Posters urging people to vote in the European Parliament elections with a partial portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Warsaw, Poland, June 4, 2024.

Posters urging people to vote in the European Parliament elections with a partial portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Warsaw, Poland, June 4, 2024. Jaap Arriens / NurPhoto via Getty Images

A US agency focused on foreign disinformation could shut down after the election

The State Department’s Global Engagement Center recently opened an anti-Russian propaganda center in Poland, but needs congressional action to continue operations.

The State Department’s epicenter for combating disinformation worldwide could sunset this year if Congress doesn’t reauthorize it, a foreign policy official warned. 

“I cannot figure out why Congress wouldn't want people to do what I do every day, which is wake up in the morning and figure out how to fight Russian, Chinese, and Iranian disinformation and propaganda,” James Rubin, the State Department’s special envoy and coordinator for the Global Engagement Center, said Tuesday during an Association of the U.S. Army event on cyber and information operations. “I think all Americans want that to happen. Unfortunately, a small number seem to think we do something else which we don't do, which is operate in the United States. And we've fallen into a guilt-by-association situation where people think we're doing something we're not doing in the United States.” 

Republican lawmakers have accused the GEC of censoring and surveilling Americans. And two conservative media outlets, the Daily Caller and the Federalist, in May filed a lawsuit alleging the Biden administration violated free speech rights by encouraging social media companies to delegitimize the publications. 

Funding for the center—about $61 million a year—could expire if Congress doesn’t reauthorize it later this year. If that happens, it would shut down amid continuing U.S. struggles with global perceptions and its own influence operations.

Increasing disinformation operations out of Russia and China have raised concerns at the State Department. And the department has recently focused on providing partner nations in the Indo-Pacific access to reliable internet and “accurate journalism” to combat the false narratives.

Rubin’s comments came during a U.S. presidential election year—with more than 50 elections globally—as public concerns about foreign interference through either cyber attacks or influence campaigns are heightened. 

“The GEC is an unusual entity,” he said. It was created by two senators, who said “‘Now we’re  in a great power competition. And Russia and China are conducting this information warfare, and we need an organization that can work on it.’ And so they created the GEC's mandate, seven years ago.” 

The GEC has had a tumultuous history in its short tenure. Several analysts left the organization in 2017, with the former chief technology officer citing challenges with bureaucracy amid competing missions. And Rubin said the GEC butted heads with the State Department’s culture in its early days. 

“The State Department didn't quite know what to do with this thing called the GEC. And we had to, you know, accommodate ourselves to a State Department culture, which tends, for example…not to want to always say what the Russians and Chinese are doing [is] bad, but only want to emphasize what the United States is doing good,” Rubin said. “So a GEC that's, that's telling the hard truths about Russia, or the hard truths about China, wasn't an immediate good fit in the State Department. But over seven years, that has improved.” 

In the years since its inception, the center has expanded, built relationships, and shined a spotlight on Russian disinformation in Africa and Latin America. Earlier this year, the GEC teamed with Poland to create a Kremlin-focused anti-propaganda center with representatives from 12 countries, including Ukraine and several NATO members.   

But losing funding could put the U.S. even more behind in its battle to win hearts and minds abroad.  

“We've built relationships of trust between people who work in the public diplomacy area, with those who work in the most secret programs the United States has, so that we can expose these operations as I've described. And they trust each other,” Rubin said. “And then you build that trust, and it's built up over seven years. But naturally, just as it's finally starting to kick into gear, it's going to sunset at the end of this year. And by that I mean that its authorization will end in December. And unless Congress passes a new authorization, the GEC as it currently exists, will end.”