WASHINGTON — The State Department is only now getting started to combat Russian meddling in U.S. politics, even as intelligence officials warn of threats to the 2018 midterm elections.
An agreement to transfer $40 million from the Defense Department to State’s Global Engagement Center is expected to be approved this week to counter Russian influence that began before the 2016 presidential election, said Daniel Kimmage, the center’s acting coordinator.
The center initially focused on countering terrorist propaganda, but Congress ordered it last August to add a new mission as well: election meddling by foreign governments.
The center’s job “is to focus on the issue of disinformation, whether it comes from Russia or China or any other country,” Steven Goldstein, the State Department undersecretary for public diplomacy, told reporters in January.
In an interview, however, Kimmage painted a different picture. He said senior leaders spend a third of their time on the “counter-state mission,” meaning mostly Russia. And the staff is primarily focused on counterterrorism efforts.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats testified Tuesday that the Russian meddling campaign continues. “Throughout the entire (intelligence) community, we haven’t seen any evidence of any significant change since last year,” Coats told the Senate Select Intelligence Committee.
A Democratic report on the Russian influence campaign abroad said the center’s efforts against Russia “have been stymied by the department’s hiring freeze and unnecessarily long delays” in transferring funds to support that mission.
The new funding willmore than double the center’s resources, which is currently $35 million, of which $19.8 million is earmarked for countering Islamic State propaganda and the rest is aimed at counterterrorism overall. When funded, the center’s added mission will be to coordinate U.S. government agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, with allies and non-governmental organizations, to combat state-sponsored disinformation, primarily from Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.
Russia’s influence has been well documented in the U.S. and abroad.
During and since the 2016 presidential election, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that hackers working for the Russian government used cyberattacks to undermine Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and help the prospects of Republican candidate Donald Trump. Special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating whether any collusion occurred between Trump’s campaign and the Russians, and has charged four former campaign staffers.
Russian efforts to influence the U.S. political conversation continued last summer, by amplifying extremist voices on immigration, police brutality and racial issues. This winter they helped spread the campaign to release a memo by Republican House staffers about President Trump’s allegations that he was wiretapped by the Obama administration.
In Europe, Russia has meddled in the affairs of more than two dozen countries since 2004, with alleged interference that ranges from cyberattacks to disinformation campaigns and an attempted coup in Montenegro.
The center was created in 2016 by President Barack Obama to counter extremist propaganda and disinformation produced by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. To date that remains its first priority.
The new State Department effort will adapt some approaches to counterterrorism to the counter Russian work, and provide research-based best practices to U.S. agencies and allies.
In interviews with USA TODAY, Kimmage and his deputies at the center described combining modern advertising tools for reaching specific target audiences with research from around the world on successful approaches to countering Islamic State and al-Qaeda propaganda.
The research is shared with other agencies, including the military, and with partners that can implement various methods in places such as Iraq, Egypt and South Asia.
That approach will be adapted for the center’s new mission, which will focus primarily on Russia, Kimmage said.
Some of that work has already begun, Kimmage and Goldstein told USA TODAY.
Top managers have been working with other government agencies, the White House and technology companies, “encouraging them to help us in this fight,” Goldstein said.
He met with executives from Google in January, Twitterin February, and plans to meet with Facebook, he said. They discussed shutting down “bots” — thousands of automated accounts that spew misleading information — and to speed up the removal of posts and videos that target U.S. audiences to recruit terrorists, disrupt American society or spread ads to influence U.S. politics.
And the center is working to combat efforts by Iran to block their citizens’ access to truthful information, and propaganda efforts by China and North Korea.
“There’s no question that Russia has tried to spread disinformation, but they are not the only one,” Goldstein said.
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