Portman Highlights Efforts to Combat Global Disinformation and Propaganda Threats & Cyberattacks in Bush Center Democracy Talks Series

October 14, 2020 | Portman Difference

In a George W. Bush Center Democracy Talks series interview, Senator Portman discussed his work to combat disinformation and cyberattacks both in the United States and abroad by highlighting the bipartisan Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act, which he authored with Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) and that was signed into law in December 2016. The law improves the ability of the United States to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation by establishing an interagency center, the Global Engagement Center (GEC), housed at the State Department to coordinate and synchronize counter-propaganda efforts throughout the U.S. government in support of friends and allies overseas.  The law provided funding and authorities to the State Department that authorizes the GEC to help counter the foreign propaganda and disinformation being waged against our allies by state and non-state adversaries. 

In addition, Portman discussed his work in the Senate to combat cyberattacks and ensure elections are free, fair, and secure from foreign interference. Earlier this year, Senators Portman and Gary Peters (D-MI) introduced the bipartisan Risk-Informed Spending for Cybersecurity (RISC) Act to require the federal government to make better investments in cybersecurity protections to keep Americans’ data safe. The legislation would require federal agencies to efficiently allocate limited cybersecurity resources to acquire capabilities that address the most pressing cyber threats. In June 2019, Senator Portman, as Chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, released a bipartisan report that found that the vast majority of federal agencies reviewed by the Subcommittee failed to implement effective and comprehensive cybersecurity frameworks. This included the failure to protect sensitive personally identifiable information and an overreliance on outdated legacy systems.

Excerpts of the interview can be found below and a video can be found here.  



“My interest really came from my work in Ukraine and Eastern Europe and you may recall in 2014 when Russia chose to invade Crimea, they used acts which were previously not used which was a combination of kinetic military and disinformation. And sadly it was effective. They continued to use that on the eastern border of Ukraine and the conflict there and in Ukraine itself and through the Ukrainian community here in Ohio, I had gotten involved over the years in trying to help Ukraine to be able to achieve its independence and independence from Russia in particular. And again, that’s where I kept running into it and realized how serious this was from a national security point of view. Of course we’ve had our own issues here in this country as well and that’s piqued my interest so I’ve worked with colleagues, in particular Chris Murphy who’s a Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with me, to come up with a way to combat disinformation, propaganda, this use of the internet in negative ways and we decided that it was necessary for us to figure out a way to consolidate some of the efforts of the U.S. government and to have a better interagency response sort of all of government response and therefore establish what’s called the GEC. And the GEC is an effort to try to be sure that - run by the State Department - that we can have all agencies and departments providing information and then coordinate it better so the Global Engagement Center, GEC, has now been set up and as of the last several months actually they’ve made a lot of progress in hiring people and being able to push back. Their focus, Billy,  is really on the international side which we can talk about more but I think a lot of the lessons learned are applicable to what’s going on here even as we go into this election and the disinformation that’s out there not just from Russia. I would say China, Iran, North Korea and other countries are happy to try to you know create havoc over here and to try to, in particular, create dislocation around our elections but I think some of the lessons from overseas where this has been an ongoing issue particularly with Russia and eastern and central Europe are lessons that can be helpful to address it here.” 


“Well part of what they do is provide a clearinghouse for all the information we’re getting, say from the intelligence agencies from our communications, you know the Radio Free Europe and our other U.S. entities that are trying to encourage you know more interaction between other countries particularly countries again like Central Eastern Europe, developing countries and in the United States. So that’s part of it is just to coordinate all that effort and that’s been very helpful and necessary but also what they do is they provide grants to non-governmental organizations, to NGOs, overseas who are on the ground combating the disinformation and the mistruths and to get, you know what we take for granted in this country sometimes, which is the opportunity for a free press to be able to report. We have found that some of the most effective work is not going to be done by U.S. diplomats but by some of these NGOs with people on the ground, like democracy advocates you will have on this show with regard to Hong Kong or Belarus, two hot spots right now. So part of it is to actually fund and help support some of these groups that are day to day trying to provide a counter to the, you know, the disinformation and the efforts to influence key audiences and populations that’s going on around the world and again we’re going to focus a lot on Russia today but it’s not just Russia, China also has a very you know well-developed propaganda arm, probably spends billions of dollars a year in trying to persuade people that what they’re doing in Hong Kong or Taiwan or the South China Sea is appropriate and trying to shift the blame in terms of COVID-19. So there needs to be some truth telling and that’s what the GEC is trying to coordinate overseas.” 


“Where I think we have a lot of challenges still, as you mentioned cyberattacks, is with regard to our own global attacks on our infrastructure here in this country both government and non-governmental. I do have new legislation on that as well to try to better coordinate our efforts and this comes out of a report that was done and an investigation undertaken by the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in the Senate. I chair that subcommittee and we unfortunately determined that many of our government agencies are ill-equipped to deal with this threat and that, frankly, you know they’re not incentivized to do it so our legislation among other things puts in place a program through the Office of Management & Budget. You know I used to be OMB Director and you want to provide incentives to these agencies that has a sort of a risk-based budgeting so you say okay what is the risk of not providing the protections against these cyberattacks on personal information, on government websites you know to spread disinformation. Some of the information we had was that some foreign actors had used bots and used troll farms and other things to change, say an SEC rulemaking so or FCC rulemaking I think was the actual one that was most troubling, so we need to do a better job of forcing our agencies of the federal government to come up to speed where a lot of the private sector companies have felt they need to be in order to protect themselves. That effort I think is still to be determined you know we need new legislation I think, we need to provide new incentives that’s not exactly the same mission as the GEC, Global Engagement Center, but cyberattacks are all part of this and we need to do a better job here in this country to be able to fight back and to be able to you know provide citizens with some sense of security as to their personal information.”