Portman Delivers Speech on Bipartisan Bill to Counter Foreign Government Propaganda
Portman Introduced the Bill with Senator Chris Murphy Today
Washington, D.C. – Today, Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) delivered remarks at the Atlantic Council on new legislation introduced today to help American allies counter foreign government propaganda from Russia, China, and other nations. Specifically, the bill will improve the ability of the United States to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation by leveraging existing expertise and empowering local communities to defend themselves from foreign manipulation.
His full prepared remarks can be seen below and a video of his talk can be seen here.
“Thank you, Governor Huntsman, for that introduction, and I want to thank the Atlantic Council for hosting today’s important event. It’s an honor to be here with you all today to discuss one of the most pressing—but least understood—challenges facing the United States and our allies around the world: how to counter the extensive propaganda and disinformation operations directed against us. Senator Murphy and I are introducing a bill in the Senate that we believe overcomes some of the conceptual and structural barriers to addressing this issue effectively and marks the first step towards a more comprehensive U.S. strategy to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation. Before I get into the details, I’d like to take a few moments to discuss the nature of the threat and the obstacles we face in dealing with it.
“March 18th marks the second anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent military intervention in eastern Ukraine. These events, and the ongoing violence that still grips eastern Ukraine, not only created an active military conflict but have also exposed and intensified a broader struggle over the future of Central and Eastern Europe, the future of NATO, and of the rules-based, American-led international community. The modern information environment—from traditional media outlets to social media to grassroots campaigns—is ground zero in this debate. In my view, the United States is not doing enough to counter the destabilizing foreign propaganda and disinformation operations that dominate this space.
“While much of the public discussion on these issues has focused on the urgent need to counter extremist messaging, it is equally important to address the extremely sophisticated, comprehensive, and long-term efforts by nation-states to manipulate and control information in order to achieve their national objectives, often at the expense of U.S. allies, interests, and values. These countries spend vast sums of money on advanced broadcast and digital media capabilities, targeted campaigns, funding of foreign political movements, and other efforts to influence key audiences and populations. China spends billions annually on its foreign propaganda efforts, while RT, Russia’s state-funded, 24-7 international news channel reportedly spends $400 million annually just on its Washington Bureau alone. Just on one bureau. By contrast, the FY17 budget request for international broadcasting operations worldwide is only about $768 million total.
“And while much of the public discussion on these issues has focused on Russia—for good reason—Russia is not the only country that engages heavily in these efforts. Chinese land reclamation in the South China Sea is another recent example of how effective disinformation operations can be used to seize the initiative and catch the United States and its allies off-guard and unprepared.
“I believe that treating this problem as a public affairs problem exclusively is a critical mistake and a key conceptual roadblock we must overcome. The concept is much broader. They do not merely deliver a message to an audience; rather, they actively seek to shape perceptions by using all of the tools of national power. To be sure, strategic communications and media engagement play a key role in information strategies, but they are just one set of tools among a broad array of information-related capabilities and activities such as cyber and intelligence capabilities, traditional cultural and educational exchanges, and economic engagement that are employed within a common strategic and operational framework. The most sophisticated media engagement strategies in the world will not work if the adversary jams communications towers, censors media outlets, or pursues a comprehensive strategy of grassroots manipulation designed to shape perceptions on the ground, as occurred in Crimea and continues to occur in eastern Ukraine and elsewhere. The purpose of these combined efforts is to motivate potential allies, while confusing, delaying, and disrupting the target audience’s decision-making process.
“America’s democratic values forbid us from engaging in the same deceptive and subversive techniques used by other nations, and for good reason. These values are fundamental to our identity as a nation and a key source of our global appeal. We must always remember that. But disagreements over tactics should not obscure the effectiveness of the conceptual framework behind them, nor diminish the importance of drawing from this framework to develop a comprehensive, whole-of-government approach to countering them.
“Surprisingly, there is currently no single U.S. government organization charged with the national-level development, integration, and synchronization of a whole-of-government strategy to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation. Current efforts to address this threat are hamstrung by bureaucratic inefficiencies, unclear authorities, a lack of accountability, and a lack of interagency communication and unity of effort.
“The State Department generally has the lead for engaging and communicating with foreign audiences. However, since the end of the Cold War—and especially in this administration—the State Department has focused much less on political messaging designed to combat foreign propaganda, undermine anti-American ideologies, or promote U.S. values, preferring instead to conduct more traditional public affairs through the Bureau of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. The one area where the administration has attempted to implement an interagency counter-information war strategy, the administration’s recently revamped initiative on Countering Violent Extremists like ISIS, has struggled to make an impact. I believe this is in part because of the administration’s unwillingness to acknowledge the radical Islamist ideology that motivates the extremists in the first place. Efforts to counter the more large-scale and extensive state-sponsored information operations against the U.S. and its allies continue to be neglected.
“In the absence of State Department-led initiatives to counter foreign propaganda and win the war of ideas, the task for political messaging has largely fallen to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the independent federal agency that oversees all U.S. civilian international media organizations like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). These organizations have some effective programming and do effective work promoting free and healthy press. Some programs, such as RFE/RL’s “Current Time” program, have had demonstrable success pushing back against foreign disinformation. However, the scale and scope of these efforts pales in comparison to those of the big, 24-hour state-owned news outlets like RT (Russia Today) and CCTV (China Central Television). Even with more funding and resources, the success of U.S. foreign broadcasting would be hindered without a coordinated, whole-of-government strategy.
“Despite State’s role as the lead for engaging foreign audiences, the Department of Defense actually conducts most of the U.S. government’s information operations. However, DoD’s information operations tend to be more tactical in nature and are tied to specific campaign or operational objectives developed within the regionally –based Combatant Commands. By necessity, they’re also more military in nature and are not always as focused on broader political or social themes in the way efforts by other agencies would be. What coordination exists with the State Department and between agencies is largely dictated by the relationship between the Combatant Commander and the relevant Ambassadors and Assistant Secretaries.
“In addition to the bureaucratic obstacles within the government, the U.S. government is missing out on important opportunities to leverage the significant expertise outside of the U.S. government. Think tanks, NGOs, civil society organizations, and private sector companies, particularly those that operate in front-line nations such as Ukraine, the Baltics, and Japan, have a tremendous amount of experience dealing with foreign propaganda and disinformation. They could offer valuable insights and help us stay to analyze and counter these efforts. We would be foolish not to use these valuable resources.
“This is the challenge we face. Structural deficiencies are preventing us from effectively countering foreign disinformation and propaganda and will continue to hinder future administrations—both Republican and Democrat—unless they are addressed. To overcome these obstacles and promote a more comprehensive, proactive approach to winning the war of ideas, Senator Murphy and I are introducing the Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act. To be clear, our legislation is not designed to permanently single out any one nation or nations for special attention. Just because the disinformation campaigns from countries like Russia or China are a problem today, does not mean these challenges won’t evolve over time. As the nature of the threat evolves, so too will our efforts.
“Our legislation is organized around three main priorities to help achieve this goal.
(1) The first priority is developing a whole-of-government strategy for countering foreign propaganda and disinformation. The bill would establish the Center for Information Analysis and Response, led by the State Department, but with the active participation of the Department of Defense, USAID, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the Intelligence Community, and other relevant agencies. The Center will develop, integrate, and synchronize whole-of-government initiatives to expose and counter foreign disinformation operations and proactively advance fact-based narratives that support U.S. allies and interests.
(2) Second, our legislation seeks to leverage expertise from outside government to create more adaptive and responsive U.S. strategy options. Our legislation establishes a fund to help train local journalists and provide grants and contracts to NGOs, civil society organizations, think tanks, private sector companies, media organizations, and other experts outside the U.S. government with experience in identifying and analyzing the latest trends in foreign government disinformation techniques. This fund will complement and support the Center’s role by integrating capabilities and expertise available outside the U.S. government into the strategy-making process. It will also empower a decentralized network of private sector experts and integrating their expertise into the strategy-making process.
(3) Finally, our legislation works to empower local communities to resist foreign manipulation through increased cultural and educational exchanges. The bill provides for special consideration to students and community leaders applying to State Department exchange programs from populations and countries heavily targeted by foreign disinformation and propaganda campaigns. As we’ve seen in Ukraine and elsewhere, one of the best ways to push back against destabilization and disinformation is at the grassroots level. I firmly believe that the American people are our countries’ most effective ambassadors, and these exchange programs have a proven track-record of building long-term relationships between Americans and foreign individuals and communities. So much of foreign propaganda preys upon the fears and misconceptions people have about America. Believe me, you’re going to be a lot less likely to think the United States is part of some plot to ruin your community after you’ve spent some time in Ohio! I met with a group of young people today from the State Department’s Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) Program, originally from Georgia and Kazakhstan. They are living with host families in Ohio—and they love Ohio!
“America’s democratic values and open, transparent society are a key source of our identity as a nation and one of our greatest advantages against the propaganda and disinformation used to discredit them. I am confident that, in the long run, America has the better story to tell, and the disinformation and propaganda used against our allies and interests will fail. After all, we’re a nation defined by our shared ideals—not by a particular ethnicity or religion—that even today attracts people from around the world. We don’t need to lie to sell ourselves to others.
“But the truth will not simply prevail on its own; we must be more effective in ensuring it prevails. Our legislation is the first step towards a more comprehensive strategy of action to counter those who seek to manipulate, misinform, and destabilize our friends around the world. The disinformation threat cannot be measured simply by land, by lives, or by money. But it is no less urgent. Confronting it will require American leadership. This bill is the first step towards removing the barriers standing in the way of America re-assuming its leadership role. This is a fight we cannot afford to lose.
“And with that, it is my distinct pleasure to introduce my friend and colleague, the junior Senator from Connecticut, Chris Murphy, my cofounder of the bipartisan Ukraine Caucus. Senator Murphy has chaired the Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia, and he has been a real leader on this issue, and on the need for a more comprehensive approach to foreign policy and national security. I’m proud to partner with such a distinguished Member from the other side of the aisle, and to show that, even in Washington, there are areas where both sides can work together to achieve meaningful results.”