Pompeo Eyes Fox News Reporter to Head Counterpropaganda Office

The troubled agency is charged with responding to Russian influence operations.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and Elias Groll
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addresses the press during a briefing at the State Department in Washington on Aug. 16. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addresses the press during a briefing at the State Department in Washington on Aug. 16. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is eyeing a Fox News correspondent and former U.S. Navy pilot to head the State Department’s struggling anti-propaganda office as Washington grapples with how to push back against Russian disinformation and election interference in the run-up to the U.S. midterm elections in November.

Lea Gabrielle is the leading contender to become the new chief of the Global Engagement Center, five officials and sources familiar with internal deliberations confirmed to Foreign Policy. The news was first reported by CNN.

Once an obscure office buried deep within the bureaucracy of Foggy Bottom, the center has emerged as a political lightning rod in Washington amid an intense debate over how to counter Russian election interference and propaganda.

But the Trump administration’s disjointed response to Russian influence operations has left the center starved of cash and leadership at a time when senior intelligence officials are warning that foreign propaganda efforts are increasing.

Current and former officials described the office as mismanaged, disorganized, disempowered, and unable to effectively dole out money to do its principal job—just as it is set to receive a substantial tranche of funding through the Defense Department.

“We’re really in bad shape with that center,” said one State Department official familiar with the Global Engagement Center. “They’re a mess.”

Founded as a clearinghouse for the government’s efforts to push back against social media-savvy terrorist groups—such as the Islamic State—the center’s portfolio has been dramatically expanded in recent years to also include responding to state-backed propaganda.

But veterans of the State Department’s public diplomacy efforts questioned whether the center has the wherewithal to focus on the more wide-ranging activities of Russia or Iran.

“I would question whether it’s set up to be able to counter state propaganda,” said Adnan Kifayat, who directed an earlier iteration of the center, when it was known as the Global Strategic Engagement Center.

“Given its resources, it’s more geared toward counterterrorism,” he said.

The center first entered the limelight in August 2017, when FP and Politico reported that former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson rejected some $80 million from Congress and the Pentagon budget to bankroll the center’s anti-propaganda efforts targeting both terrorist organizations and Russian disinformation.

Following a fierce backlash from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, the State and Defense departments signed a deal that would funnel $40 million from the Pentagon budget to State. That figure has now been cut to $20 million, but the money still hasn’t been delivered, according to officials familiar with the matter.

That internecine fight has the center’s backers furious. “In the meantime, Russia and China are just eating our lunch. Russia is not mired in bureaucratic delays,” said a Senate aide who has worked on the issue.

According to the Senate aide, the center’s funding may arrive by the end of the month—after a long drought. “They’re getting so much money [that] they can’t handle it. They don’t know how to distribute it,” a State Department official said.

In response,State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert said: “Secretary Pompeo takes an active, hands-on interest in the Global Engagement Center” in a written statement to FP. “Since his arrival six months ago, the GEC has made tremendous progress to combat disinformation overseas, as well as rebuild a team of professionals that can compete effectively in the information arena,” she said.

The question of who will lead the organization has contributed to its woes. The center is currently overseen by its acting head, Daniel Kimmage, a Russia expert who has also studied violent extremist groups’ media operations. Kimmage has won a reputation on Capitol Hill as a competent leader and a serious Russia scholar, but the possible arrival of Gabrielle may throw a wrench in his carefully laid plans.

Several U.S. officials said they thought Gabrielle lacked sufficient experience in diplomacy, management, and technology. “I am so sick of this administration putting unqualified people into important roles because they are on Fox News,” one U.S. official vented. The Trump administration has made a habit of hiring Fox News reporters or contributors to important positions, including Heather Nauert, the State Department spokesperson and acting under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs and Kiron Skinner, the new director of policy planning at the State Department.

Gabrielle, a reporter for Fox News’s Shepard Smith Reporting, is a veteran of the network, as well as NBC News. Before going into journalism, Gabrielle served in the U.S. Navy for more than a decade, including as an F/A-18 fighter pilot and intelligence operations officer.

Officials familiar with the center argued it has been hamstrung by a lack of politically empowered leadership. “At this point, it’s hard to come up with much of a strategy without having somebody that is in place to do more than just try and keep the lights on and the systems running,” said Brett Bruen, a former diplomat and chief of global engagement at the White House under former President Barack Obama.

A third government official familiar with the center argued that Gabrielle’s appointment may provide it a direct line to the State Department’s senior leadership and give the office a shot in the arm. But the official cautioned that Gabrielle remains an unknown quantity.

Others were outright dismissive of Gabrielle’s possible appointment. “[She] has no experience working on information warfare,” Bruen said.

Jon Olson, a former Navy commander who recruited and worked closely with Gabrielle in Naval intelligence, pushed back against those criticisms and praised Gabrielle as a capable leader with strong management experience. “[She’s] a real leader, and deeply skilled in all the fields needed to effectively guide the Global Engagement Center,” Olson said.

Neither Gabrielle nor a spokesperson for Fox News responded to questions from FP

The State Department’s top Europe diplomat, Wess Mitchell, also announced that he was creating a new role that would support the Global Engagement Center’s mission of countering misinformation and election meddling, with a focus on Russia. Two sources told FP that Mitchell has tapped Eugene Fishel, a Russia expert and veteran intelligence analyst, to be the new senior advisor for Russian malign activities and trends, or SARMAT.

The job title is itself a jab at Russia: SARMAT is also the name of a new Russian intercontinental ballistic missile that garnered attention this year when Russia rolled out a CGI video depicting a simulated attack on the United States.

It’s yet unclear how the new advisor will work with the Global Engagement Center and how the office will coordinate with other U.S. agencies, including the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, to push back against Russian election interference and misinformation.

FP senior diplomatic reporter Colum Lynch contributed to this report.

Update, Sept. 6, 2018: This article was updated to include comments from State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert and Jon Olson.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

 Twitter: @EliasGroll