DHS plays defense over Disinformation Governance Board

The Orwellian name and an admittedly clumsy rollout immediately raised eyebrows.

May 5, 2022, 6:23 PM

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has spent much of this week defending the department's newly established Disinformation Governance Board in response to Republican lawmakers' concerns about partisan influence in federal law enforcement.

The board, according to DHS, was actually created to address privacy concerns that arise with disinformation campaigns when information is shared between departments as well as to ensure it's done appropriately. But the Orwellian name and an admittedly clumsy rollout immediately raised eyebrows as well as ignited a pre-existing debate about free speech and partisanship -- especially given the person tasked with leading the board's activities.

"Given the complete lack of information about this new initiative and the potential serious consequences of a government entity identifying and responding to 'disinformation,' we have serious concerns about the activities of this new Board, particularly under Ms. Jankowicz's leadership," Mike Turner and John Katko, Republican leaders of the House Committee on Homeland Security, wrote in a letter to Mayorkas last week.

In a fact sheet released Monday, the department admits that "there has been confusion about the working group, its role, and its activities" and vows to work on building greater public trust.

That confusion over the board's work stemmed from a comment Mayorkas made to Congress last week that it would be used to "more effectively combat" the threat of false information. DHS has now said the body will not be involved in managing department operations and Mayorkas said the group would "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."

The White House on Friday pledged the board will operate in a "nonpartisan and apolitical manner."

But Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, was not sold.

"I think you've got no idea what disinformation is, and I don't think the government is capable of it," he said during a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing.

The secretary pushed back on the assertion from Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., that the board will be the "truth police."

"The Department of Homeland Security is not going to be the truth police," Mayorkas said. "That is the farthest thing from the truth. We protect the security of the homeland."

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas testifies before a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, on Capitol Hill, May 4, 2022.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

The GOP criticisms also center on Nina Jankowicz, the former Wilson Center fellow tapped to lead the board. Jankowicz, who is routinely outspoken on Twitter, has publicly criticized Republicans and sowed doubt about the accuracy of press reports critical of President Joe Biden's son Hunter.

Jankowicz was quoted by the Associated Press in 2020 refuting a story about the discovery of new emails that reportedly linked Hunter Biden and a Ukrainian energy executive with the president.

"We should view it as a Trump campaign product," Jankowicz told the AP that October.

She later suggested on Twitter that the emails were "part of an influence campaign."

"Voters deserve that context, not a fairy tale about a laptop repair shop," Jankowicz wrote.

The New York Times and Washington Post confirmed the authenticity of the emails related to Hunter Biden with the help of security experts in March. ABC News has not independently confirmed the veracity of the emails, which were first reported by the New York Post in an article that was flagged as disinformation on Twitter. The social media company demanded the tabloid delete the posts but eventually backed down when it refused.

The debate over the new board takes place against the backdrop of a long-standing divide over regulating speech, especially online. Fueled by libertarian beliefs in an unregulated public sphere, leaders on the right have championed figures like Elon Musk, whose recent acquisition of Twitter was met with skepticism and concern from those who believe social media companies have a duty to remove vitriolic harassment, disinformation and misinformation on their platforms.

"Your priority is setting up a board and hiring someone who has gone to TikTok to talk about stopping speech she doesn't like, who has mocked voters of the last president, that has been your priority, and to say your priorities are misplaced is a dramatic understatement, and the time I think has come, Mr. Secretary, for you to resign," Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., told Mayorkas.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said Jankowicz has made "political statements" in the past that would disqualify her from holding the position on the board.

"I think it's a terrible idea," Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said.

Mayorkas, for his part, pushed back, saying he didn't know about the TikTok posts and, as secretary, he is ultimately responsible for what occurs at DHS. He also declined to say who hired Jankowicz but stressed she must do her job in a nonpartisan way.

John Cohen, the former acting intelligence chief at DHS who helped stand up the disinformation board and left the department last month, said the board simply addresses a communication issue within the department.

"It didn't coordinate operational activities, it wasn't governing intelligence operations, it had no input on how organizations collect intelligence or information," Cohen, now an ABC News contributor, said. "It was simply intended to be a working group that would gather on an ad hoc basis to address matters of policy."