Portman Secures Commitment from Nominee for Secretary of State to Effectively Use Global Engagement Center to Combat Disinformation

Nominee Blinken Also Commits to Supporting Ukraine’s Defense Efforts Against Russian Aggression & Holding China Accountable for Stealing U.S. Taxpayer Funded Research

January 19, 2021 | Press Releases

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) secured commitments from the nominee to be U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that if confirmed, he would support the efforts of the Global Engagement Center (GEC) to effectively combat disinformation and propaganda from foreign actors, like Russia and China. Senator Portman has worked to combat disinformation and cyberattacks both in the United States and abroad through his bipartisan Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act, which he authored with Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) and was signed into law in December 2016. The law improves the ability of the United States to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation by establishing the 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 secured a commitment from Mr. Blinken to continue to support Ukraine’s efforts to defend themselves against continued Russian aggression. For the past four years, Portman has successfully championed language in the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that expands U.S. military aid to Ukraine, while strongly encouraging the Ukrainian government to continue their efforts in eliminating corruption and continuing with much needed security sector reforms. These provisions helped build the primary statutory framework for U.S. security assistance to Ukraine, the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative. In addition, he has repeatedly written letters, delivered multiple floor speeches, and pressed senior administration officials on the importance of providing meaningful assistance to help Ukraine stand up to Russia’s military aggression, and has praised its decisions to provide lethal assistance to the country.

Finally, Portman also urged Mr. Blinken to hold China accountable for their continued theft of American taxpayer funded research and intellectual property. Senator Portman, as Chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI), led a year-long investigation into China’s talent recruitment programs like the Thousand Talents Program, culminating in a bipartisan report in November 2019 that detailed how China has recruited U.S.-based scientists and researchers since the late 1990s and incentivized them to transfer U.S. taxpayer-funded research and IP to China for their own military and economic gain. Last year, Portman introduced the bipartisan Safeguarding American Innovation Act to protect American research and IP from global competitors.

A transcript of the exchange can be found below and a video can be found here.

Portman: “I’m with you. Nothing could be more important that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and I have been watching the hearing throughout the afternoon. And Mr. Blinken, I also appreciate the time you have spent with me on the phone talking about your plans for the department and how you would change some of the positions of the previous administration, but also how you would build on some of those. And I would just say, in listening today, it seems to me there are opportunities for us to build on some of the successes. I think about the Abraham Accords. I think about much of our policy towards Russia, as an example, being able to provide, as we did this year, a record level of lethal weapons for self-defense in Ukraine. I think about what we’ve done in Belarus to try and promote democracy. I think about standing up to China and from what I’ve heard today that you would be interested in engaging on that issue even more, particularly as it relates to human rights and the Uighurs and other ethnic minorities. And generally speaking how to deal with Iran. We’re going to have some differences of opinion, it sounds like, but you are fairly clear-eyed on what the challenges are with regard to Iran and not being trusting of them and the way they’re headed.

“Today, Mr. Chairman and to Ranking Member Menendez, there are five hearings going on. I’ve been in three of them, chairing one of them and I think that’s great. I think it’s good that we’re moving quickly with some of the key appointments including Secretary of State but also Secretary of Defense, Homeland Security, the Director of DNI, Treasury, those are all important roles and I hope we can get these nominations to the floor for a vote. And then we’ll let the chips fall where they may but I’m actually supportive of us moving quickly and Mr. Chairman, I know this happened because you were willing to do it in this interim period. As we discussed last week,  Mr. Blinken, I’ve got lots of interest in this issue of disinformation and propaganda and how we push back against it. I think it’s kind of the new warfare of the 21st Century. Not that we don’t have kinetic battles still but a lot of this is happening online and through disinformation. The Global Engagement Center was established at the State Department to deal with this. Senator Murphy spoke earlier and he and I have worked closely over four years now to try and strengthen the Global Engagement Center and give it the ability to push back. Disinformation operations by our adversaries are inexpensive, there’s a lot of deniability associated with it, it’s easy to do. And when you combine it with economic and political subversion, it can be devastating to some of the nescient democracies we’re trying to help. So thanks to the work of the Global Engagement Center, I think we now have the beginnings of an effective organization to deal with that and again, I hope that would be something that you would be willing to build on. Could you speak to that briefly and also talk about your commitment to the funding level? We were able to get $60 million in this year, that’s less than half of what we wanted but compare that to China, which according to a hearing that Senator Booker and I had on combatting disinformation recently, China spend over $10 billion a year in state-sponsored disinformation services. I wonder if you could comment on the Global Disinformation Center and the challenges that we face?”

Antony Blinken, nominee to be Secretary of the U.S. State Department: “Yes, thank you Senator. I could not agree more with your comments and with the work that you’ve done on this. This is perhaps a primary battlefield that we have to fight on and even as we manage to deter aggression and kinetic action by adversaries, every single day we are experiencing aggression from one kind or another in the misinformation and disinformation realm. And we need to engage that and we need to engage that effectively and indeed, you are right, that is why the GEC was formed. I’ll tell you, I had the experience in the early days of the Ukraine conflict and Russia’s aggression there in dealing with Russia weaponizing information in increasingly effective ways and of course, little did we know what would come after that. But you’ll recall, the downing of the Malaysian airliner and Russia was extraordinarily effective in mixing up and muddying the waters using misinformation and disinformation as to their culpability and responsibility.  

“And out of some of these experiences, there’s been an effort at the State Department to give ourselves the tools and the resources to engage in this fight. And the Global Engagement Center is exactly, exactly that. So I’m determined to make sure that if I’m confirmed that it is resourced, adequately and appropriately. As well, I think we need to make sure that we’re bringing in the talent, the expertise to be able to use it effectively, because these are specialized skills that, in some cases, many of us don’t have. And to make sure that we have continuity because this is an ongoing battle every single day. We have conveyed the message that we would welcome the current leader of the GEC to stay on to make sure that we don’t have any dropped balls in the weeks and months ahead.”

Portman: “Well, I thank you, Leah Gabriel has done a good job, I think Senator Murphy and I agree with that. I know both of us have weighed in with you and we thank you for that commitment to getting a sustainable funding level that's higher so they can do their job. I think $138 million is what we asked for this year. We got sixty. And a lot of members of this committee are interested in ensuring it has the capability and then the hiring authority, we need to extend their hiring authority so they can bring in some expertise from outside the department to deal quickly on particularly the social media front. So thank you for that commitment and we look forward to working with you.

“On Ukraine, since you mentioned it. I was there in 2014 with Senator Cardin as an election monitor. It was right after the Revolution of Dignity and the Maidan, the central area where the Revolution of Dignity occurred was still smoldering. I mean, it was fresh. And they've had some successes and we've had some setbacks. You know, Russia illegally annexed Crimea, which was a setback. And that Crimea annexation, by the way, is something we need to continue to stand up to, even as others in the region seem to be, you know, less aggressive about promoting, you know, the legitimate Ukrainian interest. We've seen what's happened in the Donbass, the displacement of thousands of civilians, deaths of a lot of brave Ukrainian soldiers. I'm sure you've been to Kiev and gone to the memorial to those soldiers, as many of us have.

“But in 2019, we had free, fair elections and President Zelensky and his party won by an overwhelming majority. And I know he's got an interest in working with you all. One thing that I'm very interested in is the Ukrainian Security Assistance Initiative. This is something that is providing military aid to them, but also training. And as you know, General Dayton has been very involved with that. So I guess two questions for you. One, are you supportive of continuing to provide the weapons to the Ukrainians that they need to defend themselves? And second, with regard to the Ukrainian Security Initiative, are you willing to continue to work on that? And specifically, can you speak to General Dayton, who's been before this committee and made it out of committee, never made it to the floor as a potential next ambassador to Ukraine?"

Mr. Blinken: “I very much support the continued provision to Ukraine of lethal defensive assistance and indeed of the training program as well. I very much agree with you that this has actually been a real success. And to the extent that across a couple of administrations we've been able to effectively train and, as well as assisted in different ways. The Ukrainians that has made a material difference in their ability to withstand the aggression they've been on the receiving end of from Russia. And as to General Dayton, I have a high regard for him and certainly will take a close look at that."

Portman: “Well I appreciate it. Again, he’s gone through this Committee already, a nonpartisan guy who has a great deal of experience but also respect in Ukraine. With regard to China, I know there’s been discussion today of the importance of the U.S.-China relationship, and I know there’s discussion in the last question about working with China on global climate change and other issues – global health – I just hope that in all this we keep in mind the fact that China continues to irresponsibly and very systematically target U.S. researchers, U.S. research that’s paid for by taxpayer dollars, and steal it, in effect – take it to China and use it for their own purposes. It has helped fuel the Chinese economy, but also the Chinese military over the past two decades.

“We do have legislation that’s bipartisan that came out of an investigation here in Congress that I chaired with Senator Carper, it’s called the Safeguarding American Innovation Act. It deals with five specific areas, but one has to do with the State Department. And you and I didn’t get a chance to talk about this much earlier, but I think you know the issue generally. It provides the State Department the authority to deny visas to foreign researchers whose problematic affiliations – like to the PLA, or to the Communist Party for that matter – and access to export control technologies through fundamental research raise national security concerns.

“This is a balanced bill, we have support from a lot of the university community because we did take a balanced approach, and yet we are interested in, and I think this bill would accomplish this, which is tightening up our research enterprise here in this country so that we are not continuing to lose researchers and research to China through things like the talent programs that we were able to investigate. Can you speak to that? Do you agree that we need these new visa authorities? And can you talk about how we can better protect taxpayer-funded research and intellectual property from China and others?”

Mr. Blinken: “So, Senator, I very much welcome looking into that and looking into that quickly. I haven’t had the chance to read the legislation so I want to make sure that I do that first, but I’d welcome the opportunity to talk to you about that as soon as I have the opportunity to do so. I think the basic proposition, I very strongly agree with. We need to make sure we’re protecting the intellectual property that is produced in this country. We need to make sure that we are protecting the technology that, if going to the wrong place, could undermine our security. And we need to make sure we have the tools to do that. So I welcome the chance to look at the legislation and talk to you about it.”

Portman: “Great. Your career folks at the State Department have been very involved in it, and in fact we had a Fellow from the State Department who helped us put together the legislation who was very helpful -- from the visa division at the State Department.

“Israel, we talked about building on the Abraham Accords, some of the positive things that have happened recently – I’d like to hear your comments on that – but also with regard to global boycotts of Israel, Senator Cardin and I have worked together on this over the years to try and oppose the global BDS movement – Boycott, Divestments, and Sanctions against Israel, essentially a double standard for Israel. And then Senator Booker and I have worked on the anti-normalization laws – in other words, adding to the efforts that you make every year to require countries to include their annual human rights record, also adding to that their people-to-people engagement with Israeli citizens and residents to try and normalize relations between the Arab world and Israel to the extent that we can. Can you talk about those two issues and how you feel about them and what your priority would be with regard to Israel?”

Mr. Blinken: “Senator, yes, we had a brief opportunity to discuss -- I support the Abraham Accords. I applaud the work that was done to achieve them, I think they have significantly advanced the security for Israel and for the countries involved, It opens new perspectives and prospects with regard to travel, to business, to trade, all of which is very, very positive, and I would hope that we have an opportunity to build on them going forward. With regard to BDS, the President-Elect -- and I strongly share this conviction – is resolutely opposed to BDS for the reasons that you cite. It unfairly and inappropriately singles out Israel. It creates a double standard, and a standard that we do not apply to other countries. And so I think we are very much in the same place on that. Of course we fully respect and will always respect the First Amendment rights of Americans to say what they believe and think, but BDS itself is something that we oppose.”