POLITICO Outraged Tillerson Not Spending $80 Million On Anti-ISIS Ads That May Or May Not Work


Former State Department officials are coming out of the woodwork to rip Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for sitting on funds assigned to a department office that counters ISIS propaganda and Russian disinformation campaigns.

The officials say their former colleagues are frustrated that Tillerson has not requested the transfer of $60 million from the Pentagon to State’s Global Engagement Center, an organization created last year to “diminish the influence of international terrorist organizations.” They are further miffed that the secretary of state appears in no hurry to tap $19.8 million in program funds already in the department’s bank account, Politico reported Wednesday.

As current and former officials tell it, Tillerson’s hesitation to authorize the funds is the latest example of the suspicion the former ExxonMobil CEO supposedly has for the career officers at State, who feel marginalized by a cabal of outsiders now running the show at Foggy Bottom. The foreign affairs professionals at State are dumbfounded that a secretary of state would not be in a hurry to spend money appropriated to his own department.

“This is an extraordinary example of the dysfunction that is ripping through the State Department,” former U.S. diplomat Brett Bruen told Politico. “What we’re seeing is a small group of people with very thin knowledge making all the decisions in a very centralized and isolated process. It causes unnecessary delays and confusion.”

Tillerson’s inaction on Global Engagement Center funding is especially egregious, officials say, because the office is supposedly the U.S. government’s primary vehicle for mitigating terrorist recruitment campaigns and anti-American propaganda from adversarial governments. Though its original mandate was to coordinate U.S. counterterrorism messaging to foreign audiences, the Obama administration expanded the mission to include countering disinformation campaigns from countries such as China and Russia.

The fight over funding comes amid Tillerson’s push to restructure the entire State Department. Part of that effort includes consolidating parallel operations and potentially closing certain offices deemed to be redundant or ineffective.

As for the Global Engagement Center, it remains unclear if the office has been effective in battling either terrorist or state-sponsored propaganda campaigns. At a House Committee on Armed Services hearing in March, several experts said U.S. counter-propaganda efforts are disjointed and lack a strategy tailored to specific threats.

“The sobering truth is we’re still far where we ultimately need to be to operate in the modern information environment,” Michael Lumpkin, coordinator of the Global Engagement Center under the Obama administration, told Congress.

State Department officials have previously acknowledged that it is difficult to prove if any of the counter-propaganda messaging is changing the views of its intended audience. The Global Engagement Center’s predecessor office, called the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, was widely deridedfor producing clumsy videos that were obviously U.S. government products.

Tillerson has demurred on releasing funds to the Global Engagement Center because he needs more details about how the office intends to use the money, department spokesman R.C. Hammond told Politico.

“They put in a request in for additional funding,” he said, referring to the Center’s staffers. “We asked them to map out a plan of how they would spend the money.”

Tillerson’s office has also justified the delay by citing concerns that Russia would see additional funding for the center as a deliberate provocation. The secretary is concerned that releasing the money will complicate ongoing negotiations with the Kremlin on sensitive issues such as Syria and the Russian intervention in Ukraine, a former State department official told Politico.

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