With New Appointment, State Department Ramps Up War Against Foreign Propaganda

Former Fox News correspondent and Navy veteran Lea Gabrielle to head long-troubled Global Engagement Center.

The State Department on January 26, 2017 in Washington, DC.
The State Department on January 26, 2017 in Washington, DC.

A Navy and intelligence veteran and former television news correspondent will take up a key position at the State Department to tackle foreign propaganda efforts as part of the U.S. government’s response to Russian disinformation, terrorist group messaging, and Chinese propaganda.

Lea Gabrielle confirmed in an interview with Foreign Policy that she will be named the new head of the Global Engagement Center, the State Department’s hub for coordinating counter-propaganda efforts worldwide. She will start the job on Feb. 11.

Gabrielle served in the U.S. Navy as a fighter pilot and later as an intelligence officer, with deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, before becoming a journalist at NBC and Fox News.

In the interview, she cited China, Russia, Iran, and terrorist organizations as top threats that use propaganda to undercut U.S. interests.

“We have to realize that we are under attack by adversary countries and international terrorist organizations that are using propaganda and disinformation as a weapon,” she said. “They’re doing it because it’s cheap, and it’s easy, and because they can.”

Gabrielle will take over a small State Department office that became a political lightning rod amid feuds between the Trump administration and Congress over how to address threats, including Russian election meddling, in the wake of the 2016 presidential elections. The internal fight reflects a broader challenge the U.S. government faces in how to confront misinformation and propaganda from abroad.

The Global Engagement Center was initially stood up to rebuff messaging campaigns from terrorist organizations, but in the years since its mandate has expanded to confront propaganda and disinformation from around the world. Early into the Trump administration, it suffered from an unclear mandate and other bureaucratic challenges. In 2017, the center was dogged by funding shortages under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, but money flowed to the center following bipartisan backlash from Capitol Hill.

One of Capitol Hill’s leading voices on the center, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said in a statement he is “looking forward” to working with Gabrielle. “As we fight to ensure that the GEC is fully funded and staffed, I hope she’ll be able to elevate the profile and importance of the work that the GEC does to combat propaganda and disinformation,” he said.

Gabrielle said she will prioritize ensuring the center is properly staffed and funded. The center has a request for $55 million in funding for fiscal year 2019, with legislation introduced to raise that amount to $115 million, according to a State Department spokeswoman.

“Since Secretary Pompeo came into office the GEC has been a priority and has received its full funding,” the spokeswoman told FP in an email.

Gabrielle’s appointment marks the latest ascension of a Fox News figure to a senior position in the Trump administration. The State Department’s chief spokesperson, Heather Nauert, who Trump has said he will nominate as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and the White House’s communications shop is currently being led by a former executive at the network, Bill Shine.

Some State Department veterans have criticized Gabrielle’s appointment, saying it is emblematic of the Trump administration’s failure to install qualified personnel in key positions, and that Gabrielle lacks the requisite experience in diplomacy, management, and technology to manage counter-propaganda efforts.

“The Trump Administration has delayed, diluted, and diminished resources for defending against these modern weapons,” said Brett Bruen, a former White House director for global engagement under former President Barack Obama. “[Gabrielle’s] appointment is illustrative of a policy that sees this more as public relations problem than a real problem impacting the safety and well-being of the American people.”

Gabrielle said her experience, including in intelligence and journalism, has given her a “deep understanding” of counter-propaganda issues the Global Engagement Center is directed to confront. Former Navy officers who served with her have pushed back against criticism leveled at her, praising her leadership skills and saying she has ample leadership experience to excel in the role at the State Department.

During her time in the military and intelligence community, Gabrielle was a CIA-trained intelligence operations officer assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency and deployed to Afghanistan alongside Navy SEALs, according to the interview and a biography provided by the State Department. She also served as a foreign liaison officer with the DIA, coordinating with foreign defense attaches, and she directed a U.S. Navy intelligence program. There are few publicly available details of her time working in intelligence, as much of it was classified. Gabrielle served as active duty military for 12 years and remains in the inactive ready reserves.

Adnan Kifayat, who led an earlier iteration of the center, said that Gabrielle’s appointment was welcome news and that he hoped she will give the center the direction it has been lacking in recent years.

One of the biggest concerns the GEC has faced is being swayed by political considerations as to what to focus on and what not to focus on,” Kifayat said.

The Global Engagement Center first formed in 2016 amid the Islamic State’s rise to power in Syria and Iraq, with its sophisticated use of online propaganda. The following year, Congress expanded the center’s mandate to deal with information operations from American adversaries such as Russia and China.

That expansion came largely in response to Russian efforts to meddle in the 2016 election, including its use of fake social media personas and ad buys to spread divisive messages among American voters.

Gabrielle said the center is also expanding to work on mapping disinformation networks, helping develop technology to identify foreign sources of propaganda and disinformation, and coordinating efforts with other federal agencies.

The center is currently being led in an acting capacity by Daniel Kimmage, a Russia expert and State Department veteran.

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

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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