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State counterterror messaging program included in “Wastebook”

Senator Tom Coburn released his annual “Wastebook” last night, a report that is catnip for reporters and which identifies 100 federal government projects and activities as wasteful, building in many cases off the prior work of Inspectors General, the GAO, and investigative reporters.

This report plays a valuable role in highlighting legitimately wasteful activity by a variety of federal agencies. For example, I think that many of the DHS-related examples cited in the report (e.g. overuse of paid leave, vehicle fleet management, a gym contract for ICE’s HQ, CBP housing in Ajo, Arizona) are fair examples of wasteful or questionable spending. But I was struck by one item that I strongly believe does not deserve to be included in this report: the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), highlighted on page 45 of the report.

Sen. Coburn’s primary criticisms of the CSCC is that their efforts “lack hard metrics” and that it is “ineffective”. Sen. Coburn also extensively cites a recent Time Magazine piece by Rita Katz that was critical of the program. His concluding paragraph:

The extremist message that resonates with a would-be ISIS jihadist is
born of the want and disaffection that comes from the lack of better opportunities. What the State Department fails to realize with its taxpayer-funded social media experiment is that efforts like this will always fail because they attempt to address the war of ideas at its downstream effect as opposed to its root cause. Instead of sending one more State Department tweet, we should reinvest these funds in activities that improve basic education and develop the free market in places that remain disconnected from the global economy. We can yield better results for our scarce taxpayer dollars than extreme indignation.

It is undoubtedly true that it is difficult to measure the outcome of such a program – Amb. Alberto Fernandez, who leads CSCC, acknowledged this point at an event that HSPI recently held. But I think it is unfair to call it ineffective, given that it still is a relatively new program, and one that is still experimenting with different tactics in support of its overall objectives. I worry that critiques such as Sen. Coburn’s will discourage such experimentation and risk-taking in federal agencies – something that needs to be encouraged and rewarded, rather than dismissed.

I look at CSCC as a relatively small bet – $3 million/year – amid the tens of billions of dollars spent each year overall by the federal government on counterterrorism programs. CSCC’s former director, Amb. Richard LeBaron made similar points in very undiplomatic language in a recent Politico piece:

Defenders of the program, not least CSCC’s first director, Richard LeBaron, sound more than a little defensive when the question comes up. “So you do nothing? So you don’t try? You don’t experiment? You don’t spend a small amount of money?” said LeBaron, who is now retired from the State Department. “This organization probably costs less than one drone every year. Probably considerably less than one Goddamn drone. And to tell me that that is a waste of money is just utter bullshit. That’s a good use of money. That’s an ideal use of money — experiment and learn, so that you don’t have to use the drones.”

Ultimately, Sen. Coburn’s objections to this program are disagreements on policy and on messaging tactics; there is nothing in the report to support the idea that the $3 million for CSCC’s budget is wasteful spending. Hopefully the program’s inclusion in the Wastebook will not be used as the basis for others to support cutting funding for the program or curtailing its forward-leaning and risk-taking efforts.