American Taxpayers Fund Propaganda Media Directed at Themselves

Posted by LighteningTurtle in response to a discussion related to why all the recent (January 2019) layoffs of reporters at Gannett, HuffPost, and BuzzFeed. Amber Merkel had posted this tweet:

amber merkel tweet

LighteningTurtle writes:

Long story short, this money isn’t responsible for the recent layoffs…because the money hasn’t run out yet, and the GEC fund, though delayed by Rex Tillerson for a year and a half, is now up and still going strong. I put together a timeline of the various versions of everything, as I was quite confused by the whole situation and I expect I’m not the only one. All emphasis mine.

Here’s what I’ve pieced together:

March 2016

March 14th

Developing an Integrated Global Engagement Center To Support Government-wide Counterterrorism Communications Activities Directed Abroad and Revoking Executive Order 13584

  • Signed by President Obama (D).
  • Purpose of order: to establish a “Global Engagement Center which shall lead the coordination, integration and synchronization of Government-wide communications activities directed at foreign audiences abroad in order to counter the messaging and diminish the influence of international terrorist organizations.”
  • Also disbanded the “Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication”, and replaced it with the GEC.

March 16th

S. 2692 (114th): Countering Information Warfare Act of 2016

  • Sponsored by Rob Portman (R-OH), and referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations.
  • Purpose of bill: to create a “Center for Information Analysis and Response” which would “[identify] current and emerging trends in foreign propaganda and disinformation, including the use of print, broadcast, online and social media, support for third-party outlets such as think tanks, political parties, and nongovernmental organizations, and the use of covert or clandestine special operators and agents to influence targeted populations and governments in order to coordinate and shape the development of tactics, techniques, and procedures to expose and refute foreign misinformation and disinformation and proactively promote fact-based narratives and policies to audiences outside the United States.”
  • Funding: “For fiscal years 2017 and 2018 $20,000,000 to support the Center and provide grants or contracts of financial support to civil society groups, journalists, nongovernmental organizations, federally funded research and development centers, private companies, or academic institutions”.
  • Granting funding to media: “The Center shall give grants to support local independent media who are best placed to refute foreign disinformation and manipulation in their own communities.“.
  • Justification: “It is the sense of Congress that foreign governments, including the Governments of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China, use disinformation and other propaganda tools to undermine the national security objectives of the United States…”
  • Not enacted, according to GovTrack.

May 2016

H.R. 5181 (114th): Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act of 2016

  • Sponsored by Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), and referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations.
  • The wording of the bill is identical to S. 2692.
  • Not enacted, according to GovTrack.

July 2016

S. 3274 (114th): Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act

  • Sponsored by Rob Portman (R-OH), and referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations.
  • Several key differences with H.R. 5181 and S. 2692:
  • Does not include the “sense of Congress” section, about Russia and China undermining U.S. national security objectives.
  • Removes “and the use of covert or clandestine special operators and agents to influence targeted populations and governments” to the functions to be carried out by the Center for Information Analysis and Response.
  • Specifically states “The activities under this subsection of the Center described in paragraph (1) shall be done only with the intent to influence foreign audiences. No funds for the activities of the team under this section may be used with the intent to influence public opinion in the United States.”
  • Funding: “Of amounts authorized to be appropriated for fiscal year 2017 for the Department of Defense and identified as undistributed fuel cost savings, up to $250,000,000 may be available for purposes of carrying out this section and the grant program established under section 3.” Emphasis mine.
  • Granting funding to media: same as March / June bill.
  • Not enacted, according to GovTrack.

December 2016

December 13th

S. 2943 (114th): National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017

Section 1287 is the relevant section:

  • Sponsored by John McCain (R-AZ).
  • Purpose of section: to codify the “Global Engagement Center” (GEC) whose purpose is identical to the July bill (in other words, not authorizing “clandestine special operators”. This is notable, as the GEC was established two days before even the March bill was introduced, but with a very different objective, and the organization which preceded the GEC also had a very different objective, and only $6,000,000 in annual funding.
  • Funding: Up to $80,000,000 for fiscal year 2017, and $80,000,000 for fiscal year 2018. Notably, this funding is not mandatory; if the funding each year is less than $80,000,000, the Secretary of Defense may transfer up to $60,000,000 to the Secretary of State for this purpose, but is not required to.
  • Does not include the section from the July bill about not allocating funds to influence public opinion in the United States.
  • The Center shall give grants “To support local independent media who are best placed to refute foreign disinformation and manipulation in their own communities.“. The wording of the bill does not specify whether these efforts are to take place in the United States, or elsewhere.
  • The GEC will be terminated in December of 2024.

December 23rd

Rob Portman (R-OH) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) announce that the “Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act has been signed into law as part of the FY 2017 National Defense Authorization Act” (see press release here. The report also states that the bill was “introduced by Senators Portman and Murphy in March”. What’s odd is that the word ‘foreign’ is missing from the title; no version of this bill was literally called the “Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act”.

August 2017

Rob Portman and Chris Murphy release a public statement criticizing the State Department for not requesting all of the funding appropriated for the GEC. This matches with the State Department’s own estimates from the middle of 2017, (pages 48 and 98 of this document), which report $12,161,000 in actual spending and estimates $31,971,000 in spending for the year. The State Department also requests $31,900,000 for the upcoming year.

February 2018

Rob Portman and Chris Murphy

Grants.gov announces a grant from the GEC called the Information Access Fund, expecting to make “multiple awards with a floor of $200,000 and a ceiling of $500,000 for each, constituting a planned total award volume of approximately $5,000,000”. The original grant is no longer available at grants.gov, but Duke’s Research Funding Database has an archive.

March 2018

The New York Times reports that “The State Department Was Granted $120 Million to Fight Russian Meddling. It has Spent $0”. Senators Portman and Murphy second this report, and request a timeline for the authorization of “the $40 million to support the effort promised in the agreement”.

It’s unclear how this matches up with the State Department’s funding reports from 2017.

December 2018

The Washington Times reports “The budget for the center this year reached $95 million in September when a cash infusion of $20 million was shifted from the Pentagon to the State Department”. The report states that the Information Access Fund (IAF) is the main outlet for this funding, with $10,000,000 now allocated for it, and has awarded “a million dollars already”.

Funding Propaganda Inside America

The bill does indeed authorize direct grants to media, and contains no restrictions about using such grants for news within the United States. The various claims I’m seeing (like Amber Merkel’s, here) say that the funding lasted until December of 2018, and totaled up to $160,000,000. This matches up with Section 1287 of the NDAA 2017.

However, the specific claim in OP’s post is incorrect. Though reports of funding vary wildly, the funding which could have been given to media would not have started in 2016 or run out in December of 2018. Additionally, given the funding troubles, the sheer scale of the layoffs seen last week is too large for the GEC alone to explain.

It’s unclear where the name “Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act” itself comes from, but even though it isn’t the name of the bill, it is what the sponsors referred to it as in their press conference. No idea what to read in the fact that ‘foreign’ was dropped.

None of this means that the GEC could not be used for this purpose now, or in the future.