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Why the State Department Is Not Spending Its $120m Budget to Counter Russian Disinformation

News Brief

Despite concerns that Russia is still pursuing its online war against the United States ahead of the midterm elections this fall, the State Department has yet to spend any of the $120 million it has been allocated to counter foreign meddling in the American democratic process, according to a New York Times report.

It is a symptom of what appears to be a largely passive response by the Trump administration towards Russia’s information operations, the paper says. President Trump himself has made scant public effort to rally the nation to confront Moscow and defend America’s democratic institutions.

But the delay in using the funds also appears to be linked to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s open skepticism about his department’s ability to execute its mission and spend money wisely.

The “Global Engagement Center” was set up in April 2016 under the Obama Administration to counter all forms of foreign propaganda and was then given the task of responding to Russian interference in the U.S. presidential elections that year. But none of the 23 analysts working in the center speak Russian, says the New York Times report. And hiring freezes imposed by Tillerson have prevented the recruitment of much-needed computer experts for tracking Russia’s online activities.

But in a recent interview, the Secretary of State signalled doubt as to whether there was much the U.S. government could do in response to Russian actions. “If it’s their intention to interfere, they’re going to find ways to do that,” Tillerson told Fox News. And the State Department almost lost the money, which was to be transferred from Pentagon funds, because he took so long to make the official request.

The delay in using the money has infuriated Congress, which first allocated the funding at the end of Barack Obama’s term with bipartisan support.

The State Department now says that the Pentagon will transfer $40 million for the effort in April. What will happen to the other $80 million is not clear.

Correction: an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Global Engagement Center (GEC) was set up to counter Russian interference in U.S. elections. The GEC was actually established to counter propaganda and disinformation efforts from terrorist organizations and foreign nations, and was subsequently tasked with countering Russian interference in the 2016 elections.