In the spring, DHS found itself the subject of unwanted scrutiny following what even Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has admitted was a botched rollout of the department’s nascent (and misnamed) Disinformation Governance Board. Backed into a political corner due to the poor communications about the effort, the Orwellian-sounding name of the entity itself, and the unfairly maligned background of the board’s executive director, Mayorkas was forced to place a “pause” on the department’s plans and perform a round of mea culpas. Two months later, the controversy seems to have largely played out but, unfortunately, so too has it seems DHS’ efforts to explicitly address the issue of a false-information environment and its ties to threats to the homeland. And the country remains at risk.
When I was at DHS, running CISA’s National Risk Management Center, we led much of the department’s efforts to address false information – with a focus on countering foreign influence, particularly focused on protecting the security and resilience of our electoral systems. That work, conducted in a complex political environment, served as a bulwark against false narratives from foreign governments – most prominently, as it turned out, from the Iranians in the run-up to the 2020 elections. It also allowed the department to be nimble to address disinformation that was being promulgated about election security by domestic actors through CISA’s “rumor control” page.
At the start of the new administration, we disbanded the department’s Countering Foreign Influence Task Force because we recognized that there needed to be a new approach to addressing mis-, dis- and mal-information (MDM) – one that acknowledged that false information arising from both foreign and domestic bad actors presented security risk to the nation. As the events of January 6 demonstrated – and has been confirmed in the hearings of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol – a corrupted information environment can lead individuals to commit egregious acts of violence. It seemed obvious to me at the time that the new administration needed space to develop policy solutions to address the interlinkages between MDM and domestic extremist violence as part of its overall homeland security strategy.
Throughout 2021 and into 2022, the department grappled with that need and landed on the idea that a board, made up of component leadership as well as Privacy and Chief Counsel, would be established to drive and coordinate efforts, but that mission execution would continue to lie with the experts within DHS, to include CISA, FEMA, CBP and counterterrorism leads who would work to assess when MDM presented undue risk to homeland security and develop mitigation approaches. Importantly, however, the board would help establish the policy framework to effectively execute risk-management efforts, ensure coordination of outreach, and advance the state of the practice while maintaining a focus on protecting civil rights and civil liberties and privacy. This approach was not substantially different to how the department addressed countering violent extremism during the rise of domestic concerns related to ISIS in the mid 2010s. An effort that, in hindsight, seems to have been effective.
Ironically, this was supposed to be a relatively light-touch solution for addressing a priority security risk. Many of our foreign allies, notably the Swedes and the French, have been much more aggressive in organizing to deal with the disinformation risk. Still, when DHS’ effort became public, the board was not perceived as light-touch and it was met with political controversy from the get-go. Thus, the secretary’s pause.
The problem is that the risk has not paused. Most notably, the Russians hamive integrated MDM into its hybrid warfare plan against Ukraine and domestic actors. In addition, as DHS itself notes in its National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin, “The continued proliferation of false or misleading narratives regarding current events could reinforce existing personal grievances or ideologies, and in combination with other factors, could inspire individuals to mobilize to violence.” So where does that leave the department and the overall homeland security mission?
It is my concerted belief that DHS needs to work through the issues at the nexus between MDM and potential domestic extremist violence and abuse toward officials. Look no further than the current state of election administration in our country, where there has been an exponential increase in the threats against election officials and a significant trend to qualified election administrators leaving their jobs due to fear and abuse. There are other areas where similar trends are emerging to include around border communities and around the judicial system.
The Department of Homeland Security was created to protect the country against terrorism, which, of course, is defined as the use of violence for political aims. The current security climate is veering in the direction of a convergence between domestic violent extremism and political aims. And, perhaps no factor has contributed to that more than the rampant environment and availability of mis-, dis- and mal-information, much of it promulgated by foreign and domestic entities looking to harm our national values.
Effective homeland security solutions are borne of an acknowledgement of the risk and whole of society strategies put in place to combat that risk, with associated programmatic investments and transparency of approaches to enable safeguards to protect the nation’s values. The current MDM mission is lacking in that regard, and it is time to end the pause on the MDM mission and have the department do what it does best and convene critical communities to chart a strategy for securing the homeland. Nongovernmental organizations have done much of the thinking of how best to do so, but what is needed is government will to catalyze implementation.
There will, of course, be political heat in doing so but the department can’t shy away from its mission because of political controversy. Engaging proactively with stakeholders across communities to map out new approaches for addressing MDM is an essential effort.