Lawmaker alleges political payback in failed 'deepfakes' measure

A congressional push to examine the threat of so-called deepfake videos was derailed last year after a key House lawmaker blocked a measure that would have provided government funding to study the insidious technology.

A bipartisan group of House lawmakers — Reps. Stephanie MurphyStephanie MurphyTrump administration unveils new plan for notifying public on 2020 election interference Overnight Health Care: House Dems clash over Pelosi drug pricing bill | Senate blocks effort to roll back Trump ObamaCare moves | Number of uninsured children rises House Democrats clash over Pelosi's drug pricing bill MORE (D-Fla.), Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellImpeachment week: Trump probe hits crucial point Republicans, Democrats brace for first public testimony in impeachment inquiry Sunday shows — New impeachment phase dominates MORE (D-Calif.) and now-former Rep. Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloProgressive Latino group launches first incumbent protection campaign The Memo: Bad polls for Trump shake GOP Anxious GOP treads carefully with Trump defense MORE (R-Fla.) — sought to add an amendment to the 2019 Intelligence Authorization Act that would have allowed the use of federal funds to research the threat posed by fake but believable content.

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The amendment would have required the director of national intelligence to submit a written report to congressional intelligence panels detailing the impact deepfake technology could have on national security, as well as technologies that could effectively deter or detect such technology, according to a copy of the text obtained by The Hill.

But the amendment was unexpectedly killed by then-House Rules Committee Chairman Pete SessionsPeter Anderson SessionsBottom Line The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Better Medicare Alliance - GOP snags mic with impeachment protest Former Pete Sessions staffer to comply with subpoena in federal probe investigating Giuliani, associates MORE (R-Texas) for reasons that are unclear.

Murphy and two GOP sources familiar with the matter now allege that Sessions, who lost his bid for reelection in the 2018 midterms, spiked the amendment out of political consideration and loyalty to his friend, former Rep. John MicaJohn Luigi MicaHillicon Valley — Presented by CTIA and America's wireless industry — Lawmaker sees political payback in fight over 'deepfakes' measure | Tech giants to testify at hearing on 'censorship' claims | Google pulls the plug on AI council Lawmaker alleges political payback in failed 'deepfakes' measure GOP chairman slams ‘pitiful’ FEMA response in Louisiana MORE (R-Fla.), who was defeated by Murphy in 2016.

“I found it unconscionable that he would punish a friend’s rival,” Murphy told The Hill, calling it a “serious mistake.”

“Obviously, I was disappointed to see politics play a role in national security,” she added.

Murphy claims Sessions killed the bill either on Mica’s behalf or because he didn’t want to let her have a “win.”

“That kind of retribution is what makes this environment so partisan and toxic,” Murphy said.

Sessions described things differently.

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“We don’t take amendments just because you present them,” Sessions told The Hill, while noting he does not recall Murphy’s amendment. “It is a process. You need to work the dang thing, especially with Intel.”

He said lawmakers on both sides of the aisle need to fight for their amendments and testify before the Rules Committee to make their case.

“I’m not challenging Stephanie,” he said. “I found in several instances she did not come to the committee or did not work it, and you have to do both.”

Sessions defended his six-year tenure as committee chairman, saying he conducted the process in a “fair” and “straight-up way” for both Democrats and Republicans. 

He also rejected Murphy’s claims that he killed her amendment for political purposes, noting that Mica is not running for the seat again.

“I don’t think that is a fair characterization for her to blame somebody for her own frailties,” Sessions said. “If she came up and worked it, that is different. But otherwise, that is a cheap shot.”

Jonathan Uriarte, Murphy’s communications director, said a bipartisan bill coordinated across parties and the intelligence committee does not require the sort of uphill battle Sessions described.

“It’s disingenuous to suggest she needed to be physically present in order for the measure to succeed, particularly given Mr. Sessions’s well-documented personal disregard for Congresswoman Murphy. In fact, her making the case in person could’ve been counter-productive to her efforts,” Uriarte said in a statement to The Hill.

The top Democrat and Republican on the Rules Committee both acknowledged that politics plays a role in the panel’s decisions, but each said they don’t know the specifics about the deepfakes amendment.

“Being chairman of the Rules Committee, I can tell you that there are a lot of forces pulling you all kinds of different ways and you don’t always get it right,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) told The Hill.

“But to the extent that you can be accommodating, you better err on the side of being accommodating,” he added. “I like Pete Sessions as a person, but I just thought that the way they ran this place was a disservice to this institution.”

Rep. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeBottom Line Juan Williams: Republicans flee Trump Sunday shows - Next impeachment phase dominates MORE (Okla.), the top Republican on the panel, noted that the committee chairs are selected by House leadership and not a Steering Committee, so they are expected to carry out the wishes of the Speaker.

“It's called the Speaker’s Committee for a reason,” Cole told The Hill.

He said members of the panel can make decisions for personal reasons if they do not conflict with leadership plans, noting that the success or failure of an amendment is a different calculus each time depending on a “unique set of political policy and personal considerations.”

“If there's something that's important to them personally and it's not disadvantageous to the majority then that becomes a factor,” Cole said.

When asked if Sessions was known for taking into account personal political considerations, Cole said he did so “in the appropriate way.”

“Pete Sessions was probably as loyal a team player as the Republican Party had, so he certainly would reflect those values,” Cole said.

“You don't put people in there that are vindictive by nature or that can get you in a lot of fights that don't have anything to do with the policy,” he added.

Bipartisan warnings about the disinformation threat of deepfakes are growing louder ahead of the 2020 election, with experts warning that deepfakes will be the next phase in disinformation campaigns.

And while Congress is in the early stages of pressing the intelligence community to examine the threat, there have been signs of congressional action.

A committee aide on the House Intelligence Committee told The Hill last month that the panel is planning to hold a hearing in the coming months that will examine a series of national security matters, including deepfakes.