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Federal cyber agency reevaluating its role in countering election disinformation

Federal cyber agency reevaluating its role in countering election disinformation
© Greg Nash

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), the key federal group responsible for election security, is reevaluating its role in countering disinformation and misinformation after the agency stood up a web page to address misleading election claims last year.

Acting CISA Director Brandon Wales on Wednesday described decisions made by the agency to address election disinformation and misinformation as having been “controversial” for election officials and said CISA was working to “get back to basics” and focus on cyber and physical security aspects of elections instead.

“This is one of the top issues, and I asked my team to put together some thought pieces related to what is the future for our disinformation work based upon what we saw work and not work during the 2020 election cycle,” Wales said Wednesday during the National Association of Secretaries of State’s virtual winter conference.

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Wales’s comments came after CISA was drawn into controversy when it stood up its “rumor control” page ahead of the 2020 elections to help combat misleading election claims. 

Former President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump DOJ demanded metadata on 73 phone numbers and 36 email addresses, Apple says Putin says he's optimistic about working with Biden ahead of planned meeting Biden meets Queen Elizabeth for first time as president MORE criticized this web page, and former CISA Director Christopher Krebs was subsequently fired by Trump due to both the rumor control site and a statement from CISA and other election officials describing the 2020 election as the “most secure in American history.”

Several other senior CISA leaders were also pressured to step down by the White House, with Wales taking over after former CISA Deputy Director Matthew Travis also left the agency. 

Wales noted Wednesday that CISA was working with agencies including the Department of Health and Human Services to handle disinformation in relation to COVID-19 vaccines, describing HHS as “the right agency” to handle this issue and saying there would be more announcements in the future. 

“Standby for more information on the future of our disinformation work, but I know from talking to a number of the Biden transition team that they are eager to engage on it, so I would expect more to come in that space soon,” Wales said. 

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The White House did not immediately respond to The Hill's request for comment on how the Biden administration may approach election disinformation. 

The refocus on cybersecurity could also have a congressional angle, with Wales noting that he did not want to “jeopardize” the “broad bipartisan support” the agency usually enjoys on Capitol Hill. 

“Questions related to election administration really are kind of beyond our writ, we want to help states and local communities as they are putting in place new procedures, do so in as secure and resilient a way as possible, but hopefully they are the ones who are going to be making those determinations,” Wales said. 

He told election officials at the conference that CISA intended to “try to put our head down, focus on improving the cybersecurity of your systems, helping to improve the physical security of your sites, and I think if we can do that, we will continue to maintain a degree of support and commitment from our partners like you that we need to be successful.”

Disinformation and misinformation related to the recent presidential election became a major problem in the months after the election was called for now-President Biden, with unsubstantiated claims that Trump had won the election ultimately fueling the attack on the U.S. Capitol last month that left several dead. 

CISA gained a cybersecurity advocate Tuesday with the confirmation of newly confirmed Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro MayorkasAlejandro MayorkasDemocrats press ICE, DHS to not re-detain migrants released during pandemic Report: Nearly 4,000 children separated from parents at border under Trump Texas governor to sign bill banning vaccine passports MORE, who was praised by bipartisan officials for his cybersecurity expertise and who promised during his confirmation hearing to help CISA “meet its obligations” to secure the federal government.

Biden has not yet formally announced who he will nominate to serve as CISA director, but Reuters reported last month Biden is eying Rob Silvers, a former Obama administration cybersecurity official, for the role.

While the future of CISA's focus on disinformation and misinformation is unclear, Wales emphasized Wednesday that election security would stay front and center for the agency.

"Today I can absolutely commit that election security will continue to be a top priority for this agency," Wales said.