WHEN AHMED YOUNIS first took a job at the State Department in September of 2016, the cross-country commute between his office in Washington, DC and his home in Los Angeles, where his wife and daughter live, seemed worth it. An Islamic scholar and college professor, he had been asked to help lead the State Department’s newly formed Global Engagement Center, whose mission is to fight terrorist propaganda, as well as the state-sponsored variety that Russia proliferated in the run-up to the 2016 election. For Younis, who had studied terrorist organizations and their messaging, the critical need for this kind of work made the weekly bicoastal trek worth it.
But one year later, the GEC’s once-promising mission had become paralyzed by what Younis calls “administrative incompetence.” A lack of coherent policy priorities at the State Department and the absence of subject matter expertise among President Trump’s political appointees made it impossible to execute, Younis says. And so, just 11 months into the job, he, along with two other high-level analysts, left.
“Before the inauguration there was a very clear perspective on what the Global Engagement Center was supposed to be,” Younis recalls. “Once it became clear that wasn’t the reality, it made no sense for me to sacrifice that much for this government job.”
The US anti-propaganda effort extends beyond just the GEC; other corridors of the State Department and the Department of Defense monitor Russia’s actions closely, as well. But even as Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle interrogate US tech companies about their role in disseminating this disinformation, former State Department staffers say that the government agency specifically tasked with analyzing and combating this issue has effectively been frozen.
“The headline is: There’s nothing that’s being done,” said one former State Department staffer. “On this issue of state aggression, I would say we’re doing almost zilch.”
President Obama created the Global Engagement Center with an executive order in March of 2016. Its initial purpose was to track terrorist propaganda and disinformation online, to work across government agencies to craft coherent anti-terrorist messaging, and work with other governments and grassroots organizations to fight information warfare abroad. Much of the work focused on non-state threats, like ISIS, but the 2016 election demonstrated that state-sponsored disinformation, particularly from Russia, could have calamitous effects on democracies as well.
In July of last year, Republican senator Rob Portman and Democratic senator Chris Murphy introduced the Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act, which created a second mission for the GEC: attacking state-sponsored propaganda. Even though the US government was aware of Russian meddling in the presidential election earlier, it wasn’t until December, when President Obama signed the bill into law as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, that responding to this new threat fell under the GEC’s purview.
‘Countering terrorist messaging is a much different challenge than countering state sponsored propaganda.’
ROMESH RATNESAR, FORMER CHIEF OF STAFF FOR UNDER SECRETARY FOR PUBLIC DIPLOMACY AND PUBLIC AFFAIRS
Initially, State Department officials expressed some skepticism that the GEC, essentially an 80-person startup within the State Department, could handle this new mission, says Romesh Ratnesar, former chief of staff in the office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. “There was definitely concern that this was more than what the GEC could handle,” he says. “Countering terrorist messaging is a much different challenge than countering state sponsored propaganda.”
But Younis and other members of the team believed the key to understanding both threats was understanding how people are persuaded into beliefs online, and knowing how to counter those messages in speeches, on social media, and on the ground, with help from grassroots organizations. He also believed the GEC could act as the connective tissue between government agencies—from the Department of Defense to the State Department—that had already confronted the issue.
When President Trump took office, appointing former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson to be Secretary of State, Younis anticipated the usual bureaucratic hurdles that accompany any new administration. But the hurdles his team faced in the first year of Trump’s tenure were higher than anyone expected.
Under the Trump administration, Younis says, the coordinated plan to fight Russian disinformation and propaganda has failed to launch. The GEC has languished in the face of ongoing budget debates, a State Department-wide hiring freeze, and inconsistent views over how, exactly, the United States ought to engage with Russia.
The Trump team took a—well-documented—bare-bones approach to the presidential transition, forgoing the customary in-depth briefings with their predecessors in the outgoing administration. According to Ratnesar, he and the Under Secretary of State met with two members of the Trump transition team, neither of whom currently work in the administration, for just an hour. “We were prepared to talk about the GEC in some detail, and we were surprised they didn’t ask us about it,” Ratnesar says.
After the inauguration, the central challenge was securing the budget President Obama approved for the GEC, which set aside up to $60 million per year for two years to fight state-sponsored propaganda. That money was to be transferred from the Department of Defense to the Department of State, but initiating that transfer was entirely up to the Secretary of State’s discretion. Younis says his team spent months demonstrating how the money would be allocated and why the anti-state sponsored propaganda work was indeed valuable, to no avail.
“We did not get the sense we were getting through to Secretary Tillerson,” he says. “You’re in this holding pattern where you’re designing and building, but unable to implement, because the money has not arrived.”
Asked what parts of the Russia mission his team was able to execute on, Younis replied: “Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.”
According to a State Department official, the GEC’s entire operating budget for 2017—about $36 million—went toward its original counterterrorism mission. It wasn’t until August that Tillerson approved a $40 million transfer from the Pentagon to the GEC, money that won’t kick in until January 2018. At that point, the official said, the GEC plans to launch a series of pilot projects related to state-sponsored propaganda. “The decision to request the DoD funds came after a review and then realignment of GEC programs to match national security priorities and to ensure that this funding will be used as effectively as possible in the effort to counter state-sponsored disinformation,” the official said.
‘You’re in this holding pattern where you’re designing and building, but unable to implement, because the money has not arrived.’
FORMER GEC STAFFER AHMED YOUNIS
Reports have suggestedthat the Tillerson-led State Department is avoiding any moves that might anger Moscow. President Trump has, after all, made clear his intention to improve US relations with Russia, in part to jointly combat the spread of ISIS in Syria. But Younis says he never heard any such politically motivated arguments against fighting Russian propaganda. Instead, he says, the mission suffered from a lack of a coherent policy about how to engage with Russia at all.
“You didn’t get the sense that everyone was singing from the same sheet of music,” Younis says, noting that often, he got a clearer view about State Department policy from reading Twitter and watching the news than he did speaking with Tillersons’ own staff.
“It was passive aggressively, bureaucratically being ignored,” says the other former State Department employee.
That many of President Trump’s appointees aren’t subject matter experts in the areas they were chosen to oversee complicates matters further. It led to an environment, Younis says, in which he and his team often had to educate senior appointees about the fundamentals of counterterrorism strategy—or, as he describes it, “teaching people how to drive stick shift.” One such debate involved the use of the terms “Islamic terrorism” or “Islamist terrorism,” or whether terrorism ought to be rhetorically associated with Islam at all. Most researchers know where they stand on the issue, Younis says, but “in the political realm, everything’s up for grabs.”
That type of confusion resulted a year of inaction by the GEC regarding Russia’s disinformation campaign, which Republican representative Will Hurd, a former CIA agent, recently referred to as the “greatest covert action campaign in the history of Mother Russia.”
The former GEC staffers at least find some comfort in the efforts of other State Department groups, which fund and support media and civil society organizations in former Soviet countries, and US intelligence agencies, which continue to monitor Russian efforts to hack American electoral infrastructure and spread its influence on social media.
“The GEC is only one part of the broader story,” says Ratnesar. “More could and should be done in a more strategic way, but I wouldn’t say nothing is happening.”
Younis agrees. “The men and women of government who are subject matter experts and career officers will always do the work they were trained and hired to do,” he says. “That work will continue.”
Even so, he stresses the need for a central unifying body that ensures all government agencies are presenting a unified front against this threat. Today, more than a year after the election that helped illustrate its severity, the people whose mission it is to address that threat are still awaiting direction.