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Why The State Department Hasn't Spent Any Of The $120 Million To Fight Russian Meddling


Let's focus for a moment on two numbers. The first is 120 million. That is how many dollars have been allocated to the State Department to counter Russian and other foreign efforts to interfere in U.S. elections. The second number is zero. Zero dollars is how much of that money the State Department has, in fact, spent. And there's actually a third number critical to this story, which is this. According to The New York Times, not one of the 23 analysts working at State's Global Engagement Center - that's the center that's supposed to be countering Russia's influence campaign - not one of those 23 speaks Russian.

We've reached out to the former No. 2 at the center, Ahmed Younis. Hello there.


KELLY: Start here. How is the State Department's Global Engagement Center supposed to work? How is it supposed to be trying to counter Russian meddling?

YOUNIS: Well, its primary purpose is twofold - number one, to coordinate within the U.S. government the efforts that are happening as it relates to disinformation, propaganda and interference.


YOUNIS: That is from a state actor perspective. Number two, it's supposed to do a little bit of stuff. And that primarily happens within the nonstate actor mission - ISIS, al-Qaida, Boko Haram, et cetera. And that has to do with messaging - getting the messaging out there, targeting the people who are disseminating terrorist propaganda, targeting the people who are recruiting and being recruited, and trying to off-ramp them into intervention programs that either allow them to decide on a life that does not involve terrorism or brings them to the attention of authorities.

KELLY: So you're describing a wide portfolio for the center. It's supposed to be countering propaganda from terrorist organizations, also from nation states such as Russia. Let me ask you this. Why wouldn't the State Department want to take this money, this 120 million that's been allocated, and use it to counter propaganda whether it's from Russia or terror groups or others?

YOUNIS: My experience in the Trump administration was that it was a combination of an inability to manage the administrative process of moving vast amounts of money from one agency to the other, a lack of coherence in terms of the policy that is being laid out on state actor disinformation and propaganda, and I think number three - and perhaps most importantly - a lack of appreciation of the intersection between what nation states like Russia do and what terrorist organizations attempt to convince people about the United States and thus induce people to engage in acts of terrorism.

KELLY: What is the role of Secretary Tillerson here, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson? You worked for him. He has publicly expressed skepticism that there is much the U.S. can do to counter the Russian threat.

YOUNIS: I really didn't have much visibility to - on Secretary Tillerson personally and his relationship with this issue specifically, so I really can't answer that question.

KELLY: Well, so bottom line - as someone who until a few months ago helped to lead the Global Engagement Center at the State Department, what's your takeaway here when you hear that, for example, part of their mission now is to be countering Russian influence and yet there's nobody there who - nobody working there who speaks Russian?

YOUNIS: No, there are people there who speak Russian. They are just not technically analysts...

KELLY: I see. OK.

YOUNIS: ...At the action officer level. If you talk to anyone who is trying to do something dynamic and innovative within the United States government, they will express frustration. I can say that there was a bit more frustration in this administration than the last. That likely is primarily a result of being a new administration with politicals (ph) who primarily don't come from government.

I know that things are much improved than they were in the beginning of this administration from what I hear from colleagues on the inside. And I have great hope for what the Global Engagement Center can do. But I think the most important thing that the American people should remember is that what is at stake here is the very democracy that we claim to want to bring to the world in a way that's conducive to the well-being of the people of the world.

KELLY: Are you optimistic that this is an achievable mission, that the State Department has a role to play here?

YOUNIS: Without a doubt. Unless the State Department is able to engage this question with the full force of the United States government and its allies around the world, we are facing what is nothing less than an existential question for American democracy.

KELLY: Ahmed Younis, thank you.

YOUNIS: Thank you.

KELLY: That's Ahmed Younis. He served as principal deputy coordinator and deputy special envoy of the State Department's Global Engagement Center. He's now at the think tank New America. Thanks again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.