Biden counterterrorism officials sought counsel from group promoting RFK Jr. censorship

Center for Countering Digital Hate had regular communications with State, DHS, National Security Council officials, even after Disinformation Governance Board controversy, FOIA shows.

Published: March 20, 2024 11:00pm

Updated: March 21, 2024 1:04pm

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is an environmental lawyer, vaccine skeptic, presidential candidate and scion of America's Camelot. But a terrorist?

Emails made public Wednesday show counterterrorism officials in the White House, the Department of Homeland Security and State Department planned meetings in 2022 with a U.K.-based group best known for seeking censorship of the top alleged disinformation superspreaders, including Kennedy.

America First Legal published the feds' communications with the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which says it protects civil liberties by holding social media accountable for "enabling" disinformation to spread. It has U.S. tax-exempt status 

They were turned over in response to AFL's Freedom of Information Act requests to several agencies last summer.

The emails show the counterterrorism relationships continued after DHS shuttered its short-lived Disinformation Governance Board (DGB), whose disastrous spring 2022 rollout created Capitol Hill headaches for Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

CCDH has an unusually high profile with congressional Republicans due its "Disinformation Dozen" report, whose central claim is that 12 individuals including Kennedy are responsible for nearly two-thirds of "anti-vaccine misinformation." 

NBC News credited CCDH research for spurring Google sanctions against two conservative publishers, though Google denied demonetizing one.

Amid the vaccine-evasive COVID-19 Delta variant wave in summer 2021, the White House unofficially adopted CCDH statistics as it sought to compel social media platforms to censor vaccine skepticism.

House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, asked CCDH voluntarily for information in August 2023 and then subpoenaed the group four weeks later as part of the Weaponization of the Federal Government Subcommittee's probe into alleged White House-Big Tech collusion.

Obtained documents showed Facebook considered CCDH's statistics wildly exaggerated and expressed alarm that the Biden administration cited them to bear down on the company.

The Supreme Court probed the constitutionality of the federal pressure in oral argument this week in the legal challenge by Missouri and Louisiana, whose Solicitor General Benjamin Aguiñaga cited assurances by a top Facebook official to Surgeon General Vivek Murthy that it was throttling the Disinformation Dozen.

Elon Musk's X also sued CCDH last year for allegedly using "unlawfully" scraped data to create "flawed" research it uses to "drive advertisers off Twitter by smearing the company [X] and its owner." The parties met before a federal judge Feb. 29 but a transcript isn't public yet.

CCDH's emails with White House, National Security Council, DHS and State counterterrorism officials don't mention the Disinformation Dozen, Kennedy or any individual alleged source of disinformation.

But they make clear the formal relationship started in March 2022 — several months after the White House cited CCDH statistics, and a month before DGB's public debut — with Robert Silvers, DHS undersecretary for strategy, policy and plans and DGB co-chair.

Eva Hartshorn-Sanders, who was then CCDH's policy chief, may have been on the Biden administration's radar because she touted "[l]eading Government advice on the response to the March 15 terrorist attacks on Christchurch mosques" in New Zealand as early as January 2019 on LinkedIn, AFL noted.

While the Trump administration rejected the "Christchurch Call to Action to Eliminate Terrorist and Violent Extremist Content Online" because of its alleged threat to freedom of expression and the press, the Biden administration endorsed it weeks before President Biden accused social media of "killing people" by not censoring COVID vaccine skepticism.

Hartshorn-Sanders wrote Silvers March 29, 2022 after "connecting on Linked In [sic]," where they had discussed CCDH's published and pending research. They planned to meet to swap research, including "the strategies and plans" Silvers' team was developing, she wrote, copying CCDH founder Imran Ahmed.

Silvers asked then-Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism Lucian Sikorskyj, who moved to the National Security Council a year later, to "pursue these opportunities" with Hartshorn-Sanders. She asked Sikorskyj to meet "in the next couple weeks" and invited both officials to its Global Summit and Changemakers Dinner.

Sikorskyj in turn asked former Disinformation Governance Board director Nina Jankowicz, who co-chaired the board with Silvers, to arrange a call with CCDH "in the next few weeks." A few of the names and offices are redacted in that email.

The board drew immediate mockery when DHS debuted it a month later, particularly against Jankowicz, whose defamation lawsuit against Fox News is still awaiting oral argument 10 months after its early transfer to federal court.

The communications pick up on September 23, 2022, a month after Mayorkas shuttered DGB, but make clear CCHD was already communicating with officials in the Executive Office of the President's White House Office and National Security Council and State Department. Those officials' names were redacted.

"Following on from our recent meeting," a redacted "head of policy" at CCDH shared its latest report on the "Incelosphere" and "pathways into incel communities," referring to so-called involuntary celibates. Hartshorn-Sanders' LinkedIn page says she was still head of policy then.

Its "systematic review" of 18 months of posts on "the world's leading incels forum" found their thread titles are "soaked in anger and despair" and they "encourage each other to escalating extremes," including "incel mass murder," rape and "child sexual exploitation" such as "pedophilia keywords."

The report "reveals an emerging threat to our children" through "specific case studies involving child/teenager users," the CCDH staffer wrote. "In respect of your last question from our last call," the youth were active on the forum "during school hours, even controlling for time zones."

"FYSA [for your situational awareness]," a redacted senior advisor in State's Bureau of Counterterrorism said in forwarding the CCDH email and report to colleagues that afternoon, noting that it followed CCDH's "prebrief … to WH colleagues plus."

A redacted "counter disinformation technology advisor" in State's Global Engagement Center, known for its funding and promotion of anti-populism internet games, forwarded the Bureau of Counterterrorism email to fellow Technology Engagement Team members.

Just the News asked DHS, State, the White House and NSC why they viewed CCDH's work through the lens of counterterrorism in 2022 and whether they still held that view.  The White House deferred to NSC, which did not respond.

"The Department’s whole-of-society approach to countering the use of the internet for terrorist purposes to radicalize, recruit, and inspire to violence, as well as plan and conduct attacks, focuses on long-term prevention of terrorist radicalization," according to a statement provided by a State spokesperson Thursday.

"The U.S. government’s approach focuses primarily on addressing criminal activities online and on voluntary collaboration with technology companies related to terrorist use of the internet, while upholding human rights such as freedom of expression," the statement reads.

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