Homeland agency expanded authority to wage ‘domestic surveillance and censorship,’ House report says

No "cyber component" needed for proposed "rapid response team" to parachute into local jurisdictions to help election officials with "informational threats," agency subcommittee said.

Published: June 26, 2023 11:24pm

Updated: June 26, 2023 11:55pm

Secret documents obtained by the House Judiciary Committee show that a Department of Homeland Security agency "expanded its mission to surveil Americans’ speech on social media, colluded with Big Tech and government-funded third parties to censor by proxy, and tried to hide its plainly unconstitutional activities from the public," according to an interim staff report released Monday night.

The findings add details to reporting by Just the News about the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and its work with private entities to remove, throttle and label purported misinformation on elections, Hunter Biden and COVID-19 — efforts that might even constitute election meddling and sometimes target true content.

The "severe public outcry" in spring 2022 against DHS's Disinformation Governance Board, shuttered a few months later, so alarmed CISA and its advisors that they "tried to cover their tracks" on censorship and surveillance, which "included scrubbing CISA’s website of references to domestic 'misinformation' and 'disinformation,'" the report says.

By outsourcing its "censorship operation" to a CISA-funded nonprofit in the wake of First Amendment litigation by Missouri and Louisiana attorneys general, CISA was "implicitly admitting that its censorship activities are unconstitutional," House Judiciary Republicans said.

The majority on the committee and its Weaponization of the Federal Government Subcommittee said they are still investigating the extent of the public-private efforts that developed out of the five-year-old agency. 

Outside groups are also seeking answers, with varying success. The feds heavily redacted communications between Disinformation Governance Board staff and its leader Nina Jankowicz, hiding most of the legal justifications and talking points it created to defend the unit from "blowback."

CISA is now "a domestic intelligence and speech-police agency, far exceeding its statutory authority" and having "metastasized into the nerve center of the federal government’s domestic surveillance and censorship operations on social media," the House Judiciary GOP report says.

This evolution was not universally popular across the government, according to a May 2021 email from former DHS official Brian de Vallance to Jen Easterly, the incoming CISA director. "[O]ff the record, some at ODNI [Office of the Director of National Intelligence] are not big fans of CISA" and would not like it to have a proposed "Social Media Data and Threat Analysis Center," he said.

The report plots out the major players and their relationships with CISA, including the nonprofit Center for Internet Security, which received $27 million in fiscal year 2024 to operate the Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center and Elections Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center.

DHS's two-year-old Cybersecurity Advisory Committee (CSAC) established a since-shuttered subcommittee tasked with protecting "critical infrastructure" from misinformation, disinformation and "malinformation," the latter a category sometimes jeered as "true but inconvenient." 

This so-called MDM Subcommittee included former CIA legal advisor Suzanne Spaulding, then-Twitter Chief Legal Officer Vijaya Gadde and Kate Starbird, cofounder of the University of Washington's Center for an Informed Public, a leader in the Election Integrity Partnership that CISA helped stand up. Government participants included CISA's election security staff including Geoff Hale and former Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman.

Through "rapid mission creep," CISA expanded beyond cybersecurity to countering "foreign malign influence operations" and then domestic disinformation, even correcting the assumption of another disinformation cop the day after the 2020 election that disinformation on "mail-in [ballot] fraud" was "outside your purview." 

It had 15 "dedicated" part- and full-time MDM staff at its peak, and the MDM Subcommittee even suggested this was just the beginning of a "whole-of-government approach" that could, for example, perform "narrative or content-based analysis" for the FBI.

Subcommittee members "pushed aside legitimate criticism and urged CISA to continue on its unconstitutional trajectory," the report says, citing notes from its Aug. 30 meeting. Spaulding "encouraged" Starbird not to "focus too heavily" on the distinctions between domestic and foreign threats, while Hale — whom the House Judiciary GOP emphasized was a "federal government employee" — said CISA should be "actor-agnostic."

When state and local election administration officials asked CISA to stay out of their work "except when a foreign adversary is at play," according to Aug. 8 meeting notes, Gadde claimed that would be difficult to confirm and Starbird emphasized MDM was "universal," not observing jurisdictional boundaries.

Subcommittee members even discussed parachuting into local jurisdictions as a "rapid response team" to help election officials "struggling with specific informational threats," an idea Hale called "fascinating" according to the June 14, 2022 meeting notes. Gadde and Starbird both said this team wouldn't be bound by the presence of a "cyber component," a major red flag for House Judiciary Republicans.

The report reserves particular opprobrium for CISA's focus on malinformation, which by definition is "factual information … without adequate 'context'" as determined by government actors, "whose evaluations of truth and falsity are necessarily subjective." 

It cites Starbird's comments to Gadde on why she decided against citing research on MDM's "threat to democratic societies" in a subcommittee report: disinformation is "inherently political" so "every example is bait."

Spaulding proposed a "compromise" in which CISA would recognize malinformation within its "current scope" but focus on false information "at this stage." Starbird responded that "unfortunately current public discourse" regards malinformation as "within democratic norms" and CISA could face "bad faith criticism" for recommending its censorship.

CISA's proposals worried some stakeholders. When its MDM chief Brian Scully told LinkedIn it could always check with CISA amid confusion about the Disinformation Governance Board's duties, a LinkedIn employee mocked Scully to other employees as telling the company "what the Regime considers to be true or false." 

Some CSAC members including Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince objected that the MDM subcommittee was going too far by "influencing narratives." The subcommittee's June 2022 draft recommendations explicitly called for CISA to fund outside organizations for "content- and narrative-specific mitigation efforts."

“CISA does not and has never censored speech or facilitated censorship; any such claims are patently false," Executive Director Brandon Wales said in a statement that includes lengthy background on its activities.

"Every day, the men and women of CISA execute the agency’s mission of reducing risk to U.S. critical infrastructure in a way that protects Americans’ freedom of speech, civil rights, civil liberties, and privacy," Wales said.

"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 said.

The agency "has conducted its work in plain view, operating with the highest degree of transparency," posting its guidance on its website or sharing it "directly with election stakeholders," according to Wales. In a site-wide update to "over a thousand webpages, we clarified language describing CISA’s work on foreign influence operations and disinformation related to election infrastructure security."

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