A FOIA Story: The State Department Pleads Not Guilty to "Brainwashing"
The Global Engagement Center obliterates the "fine line" between doing its job, diplomacy, and crossing into prohibited domestic propaganda
In May 2019, the State Department was caught funding a site that issued caustic tweets at journalists deemed insufficiently tough on Iran. The story would likely have gone nowhere, but one of the victims was a CNN contributor and columnist for the Washington Post, who published a first-person horror story: “The State Department has been funding trolls. I’m one of their targets.”
The troll site belonged to something called the Iran Disinformation Project, and the victim was Jason Rezaian, known for having suffered 544 days behind bars in Iran after widely condemned secret espionage charges. The @IranDisinfo account reportedly disapproved of Rezaian’s take on Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy, which included an exacting program of sanctions that the Post writer, for all his negative feelings about the Teheran regime, criticized as too punitive of Iran’s people. “For these thought crimes,” Rezaian wrote, “we are branded… Tehran’s ‘mouthpieces,’ ‘apologists,’ ‘collaborators,’ and ‘lobbyists’ in the West.”
The episode inspired complaints and fulminating commentary at sites like The Intercept and The Guardian, which were mortified the State Department was paying a little-known site to troll American journalists and human rights activists. The $1.5 million contract was swiftly suspended for @IranDisinfo, but most press outrage was directed at the use of GEC to flog Trump’s Iran policies, not the seemingly graver issue of a diplomatic agency having a $100 million troll-and-censor program to aim at Americans. The Intercept even quoted Barack Obama’s former head of global engagement, Brett Bruen, who said the flap “reflected a broader problem with counterpropaganda funding in the Trump administration.”
Thanks to an accidental detour in a search of the federal FOIA portal, Racket found revealing background emails about this incident.