The U.S. State Department was given $120 million to spend on countering foreign attempts to influence the upcoming midterm elections, but as of March, the department had spent not one penny of that money.
As a result, not one of the 23 analysts working in the department’s Global Engagement Center — which has been tasked with countering Moscow’s disinformation campaign — speaks Russian, and a department hiring freeze has hindered efforts to recruit the computer experts needed to track the Russian efforts.
The delay is just one symptom of the largely passive response to the Russian interference by President Trump, who has made little if any public effort to rally the nation to confront Moscow and defend democratic institutions. More broadly, the funding lag reflects a deep lack of confidence by [former] Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson in his department’s ability to execute its historically wide-ranging mission and spend its money wisely.
Tillerson went on the record in February essentially saying the U.S. cannot stop Russia if it truly wants to meddle:
“If it’s their intention to interfere, they’re going to find ways to do that,” Mr. Tillerson said in an interview last month with Fox News. “And we can take steps we can take, but this is something that once they decide they are going to do it, it’s very difficult to pre-empt it.”
But Tillerson had shown weak interest in obtaining the funds to take steps at all, spending seven months in limbo as he tried to determine whether any of the money should be spent.
The State Department finally sent a request to the Defense Department on Sept. 18 to transfer the funds, but with just days left in the fiscal year, Pentagon officials decided that the State Department had lost its shot at the money.
With another $60 million available for the next fiscal year, the two departments dickered for another five months over how much the State Department could have.
Only after reporting and questions by Politico and the New York Times did the State Department announce that the Pentagon would be releasing $40 million to get started on the effort. The funds were slated to be in hand at the State Department in April.
The delays have infuriated some members of Congress, which approved the funding transfer with bipartisan support.
“It is well past time that the State Department’s Global Engagement Center gets the resources Congress intended for it to effectively fight Kremlin-sponsored disinformation and other foreign propaganda operations,” Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Wednesday.
However, allowing funds to sit appeared a trend within Tillerson's State Department:
Last year, the State Department spent just 79 percent of the money that Congress had authorized for the conduct of foreign affairs, the lowest such level in at least 15 years and well down from the 93 percent spent in the final year of the Obama administration, according to an analysis of data from the Office of Management and Budget.
Because of the hiring and promotion freezes that have left large sums unspent, as well as Mr. Tillerson’s refusal to delegate spending decisions, the department had a backlog of more than 1,400 official requests for Mr. Tillerson’s signoff at the end of last year, according to a former senior diplomat who left the department then.
James K. Glassman, the under secretary for public diplomacy under George W. Bush, was not surprised by what was happening at the State Department.
“They’ve got the vehicle to do this work in the center,” Mr. Glassman said. “What they don’t have is a secretary of state or a president who’s interested in doing this work.”