Tillerson's Russia and ISIS Fighting Anti-Propaganda Unit is Losing Key Staff

Rex Tillerson
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson testifies before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on Capitol Hill, on June 13. Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters

An embattled anti-propaganda unit intended to combat Russian and Islamic State militant group (ISIS) misinformation is losing key staff even after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson began to fund the program at the urging of Congress.

Nash Borges, chief technology officer at the anti-propaganda Global Engagement Center's (GEC), left the unit last Friday according to Defense One, which obtained a copy of his final email to staff.

A former senior official at the GEC told the publication two other members of the unit's analytics team also quit "around the same time." The trio were "the whole enchilada" when it came to data analytics—one of the unit's key functions as most propaganda appears online—the source said.

"Things are bad," the former official continued.

Under the Trump administration and Tillerson's leadership the GEC hasn't received an official leader and three out of the five positions listed in the State Department's directory for the GEC are filled by "acting" officials. The unit's leading role is filled by Daniel Kimmage, who is listed as acting coordinator after the unit's special envoy and coordinator under the Obama administration Michael D. Lumpkin stepped down in January.

Tillerson has been criticized by experts and former diplomats for leaving many senior positions unfilled as he undertakes a project to completely restructure the department by the end of the year. Data shows more than 300 senior positions requiring Senate confirmation have yet to be filled.

Read more: Russia Didn't Just Use Facebook to Spread Fake News Across the U.S., It Organized Real News Events

The unit was created in the spring of 2016 out of the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication to combat propaganda from ISIS. But its mission was expanded, along with the fresh funding, at the end of last year in light of Russia's election meddling in 2016 and to counter messages from governments in China, Iran and North Korea.

Last December Congress set aside $60 million in Pentagon funding for the unit on top of $19.8 million it could draw from at the State Department, giving the unit a total of $80 million to fight propaganda. In August Politico reported Tillerson hadn't tapped this funding to allow the unit to carry out its core mission.

According to a former senior State Department official, Tillerson's spokesman, R.C. 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."

Officials within the State Department and Republicans and Democrats urged Tillerson to reconsider spending the money which was set to expire—in part—on September 30. At the end of August Tillerson snapped up $40 million from the Pentagon fund for the program instead of the full pot of $60 million.

The decision to tap the fund came "after a review and then realignment of [Global Engagement Center] programs to match national security priorities and to ensure that this funding will be used as effectively as possible."

Tillerson's decision to fund the program is bolstered by Facebook's disclosure last week that during the course of two years ending in May 2015, $100,000 from Russia was spent on 3,000 advertisements on its platform relating to topics including immigration, race and equal rights. It was later revealed that real life protests were organized by Russia as well. The State Department's efforts are meant to counter these kind of propaganda campaigns.

"The sobering truth is we're still far where we ultimately need to be to operate in the modern information environment," the unit's former coordinator Lumpkin, told a House Armed Services Subcommittee early this year.