A new coordinating body proposed by the Department of Homeland Security to focus its efforts on countering disinformation has been met with a buzz of opposition from members of Congress. Some have called the future Disinformation Governance Council a dystopian threat to free speech.
The new task force was announced with little fanfare last week and almost immediately generated an intense backlash from lawmakers, mostly Republicans, who accused the agency of trying to stifle free speech.
A group of Republican lawmakers led by Rep. James Comer, the top Republican on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, attacked the group in a letter that said, in part, “The creation of the Disinformation Governance Council.” ”seems to double down on this The administration’s continued abuse of taxpayers’ money and the powers of the federal government to attack Americans who disagree with its policies, vilifying them as extremists and perpetrators of “misinformation and bad information”.
Damage control efforts
The attacks left DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas scrambling to defend the board during appearances on Sunday television shows and in a fact sheet distributed by the department on Monday.
“The Department is deeply committed to doing all of its work in a manner that protects free speech, civil rights, civil liberties, and the privacy of Americans,” the fact sheet states.
He described the council as being “created for the explicit purpose of ensuring that these protections are properly integrated into DHS’s disinformation work and that strong safeguards are in place.” He also stressed that the council “has no operational authority or capacity”, meaning it will not function as a law enforcement agency.
Mayorkas appeared before the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Homeland Security subcommittee on Wednesday and continued his efforts to convince lawmakers that the new task force was designed to do the exact opposite of what its critics claimed.
“The department is not fighting the floor,” he said. “The department is involved in protecting the homeland, protecting homeland security, and we get involved (with speaking) when there is a connection to violence.”
Acknowledging that the group’s announcement had not been handled ideally, he insisted that the purpose of the task force was “to bring together experts from across our department to ensure that our ongoing work in the fight against disinformation is done in a way that does not infringe on the freedom of expression, a fundamental constitutional right, enshrined in the first amendment, nor on the right to privacy or other civil rights and freedoms civil.
Republicans not convinced
It quickly became apparent that the department’s damage control efforts had done little to convince some Republicans.
Senator Shelley Moore Capito, the panel’s leading Republican, advised Mayorkas to simply scrap the new task force, saying, “I think, quite honestly, for the sake of the rest of the department, this is now the right one.” time to drop this ridiculous and much maligned idea.
Republican Sen. John Kennedy asked Mayorkas about the decision to hire Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation researcher formerly at the Washington-based Wilson Center, to lead the Disinformation Governance Council.
Jankowicz was one of many to question the provenance of a laptop containing incriminating material about President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, which was released during the 2020 presidential race, suggesting that it could be a Russian disinformation tactic. The laptop information has since been confirmed to be real.
Free speech activists aren’t surprised
Free speech and free speech advocates said they weren’t terribly surprised at the hostile reception the council received when its existence was made public.
“I think the DHS is really responsible for the reaction,” Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, told VOA. “They announced something that sounds a little scary, that we have some kind of government truth committee run by the Department of Homeland Security, and they didn’t at the same time, very clearly say, ‘Here’s why we’re doing that.’ ”
“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 about government involvement in speech, we want to act with precision. And it was anything but.
“Again, all of this is compounded by the fact that it was the Department of Homeland Security, a government agency with some enforcement powers that was created specifically in response to 9/11,” Goldberg said. “This is wrong and concerning on several fronts.”
Wizner said he thinks the agency might consider Capito’s suggestion and scrap the program.
“I don’t think there would be any harm if they decided to just drop that idea,” he said. “While it’s nowhere near as harmful as some of its critics have suggested, I’m still not convinced it’s necessary.”
However, during Wednesday’s hearing, Mayorkas gave no indication that he was preparing to dismantle the new organization.