The Biden administration is insisting that its controversial Disinformation Governance Board will protect the country from outside threats and won't impinge on people's civil liberties amid criticism that the initiative could prompt increased government censorship.
President Joe Biden's press secretary defended the Orwellian-sounding board Monday, attempting to position it as a nonpartisan coordinating body for the Department of Homeland Security’s work responding to disinformation.
“It’s continuing work that was done by CISA back to 2020,” Jen Psaki said, referring to the federal cybersecurity agency that is a component of DHS, adding that the board “would help coordinate internal activities from the department related to disinformation that poses a threat to the homeland.”
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The board’s mandate “is not to adjudicate what is true or false online,” she added.
DHS clarified that the board would be focused on disinformation that directly threatens the security of the United States, including disinformation spread by foreign states such as Russia, China, and Iran or other adversaries, such as transnational criminal organizations and human smuggling organizations.
Such governments and groups spread disinformation, or false information that is deliberately spread with the intent to deceive or mislead, to exploit the public, including during national emergencies and elections, DHS said. "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," DHS said in a press release Monday.
"In fact, the Disinformation Governance Board is an internal working group that was 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," the agency added.
The department also said the head of the department, Alejandro Mayorkas, would renew its commitment to transparency and openness with the public and Congress by proactively releasing comprehensive quarterly reports about the board's activities to Congress, including its oversight committees.
During a pair of interviews Sunday, Mayorkas called the board “a small working group” within his agency that lacks “any operational authority or capability.” He said it would focus on foreign, not domestic, threats.
“What it will do is gather together best practices in addressing the threat of disinformation from foreign state adversaries, from the cartels, and disseminate those best practices to the operators that have been executing in addressing this threat for years,” he told CNN.
In several hearings last week, Mayorkas said initially that the board would aim to combat disinformation from human smugglers as well as Russian election misinformation.
On Monday, Psaki insisted that the board was not political despite the appointment of a head who has benefited Democrats by labeling as disinformation positions later found credible or lending authority to stances that were later discredited.
The board’s newly named executive director, Nina Jankowicz, has come under fire for casting doubt on the Hunter Biden laptop story during the 2020 election as well as her criticism of the hypothesis that COVID-19 emerged from a Wuhan, China, lab, which she suggested could help former President Donald Trump during the 2020 election.
Jankowicz has also shared insights from Trump dossier author Christopher Steele.
“It will operate in a nonpartisan, apolitical manner,” Psaki said. “It’s basically meant to coordinate a lot of the ongoing work that is happening.”
She said it would focus on “disinformation that threatens the homeland” and ticked through a list of potential targets.
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“Things that would incite violent extremism,” she said. “Human traffickers and other transnational criminal organizations, any efforts at malign foreign influence, [and] anything that would endanger individuals during emergencies.”
Asked if the board’s work would be made public, Psaki said it would consider issuing “public products.”