Who Will Stem Media Attacks from Hostile Powers?

By Joe B. Johnson

On the eve of the NATO Summit, our First Monday Forum examined the state of Russia’s information war – a key battle ground alongside its military aggression. Daniel Kimmage of the State Department’s Global Engagement Center described the state of play with this inter-agency unit, which is tasked with identifying hostile disinformation programs of Russia, China, and other adversaries.

It's not encouraging.

The GEC’s 150 personnel work on an annual budget of $60 million. China alone spends billions on “foreign information manipulation efforts."  Most of the GEC's effort goes to identifying false stories and the programs to spread them that are carried out by our adversaries. GEC packages that information for U.S. embassies and other parts of the U.S. government to expose and counter them. The GEC itself doesn’t do this itself because it hasn’t the resources, and also because other voices are more credible than an official office of the State Department. Most importantly, Kimmage repeated several times that its work “does not look at the U.S.”

So why is the GEC set to go out of business by the end of this year?

I can write what Kimmage can’t say. Some members of Congress have bought a disputed narrative that the GEC once supported others’ efforts to investigate the online activities of far-right American activists. They have managed to prevent an extension of GEC’s mandate. The office, established in 2017, sunsets on Dec. 24 barring an amendment to authorizing legislation.

This means that for no good reason, the U.S. Government is set to put out its eyes on attacks through the media that come from Russia, China, Iran, and other hostile actors.

Is there a Plan B? Kimmage said that State can continue “much of this work” under existing authorities. He did not disclose preparations to do so or to retain the experts from State, the Defense Department and intelligence entities that make up the GEC staff.

The work that GEC is doing needs drastic expansion, not dismantling. Kimmage was at pains to make the case that we’re making a serious dent in the deluge of propaganda and disinformation that damage U.S. and Western interests worldwide. He described GEC’s promotion of a counter-propaganda framework for all nations,  which sounds like a strategic move. But the framework is not well publicized; it’s not even evident on the GEC home page. I needed Google to find it in a January press release. And, as Kimmage admitted, the United States itself doesn’t have the first of the five elements in the framework: a national strategy.

I know how difficult it is to build up an inter-agency unit from experience dating to before the Al Qaeda attacks of 2001. State has made any number of false starts in the pursuit of whole-of-government offensives against hostile propaganda. Several other members of PDCA were involved in these efforts over the ensuing years, which were chronicled in a recent report by the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.

If there is a hopeful note, it is the very existence of a core of experts who are field-oriented and more connected to the rest of State than before. Kimmage is one of those government professionals with deep experience that make all of us a bit safer. This is something to build on, not to dismantle.

I can only hope that in fact the State Department, behind the scenes, is planning how to continue and expand this enterprise. Or that Congress will find a way to re-authorize the Global Engagement Center with a larger budget.
To watch the recording of the July 8, 2024, First Monday Forum with Daniel Kimmage, click here.