The State Department on Thursday announced that a former Fox News reporter would lead its agency in charge of efforts to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation.
Lea Gabrielle will become the special envoy and coordinator of the Global Engagement Center, State Department deputy spokesperson Robert Palladino announced during the department press briefing.
“Lea will provide the permanent leadership we have needed to bolster the Global Engagement Center’s operations. And she will begin her duties on Monday. Lea is a former CIA-trained human intelligence operations officer, defense foreign liaison officer, United States Navy program director, Navy FA-18/C fighter pilot, and national television news correspondent and anchor at two different networks,” Palladino said.
CNN reported in September that Gabrielle was a top contender for the job. Gabrielle could not be immediately reached for comment.
Gabrielle was a general assignment reporter for “Shepard Smith Reporting,” according to her Fox News biography, and was previously a military reporter.
Gabrielle is a United States Naval Academy graduate and served in the US Navy as fighter pilot for more than a decade, as well as taking part in some intelligence operations. She has said that her time in the Navy made her a better reporter. “I know how important it is that those who wear combat boots have their voices heard and their perspectives understood in news reporting,” Gabrielle said during a 2016 interview with fightersweep.com. “My goal as I report on military topics is always to honor them … by getting it right.”
In 2018, she criticized Trump on air over his plans for a military parade in Washington, calling the idea “completely unnecessary.”
The GEC was established in April 2016, and its mission includes “countering the adverse effects of state-sponsored propaganda and disinformation.” It has taken on increasing importance as experts warn of the potential for massive disinformation campaigns heading into the midterm elections.
When Gabrielle’s name was first floated for the position in September, the choice of a relative foreign policy novice was criticized by several current and former officials with experience in the field.
But the Trump administration has shown an appetite for choosing leaders with military experience. Recently Andrea Thompson, who spent more than 25 years in the US military, also joined the State Department as the Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security just last year.
The administration has hired a number of former Fox News employees in prominent roles. Heather Nauert, the State Department spokesperson, and the Bill Shine, the White House Communications chief, also worked at the network.
Gabrielle will take on the role during a critical time, as the US continues to grapple with the influence of targeted disinformation campaigns. As recently as last week, the Justice Department alleged that Russia has continued pushing online disinformation to discredit the American government, after a pro-Russian Twitter account spread confidential information from a criminal case that special counsel Robert Mueller’s team brought against a Russian company for social media conspiracy.
The GEC has been strongly criticized during the Trump administration for not actively taking on Russian interference, and for not using all of the money it has been given.
Last year the State Department launched a $40 million dollar initiative to counter Russia election interference and disinformation. The funds came to State from the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. But it is unclear how much of that initiative has yet been carried out, and how much of the total funding has been made accessible to the GEC office.
One administration official said the extent of Gabrielle’s policy experience is unclear, but they believe she will be an effective spokesperson. The official said that the choice demonstrates the administration sees the job as more a public affairs role than a policy heavy one.
Obama’s pick for director of the GEC, Michael Lumpkin, had served as the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict and as the acting under secretary of defense for policy, the third-highest civilian job at the United States Department of Defense.
Current acting director Daniel Kimmage has served in several State Department roles, including being principal deputy coordinator of the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications. Kimmage, who is fluent in Russian and Arabic, according to his biography, was also a senior fellow at the Homeland Security Policy Institute. His writings include reports on extremist media strategies.
Brett Bruen, a former White House director of global engagement during the Obama administration, said, “Lea may be a great reporter and pilot. She has evidenced absolutely no knowledge of or experience with information warfare. Our nation, indeed the world, faces a serious and sophisticated threat. We need leadership that can take on this danger from day one.”
He added: “Her appointment endangers our elections, our public discourse, and potentially our economy.”