A new coordinating body proposed by the Department of Homeland Security to focus its efforts at countering disinformation has run into a buzzsaw of opposition from members of Congress. Some have characterized the would-be Disinformation Governance Board as a dystopian threat to free speech.
The new working group was announced with little fanfare last week and almost immediately generated an intense reaction from lawmakers, primarily Republicans, who accused the agency of attempting to stifle free expression.
A group of Republican lawmakers led by Representative James Comer, the senior Republican on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, attacked the group in a letter that said, in part, “The creation of the ‘Disinformation Governance Board’ appears to double down on this Administration’s continued abuse of taxpayer dollars and the federal government’s powers to attack Americans who disagree with its policies, smearing them as extremists and perpetrators of ‘mis- dis- and mal-information.’”
Damage control efforts
The attacks left DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas scrambling to defend the board in appearances on Sunday television talk shows and through a fact sheet distributed by the department on Monday.
“The Department is deeply committed to doing all of its work in a way that protects Americans’ freedom of speech, civil rights, civil liberties, and privacy,” the fact sheet said.
It described the board as being “established with the explicit goal of ensuring these protections are appropriately incorporated across DHS’s disinformation-related work and that rigorous safeguards are in place.” It also stressed that the board “does not have any operational authority or capability,” meaning that it will not operate as a law enforcement agency.
Mayorkas on Wednesday appeared before the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Homeland Security Subcommittee and continued his effort to convince lawmakers that the new working group was designed to do precisely the opposite of what its detractors were claiming.
“The department does not combat speech,” he said. “The department is involved in protecting the homeland, protecting the security of the homeland, and we become involved (with speech) when there is a connectivity to violence.”
Admitting that the announcement of the group had not been handled ideally, he insisted that the purpose of the working group was “to bring together the experts throughout our department to ensure that our ongoing work in combating disinformation is done in a way that does not infringe on free speech, a fundamental constitutional right, embedded in the First Amendment, nor on the right of privacy or other civil rights and civil liberties.”
It quickly became clear that the department’s efforts at damage control had done little to persuade some Republicans.
Senator Shelley Moore Capito, the senior Republican on the panel, advised Mayorkas to simply do away with the new working group, saying, “I think, quite honestly, for the good of the rest of the department, that now is a good time to abandon this ludicrous and much maligned idea.”
Republican Senator John Kennedy questioned Mayorkas, asking about the decision to hire Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation researcher formerly with the Washington-based Wilson Center, to lead the Disinformation Governance Board.
Jankowicz was one of many who questioned the provenance of a laptop computer containing compromising material about President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, which was made public during the 2020 presidential race, suggesting it might have been a Russian disinformation tactic. The information on the laptop has since been confirmed to be real.
Free speech activists unsurprised
Advocates for free speech and freedom of expression said they were not very surprised by the hostile reception the board received when its existence was made public.
“I think DHS really has itself to blame for the reaction,” Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, told VOA. “They announced something that is somewhat creepy sounding, that we have a kind of government truth board run out of the Homeland Security Department, and they did not at the same time, very clearly say, ‘Here's why we're doing this.’”
“It was terribly executed,” Kevin Goldberg, a First Amendment specialist at the Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization in Washington told VOA. “In an area where you're talking about speech and anything relating to government involvement in speech, we want to act with precision. And this was anything but.
“Again, this is all compounded by the fact that it's the Department of Homeland Security, a government agency with some enforcement powers that was created specifically as a response to 9/11,” Goldberg said. “It's wrong and concerning on multiple fronts.”
Wizner said he thought the agency might want to consider Capito’s suggestion and do away with the program.
“I don't think there would be any harm if they decided to just scrap this idea,” he said. “Even if it's nowhere near as nefarious as some of its critics have suggested, I still am entirely unpersuaded that it's at all necessary.”
However, during the course of Wednesday’s hearing, Mayorkas gave no indication that he was preparing to dismantle the new organization.