Mayorkas clarifies role of new DHS disinformation board
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Wednesday gave some of his clearest explanations yet for the role of the department’s new Disinformation Governance Board that has been targeted by the GOP.
The board, rolled out just a week ago, is designed to coordinate ongoing disinformation efforts at various Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agencies and ensure free speech protections, but Republicans have sought to cast it as a way for the government to censor citizens.
“What this working group seeks to do is actually develop guidelines, standards, guardrails to ensure that the work that has been ongoing for nearly 10 years does not infringe on people’s free speech rights, rights of privacy, civil rights and civil liberties,” Mayorkas told lawmakers on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
“It was quite disconcerting, frankly, that the disinformation work that was well underway for many years across different independent administrations was not guided by guardrails,” he added.
DHS has to contend with a wide variety of disinformation, from smugglers seeking to gain clients by mischaracterizing the status of the border to scammers seeking to take advantage of victims of natural disasters.
“We become involved when disinformation poses a threat to the security of our country,” Mayorkas said, or shows a “connectivity to violence.”
Similar efforts are underway elsewhere in the federal government, including at the State Department, whose Global Engagement Center is designed to monitor and expose foreign disinformation efforts that could undermine U.S. security.
“We observed that there are not policies that guide that work across the department, that the operating agencies such as Customs and Border Protection, FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency], Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, their efforts are not necessarily harmonized,” he said.
The board has not yet had a meeting in its weeklong tenure, but many Republicans have seized on its newly appointed leader, Nina Jankowicz, and borrowed a phrase from George Orwell’s novel “1984” to describe it: “Ministry of Truth.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) expressed concern the board would be used to censor speech, with the Biden COVID-19 response skeptic asking whether language about masks or vaccines would be targeted by the board.
Mayorkas gave the example of disinformation DHS would seek to counter.
“‘Do not under any circumstances accept the vaccine at a FEMA-overseen vaccination center because they are actually peddling fentanyl out.’ Should I sit back and take that, or should I actually disseminate accurate information? That’s what we would do,” he said.
“I don’t want you to have guard rails,” Paul said. “I want you to have nothing to do with speech.”
But much of the focus was on Jankowicz, recently a disinformation expert at the Wilson Center who has extensive experience in Europe and a significant social media following.
Jankowicz has been criticized for her comments on the Steele dossier and Hunter Biden’s laptop. She amplified the opinion of national security experts at the time that the laptop was part of a Russian influence operation. Publications including The Washington Post have since verified content on the laptop.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) called her a “human geyser of misinformation,” pointing as well to a TikTok video in which Jankowicz notes that misinformation has been shared by members of Congress.
Mayorkas said he bore ultimate responsibility for Jankowicz’s hiring, but admitted he was not aware of a number of her past comments on Twitter.
“How could you not be? Did you not do any research on her?” Hawley asked.
Others criticized a rollout DHS agrees was bungled.
“Here’s my challenge initially on this. Obviously, it’s completely undefined. It’s just sitting out there,” Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said.
DHS has been stuck playing defense since almost the moment the board was announced.
Mayorks called the board’s rollout “suboptimal” and said he would share its charter with lawmakers.
The Hill has also requested a copy of the board’s charter.
Wednesday’s hearing capped a busy week of five congressional hearings for Mayorkas, with his final appearance departing from the others in not being almost entirely dominated by discussion about immigration and the border.
But some exchanges did echo a contentious hearing in the House Judiciary Committee, where some lawmakers unleashed personal attacks on Mayorkas and accused him of “intentionally” creating chaos at the border.
At one point Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) referenced the death of a Texas National Guardsman who died while trying to save migrants that were crossing the border through a river, saying he didn’t know “how this doesn’t just devastate you.”
“Do you actually suggest, Sen. Scott, I as a human being, am not devastated by the loss of a law enforcement officer in the line of duty,” Mayorkas said.
“I would suggest that if you were worried about that you would start taking action to secure the border,” Scott responded.
Scott also prodded Mayorkas on Cuba, seeking to get him to condemn actions the communist government took to crack down on protests last summer and asking whether he was involved in any discussions to remove the country from the state sponsor of terrorism list – a designation made largely by the State Department.
“I am not involved in discussions with the Cuban regime and I would respectfully request that you respect my humanity because I stand before this committee as an individual member of a family who fled communist Cuba,” Mayorkas responded.
Updated: 7:13 p.m.
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