Two U.S. senators are demanding that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson quickly tap into $80 million in available funds to counter propaganda by Russia and terrorist groups, with one lawmaker calling his delay in using the money "indefensible."
The comments by Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut came in response to a POLITICO story that detailed how Tillerson has taken no action to spend the money, allocated last year by Congress, possibly over concerns that it could hurt his efforts to reduce tensions with Russia.
“This is indefensible," Murphy said in a statement Wednesday. "Every day, [the Islamic State] is spreading terrorist propaganda and Russia is implementing a sophisticated disinformation campaign to undermine the United States and our allies. 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.”
Added Portman: “Countering foreign propaganda should be a top priority, and it is very concerning that progress on combating this problem is being delayed because the State Department isn’t tapping into these resources."
Portman and Murphy were behind legislation that allocated $60 million this fiscal year to the State Department so that it can counter Russian disinformation campaigns that U.S. intelligence officials believe influenced the 2016 election.
The $60 million is supposed to fund the Global Engagement Center, an interagency unit established last year and based at the State Department that specializes in countering propaganda. The $60 million is currently parked at the Pentagon, waiting on Tillerson’s request for a transfer.
Another $19.8 million is in State’s coffers, but has not been given to the center, according to sources inside and outside the State Department. That chunk of money is supposed to focus on countering terrorist propaganda.
The $60 million will be unavailable for use if not transferred by Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, officials told POLITICO. The fate of the $19.8 million is unclear. Another $60 million will be available for transfer in fiscal year 2018.
The State Department’s press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the senators’ statements. Tillerson spokesman R.C. Hammond has previously told POLITICO that officials have not presented a clear plan for how to spend the money, an assertion disputed by a former State Department official.
According to the former official, Tillerson aides have given varying reasons why he has held off on requesting and spending the funds, including his desire to avoid major decisions before implementing his plan to reshape and shrink the department.
But during the discussions, one aide also mentioned that Tillerson is trying to work through disagreements with Russia, and that the center’s work could undermine that effort, the former senior State official said.