share those reports [with the public], and sometimes it doesn’t,” she said.
One internal report was leaked to the press and another was shared by the center with a news organization, Ms. Gabrielle said.
Sen. Cory A. Booker, New Jersey Democrat, asked during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing why the center’s reports are not made public. “Why not get that information out there? Doesn’t that help to discredit the activities in and of themselves?” he asked.
Ms. Gabrielle, a former Navy pilot and intelligence officer, said the center is concerned about revealing what it knows, an indication its activities are influenced by an intelligence community culture that opposes transparency and embraces secrecy.
“I think what’s important is exposing and showing enough supportive data or supportive analysis to expose the problem,” she said. “But what we don’t want to do is we don’t want to share our tradecraft with our adversaries.”
Yet during her testimony, Ms. Gabrielle declined to provide specifics on the recent Russian disinformation campaign regarding the coronavirus.
One model for creating the center was the Reagan administration’s “Active Measures Working Group” set up in the 1980s to counter Soviet disinformation. That group was widely viewed as highly effective, and regularly published reports on Moscow’s disinformation operations, such as false claims planted in foreign newspapers that AIDS was a U.S. biowarfare weapon.
Many reports produced by the Global Engagement Center are not classified but still remain secret over fears making them public would allow adversaries to “get ahead of us” in the disinformation and counter-disinformation battle, Ms. Gabrielle said. A State Department spokesman did not return emails seeking comment on the Global Engagement Center’s reports.
The center also appears to be heavily focused on the Russian threat, with little focus on sophisticated Chinese disinformation and information warfare operations.
“We are seeing a rise in these tactics from China both in the Indo-Pacific and in Europe,” Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican, told Ms. Gabrielle.
The special envoy was not asked about rumors spread by state-run Chinese media falsely asserting that the deadly virus was created in the U.S.
In her prepared testimony, Ms. Gabrielle outlined several specific counter-Russian activities — but no details on the center’s Chinese counterpropaganda operations. The testimony appears to reflect the conciliatory policies toward China of past administrations that sought to avoid all criticism of the Communist Party of China-ruled system.
Chinese counter-disinformation activities were described vaguely in the prepared testimony as challenging Beijing in the information space, and coordinating with the State Department’s China desk, which is known to be staffed with career bureaucrats who favor the soft-line policies toward China.
“Our efforts to counter [Communist Party of China] propaganda include increasing awareness of the problematic aspects of the One Belt, One Road Initiative, human rights abuses in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China, as well as Beijing’s abuse of open research and academic environments to achieve its military objectives,” Ms. Gabrielle stated.
Dan Blumenthal, director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, subsequently told the panel that China is engaged in what he termed “political warfare” against the United States, using large-scale information and disinformation operations.
“When it comes to talking about the coronavirus, part of the reason I think we’re facing a greater virus [threat] is because there was a cover-up in China for a matter of almost two months,” Mr. Blumenthal said. “And as we now know, people who try to tell the truth in China — doctors and journalists and so on — are punished, detained and arrested.”
Mr. Blumenthal said the center needs “to be more on offense” against China and other adversaries.
The center also came under fire during the hearing a questionable program to counter Iranian disinformation.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, Oregon Democrat, said one project paid for by the center was “putting out essentially disinformation rather than being counter-disinformation, including attacking and smearing some U.S. citizens.”
Ms. Gabrielle replied the project was suspended within hours of learning that one of the center’s contractors improperly conducted activities outside the scope of the contract.
Pompeo on ‘Wuhan virus’
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo continues to be the leader within the Trump administration, along with Vice President Mike Pence, on promoting tougher U.S. policies toward China.
Mr. Pompeo was the first to refer to Chinese President Xi Jinping as “Communist Party of China general secretary,” and to arguing that the party and not just the Beijing government should be the main focus of U.S. policies. The secretary has explained that doing so is part of an effort to clearly distinguish between the Chinese people and the widely unpopular ruling Communist Party.
Mr. Pompeo in several interviews recently has stirred the wrath of the Chinese by referring to the deadly coronavirus now spreading around the world as the “Wuhan virus.” China has launched a campaign to press foreign governments and media outlets to shun the use of any mention of China in relation to the deadly coronavirus that produces a pneumonia-like disease dubbed COVID-19.
Even in China, however, the disease is widely referred to as the “Wuhan pneumonia.”
On social media, woke liberal news reporters have followed China’s lead in chastising those who refer to the “Wuhan virus” or the “China virus.” One news reporter tweeted that use of those terms is racist.
On Friday, Mr. Pompeo told Fox News that “the Wuhan virus that began at the end of last year is something that this administration is taking incredibly seriously.” He also criticized the Chinese for providing “imperfect” data about the epidemic.
Asked about his use of the term, Mr. Pompeo said “as a first matter, the Chinese Communist Party has said that this is where the virus started, so don’t take my word for it, take theirs. They’re right on this one.”
“But when you have an entity like the Chinese Communist Party, [which] is providing data sets that aren’t transparent and aren’t clear, this is the risk that is increased,” he said.
A day earlier at a press conference, Mr. Pompeo also used the term Wuhan virus. In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry Geng Shuang denounced America’s most senior diplomat.
“Despite the fact that the [World Health Organization] has officially named this novel type of coronavirus, [a] certain American politician, disrespecting science and the WHO decision, jumped at the first chance to stigmatize China and Wuhan with it. We condemn this despicable practice,” Mr. Geng said.
The spokesman also insisted that China has been providing “timely updates” on the epidemic.
“Mr. Pompeo’s attempt to smear China’s efforts will not succeed,” the spokesman said.
Mr. Xi, who took control of the official response to the outbreak in December, failed to prevent the Wuhan regional government from hosting a large-scale Lunar New Year’s dinner, and later did not prevent some 5 million people in Wuhan from leaving the city for the holiday, The Wall Street Journal reported this week.
The Chinese leader’s missteps early in the outbreak are widely viewed by medical experts as contributing to the globalization of the disease.
Stranger than fiction
The 1981 novel by author Dean Koontz, “The Eyes of Darkness,” contains a prescient account of what some say is unfolding now — a Chinese biological weapon from Wuhan.
Mr. Koontz wrote in the book: “In around 2020, a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments. Almost more befitting than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again 10 years later and then disappear completely.”
The plot also features a Chinese scientist who defects carrying a diskette containing a record of all the country’s most important and deadly biological weapons.
“They call the stuff ‘Wuhan-400’ because it was developed at their RDNA labs outside the city of Wuhan, and it was the 400th viable strain of man-made microorganism created at the research center,” the scientist explains.
Wuhan-400 is described in the novel as a perfect weapon, only affecting humans and unable to survive outside the human body for longer than a minute. It was thus unable to contaminate objects or places the way anthrax and other virulent microorganisms can.
Once the host dies, so does the Wuhan-400 a short time later, providing an ideal biowarfare weapon.
• Follow Bill Gertz on Twitter @BillGertz.