Ex-DHS disinformation chief starts 'bipartisan' watchdog, accuses GOP of sexist investigations

American Sunlight Project won't reveal its donors but threatens to investigate and expose lawmakers who "peddle" disinformation. Team includes former staff in Biden White House and agencies, left-leaning think tanks, social media.

Published: April 23, 2024 11:00pm

Updated: April 24, 2024 2:08pm

The Mary Poppins of misinformation has started a new band outside the Department of Homeland Security, and this  department of tortured poets is testing fresh material about the bad blood stemming from her brief leadership of the slightly longer-lived Disinformation Governance Board.

Nina Jankowicz, whose Hunter Biden laptop trutherism and chirpy songs about "information laundering" immediately made the DHS board a punch line, cofounded a nonprofit watchdog this month with former feds, D.C. think tankers and social media executives whose mission is "increasing the cost of lies that undermine our democracy."

She introduced the American Sunlight Project in a statement written in both the first and third person on its site, which heavily showcases the CEO's past work.

The project will "expose the infrastructure and funding behind the disinformation campaigns" that have "falsely claimed the Federal Government is overseeing a vast censorship regime in coordination with social media platforms, academic institutions, and civil society organizations," the statement says.

Led by "elected officials, conservative media, attorneys, paid-for 'journalists,' and online influencers," these campaigns rely on "widespread smears against individual researchers and government employees," which have triggered "online and offline threats against them and their families" while chilling "critical disinformation research" ahead of elections.

Jankowicz's defamation lawsuit against Fox News is still awaiting oral argument 11 months after an early transfer to federal court, her lawyer confirmed to Just the News on Monday.

The project pledges to make its "open source investigations transparent and accessible" but not its donors, as noted by an otherwise sympathetic feature in The New York Times on Monday night that omits the politicized TikTok tunes that first drew derision to Jankowicz and the DHS board.

Jankowicz told disinformation reporter Steven Lee Myers and veteran media writer Jim Rutenberg the project has $1 million in "initial commitments" but isn't required to disclose donors under its IRS designation. 

The Times portrayed the project as scrappy compared to former Trump White House aide Stephen Miller's America First Legal, "with a war chest in the tens of millions of dollars" that it's using in part to sue Election Integrity Partnership leaders for alleged collusion with the feds to censor social media.

AFL recently obtained and disclosed emails showing counterterrorism officials in the White House, DHS and State Department planned meetings in 2022 with the U.K.-based Center for Countering Digital Hate, known for seeking censorship of independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. One of them asked Jankowicz to arrange a call with the group.

DHS heavily redacted emails a year ago laying out its legal justifications and talking points in the creation of the Disinformation Governance Board, in response to Citizens United Freedom of Information Act requests. Unredacted portions show Jankowicz fretting about "blowback and abuse" following public descriptions of the board as the "Ministry of Truth."

Jankowicz's LinkedIn page says she still teaches a disinformation course at Syracuse University and serves as U.S. vice president of the Centre for Information Resilience, having launched its Hypatia Project on "combatting gendered abuse and disinformation," such as the claim that Vice President Kamala Harris "slept her way to the top."

The project's description resembles purported news rating and advertising watchdogs such as the Global Disinformation Index, whose work the Treasury Department recommended to banks; NewsGuard, the target of a defamation lawsuit by left-leaning Consortium News; and Check My Ads Institute, which laughed off X owner Elon Musk's lawsuit threat.

It exposes "deceptive information practices and the networks and money that drive them," educates people "about the threats we face and the effects of disinformation on society," and engages "with policymakers to return truth to our national discourse."

Current and past affiliations shared by the principals and advisers include the left-leaning Brookings Institution and Wilson Center, Defense and State departments, and social media behemoths Facebook and X. Variations of the word "democracy" appear seven times on the team page.

That page is missing a name the Times called instrumental in American Sunlight's creation: Eddie Vale, described as "formerly of American Bridge, a liberal group devoted to gathering opposition research into Republicans." 

Founded by Media Matters for America founder David Brock, American Bridge does not identify any staff on the Democratic super PAC's website

The American Sunlight Project didn't answer Just the News queries on what role if any Vale has played or is playing, but it shared Vale's X post promoting a news report on the project's launch. 

"Everyone who contributes to disinformation – from those who produce it to those who fund it to those who peddle it in the halls of Congress – will be investigated and exposed," the project wrote on X.

The project called itself "bipartisan" in a public letter to House Republican chairs of the Judiciary, Oversight and Homeland Security committees, masking its team's entrenchment in Democratic and progressive politics.

The only member with a Republican connection appears to be adviser Katie Harbath, who started her career in GOP campaigns before helming Facebook's public policy for 10 years during its global growth spurt and accompanying regulatory scrutiny in the previous decade. 

She has largely served as a fellow and adviser at middle-of-the-road organizations including the International Republican Institute and Bipartisan Policy Center since then.

Adviser and public affairs entrepreneur Emily Horne may be the best showcase of D.C.'s revolving door. Her project bio lists high-level slots with the Biden administration's National Security Council, Brookings Institution, State and Twitter, and spearheading communications for the confirmations of Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin at State and Defense, respectively.

Their letter blasts GOP committee chairs for "using government resources to attack" what they call independent technology researchers, "deliberately misconstruing their work," and intimidating federal agencies into slowing or halting efforts to identify and respond to "information that seeks to threaten, undermine or disenfranchise American citizens."

GOP tactics "echo the dark days of McCarthyism" by, for example, the Weaponization of the Federal Government Subcommittee "selectively releas[ing] congressional testimony to discredit" researchers, and "represent a dangerous distraction from the real threats we are confronting," such as "swatting" of public official, politically themed deepfakes and AI-generated images.

In keeping with Jankowicz's interest, the letter emphasizes the "vast majority" of targeted researchers are women, "and they have faced gendered, sexualized, violent rhetoric as a result" of GOP committees' document demands, transcribed interviews and public statements.

They demanded, in bold, the chairs "immediately release all unedited transcripts and video recordings" from interviews and depositions, and stop "amplifying baseless conspiracy theories."

Unlock unlimited access

  • No Ads Within Stories
  • No Autoplay Videos
  • VIP access to exclusive Just the News newsmaker events hosted by John Solomon and his team.
  • Support the investigative reporting and honest news presentation you've come to enjoy from Just the News.
  • Just the News Spotlight

    Support Just the News