Lawmakers may mandate a specific strategy for countering Russian disinformation if the State Department does not, a senior House Democrat warned.
"I urge you to come up with a strategy and work with Congress to implement it at once," New York Rep. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. "Otherwise, the House and Senate will look for legislative alternatives to direct the administration to treat the threats of Russia and ISIS with the seriousness they deserve."
That letter was spurred by reports that Tillerson has hesitated to make use of about $80 million that Congress provided for a counter-propaganda program. The delay has drawn bipartisan criticism, as well as allegations that Tillerson's team doesn't want to antagonize Russia by ramping up the program.
"I urge you to come up with a strategy and work with Congress to implement it at once," Engel wrote. "Doing nothing is not an option."
Engel's letter, sent Friday and released to the public Monday, is the latest congressional pressure for Tillerson to ramp up a so-called Global Engagement Center that lawmakers funded last year.
"It is very concerning that progress on combatting this problem is being delayed because the State Department isn't tapping into these resources," Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, a member of the Foreign Relations committee and one of the authors of the anti-propaganda bill, said last week. "The State Department should take swift action to fully fund the [Global Engagement Center] and ensure that it is capable of carrying out the purposes Congress directed, particularly as they relate to Russia and other state-sponsored foreign disinformation."
Tillerson's team says they're trying to avoid spending money wastefully. "They put in a request in for additional funding," Tillerson spokesman R.C. Hammond said last week to explain the delays. "We asked them to map out a plan of how they would spend the money. ... We have not sought to reduce efforts to spotlight and combat Moscow's 'active measures' or information activities."
The flurry of congressional pushback was sparked by reports that the delay is caused in part by a desire to avoid irritating Russia. "Hammond said the secretary is in the process of working through disagreements with Russia, and this is not consistent with what we're trying to do," a former senior State Department official told Politico.
If lawmakers follow through on Engel's threat to write the counter-propaganda plan themselves, that would represent another example of Congress trying to tie President Trump's hands on foreign policy. A new, bipartisan sanctions law similarly was designed to limit Trump's discretion about how to deter Russian aggression while engaging with Putin.
"Russia is not America's friend," Engel wrote. "While we, too, would ultimately like to see better relations with Russia, the Kremlin's actions simply do not permit such improvement."