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Homeland Security advisers say ‘no need’ for disinformation board

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas responds to lawmakers’ questions during a Senate subcommittee hearing May 4 on Capitol Hill. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)
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Department of Homeland Security advisers urged the agency Monday to scrap the Disinformation Governance Board the Biden administration created this year only to watch it implode amid confusion and partisan quarreling over its role.

A Homeland Security Advisory Council subcommittee concluded in a one-sentence draft recommendation that there was “no need” for the disinformation board and the council endorsed the recommendation at its meeting.

Officials said they created the board in April to fight disinformation-fueled extremism that might endanger national security, but Republicans and conservative media portrayed it as an Orwellian tool that could infringe on privacy and free speech.

The board’s director resigned after a few weeks amid a wave of online criticism, and Homeland Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas asked the advisory council to study the issue.

Michael Chertoff, co-chair of the council subcommittee that drafted the recommendation and a former DHS secretary, did not explain the panel’s reasoning before the broader council voted to approve the recommendation Monday. He said the subcommittee is working on a full report on disinformation due Aug. 3.

“There is no room for a separate disinformation governance board,” Chertoff, who served in the George W. Bush administration, said at the meeting.

The 36-member advisory council is mostly handpicked by Mayorkas. He asked Chertoff and Jamie Gorelick, who served as deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration, to co-chair the subcommittee.

The public section of the meeting was held via audio only. Officials did not identify all the members on the call or respond to questions afterward. The council had a quorum and approved the recommendation in a voice vote.

Mayorkas has said that the Department of Homeland Security created the board to safeguard against disinformation-related security threats, which DHS defined as “false information that is deliberately spread with the intent to deceive or mislead.” Disinformation can take many forms, officials said, such as false reports “spread by foreign states such as Russia, China, and Iran” as well as criminal organizations and human smugglers.

DHS later emphasized that the board was an internal working group that “does not have any operational authority or capability.”

How the Biden administration let right-wing attacks derail its disinformation efforts

But Republicans worried that the board amounted to policing speech in the United States, and some cheered the decision Monday.

The Republicans on the House Homeland Security Committee tweeted: “Hate to say we told you so … From its initially botched rollout, the ‘Ministry of Truth’ lacked a defined mission or even direction. It was clear it was a political tool to be wielded by the party in control.”

DHS has said that the agency is “deeply committed to doing all of its work in a way that protects Americans’ freedom of speech, civil rights, civil liberties, and privacy.” But the agency has acknowledged “confusion about the working group, its role, and its activities.”

The blowback against DHS and the board’s director, Nina Jankowicz, an author and disinformation expert, prompted DHS to “pause” the board’s activities in May.

The tempest over DHS’s Disinformation Governance Board

The council’s recommendation came two months after Jankowicz’s resignation. On Monday, she wrote on Twitter that harassment against her continues and called on some Republican lawmakers to “stop amplifying” false information against her.

She said some people wrongly believed that her role “involved law enforcement and censorship.”

“Nope,” she wrote.

“Far from the manufactured image of the power-hungry censor that many have amplified, my career has been dedicated to nonpartisan work *protecting* free expression,” she wrote.

“Disproportionate personalized attacks have become endemic to American political discourse. No one deserves to be subject to such vitriol, and it is those in positions of power who tacitly encourage it,” she added. “They can choose to set a different tone and example.”

Besides Chertoff and Gorelick, members of the council’s subcommittee on disinformation best practices and safeguards are venture capitalist Ted Schlein; Sonal Shah, executive vice president at United Way Worldwide; former FBI special agent Ali Soufan; and lawyer Matthew F. Ferraro.