In December 2016, Congress codified into law the Global Engagement Center (GEC), an entity housed in the U.S. State Department and established to counter the threat of global information operations from countries like Russia and China, and non-state actors like ISIS. Today, the effort is struggling due to a lack of support for the mission within the Trump Administration, an absence of reliable funding, and a shortage of personnel to combat the most challenging threats in this space.
In contrast, our adversaries are dedicating greater resources, working with less bureaucratic boundaries, and engaging in information warfare with little moral or legal concern. Failing to address our shortfall leaves the United States and the American people vulnerable to foreign influence intended to undermine our democracy and civil society. Fortunately, Congress is at a unique moment where the political will exists to renew how the United States approaches information operations. As Congress debates the new National Defense Authorization Act, it can resolve this shortfall by elevating the GEC’s position within the U.S. government, strengthening its authority to direct government-wide efforts, and supporting the mission with dedicated funding.
The approach to repositioning this effort must be practical. Several options have been discussed to empower the GEC, such as elevating it within the State Department to give it more authority in day to day operations, but the State Department’s work is only one tool in a government-wide effort. The lead entity must be able to leverage the authority and effectiveness of the entire U.S. government. Others have suggested going as far as to re-establish an entity reflective of the former US Information Agency. Establishing the GEC as an independent agency could be viewed as a strong move to put the United States back on track but could be costly, time-consuming, and create unnecessary bureaucracy. Further, the tools to conduct the GEC’s mission largely already exist. By filling gaps and refocusing or expanding efforts, the United States could tackle this mission without having to establish a new agency.
The most effective solution would be to establish a senior White House position to oversee an interagency effort. This can address some of the GEC’s fundamental problems by bringing an ongoing picture to the president and his national security team, thereby elevating the importance of information operations in the day to day functions of the national security enterprise. It brings the individual efforts across government into a central location under a figure who has more practical authority to convene and direct efforts on behalf of the president. For such an official to be successful, future legislation should establish a senior official reporting directly to the president, make it a Senate-confirmed position to strengthen Congressional oversight, and establish a stream of dedicated funding to the departments and agencies to execute their functions in support of the mission.
This position would oversee an office where all findings and analysis come together to understand the total global picture in information operations. This includes efforts against the United States and its allies, efforts conducted by the United States and its allies, and the technical information that accompanies those efforts. This position would direct and coordinate how the U.S. government is leveraging its resources across the interagency for a comprehensive strategic effort. It would work collaboratively with the experts in each domain to assess capabilities, roles, and responsibilities but is limited to setting the strategic direction, the work is executed by the interagency members. Through ongoing assessment and evaluation, they would work to establish, refocus, or expand efforts to maintain a strategic advantage in the global environment.
The National Defense Authorization Act of 2017 took a positive step forward to put the United States back in the game of counter-propaganda efforts. The legislation, however, falls short in very practical ways. A new National Defense Authorization Act should establish a senior White House figure in the government to lead an interagency effort, leveraging every foreign and domestic capability in the U.S. arsenal, and doing so with dedicated funding. Global information operations continue to be a fast-moving environment and U.S. adversaries will continue to invest and exploit this space as long as the United States fails to lead.
Kevin Brown spent his early career working in issue advocacy and political campaigns. Since 2014, Kevin has spent his time in government working at the Department of Transportation in the Office of the Secretary of Transportation, at the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, and most recently at the Department of Defense.