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Disinfo Governance Board 2.0? New intel office targets 'foreign influence' to shield U.S. 'opinion'

"It's the basic rhetorical trick of the censorship age: raise a fuss about a foreign threat, then slowly, adjust your aim to domestic targets," critical journalist says.

Published: May 8, 2023 11:08pm

Critics are sounding the alarm that a new federal office to shield U.S. public opinion from purported threats of foreign disinformation is a thinly veiled reboot under a new name of the abortive Disinformation Governance Board, the Homeland Security Department office abandoned after being defined in the public mind as an Orwellian "Ministry of Truth."

Housed in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the new Foreign Malign Influence Center was launched with little public notice but is already provoking fears that it will use overstated foreign threats as a pretext to interfere in domestic political debate or will duplicate other federal efforts, especially a controversial State Department unit that tries to squelch populism abroad.

"The threat to U.S. democratic processes and institutions from foreign malign influence is persistent and dynamic," according to FMIC's undated fact sheet. "Informing efforts to counter it requires constant attention, a whole-of-government approach, support from the private sector, and engagement from the public."

It's not clear whether ODNI proactively told the public about the center until Thursday, when Director Avril Haines mentioned it 45 minutes into a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. It's not even mentioned in her prepared testimony, which discusses "malign influence" several times. 

Though its name starts with "foreign," FMIC's congressionally determined objective includes protecting American "public opinion," suggesting the potential for policing domestic narratives.

Journalism participants in an Aspen Institute exercise before the 2020 election, intended to prevent the spread of "hack-and-dump" disinformation from foreign governments, were explicitly told their suspects were "foreign or other adversarial entities," meaning domestic sources.

"It's the basic rhetorical trick of the censorship age: raise a fuss about a foreign threat, using it as a battering ram to get everyone from congress to the tech companies to submit to increased regulation and surveillance," Twitter Files journalist Matt Taibbi wrote Friday. "Then, slowly, adjust your aim to domestic targets."

The Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022 approved initial funding for FMIC, which was first established in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, according to a Senate Intelligence Committee report March 28. 

But it only became "activated" Sept. 23 after Haines convinced the committee FMIC wouldn't duplicate the work of other IC elements, the report says. Archives show its home page on ODNI's site was live by Oct. 26, but ODNI's news releases don't mention it. 

Four months before FMIC's activation, Haines told Senate Armed Services the center is "effectively" budgeted for a dozen people but ODNI wanted more money to hire another three and "access expertise and knowledge."

Congress tasked the center with protecting "political, military, economic, or other policies or activities" of federal, state and local governments, including elections, and domestic "public opinion."

It defines "foreign malign influence" as hostile efforts "undertaken by, at the direction of, or on behalf of or with the substantial support of" Russia, Iran, North Korea or China "with the objective of influencing, through overt or covert means," elections or public opinion. FMIC's director, who is appointed by the DNI, can unilaterally add "any other foreign country" to this list.

Though described as "the successor to the ODNI Election Threats Executive," the latter was not phased out, and both are led by acting director Jeffrey Wachman, a CIA veteran.

FMIC's first post-activation mention on Twitter appears to be a Feb. 23 thread on its history by a pseudonymous user who claimed its "mission is identical" to that of the Disinformation Governance Board, the Department of Homeland Security entity shuttered last summer after it became a lightning rod with congressional Republicans. 

The user posted a link to an FMIC page inexplicably nestled under ODNI's National Counterterrorism Center, which has now been widely shared, rather than FMIC's home page, which has never been tweeted. 

"The government simply dropped the 'hot potato'" — the Disinformation Governance Board — and then "reinstituted the planned thought police with a new name in a different governmental agency" a month later, boutique investment research firm Brownstone Research wrote in March. "And almost no one noticed."

FMIC's disclosure at Thursday's hearing was prompted by Sen. Jean Shaheen (D-N.H.), who groused that Haines and Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier had neglected the subject of disinformation in their testimony.

Foreign adversaries have been "more effective" in seeding disinformation in the U.S. "than we have been in responding in many cases," Shaheen said. She asked how the witnesses' agencies were responding and also "coordinating with other operations," specifically the State Department's Global Engagement Center (GEC), whose initial partners were the FBI, CIA, DHS and National Security Agency.

Congress created FMIC and "we have stood that up," Haines responded. It looks at "foreign influence and interference in elections" and "deals with disinformation more generally.” 

The center is supporting GEC "and others throughout the U.S. government in helping them to understand what are the plans and intentions of the key actors in this space — China, Russia, Iran, et cetera," Haines said. It then explains "the techniques that they use" and shares with "policymakers so that they're able to take that information and hopefully counter it and address it."

ODNI did not answer Just the News queries about when it formally launched FMIC and its interpretation of vague congressional language about what activity counts as foreign government-related.

GEC has played a broad role in fighting both purported foreign disinformation and also domestic narratives on elections.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken asked diplomatic and consular posts worldwide on Halloween to promote a GEC-funded internet game in schools that primes young people to associate grassroots campaigns against corruption with disinformation. 

GEC filed "tickets" to request social media remove, censor or label supposed election misinformation through the Election Integrity Partnership, a private consortium created in consultation with DHS' Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

In a Twitter Files release in March, a Twitter executive accused GEC of "doubl[ing] their budget by aggressively overstating threats through unverified accusations that can't be replicated either by external academics or by Twitter." A GEC staffer was deposed in the ongoing social media censorship lawsuit against the feds by Missouri and Louisiana.

Haines' testimony was surfaced on Friday by The Intercept, which noted other federal entities play similar roles: the FBI's Foreign Influence Task Force, DHS' Countering Foreign Influence Task Force and Foreign Influence and Interference Branch, and the Pentagon's year-old Influence and Perception Management Office.

A West Point-funded journal questioned FMIC's purpose because it "duplicated" GEC's functions. A Rand Corp. study commissioned by the Air Force Special Operations Command found that the "Russian disinformation machine" before the Ukraine invasion "has been neither well organized nor especially well resourced (contrary to some implications in popular media)" and warned against "overattributing disinformation on social media to Russia."

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