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DHS does damage control on 'disinformation' board, won't discuss possible Obama role

Disinformation board's executive director promoted the discredited theory that Hunter Biden laptop was Russian disinformation — a popular viewpoint among some of the most prominent voices against disinformation.

Published: May 2, 2022 5:53pm

Updated: May 2, 2022 11:28pm

The Department of Homeland Security is taking pains to emphasize its new Disinformation Governance Board won't target Americans for censorship and is not an Orwellian "Ministry of Truth," as claimed by politicians from Democrat Tulsi Gabbard to Republican Sen. Tom Cotton.

The board's founding executive director, however, has arguably promoted disinformation that may have swung the presidential election: that Hunter Biden's recovered laptop, with damning emails about then-Vice President Joe BIden's knowledge of his son's overseas business dealings, was a Russian disinformation plant.

Some of the most prominent voices against disinformation, including California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff and former CIA Director Michael Hayden, have repeatedly promoted the unfounded Biden laptop theory. Hayden is even an adviser to a service that rates news "credibility."

Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced the DHS board less than a week after former President Obama called for new regulations to rein in disinformation and two days after an agreement was reached for billionaire Elon Musk to purchase Twitter, which is widely expected to reduce censorship on the platform.

In a Stanford University speech, Obama blamed misinformation for avoidable COVID deaths and claimed regulation would spur "safety and quality" improvements in social media. He called for "a combination of regulatory measures and industry norms" on tech platforms at a disinformation conference two weeks earlier.

Gabbard, a former House member representing Hawaii, implied the former president was the impetus for the DHS board. The Hill reported that sources close to Obama said he's been hyping the issue for at least a year, meeting "behind the scenes" with "academics, activists, media executives and former government officials."

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Mayorkas said the new board would tackle disinformation targeting migrants and coming from the Russian government, particularly related to the U.S. midterm elections, according to the Associated Press, which said Russian-originated COVID disinformation was included.

But it's not clear whether the board has any internal limits on subject matter and jurisdiction, or what role Obama may have played in its development. The Washington Post reported the agency ignored "repeated inquiries" for specifics. 

The secretary pushed back on the "Ministry of Truth" characterization in Sunday news show interviews, calling it a "small working group" to address "the connectivity between threats and acts of violence ... without infringing on free speech" or civil liberties. 

"The board does not have any operational authority or capability," Mayorkas said: It will simply communicate "best practices" on foreign-sourced disinformation threats to tech platforms.

He also defended Nina Jankowicz, the board's first executive director and former adviser to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, against criticism for calling the recovered Biden laptop "a Trump campaign product" and promoting the work of Christopher Steele, author of the discredited anti-Trump dossier.

"I don't question her objectivity," the secretary said of Jankowicz, citing her congressional testimony and reputation as a "tremendous authority" on disinformation. Jankowicz went viral after her role was announced for a February video where she sings about disinformation in the style of Mary Poppins.

"You don't need something like this if you're actually telling the truth about what's going on," Florida Republican Rep. Byron Donalds told Fox News Monday. He also said it makes no sense for a board targeting Russia and China to be housed in DHS rather than the State Department.

Donalds accused Mayorkas of putting out nothing but "disinformation and misinformation" regarding the situation at the southern border.

Hayden, the former CIA director, has yet to renounce his discredited claim about the younger Biden's laptop, which gave cover to Twitter and Facebook to throttle and block New York Post reporting on the eve of the election.

The New York Times recently reported the emails had been "authenticated by people familiar with them and with the [federal] investigation" into Hunter Biden's international business interests. 

Hayden serves on the advisory board of NewsGuard, which purports to rate news and information websites for their "credibility and transparency" and calls itself a leader in "the fight against misinformation." Its ratings are built into Microsoft's Edge browser

The company declined to tell Breitbart why Hayden remains an adviser even though he's arguably violating one of its ratings criteria by refusing to correct his claims about the laptop.

Following queries by Just the News about Obama's potential role in the board's development and its scope and jurisdiction, DHS published a fact sheet Monday titled "DHS Internal Working Group Protects Free Speech and Other Fundamental Rights When Addressing Disinformation That Threatens the Security of the United States."

The board was founded "with the explicit goal" of ensuring "Americans' freedom of speech, civil rights, civil liberties, and privacy" were protected across DHS disinformation work and coordination with other agencies, it said.

Public "confusion" about the board has prompted DHS to pledge that it will "proactively release comprehensive quarterly reports" to Congress, "including its oversight committees." Mayorkas will also ask the bipartisan Homeland Security Advisory Council for recommendations on how to balance fighting disinformation threats with protecting free speech "and other fundamental rights."

Multiple components of DHS have fought disinformation, or "false information that is deliberately spread with the intent to deceive or mislead," for nearly a decade, the fact sheet said. 

It cited false information from "coyotes" to persuade migrants to illegally cross the border, the "safety of drinking water" after Hurricane Sandy, and public-private partnerships against disinformation that targets "U.S. critical infrastructure, work that has continued in light of Russia's invasion of Ukraine." 

A scheduled agency background call with the media Monday night was delayed and then canceled due to technical problems.

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