Biden administration defends disinformation council against fierce GOP criticism

By Priscilla Alvarez and Sean Lyngaas, CNN

The Department of Homeland Security and the White House are championing a new initiative to help target disinformation amid fierce criticism from Republicans who have called the effort overkill and attacked its leader.

Last week, DHS announced the creation of an interagency team, dubbed the “Disinformation Governance Council,” to coordinate the department’s activities related to disinformation targeting the U.S. population and infrastructure. Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation expert with experience working on Ukrainian and Russian issues, was chosen to lead the board, alongside two senior DHS officials, including acting senior deputy general counsel Jen Daskal. .

Jankowicz’s nomination was quickly condemned by GOP lawmakers and right-wing media outlets, who pointed to his past tweets and statements regarding Hunter Biden’s laptop and Christopher Steele, the author of the so-called Steele dossier.

Jankowicz weighed in on Elon’s Musk bid to buy Twitter more recently, writing, “I shudder to think if free speech absolutists took over more platforms, what would that look like to people? marginalized communities… who already bear… disproportionate amounts of this abuse.”

The Republican-led reaction was swift. GOP Representatives John Katko of New York and Mike Turner of Ohio sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas raising “serious concerns” about the initiative under Jankowicz. Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri also wrote a letter to Mayorkas, arguing that the council is “dangerous and un-American” and calling for it to be disbanded.

The council, however, is an internal working group and has no operational authority, playing an advisory role instead. It’s meant to gather best practices and support counter-disinformation activities, not to monitor Americans, Mayorkas said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.

“It works to ensure that the way we deal with threats, the connectivity between threats and acts of violence that are dealt with without undermining freedom of expression, the protection of civil rights and civil liberties, the right to privacy,” Mayorkas said, conceding the department could have explained the group’s role better.

“This working group, internal working group, will learn from best practices and communicate these best practices to operators because the council does not have operational authority,” Mayorkas added.

In a fact sheet released Monday afternoon, DHS said Mayorkas asked department officials to build public confidence in the group.

Mayorkas also asked the bipartisan Homeland Security Advisory Council to recommend ways for DHS to combat disinformation while “protecting free speech and other fundamental rights,” according to the fact sheet.

Jamie Gorelick — co-chairman of the board and former deputy U.S. attorney general — will lead the effort along with Michael Chertoff, a board member who served as secretary of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush.

“There has been confusion about the working group, its role and its activities. The reaction to this task force has prompted DHS to assess what steps we should take to build the trust necessary for the Department to be effective in this space,” the fact sheet states, adding that the group will issue quarterly reports. about his work in Congress. .

CNN has reached out to Jankowicz for additional comment. Jankowicz announced his nomination on Twitter last week and responded to some of the criticism over a tweet about Hunter Biden’s laptop during a 2020 presidential debate.

“For those who think this tweet is the key to all my opinions, this is simply a direct quote from both candidates during the final presidential debate. If you look at my timeline, you’ll see I was tweeting live tonight -the “, she wrote.

The board also won’t do fact checks, as critics have suggested.

Jankowicz has focused on disinformation and Eastern Europe for years and advised the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry on the subject in 2016 and 2017, according to his website. She is fluent in Russian and her book “How to Lose the Information War” examines how five Western governments have handled Russian disinformation.

Despite her expertise, critics say she is biased against Democratic wrongdoing allegations, former President Donald Trump’s record, Covid-19 measures and free speech, among other issues. In a TikTok video posted ahead of his appointment as head of the board, for example, Jankowicz singled out influencers Rudy Giuliani and TikTok in a Mary Poppins jingle.

“When Rudy Giuliani has shared bad information from Ukraine or when TikTok influencers say Covid can’t cause pain, they are whitewashing misinformation and we really should take notice, and not support their lies with our wallets, our voice or our vote,” she said. .

White House press secretary Jen Psaki came to Jankowicz’s defense on Monday.

“The woman you mentioned has extensive experience and has done extensive work on misinformation,” Psaki said. “She testified before Congress; she testified in Europe. She has worked closely with the Ukrainians and has unique expertise, especially at this time that we are facing. »

In network interviews on Sunday, Mayorkas also stood alongside Jankowicz. Asked about Republican criticism of Jankowicz and his ability to be objective by CNN’s Dana Bash, Mayorkas replied, “Eminently qualified, a renowned expert in the field of disinformation.

The concept of the council dates from last year. At the time, Homeland Security officials began discussing a group to provide advice on policy and privacy issues, given that agencies within the department were already collecting information for personal purposes. related to their missions, according to John Cohen, the former acting head of DHS. Office of Intelligence and Analysis.

One of the issues the task force could help with, officials thought, was whether agencies could share information with each other that they had obtained through their own authorities, Cohen said.

“Every threat area the department is concerned about is impacted by foreign intelligence services, terrorist groups, criminal organizations spreading disinformation through communications platforms on the internet,” Cohen said.

The “Disinformation Governance Council” focuses first on disinformation surrounding human migration to the United States and potential disinformation threats from Russia targeting U.S. critical infrastructure, DHS said in a press release. last week.

Russian disinformation campaigns against Americans have been going on for years, including during election cycles. US officials are always on the lookout for new signs of Kremlin-backed efforts to sow division, especially in light of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the United States’ challenges to migrants attempting to enter the United States are exacerbated by smugglers who “profit by spreading false information that puts lives at risk,” the DHS said in last week’s press release.

Last week during congressional hearings, Mayorkas warned of an increase in misinformation and disinformation attempting to target the integrity of the electoral system.

“We’re seeing an increase in misinformation and misinformation that tries to undermine the integrity of the electoral system and people’s right to vote,” Mayorkas said when asked by Rep. Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat, on radicalization before the next elections in 2022. .

Mayorkas said he spoke to secretaries of state across the country a few weeks ago to discuss efforts to keep officials and the electoral system safe.

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