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Monday, December 5, 2022

Mayorkas: Controversial Board Intended to Protect Speech While Addressing Disinformation’s ‘Connectivity to Violence’

Homeland Security secretary defends Jankowicz as "eminently qualified" to lead Disinformation Governance Board and said she is "absolutely" neutral.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the Department of Homeland Security’s interest in countering disinformation is not about controlling free speech but addressing “the connectivity to violence,” and vowed that DHS will do “a better job of communicating” what the Disinformation Governance Board will be doing after criticism following the unveiling of the department’s working group.

Mayorkas confirmed before a House hearing last week that DHS was standing up the new board as part of its multi-component efforts to counter misinformation and disinformation that presents a national security threat, with an emphasis on disinformation driving irregular migration and on nation-state disinformation campaigns such as Russia’s operations. In February, the latest National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin assessed that the converging factors of disinformation, persistent calls for violence against critical and often-soft targets, and recent calls by foreign terrorist organizations for attacks on the United States have “increased the volatility, unpredictability, and complexity” of the threat landscape.

“What is a magnet is misinformation that the cartels spread to individuals in different countries about what our laws are and what our policies are,” Mayorkas told Fox News Sunday in response to a question about factors that draw more undocumented migrants. “That is a magnet and that is why we counter that.”

Asked whether he understands some of the public reaction to the announcement of DHS’ Disinformation Governance Board, Mayorkas replied that “there’s no question… we could have done a better job in communicating what it does.”

“Let me share with you what this Department of Homeland Security does and has been doing for years, throughout the past administration included,” he continued. “We address disinformation that presents a security threat to the homeland — disinformation from Russia, from China, from Iran, from the cartels.”

“I’ll give you a real-life example. The cartels spread disinformation that Title 42 does not apply to the Haitians. And that prompts potentially Haitians to try to come to the United States,” he said. “And what do we do? U.S. Customs and Border Protection, phenomenal enforcement agency, goes on Creole-language stations and communicates that Title 42 does apply to Haitians.”

The board “is a working group that takes best practices to make sure that in addressing disinformation that presents a threat to the homeland our work does not infringe on free speech,” Mayorkas said.

“Does not infringe on civil rights, civil liberties. It’s not about speech. It’s about the connectivity to violence. That is what we need to address,” he added. “You know, an individual has the free speech right to spew antisemitic rhetoric. What they don’t have the right to do is take hostages in synagogue. And that’s where we get involved.”

Nina Jankowicz, who studies the intersection of democracy and technology in Central and Eastern Europe as a Wilson Center global fellow, has advised the Ukrainian government on strategic communications, and is the author of How To Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict, confirmed Wednesday on Twitter that she would be executive director of the board.

Jankowicz also highlighted an Oct. 22, 2020, tweet of hers that was circulated by critics questioning her objectivity: “Back on the ‘laptop from hell,’ apparently- Biden notes 50 former natsec officials and 5 former CIA heads that believe the laptop is a Russian influence op. Trump says ‘Russia, Russia, Russia.'”

“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,” Jankowicz said Wednesday. “If you look at my timeline, you will see I was livetweeting that evening.”

Asked by Fox host Bret Baier whether Jankowicz “is anywhere near objective enough for this particular job,” Mayorkas replied, “Yes, I do, and by the way, highly regarded as a subject matter expert and I don’t question her objectivity.”

“There are people in the department who have a diverse range of views and they’re incredibly dedicated to mission. We’re not the opinion police,” Mayorkas added. “She has testified before Congress a number of times. She’s recognized as a tremendous authority, and we’re very fortunate to have her.”

Mayorkas agreed with Baier’s statement that “Americans are generally wary of anything that suggests censorship.”

“And that’s exactly — that’s exactly why we set up this working group to make sure that our work to address a real threat to the homeland, the threat posed by Russian disinformation, the threat posed by Chinese disinformation, by Iranian disinformation, the work that we do does not infringe on people’s right of free speech,” the secretary continued. “That’s why this working group was set up.”

“And we’ll do a better job of communicating about that,” he added. “And I’m looking forward to testifying before the United States Senate on Wednesday.”

Mayorkas is appearing tomorrow at budget hearings before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, where he is sure to face heated questions about the board.

Also on Sunday, Mayorkas told CNN’s State of the Union that criticisms branding the board as Orwellian “are precisely the opposite of what this small working group within the Department of Homeland Security will do.”

“And I think we probably could have done a better job of communicating what it does and does not do,” he said. “The fact is that disinformation that creates a threat to the security of the homeland is our responsibility to address. And this department has been addressing it for years, throughout the years of the prior administration, on an ongoing basis, disinformation from Russia, China, Iran.”

Pressed on what the board will do, Mayorkas said that “it works to ensure that the way in which we address threats, the connectivity between threats and acts of violence are addressed without infringing on free speech, protecting civil rights and civil liberties, the right of privacy.”

“And the board, 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,” he added.

“Will American citizens be monitored?” asked host Dana Bash.

“No,” Mayorkas replied, explaining that “we in the Department of Homeland Security don’t monitor American citizens” and the board “does not have any operational authority or capability.”

“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 said.

Mayorkas defended Jankowicz as “eminently qualified, a renowned expert in the field of disinformation,” and said she is “absolutely” neutral.

“Would you be OK, if Donald Trump were president, if he created this Disinformation Governance Board, or, if it is in place, and he wins again in 2024, that he’s in charge of such a thing?” Bash asked.

“I believe that this working group that gathers together best practices, makes sure that our work is coordinated consistent with those best practices, that we’re safeguarding the right of free speech, that we’re safeguarding civil liberties, I think is an extraordinarily important endeavor,” Mayorkas replied.

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, antisemitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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