WASHINGTON – Daniel Kimmage may have one of the most daunting jobs in Washington.
He’s charged with countering Russian disinformation across the globe from his perch in a small corner of the State Department. He also has to worry about distortions and meddling from Iran, China, and North Korea – along with anti-American messages from extremist terrorist groups.
To accomplish that, Kimmage’s office – called the Global Engagement Center – doesn’t have the budget Congress promised, doesn’t have full authority to hire top-notch experts, and doesn’t have a clear mandate from the White House.
“It’s a 19th Century bureaucracy using 20th Century tools against a 21st Century adversary,” said Michael Lumpkin, a former Navy SEAL who ran the Global Engagement Center during the Obama administration.
“I’ve had many jobs in my life, from commanding men and women in combat to being CEO of defense companies,” Lumpkin added. “But the toughest job I ever had was being at the GEC, bar none.”
Kimmage is well-suited to lead the GEC. He’s fluent in Russian and Arabic, and he has studied disinformation extensively, particularly the way al-Qaida and other extremist groups have used images and ideas to brand their ideology. Plus, he doesn’t like the limelight, an important quality in a job that requires an inconspicuous, nose-to-the-grindstone persona.
Not surprisingly, the 48-year-old Kimmage declined to be interviewed for this story.
But a State Department official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said that under Kimmage’s stewardship, the GEC has started to cultivate a new “ecosystem” to counter disinformation from Russia and other malign actors.
“This a very dynamic and fluid space,” the official said. “There have been obstacles and challenges … but we have made a lot of progress.”
The Global Engagement Center is supposed to be America’s premier agency fighting propaganda in an era of weaponized information – tasked with exposing and countering disinformation designed to undermine U.S. national security and democracy.
Lawmakers in Congress gave the GEC that mission in December 2016, as part of a sweeping defense bill and in response to Russia’s extensive meddling in the U.S. presidential election.
“The U.S. government has been asleep at the wheel,” Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said in a 2016 statement hailing the GEC’s creation. Operating under a different name with a smaller mission, the GEC had a $35 million budget to combat messaging from radical terrorist groups.
But in 2016, Congress authorized the GEC to get up to $60 million in additional funds from the Department of Defense for its anti-propaganda mission. “We are going to confront this threat head-on,” the Ohio Republican said at the time.
After two years of bureaucratic red tape and stonewalling, the GEC still doesn’t have access to that extra money, although at least $20 million of it may be available soon. Yet, even when the funds start flowing, Kimmage and his 70-plus staff have just a couple weeks to spend it, before the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1. The GEC has also been laboring under an agency-wide hiring freeze at the State Department, which has made it difficult to bring on new experts.
In a statement to USA TODAY, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said “communications campaigns that expose and counter disinformation from competitor nations are more important than ever. The Global Engagement Center plays a key part in preserving peace through strength.”
The State Department official said the agency has been able to add more than two dozen data scientists and other experts to its team, using transfers and waivers to bring them on board.
And despite the budget delays, the GEC has managed to fund three projects with an initial $1 million the agency transferred from another pot. The agency would not disclose the specifics, but a spokesman said all three initiatives are designed to strengthen Russia’s neighbors in Eastern Europe from destabilizing distortions flooding across their borders via Sputnik, covert Kremlin-created news sites, and fake social media accounts.
The GEC is also working with high-tech firms in Silicon Valley and elsewhere to nurture new technologies that could be used in the information war. One example: an app that could prevent images, videos and other data from being altered or manipulated.
It could be used by aid workers on the front lines in places like Syria, where Russia is working to prop up the brutal regime of Bashar Assad and spreading false information about a possible chemical weapons attack against Syrian civilians.
“We can’t just simply fire off messages,” the State Department official said, even though it might “feel good” to respond tit-for-tat to the Kremlin’s trolls and bots. Instead, the GEC is “trying to reframe the conversation.”
Some experts say the GEC has started to make a difference.
“We always faced a joined-up threat from all layers of the Russian government,” said Peter Doran, president of the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington think tank focused on Europe and Russia. “Our response was not equally combined. That’s now changing thanks to the GEC.”
Others are not convinced. Critics say the GEC was not particularly successful in its previous incarnation, when it was just focused on combatingextremist messaging.
“And now you’ve given them a much bigger mission and asked them to do more,” said Thomas Hill, a former senior congressional staffer for the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “I don’t know of a single organization that’s ever failed at a small mission and then succeeded a large mission.”
Add in the funding delays and the hiring glitches, and it’s hardly a recipe for success, Hill said.
Others say the White House has not made the GEC’s mission a priority. Kimmage, for example, is only serving in the job temporarily, while the White House seeks a permanent director for the agency.
CNN recently reported that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was considering Lea Gabrielle, a Fox News reporter and former Navy pilot, for the job.
A State Department spokesman declined to comment on personnel changes, but said Pompeo expects to name a permanent GEC chief soon.
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