The Department of Homeland Security and the White House are defending a new initiative to help target disinformation amid fierce criticism from Republicans who cast the effort as overreach and attacked its leader.
Last week, DHS announced an interagency team, dubbed the “Disinformation Governance Board,” to coordinate department activities related to disinformation aimed at the US population and infrastructure. Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation expert with experience working on Ukraine and Russia issues, was tapped to helm the board, along with two senior DHS officials, including acting Principal Deputy General Counsel Jen Daskal.
Jankowicz’s appointment quickly drew condemnation from GOP lawmakers and right-wing media, who pointed to her past tweets and statements regarding Hunter Biden’s laptop and Christopher Steele, the author of the so-called Steele Dossier.
Jankowicz weighed in more recently on Elon’s Musk’s bid to buy Twitter, writing, “I shudder to think about if free speech absolutists were taking over more platforms, what that would look like for the marginalized communities … which are already shouldering … disproportionate amounts of this abuse.”
The Republican-led backlash was swift. GOP Reps. John Katko of New York and Mike Turner of Ohio sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, raising “serious concerns” with the initiative under Jankowicz. Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri similarly wrote a letter to Mayorkas, arguing the board is “dangerous and un-American” and calling for it to be dissolved.
The board, though, is an internal working group and doesn’t have operational authority, instead serving in a more advisory role. It’s intended to gather best practices and support counter-disinformation activities, not monitor Americans, Mayorkas said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.
“It works to ensure that the way in which we address threats, the connectivity between threats and acts of violence that are addressed without infringing on free speech, protecting civil rights and civil liberties, the right of privacy,” Mayorkas said, conceding that the department could’ve done a better job of explaining the group’s role.
“This working group, internal working group, will draw from best practices and communicate those best practices to the operators because the board does not have operational authority,” Mayorkas added.
In a fact sheet released Monday afternoon, DHS said Mayorkas has asked department officials to enhance the public’s trust in the group.
Mayorkas has also asked the bipartisan Homeland Security Advisory Council to recommend ways DHS can address disinformation while “protecting free speech and other fundamental rights,” according to the fact sheet.
Jamie Gorelick – the council’s co-chair and a former US deputy attorney general – will lead the effort along with Michael Chertoff, a member of the council who was 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 working group has prompted DHS to assess what steps we should take to build the trust needed for the Department to be effective in this space,” the fact sheet stated, adding that the group will release quarterly reports about its work to Congress.
CNN has reached out to Jankowicz for additional comment. Jankowicz announced her appointment on Twitter last week and responded to some of the criticism regarding a tweet on Hunter Biden’s laptop during a 2020 presidential debate.
“For those who believe this tweet is a key to all my views, it is simply a direct quote from both candidates during the final presidential debate. If you look at my timeline, you will see I was livetweeting that evening,” she wrote.
The board will also not be putting out 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 her website. She is fluent in Russian, and her book “How to Lose the Information War” examines how five Western governments have dealt with Russian disinformation.
Despite her expertise, critics argue she’s biased against claims of Democrats’ misdeeds, former President Donald Trump’s record, Covid-19 measures and free speech, among other issues. In a TikTok video posted prior to her appointment to lead the board, for example, Jankowicz singled out Rudy Giuliani and TikTok influencers to a Mary Poppins jingle.
“When Rudy Giuliani shared bad intel from Ukraine or when TikTok influencers say Covid can’t cause pain, they’re laundering disinfo and we really should take note, and not support their lies with our wallet, voice, or vote,” she said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki came to Jankowicz’s defense on Monday.
“The woman you noted has extensive experience and has done extensive work addressing disinformation,” Psaki said. “She has testified before Congress; she has testified in Europe. She has worked closely with the Ukrainians and has unique expertise, especially at this moment we’re facing.”
In network interviews Sunday, Mayorkas also stood by Jankowicz. Asked about Republican criticism of Jankowicz and her 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 board dates to last year. At the time, Homeland Security officials began discussing a group to provide guidance on policies and privacy protection questions, given that agencies within the department were already collecting information for purposes related to their missions, according to John Cohen, the former acting head of the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis.
One of the questions the working group could help with, officials thought, was whether agencies could share information with one another that they had obtained through their own authorities, Cohen said.
“Every threat area of concern to the department is impacted by the fact that foreign intelligence services, terrorist groups, criminal organizations are spreading disinformation via internet-based communication platforms,” Cohen said.
The “Disinformation Governance Board” focuses first on disinformation surrounding human migration into the US and potential disinformation threats from Russia aimed at US critical infrastructure, DHS said in a news release last week.
Russian disinformation campaigns against Americans have gone on for years, including during election cycles. US officials are always watching for new signs of Kremlin-backed efforts to sow divisions, particularly in light of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, US challenges in dealing with migrants trying to enter the US are exacerbated by smugglers who “make a profit by spreading false information that endangers lives,” DHS said in last week’s news release.
Last week, during congressional hearings, Mayorkas warned of a rise in misinformation and disinformation trying to target the integrity of the election system.
“We are seeing a rise in misinformation and disinformation that is attempting to strike at the integrity of the election system and people’s right to vote,” Mayorkas said when asked by Rep. Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat, about radicalization before the upcoming 2022 elections.
Mayorkas said he had addressed secretaries of state throughout the country a few weeks ago to discuss efforts to ensure the safety of officials and the electoral system.