State Department touts counter-propaganda funds without mentioning Russia

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Washington (CNN)The State Department will get $40 million in new funding to fight disinformation from foreign countries, the agency said Monday in a long-awaited announcement that avoided mentioning Russia by name.

The funding for the State Department's Global Engagement Center had been a source of tension between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and lawmakers -- not because it wasn't available, but because Tillerson waited months before requesting the money from the Department of Defense.
Congress had mandated the initiative to counter propaganda and disinformation after Russia's meddling in the 2016 US election. Lawmakers and career foreign service officers were deeply critical when Tillerson didn't move to use any of the funding, and cited his inaction as another example of the agency's dysfunction.
In Monday's announcement, the State Department said the $40 million will be used, in part, to create an Information Access Fund that will support public and private partners who focus on fighting back against foreign disinformation.
    "Civil society groups, media content providers, nongovernmental organizations, federally funded research and development centers, private companies, and academic institutions will be eligible to compete for grants" from the GEC to counter propaganda and disinformation, the department said in a statement.
    Senior US officials have repeatedly warned that Russia is already targeting the US midterm elections in November, while Tillerson has spoken of Russian attempts to interfere with elections in Europe and warned Mexico about Moscow meddling in elections there set for July. President Donald Trump still hasn't publicly and unequivocally accepted the unanimous findings of US intelligence agencies that Russia worked to interfere in the 2016 race.
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    "This funding is critical to ensuring that we continue an aggressive response to malign influence and disinformation and that we can leverage deeper partnerships with our allies, Silicon Valley, and other partners in this fight," said Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Steve Goldstein.
    "It is not merely a defensive posture that we should take, we also need to be on the offensive," Goldstein said in a statement.
    The GEC is a multiagency effort created in 2016 and housed at the State Department. It replaced an earlier group that was charged with fighting online messaging from terror groups such as the Islamic State, but was frequently criticized for being ineffectual.
    In its new form, and with this new funding, the State Department will initially award $5 million in grants from the Information Access Fund, and will consult with Congress about $1 million in "seed money" from a public diplomacy account "to kick start the initiative quickly."