Trump administration says it has terminated support for controversial anti-Iran campaign that 'smeared US citizens'

Andrew Buncombe

The Trump administration says it has ended support for a controversial anti-Iran campaign that “smeared US citizens”.

Earlier this year, it was revealed the US state department was using taxpayer money to help fund the Iranian Disinformation Project, an online campaign that claimed it worked to counter “the nefarious influence of one of the world’s few remaining totalitarian regimes”. The campaign was set up by a group called E-Collaborative for Civic Education, an NGO that works on various Iranian issues.

The state department suspended funding through its global engagement centre (GEC) after it emerged some of the campaign’s articles and tweets had targeted and smeared human rights workers, activists and journalists, many of whom were US citizens.

Lea Gabrielle, head of the GEC, said at a congressional hearing this week that funding for the project had been halted.

According to the Associated Press, Ms Gabrielle told the House of Representative’s appropriations subcommittee, its review determined the tweets violated the terms of the state department’s agreement.

“The intent was to unveil Iranian disinformation project,” she said, adding that the tweets “were not in the context that was intended. They were outside the scope of the agreement that we had”.

She added: “We have since terminated our agreement with that implementer. It was never the intent of the global engagement centre to have anyone tweeting at US citizens.”

Among those it attacked was Washington DC-based journalist Negar Mortazavi, a consultant editor to The Independent. It was Ms Mortazavi’s revelations about the group that led to the state department review.

Last month, she wrote: “As an Iranian-American journalist living and working in exile, I am used to all forms of online attacks by Iranian government-sponsored trolls. I just never expected to also be attacked by the US government.”

On Wednesday, after news of the state department’s decision was revealed, Ms Mortazavi said she felt pleased the government had acted to quickly. “I think it is great news for the rule of law,” she said.

This spring, Brett Bruen, who was director of the GEC under Barack Obama, told the Guardian, it had originally been established to counter Russian and Isis disinformation and propaganda.

Last summer, Reuters reported the Trump administration was launching its own disinformation campaign to try and undermine Tehran’s leadership. It is not clear if that campaign and the Iranian Disinformation Project, were connected.

There was no immediate response to enquiries from the state department, or the E-Collaborative for Civic Education group, which has been associated with the US government for a number of years as part of its main education project, Tavaana, which it says is the Farsi word for “empowered” or and “capable”.

Tara Sepehrifar, an Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch, who was smeared by the campaign, also welcomed the state department’s decision, but added: “Since everything is happening behind closed doors we have very little knowledge into how thorough the state department has investigated this issue.”