Emails show how feds coalesced around Russia, QAnon to dismiss Hunter Biden laptop

FOIA revelations and new litigation give ammunition to GOP lawmakers' efforts to rein in Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

Published: October 26, 2023 11:00pm

Updated: October 26, 2023 11:12pm

A New York Post scoop based on emails from Hunter Biden's abandoned laptop, published three weeks before the 2020 election, immediately drew attention from the federal agency that helped set up a private consortium intended to squelch purported election misinformation.

It's not clear why from heavily redacted emails the Department of Homeland Security turned over to America First Legal among several productions under the Freedom of Information Act.

What's unambiguous, however, is the Mis-, Dis- and Malinformation (MDM) Team in the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency had settled on a narrative for the laptop by the following week: guilt by association with the Russian state and QAnon, and disinterest in its authenticity and integrity despite the FBI confirming it nearly a year earlier, according to a contemporaneous IRS memo.

Other legal groups are pulling on loose threads from similar disclosures about public-private collaborations that may involve policing purported misinformation.

Judicial Watch announced Wednesday it had filed a FOIA lawsuit against the Justice Department for records of FBI payments to X, formerly Twitter, based on a Twitter Files disclosure that the bureau paid the company nearly $3.5 million for staff time to process requests. The FBI denied the FOIA request, citing an exemption for investigation techniques.

Last week, the group sued the Office of the Director of National Intelligence for ignoring its request for National Counterterrorism Center records and communications regarding the Foreign Malign Influence Center – whose existence does not appear to have been officially acknowledged until a May congressional hearing.

The disclosures and litigation give House Republicans under new Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., further ammunition in their quest to rein in CISA, the subject of an interim report in June by Republican staffers on the GOP-led House Judiciary Committee 

Without a Senate GOP majority, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul leads "a lone crusade" against CISA's expansion, according to anti-censorship group Reclaim the Net, citing his recurring "no" votes on cybersecurity bills as the Senate Homeland Security Committee's top Republican member.

CISA gave Just the News a nearly identical statement as its response to the Judiciary GOP staff report when asked to explain the MDM Team's immediate interest in the Post report.

"CISA does not and has never censored speech or facilitated censorship," Executive Director Brandon Wales wrote. The second version of the statement omits the following clause: "any such claims are patently false."

Wales said CISA "protects Americans’ freedom of speech, civil rights, civil liberties, and privacy" while accomplishing its mission. 

"In response to concerns from election officials of all parties regarding foreign influence operations and disinformation that may impact the security of election infrastructure, CISA mitigates the risk of disinformation by sharing information on election literacy and election security with the public and by amplifying the trusted voices of election officials across the nation," he wrote.

The first suggestion of CISA's plan for dealing with the abandoned laptop came eight days after redacted staff internally flagged the Post report about the Obama administration giving a PR flack for Ukrainian energy firm Burisma access to a conference call about then-Vice President Joe Biden's upcoming Ukraine visit.

Most of an Oct. 22 "Weekly Reporting and Analysis" update from CISA's COVID-19 Countering Foreign Influence Task Force, sent to then-Public Affairs Director Sara Sendek, "CISA Central" and redacted colleagues, didn't pertain to COVID at all.

One shared news report came from Axios, which simply referred to "[r]ecent reports about what was purported to be Hunter Biden's computer hard drive" that have "sparked renewed activity from Q[Anon]" in the form of 16 posts the same day as the Post scoop.

Axios then implied that entertaining the laptop's authenticity was tantamount to embracing the so-called Pizzagate child sex trafficking theory.

Consulting firm Deloitte expanded the talking points in an Oct. 22 analysis for CISA found near the end of an earlier FOIA production. This time, "elections" is a listed subject of the report.

The "MDM Narrative Analysis" uses code to refer to Post reporting, then-Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his son Hunter. It cites an Oct. 14 "American daily tabloid newspaper" report with "unsubstantiated allegations" about the son introducing the father to Burisma executives.

When Facebook and Twitter blocked the article, removed posts citing it and locked accounts sharing it, "Russian state-owned media outlets" including RT criticized the platforms for censorship and "mainstream American media outlets for not reporting this unsubstantiated claim," the analysis says. 

It warned that "[s]everal accounts exhibiting bot-like activity have retweeted popular posts" about tech and media suppression of the reporting, even while acknowledging "[m]ost of the engagement with the article resulted from a liberal media personality" who emphasized Russian media interest.

"This narrative uses language that implies the existence of a 'deep-state' and therefore suggests a larger conspiracy to protect global elites like the Democratic presidential nominee's family," through which Russian outlets may be targeting "anti-establishment accounts including QAnon’ conspiracy theorists," Deloitte asserted. 

"This narrative could potentially disrupt the ability to hold free and fair elections by using MDM to degrade the image of a presidential candidate to influence the outcome of the election," the analysis warns in a section on "Risks to NCFs," or national critical functions. "It could also sow distrust in the US electoral system and the results of the election."

A year out from a likely rematch between the former and current presidents, Democratic lawmakers are giving CISA backup by again pressuring tech platforms to censor contested political narratives. 

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and New York Rep. Joseph Morelle pressed Amazon founder and Executive Chairman Jeff Bezos to explain how it will squelch "the spread and amplification of election misinformation and disinformation" by its voice assistant Alexa.

The duo's Oct. 18 letter cites a Washington Post report that Alexa checked less-moderated platforms in response to requests for information about "fraud" in the 2020 presidential race, which Amazon called quickly fixed "errors that were delivered a small number of times."

Content attributed to YouTube competitor Rumble conveyed the election was "stolen by a massive amount of election fraud," while content from subscription newsletter host Substack conveyed it was "notorious for many incidents of irregularities and indications" of election fraud in "major metro centers."

The Democrats asked how Amazon enables "users or others to raise concerns or complaints of misinformation shared by Alexa," how it's "vetting responses from contributors" and what  "additional protections" it's planning for 2024, with answers due Nov. 3.

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