At Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing, Portman Presses State Department Official on U.S. Diplomatic Return to Ukraine, Status of Global Engagement Center
WASHINGTON, DC – During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing today, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) pressed Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Brian McKeon on U.S. Embassy Kyiv’s return to the city, after being forced to leave the country and conduct operations out of neighboring Poland, given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Senator Portman expressed concern about the speed of which we are returning, given 17 other countries have already done so.
Senator Portman also questioned Deputy Secretary McKeon on the status of the Global Engagement Center (GEC), which plays a central role in combating disinformation by countries like Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. Portman expressed concern, especially given the disinformation surrounding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that the Biden administration has yet to appoint someone to lead the office and that the amount of funding the administration is contributing to the GEC is too low to effectively counter the threat of Russian disinformation. Senators Portman and Chris Murphy (D-CT) introduced an amendment, which was accepted, into the United States Innovation and Competition Act that included $150 million for the GEC.
A transcript of Senator Portman’s questioning can be found below and the video can be found here.
Senator Portman: “Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I appreciate you having this hearing. I understand, Mr. Deputy Secretary, that the State Department is returning diplomats to Ukraine. Can you tell us when that’s going to happen and specifically, when they are going back to the U.S. embassy in Kyiv? As you know, 17 other countries have already announced returns, and most have personnel in place already, including the EU, including France, and I wondered what our timing is?”
Honorable Brian McKeon, Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources: “Yes, Senator, we’ve already returned to western Ukraine with our diplomats. Assigned Embassy Kyiv have gone into Lviv a couple of times on day trips, including most recently yesterday. We’re doing the security assessment about returning to Kyiv and we are hoping to get back there in the very near future.”
Senator Portman: “Are you concerned that we are moving too slow and losing a leadership position amongst other countries? Again, 17 countries have already announced returns, many are already in Kyiv. I know it’s a dangerous environment, but what is your view on our relatively slow return to Kyiv and the impact it’s having on the impression of the United States leadership?”
Deputy Secretary Brian McKeon: “Well, I don’t think it’s having a negative effect on our engagement with the government in Kyiv. Even when the war started, and for the last two months, our diplomats based in Poland were in regular communications with Ukrainian government officials. And as you know, of course, the two – Sectary of State and Defense – were there last weekend and the Speaker was just there, so I think the Ukrainian government well understands our commitment to their cause and we are committed to getting back into Kyiv as soon as we can.”
Senator Portman: “Well I appreciate that, having been in Poland and having met with Embassy Kyiv and also, of course, met with them in Kyiv several times, I know they are eager to get back, to say the least. On this issue of the Global Engagement Center, as you know, in last year’s testimony, Secretary Blinken, with regard to the budget, gave his commitment that he would follow through on President Zelenskyy’s request to set up a center for combating disinformation in Ukraine in partnership with GEC. He also stated that the appointment of a special coordinator, which is the leader of the Global Engagement Center, would happen quickly and was being reviewed. I am concerned about two things. One is the fact that we still don’t have a leader of the Global Engagement Center at a time when there is more disinformation than ever, particularly related to the Russian invasion on Ukraine. And second, that the funding request, this year, only asked for a $5 million increase. Given the disinformation climate that we face today, that seems to me to be inadequate. Can you give us an update, first, on the efforts of the Global Engagement Center in Ukraine? Are we coordinating with them as they had requested? And then second, why have we still not appointed a special coordinator for the Global Engagement Center two years into the administration?”
Deputy Secretary Brian McKeon: “Well, it hasn’t quite been two years but it feels like it somedays. I believe we have somebody identified and is in vetting at the minute. The acting coordinator, Leah Bray, is very capable, retired military officer who I worked with in my last government job at the Department of Defense. We are engaged across the board in exposing disinformation by the Kremlin and coordinating with not just with Ukraine, but other partner governments in the region.”
Senator Portman: “So you’re not going to answer my question as to why we don’t have a lead for the office yet and what the timing on getting someone? This is not a position that has to go through our confirmation process. This is a matter of you all identifying somebody and putting someone in place as the leader. I like Leah Bray also, but you know, she is not the lead, she’s in an acting role. So what is your answer to that?”
Deputy Secretary Brian McKeon: “Senator, the personnel process even for those that don’t go through the Senate takes a long time sometimes. I’m not trying to dodge the question. I believe we have someone identified for the position and that person is in vetting. I don’t know the timing, but I’ll check on it when I get back and let your office know.”
Senator Portman: “Great, I’d love to get a commitment from you today that you will move on that. Again, it seems to me that’s the least we should be doing in terms of pushing back on this disinformation that, as you indicate, an increasing problem. How about the budget? Do you believe that the $5 million increase is adequate given the disinformation environment we face today?”
Deputy Secretary Brian McKeon: “I do, the GEC is undertaking one aspect of their work, which they’re trying to normalize their workforce. They have a lot of contractors, and we are trying to convert a number of them to full-time equivalents and the resources they have now, I think, meet the moment, but we will take another look at it as we begin the work on the ‘24 budget which we have already started conversations on.”
Senator Portman: “Yeah, I would just say the obvious, Mr. Deputy Secretary, which is that other countries are spending billions, we’re spending tens of millions and it seems to me that this ought to be a huge priority. I noticed that the Department of Homeland Security is now setting up their own disinformation board of sorts. I think a lot of what they are talking about doing, the GEC should be doing, the Global Engagement Center, and if the State Department is not doing it, apparently other agencies are willing to step up and be more engaged. So, I think it’s in everybody’s interest, including the State Department, to really focus on this effort because it is, unfortunately, the 21st century way that Russia and other countries including China, Iran, North Korea, are partly waging their conflicts. With regard to Uniting for Ukraine, last week you announced a new program that I am happy to see us move forward on. The notion is to streamline this process for Ukrainian citizens who have been displaced. I have heard personally from so many Ohioans who told me, ‘Hey, I’m willing to help, I want to open my home.’ More than 500 people have called or emailed our office, by the way, and a number of businesses have expressed interest in offering jobs. So, there is a big demand out there. I think Ohio alone can take a substantial number of these humanitarian parolees. How long do you envision this application process taking? Is this a matter of weeks or a matter of months? Could you tell us a little more about how this is going to work?”
Deputy Secretary Brian McKeon: “Senator, I think it will be weeks. The Department of Homeland Security is in the lead on this, though State Department is helping to facilitate. I was on an interagency call this morning where the Deputy Secretary at Homeland Security said that we’ve had about ten thousand people apply already. A lot of this application process can be done electronically, so I do think it will be a matter of weeks.”
Senator Portman: “Thank you, thank you for your indulgence Mr. Chairman and thank you Deputy Secretary for your service.”