We’ve written recently about widespread concerns in the foreign policy community — both within and outside the State Department — over the management, direction and role of the State Department under former oil company chief executive Rex Tillerson. The combination of unfilled political slots, insular leadership, failure to defend the department’s budget, and a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of democracy and values in our foreign relations have made this the worst-run and least-effective State Department in recent memory — yes, worse than the Obama years, my conservative friends.
Now the amateurism and arrogance has reached constitutional dimensions. On the day President Trump grudgingly and without public ceremony signs Russia sanctions legislation, State has managed to undermine the impression we are serious about curbing Russian behavior.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is resisting the pleas of State Department officials to spend nearly $80 million allocated by Congress for fighting terrorist propaganda and Russian disinformation.
It is highly unusual for a Cabinet secretary to turn down money for his department. But more than five months into his tenure, Tillerson has not issued a simple request for the money earmarked for the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, $60 million of which is now parked at the Pentagon. Another $19.8 million sits untouched at the State Department as Tillerson’s aides reject calls from career diplomats and members of Congress to put the money to work against America’s adversaries.
This is money already appropriated by Congress that Tillerson is legally obligated to spend. The notion that money to combat Russian espionage and subversion of Western democracies should not be spent merely underscores the sickening suspicion that Trump puts Russian interests above America’s. (A former State Department official is quoted in the Politico article saying, “The Global Engagement Center is one of the few, if only, areas in the U.S. government that could be tasked with countering and rebutting disinformation against America.”)
Moreover, there is a display of executive-suite bickering in which R.C. Hammond, a top communications person at State and former Newt Gingrich spokesman with no particular foreign policy expertise and zero State Department experience, typifies the secretary’s stubborn refusal to enlist people in the building who know what they are doing:
Hammond threw up objections to the request on multiple fronts, the former senior State official said. Hammond indicated to officials involved with the Global Engagement Center that with the department facing potential budget and staffing cuts, it didn’t make sense to take an infusion of new funds, the former senior State official said. Hammond also questioned why the U.S. doesn’t ask other governments, particularly in Muslim countries, to play a larger role in the information battle.
Hammond further expressed hesitation about needling the Russians at a time when Tillerson was trying to find common ground with the Kremlin on sensitive matters such as the war in Syria.
The reaction to this may dwarf blowback to any other single episode because Tillerson and his gang are defying Congress, Republicans in particular who pushed for the legislation. Moreover, as one former State Department hand put it to me, “This is so obviously, ridiculously stupid in so many ways — it’s like being asked to explain why it might not be such a good idea to chop off one’s own fingers one by one.”) One State Department official not authorized to speak on the record suggested to me that Hammond would not be likely to play an active policy role.
“I find it incomprehensible that the Department of State would not be making the most of all available resources to combat Russian information operations,” remarks former ambassador Eric Edelman. “Combating Russian disinformation has been a basic task for the Department for a long time. On the fact of it I don’t see how the U.S.government exposing lies and distortions about the U.S. and U.S. policy would ‘anger’ Russian officials any more than they already are. Russian information warfare (which extends well beyond cyber intrusions, and agit/prop to include electronic warfare, etc.) is an area that is crying out for a U.S. response.”
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who co-authored the legislation, are appropriately irate. In a written statement, they declared:
“Congress has provided substantial resources to combat foreign propaganda, particularly from Russia. There is broad agreement that the U.S. Government is behind the curve on this threat,” said Portman. “Countering foreign propaganda should be a top priority, and it is very concerning that progress on combatting this problem is being delayed because the State Department isn’t tapping into these resources. The State Department should take swift action to fully fund the GEC and ensure that it is capable of carrying out the purposes Congress directed, particularly as they relate to Russia and other state-sponsored foreign disinformation.”
“This is indefensible. Every day, ISIS is spreading terrorist propaganda and Russia is implementing a sophisticated disinformation campaign to undermine the United States and our allies. There should be no doubt these are critical challenges to our national security. My bill with Senator Portman finally set our country up to fight back. Congress did our part, now it’s up to the administration to pick up the ball and run with it,” said Murphy. “I strongly urge Secretary Tillerson to take this issue seriously and use the tools and resources he has at his disposal to stand up to our adversaries.”
That’s a widely held view by those who have served in the State Department. “Expanding the capacity of the Global Engagement Center is critical,” says former Obama State Department official and Russia hawk Max Bergmann. “It is the most direct and important tool we have to counter Russian active measures campaigns that target us and our democratic allies, especially in Eastern Europe.” He adds, “Turning down the money needed to expand our efforts is just incomprehensible from a policy standpoint. You really have to start asking questions about Tillerson’s motivations.” He concludes, “It is becoming abundantly clear that Trump and Tillerson want to pursue a policy of appeasement toward Russian aggression. That sort of weakness just invites further aggression and aggression and is incredibly dangerous.”
Bergmann is not alone in seeing the importance of combating Russian efforts to destabilize the West. But regardless of the merits, this issue was decided when Congress passed a law and appropriated funds. “When Congress has passed and the president signed a law appropriating funds, the Secretary of State can’t simply decline to spend them,” says former assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor Tom Malinowski. “This goes beyond the usual self-defeating dysfunction of Tillerson’s management of the State Department, or his already well-established disinterest in confronting Russian threats to Western democracy. It shows contempt for his legal responsibilities, which Congress can and should do something about.”
For starters, Congress should call Tillerson up to the Hill to find out what is going on over there. Does he understand spending appropriated money is not optional? Is the State Department really afraid to defend against Russian counterintelligence and use our own resources against the Kremlin? Is this a result of some kind of directive from the White House?
We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Tillerson is in over his head, and his continued dependence on a small clique of advisers is proving disastrous. If White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly is really on his game, he’ll recommend that Trump fire Tillerson and get professional leadership installed at Foggy Bottom. Right now the State Department is causing more problems for the United States than it is solving.