None of the 23 analysts at the anti-propaganda office who have been tasked with countering Russian “disinformation” even speaks Russian, while a partial hiring freeze ordered by Tillerson has prevented the department from hiring IT professionals capable of tracking Russian experts.
The U.S. press is currently in an uproar over the shoddy state of affairs at the Department of State’s new propaganda department, the Global Engagement Center (GEC) — with blame being laid squarely on the shoulders of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
In our March 1 article on the Center, we detailed how the office – which was created in 2016 under then-President Barack Obama to counter Salafi-jihadist propaganda, before being assigned the formidable task of countering state media outlets like Russia’s RT – has been accused of being “low priority, understaffed and without real leadership,” despite being awarded $40 million in additional funding by the Pentagon.
We ended the article by raising the question:
Whether the new Washington propaganda initiative is another high-dollar boondoggle rendered impotent by bureaucracy and incoherence or a sleek Orwellian nightmare capable of effectively manufacturing consent is yet to be seen.”
It didn’t take long – less than a week, to be exact – before the U.S. press confirmed the former to be the case, underscoring the rudderless leadership the Trump administration has provided for vital departments and agencies of the U.S. imperialist state.
On Monday, stories about the GEC’s failure to spend any of the $120 million it has been allocated since 2016 dominated headlines, with publications like The New York Times implying that Tillerson was neglecting this important means to “counter foreign efforts to meddle in elections or sow distrust in democracy.”
Tillerson himself has largely cast doubt on attempts to prevent Russia from “interfering” in U.S.’s 2018 midterm elections, telling Fox News:
[I]f the point is [whether] it’s [Russia’s] intention to interfere, they’re going to find ways to do that. And we can take steps we can take, but this is something that once they decide they’re going to do it, it’s very difficult to preempt it.”
According to the Times, Tillerson was offered $60 million from Defense Department coffers for the purpose of fighting alleged “Russian election interference efforts” in 2017 in coordination with the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security, but his inability over the course of seven months to decide whether to spend the money resulted in a withdrawal of the offer by the DoD.
For the 2018 fiscal year, another $60 million was offered, after which he “dickered for another five months over how much the State Department could have.” He eventually received $40 million, a mere third of what had originally been offered for the GEC.
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The GEC currently runs on a skeleton crew of 60 people divided into five teams working in four languages: Arabic, French, Somali and Urdu, a clear reflection of the Middle Eastern and African orientation of the office’s original mission. According to the Times, the office has notched “significant victories,” primarily a pair of videos aimed at undermining Islamic State group (ISIS) propaganda.
None of the 23 analysts at the GEC who have been tasked with countering Russian “disinformation” even speaks Russian, while a partial hiring freeze ordered by Tillerson has prevented the department from hiring IT professionals capable of tracking Russian experts.
In a letter dated Monday, Reps. Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Joaquin Castro (D-TX) pressed Tillerson on his lack of gusto in tackling Russia’s “subversion” of U.S. democracy:
The Department’s lack of spending for the [Global Engagement Center] is yet another example of the Trump administration’s failure to use the tools Congress provides to adequately respond to Russia’s 2016 election interference and counter its efforts to subvert our upcoming elections in November.”
In addition to the Global Engagement Center, the U.S. government also funds Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFERL) – the parent company of the Russian-language Radio Svoboda and a state-media and public-diplomacy outlet not unlike RT America or China’s CGTN – to the tune of $117.4 million in the 2017 fiscal year, according to an RFERL fact sheet. Originally formed by the CIA during the Cold War, the taxpayer-funded public diplomacy (or propaganda) outfit is now run by an independent agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
In a recent article for Foreign Policy magazine, a publication that leans decidedly toward NATO and the West, senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, Mark Galeotti, admits that a “total warfare” doctrine to weaponize media for the purpose of “propaganda and subversion” — which he had ascribed to a Kremlin heavyweight, and which had taken on a life of its own in foreign policy circles — simply doesn’t exist. Galeotti’s erroneous identification and naming of the nonexistent doctrine had been keenly picked up by RFERL, which Galeotti describes as a “U.S. government-funded TV and radio service broadcasting to Russia and other unfree countries.”
Clearly the “fog of war” extends to and envelops propaganda war. Even among experts, there appears to be a good deal of confusion about when or whether one is even being waged, let alone what steps should be taken to counter it.
Top Photo | Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks about the relationship between the U.S. and countries in Africa, at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va, March 6, 2018. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
Elliott Gabriel is a former staff writer for teleSUR English and a MintPress News contributor based in Quito, Ecuador. He has taken extensive part in advocacy and organizing in the pro-labor, migrant justice and police accountability movements of Southern California and the state’s Central Coast.