The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act that was signed by President Obama on December 23 greenlights the creation of a new federal center ostensibly aimed at countering foreign “propaganda and disinformation.” Termed the Global Engagement Center, the body is granted broad and ill-defined powers to surveil the “populations most susceptible to propaganda,” compile reporting and social media messaging critical of the U.S. government and disseminate pro-American propaganda.
The head of the center will be appointed by the president, meaning that a Donald Trump nominee will likely sit at its helm.
The center was originally proposed in separate legislation introduced by U.S. senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) before being inserted into the NDAA. “The purpose of the Center shall be to lead, synchronize, and coordinate efforts of the Federal Government to recognize, understand, expose, and counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts aimed at undermining United States national security interests,” the NDAA states.
The center is tasked with generating and disseminating “fact-based narratives,” a directive likely to unleash a torrent of pro-American propaganda, as demonstrated by other government agencies.
The center will also be tasked with monitoring and tracking “counterfactual narratives abroad that threaten the national security interests of the United States and United States allies and partner nations.” While the precise meaning of this language is unclear, such instructions could be interpreted as targeting information and communications critical of the U.S. government.
The surveillance powers granted to the center are sweeping. The body is instructed to, “Identify the countries and populations most susceptible to propaganda and disinformation based on information provided by appropriate interagency entities.” It is not immediately clear from the text how the government will determine which populations qualify for this escalated surveillance.
The center will also “collect and store examples in print, online, and social media, disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda directed at the United States and its allies and partners.” The language indicates that federal authorities will have a new mechanism for monitoring social media and reporting that is critical of the U.S. government.
Michael Macleod-Ball, chief of staff for the Washington Legislative Office of the ACLU, told reporters it is not yet clear how this language will be put into practice.
“We just saw that the Department of Homeland Security is now collecting social media identifiers for people applying for visa waivers, so the collection, retention and sharing of social media information is going to be a growth industry for the federal government,” he said. “We have big concerns with the retention of that information and how it might be shared across agencies.”
He added, “There are already a whole bunch of government agencies collecting information. Whether you’re talking about law enforcement or intelligence officials, having the government in the business of monitoring individual communications is very troubling to us.”
Overshadowed by the holidays, the provision passed with little debate or notice, despite its potentially broad implications. The measure will be handed over to the administration of Trump, who has previously called for a ban on Muslims entering the country, a database to track Muslims within the United States, the mass deportation of 11 million undocumented people, and the authorization of torture.
The NDAA also rubber-stamps a massive military budget of nearly $619 billion and places limits on transfers from the Guantánamo Bay detention center, meaning the prison will almost certainly remain open despite Obama’s pledges to shut it down.
By: Sarah Lazare