U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs

07/08/2024 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 07/08/2024 15:39

McCaul, Mast, Issa Send Letter Expressing Concerns with GEC Reauthorization

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Washington, D.C. - On Friday, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX), Subcommittee on Oversight and Accountability Chairman Brian Mast (R-FL), and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken regarding the Global Engagement Center's (GEC) potential complicity in efforts to censor Americans. In the letter, the Members raised concerns the office strayed from its statutory duty to counter propaganda and disinformation abroad. The Members also raised ongoing litigation across the country and multiple congressional investigations, which all allege the GEC partnered with non-governmental organizations and social media companies to violate the First Amendment.

"Your Department refuses to acknowledge that these ongoing controversies complicate an objective appraisal of the GEC - in other words, that any value the GEC provides is tempered by genuine concerns that the GEC is at best indifferent to, and at worst complicit in, an orchestrated and systematic effort to stretch the term 'disinformation' to encompass viewpoints that, among American progressives, are deemed to be politically disfavored or inconvenient…" the lawmakers wrote.

The full text of the letter can be found here or below:

Dear Secretary Blinken,

Thank you for the documents the Department provided in response to our September 15, 2023, letter regarding the Global Engagement Center (GEC). It is regrettable that the Department elected to send its May 10, 2024, response letter nearly eight months after we reached out.

Absent congressional action, the GEC will terminate on December 23, 2024. As you know, the GEC "direct[s] and coordinat[es] U.S. efforts to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation." This role is important, but its execution entails risks of potential censorship and other restrictions on freedom of speech. For that reason, we had hoped the GEC could carry out its responsibilities while unimpeachably observing the First Amendment, which gives Americans the right to receive foreign propaganda.

Over the past year, however, through our May 1, 2023, September 15, 2023, October 24, 2023, and March 7, 2024, letters, as well as at our October 25, 2023, hearing, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs has repeatedly expressed its concerns that the GEC is: (1) contributing to the censorship of American voices through grants to, and other collaboration with, private organizations that conduct operations in both the U.S. and foreign countries; and (2) effective perhaps at identifying, but nonetheless ineffective at preventing or stemming, foreign misinformation and disinformation. Unfortunately, as we will describe, the Department has denied us the information necessary to assess these issues' severity; as such, we have serious reservations about reauthorizing the GEC.

To begin with, the GEC is facing growing scrutiny here in Washington and across the country. Many of these inquiries concern the GEC's relationships with organizations - primarily U.S. technology companies and NGOs - that conduct censorship worldwide. First Amendment issues arise when the GEC contributes to those organizations' censorship of American viewpoints. For instance, the Department is now subject to at least two GEC-related federal lawsuits claiming First Amendment violations, Missouri v. Biden and Daily Wire, LLC v. United States Department of State. In the former suit, the plaintiffs allege that the GEC directly, and indirectly through an organization called the Election Integrity Partnership (EIP), communicated with social media companies to identify American-origin posts as mis- or disinformation and effect their takedown, many during the 2020 election cycle. In the latter, the plaintiffs highlight the GEC's "funding and promotion" of the Global Disinformation Index (GDI) and NewsGuard, both organizations which work to divert advertising revenue from certain, usually conservative media outlets, ostensibly because such outlets, in those organizations' view, lack credibility. In addition to these lawsuits, three open House of Representatives investigations, conducted by our own Committee, the Committee on the Judiciary, and the Committee on Small Business, center on the GEC. Also, a 2022 Inspector General report found that, separate from its problematic external relationships with third parties, the GEC has suffered from serious internal dysfunction.

Your Department refuses to acknowledge that these ongoing controversies complicate an objective appraisal of the GEC - in other words, that any value the GEC provides is tempered by genuine concerns that the GEC is at best indifferent to, and at worst complicit in, an orchestrated and systematic effort to stretch the term "disinformation" to encompass viewpoints that, among American progressives, are deemed to be politically disfavored or inconvenient. On May 22, 2024, you testified before this Committee that the GEC was uniformly exemplary - "a critical" and "effective tool[]" without which "we [will be] disarming ourselves in the fight against mis- and disinformation." When asked if "there [was] any merit to . . . the allegations that the GEC [was] censoring conservative voices . . . in the United States," you definitively answered: "[N]o. . . . [W]hen concerns w[ere] raised we tried to make sure we provided all of the necessary information. . . . [T]hose questions have been answered."

But "those questions" have not been answered, nor has the GEC demonstrated its future existence is vital to the U.S. diplomatic mission, especially at a time when the impact of its controversial grant funding seems unclear and perhaps negligible, its reports mirror what think tanks have said for years, and foreign disinformation is already the topic of intelligence reporting - and intelligence sharing with trusted partners.

On the first point, the GEC has refused to disavow its past support of entities, like the GDI, that censor domestic speech. The GDI maintains a "blacklist[]" of news outlets it believes lack credibility and encourages advertisers to avoid them; evidence suggests such list, while private, is biased against conservative publications. But when asked directly, the GEC would not admit that funding the GDI was, in hindsight, a mistake. So, how can we be sure the GEC will not aid similarly troubling entities in the future? In fact, the GEC appears to still be funding or otherwise supporting Code for Africa, an organization which the GDI labels as a "[p]ast [or] [p]resent [p]artner" and which administers a product adapting the GDI's speech suppression "methodology" for use in Africa.

The GEC likes to claim its support of the GDI was limited to identifying disinformation efforts abroad, but even if that is true (given the fungibility of money, it is hard to say for sure), it still exposes a credibility problem: in short, how can the GEC be taken seriously when it has chosen to fund entities that think all or most domestic conservative media outlets are illegitimate? How can grantees' work overseas be reputable when their work domestically is anything but?

Even more pertinent, and in some cases contradicting your testimony, the Department has evaded, ignored, or refused to answer our most pressing questions about the GEC, thereby impeding our oversight. The following list constitutes only a fraction of such unanswered questions:

  • Regarding the GEC's censorship:
    • In his responses to our questions for the record (QFRs) submitted following our October 25, 2023, hearing on the GEC, the GEC's Principal Deputy Coordinator Daniel Kimmage declined or failed to answer the following inquiries (among others):
      • "Have any GEC grants ever been canceled or not renewed based on poor performance evaluations? Or on the grounds that the grantee violated the grant by conducting activity directed towards US persons?"
      • "Can the GEC commit to terminating all partnerships with organizations that target American conservatives?"
      • "Has the GEC ever intentionally or unintentionally identified U.S. citizens or media organizations as purveyors or conduits of disinformation, misinformation, or malinformation?"
      • "Please outline . . . what work [the] GEC has done with the Election Integrity Partnership."
    • In our May 1, 2023, letter, we requested documents regarding the GEC's grants to eight censorship-related entities. The Department provided no such documents. In our September 15, 2023, letter, we requested documents regarding the GEC's grants to only three such entities, including two already enumerated in our May letter. To date, the Department has provided grant documents for only one of those three entities, the GDI, while grant documents for the other two, NewsGuard and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), remain outstanding.
    • In our September 15, 2023, letter, we requested documents relating to the GEC's work with the EIP. The Department did not provide such documents.
  • Regarding the GEC's efficacy:
    • In our questions for the record, we asked: "What metrics does the GEC use to determine the effectiveness of its work?" In response, Mr. Kimmage provided only a brief discussion of "standardized performance indicators" without providing the specific indicators themselves, effectively dodging the question.
    • Our March 7, 2024, letter requested "[t]he metrics the Department uses/has used to monitor and evaluate the success or failure of GEC and CPIF capacity-building programs." We have not received such metrics.

These non-responses are unacceptable. While we encourage the Department to share all information it deems relevant, responses to the following questions and production requests are essential to our reauthorization inquiry. Note that vague, stock answers like the ones the Department has provided before many times, or offering a brief in lieu of written responses, will be very unhelpful regarding the desired reauthorization.

  • We are disturbed by allegations, such as those in Missouri v. Biden, that the GEC identifies American speech for censorship by social media companies or other entities. We are likewise concerned that the GEC's awards to organizations that suppress speech worldwide, like the GDI and NewsGuard, may have contributed to their censorship activities in America. Finally, even if the GEC's awards to such organizations do not contribute to their domestic censorship activities, we still find such funding unacceptable. To those ends:
    • Has the GEC or any representative thereof ever, intentionally or unintentionally, identified U.S. citizens, U.S.-based social media accounts, U.S. media organizations, or other U.S. entities as spreading misinformation or disinformation or as otherwise lacking credibility?
      • If so, please produce the communications or documents in which the GEC made such identifications, including documents sufficient to explain their nature and scope, and which include the names of the organizations or individuals who received such communications.
    • Please describe in detail the typical circumstances under which the GEC's interactions with social media or other tech companies touch upon specific online post(s) created or shared by American individuals or entities or specific account(s) owned by American individuals or entities.
    • To your knowledge, has any entity funded by the GEC, including any recipient of grants, subgrants, cooperative agreements, or other contracts, ever, intentionally or unintentionally, used that funding to identify U.S. citizens, U.S.-based social media accounts, U.S. media organizations, or other U.S. entities as spreading misinformation or disinformation or as otherwise lacking credibility?
      • If so, please produce documents or communications sufficient to indicate and explain all such identifications, as well as documents or communications sufficient to demonstrate how and when the GEC became aware of such identifications and how it responded.
    • Can the GEC commit to terminating and abstaining from all funding of, and other collaboration with, all organizations that label U.S. persons, U.S.-based social media accounts, U.S. media organizations, or other U.S. entities as spreading misinformation or disinformation or as otherwise lacking credibility, even if such funding or collaboration is unrelated to that labeling?
  • Given the importance of political speech and the allegations in Missouri v. Biden, we are particularly concerned about the GEC interfering with American speech surrounding U.S. elections, even if the GEC determines that such speech constitutes misinformation, disinformation, or malinformation. Please address the following:
    • Please specify in detail the actions the GEC has taken, and the actions the GEC intends to take, regarding foreign misinformation, disinformation, or malinformation surrounding the 2024 U.S. elections or electoral infrastructure. In particular, please explain the ways in which the GEC has communicated or collaborated, or intends to communicate or collaborate, with the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS's) Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), social media and tech companies, and organizations like the EIP regarding the 2024 U.S. elections or electoral infrastructure, and please produce documents sufficient to demonstrate the extent to which such interactions include discussion of specific social media posts or accounts.
    • According to Mr. Kimmage, the GEC "general[ly] engage[d] with the EIP" during the 2020 election cycle. Likewise, according to the EIP, the GEC "reported tickets" to the EIP that "flag[ged] incidents or emerging narratives" related to the 2020 election. Please describe the nature of the GEC's engagement with the EIP and produce all documents mentioning or relating to the EIP, including all communications between the GEC or any representative thereof and the EIP or any representative thereof, all tickets the GEC submitted to the EIP, and all documents or communications relating to those tickets.
  • Because NewsGuard, like the GDI, suppresses speech and appears to be biased against conservatives, we would like to know more about the GEC's funding of NewsGuard. Pursuant to our September 15, 2023, letter, please produce documents sufficient to fully explain the nature and scope of the Department's contracts, grants, awards, subawards, cooperative agreements, or other agreements for assistance with NewsGuard, including the Statement of Work for all such agreements.
  • Returning to our concerns about the GEC's efficacy, please explain the GEC's performance monitoring system in detail. In particular, please iterate all performance indicators the GEC uses to assess itself in general and with respect to capacity-building programs specifically, and please produce documents exemplifying how the GEC has utilized these performance indicators.

We appreciate the importance of countering misinformation and disinformation abroad; however, we must ensure that such efforts are undertaken in the most careful and impactful manner possible. Accordingly, we cannot understate our need for robust answers to these questions. The Department must balance its hesitancy to provide our committee with information that may be at issue in Missouri v. Biden and Daily Wire with the understanding that such information is essential to our reauthorization inquiry and legislative responsibility. In short, given the GEC's pending termination and our consideration thereof, we are asking for both transparency regarding the GEC's connections to censorship efforts and a cogent demonstration of the GEC's value to America's foreign policy objectives. At present, we find the Department's disclosures inadequate in both respects.

We ask that the Department address our inquiries with the utmost consideration and urgency and provide the requested materials no later than July 19, 2024. We further urge the Department to provide all additional information it believes will aid our reauthorization decision.