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DHS agency used Slack channel, 'personal' cellphone for misinformation meetings: records

Twitter general counsel offered to quit advisory subcommittee in wake of Disinformation Governance Board controversy, but agency director objected, official meeting notes show.

Published: August 25, 2023 11:42pm

Updated: August 28, 2023 1:34pm

Government and private advisers to the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency communicated with each other through private channels, plausibly circumventing federal record-keeping rules if not the Freedom of Information Act, according to a transparency group.

The revelations about the inner workings of the since-disbanded Protecting Critical Infrastructure from Misinformation & Disinformation Subcommittee, part of CISA's Cybersecurity Advisory Committee, emerged from the latest batch of documents obtained by the Functional Government Initiative through a state public records request.

The documents come from the University of Washington by way of Kate Starbird, director of its Center for an Informed Public, which has played a pivotal role in public-private misinformation policing efforts – including the CISA-blessed Election Integrity Partnership, Virality Project and so-called MDM Subcommittee, which also handles "mal-information."

DHS has previously tried to redirect related FOIA requests to the university, which faced a crush of requests following Just the News reporting about the Election Integrity Partnership.

An earlier UW batch obtained by the initiative apparently showed then-Twitter General Counsel Vijaya Gadde, subsequently fired by new owner Elon Musk, strategizing with Starbird on how to overcome internal objections to their plans for the MDM Subcommittee, which also included CISA election security staff such as Geoff Hale.

DHS itself released heavily redacted communications between the staff of its controversial Disinformation Governance Board, shuttered a year ago by Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and the board's executive director, Nina Jankowicz, who once deemed Hunter Biden's abandoned laptop a "Trump campaign product." 

The House Judiciary Committee and its Weaponization of the Federal Government Subcommittee provided more behind-the-scenes details on CISA's alleged evolution into "a domestic intelligence and speech-police agency" in a June interim staff report.

The newly disclosed documents include the Misinformation and Disinformation (MDM) Subcommittee's work in the wake of the public and legislative outcry against the Disinformation Governance Board in spring 2022. The feds have since stood up the Foreign Malign Influence Office, which critics allege took over the board's work.

The official notes from the May 24, 2022, meeting show the subcommittee reviewed draft recommendations to present to the CSAC June meeting and discussed the fallout from the Disinformation Governance Board.

Starbird discussed "the path forward to strategically approach MDM in the government during the current discourse" and "cautioned the group on how to communicate their ongoing work." 

Twitter's Gadde "affirmed this caution and shared her recent communication cautioning" CISA Director Jen Easterly "about her own involvement in the Subcommittee's work given the fraught time, especially in advance of the election season." 

Later in the meeting, Gadde "restated her offer" to quit the subcommittee after it released recommendations, but CISA's Hale said Easterly would object to Gadde's departure "due to her respect of Ms. Gadde's work."

Members also discussed "potential briefers and brainstormed ways to socialize" the subcommittee's work through sympathetic academics and "progressive civil rights and civil liberties advocates" who would serve as subject-matter experts. They recruited two law professors with similar names, according to the June 14, 2022, meeting notes. 

Columbia Law's Jameel Jaffer – who later criticized a federal judge for banning the feds from communicating with social media platforms about constitutionally protected content – told Starbird he'd do outreach to civil liberties groups. He also coached her on how to get support from New York University Law School's Brennan Center for Justice, which would have "tasking questions related to surveillance and monitoring." 

Later that summer, Brennan published a report that aligned with some subcommittee recommendations but also "diverge from some of our current directions," Starbird told CSAC, such as its call for election officials to consider "publishing rumor control pages to 'prebunk' misinformation."

George Mason Law's Jamil Jaffer told former CIA legal adviser Suzanne Spaulding the subcommittee should spin its work not as "deciding what is true" but "developing best practices for countering" misinformation and disinformation, which threatens CISA's "mission to ensure National Critical Functions are secure and resilient," according to the notes.

Functional Government Initiative spokesperson Pete McGinnis told Just the News that Easterly's opposition to losing Gadde shows the CISA director "arguably recognizing the powerful influence of keeping a top Twitter official on the team." He was also baffled why the subcommittee explicitly targeted progressive groups for outreach rather than conservative ones, which appear to bear the brunt of social media censorship.

Regarding transparency, "alternate designated federal officer" James Nash in CISA's Stakeholder Engagement Division, which handles the agency's voluntary partnerships, and CSAC's unidentified "Support Team" repeatedly offered subcommittee members private channels of communication.

Just the News found emails on five 2022 dates – May 5, May 9, May 10, May 11 and May 25 – that directed members to reach Nash through a mobile phone number with a New York area code. 

Three emails were directed to Starbird but included others, asking for her feedback on meeting notes taken by him or another staffer. 

Nash identified the New York number as his "personal" cell in two of them. "Glad to scribe and change as needed," he told Starbird on May 10. "Glad to make changes as needed before circulation to our larger group," Nash wrote her May 25.

All three included his email signature, which lists a different cellphone number with a D.C. area code that appears to be his government line. (The prefix after the area code matches several Navy phone numbers.)

The CSAC Support Team shared a meeting summary, agenda and other documents with MDM Subcommittee members in two emails. Both tell them to address any questions to Nash, first listing his New York number, identified as "mobile," and then his D.C. number, which is not described.

Members could also discuss subcommittee business in a different forum.

"As a reminder we do have a slack channel and we can touch base on that next week as well," the Support Team wrote in a May 5 email, referring to the popular instant-messaging service for office environments.

It wasn't the only Slack reference in the UW documents. The official notes from the June 22, 2022, CSAC meeting describe a presentation by Eric Goldstein, executive assistant director for cybersecurity, on how CISA is "using Slack channels to communicate with big tech and financial companies where partners are sharing and collaborating in real time" as part of the Joint Cyber Defense Collaborative.

CISA did not answer queries Thursday about the documents, including why specifically Easterly wanted Gadde to stay put, what exactly Gadde told Easterly in the "recent communication," which progressive groups helped and how the use of the Slack channel and Nash's personal cellphone complied with CISA's legal obligations.

The agency responded to one question Sunday, saying "our record-keeping obligations and practices includes the use of Slack." It did not answer a followup query Monday asking about Nash's personal phone, and Nash has not answered queries about it either.

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