Watchdog seeks to compel DHS to release records linking disinformation to domestic terror

Group files lawsuit amid larger concerns Department of Homeland Security is, with the help of Big Tech, chilling free speech and targeting dissenting views.

Updated: July 14, 2022 - 11:06pm

A watchdog group is taking legal action to compel the Department of Homeland Security to disclose information about a controversial government bulletin that warned "false or misleading narratives" can fuel domestic terrorism.

The effort by the Center to Advance Security in America is part of a larger, growing concern that DHS is, with the help of Big Tech, chilling free speech and targeting dissenting views.

CASA has filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia concerning what it called the "failure" of DHS to hand over records in response to repeated Freedom of Information Act requests pertaining to a "National Terrorism Advisory Bulletin" put out by the department in February.

The bulletin discussed how "conspiracy theories," "misleading narratives," and mis- and dis-information can fuel foreign and domestic terrorism. It also cited "false or misleading narratives regarding unsubstantiated widespread election fraud and COVID-19" online as "key factors contributing to the current heightened threat environment."

Critics have expressed concern about the government suppressing free speech by using such justifications to claim a mandate to target those expressing views at odds with the Biden administration, such as questioning the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines or the results of the 2020 presidential election — a point echoed in the lawsuit.

"The FOIA requests at issue in this lawsuit are key to understanding the genesis of DHS's initiatives that seem geared towards chilling, or even criminalizing, free speech that conflicts with Biden administration narratives," said Adam Turner, director of CASA. "This lawsuit is one means by which the American people can more clearly understand whether their government is attempting to stifle speech protected by the First Amendment."

The lawsuit seeks to have a federal judge order DHS "to immediately process and release to CASA the requested records in their entirety," according to the complaint.

CASA's requests, the complaint continues, "relate to concerns that DHS, through its purported concern about 'false or misleading narratives' and the alleged threat that people (including citizens) that consume those narratives pose, could stifle, punish, or prohibit free speech protected by the First Amendment, including speech that is true and accurate but that conflicts with government policy or narratives."

The lawsuit also states that since the bulletin was released in February, "public interest in this issue and the requested records has been dramatically enhanced" due to the formation and subsequent pause of the now-defunct Disinformation Governance Board.

In April, DHS announced the creation of the DGB to monitor and combat speech it deems "disinformation."

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas defended the initiative as important in tackling the "threat" of disinformation, especially when it targets migrants or comes from the Russian government.

However, critics lambasted the board as an Orwellian "Ministry of Truth" established to silence people with certain political views. Such criticism led DHS to "pause" the DGB amid widespread outcry.

Whistleblower documents released last month by Republican Sens. Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and highlighted by Claremont Institute fellow Ben Weingarten appeared to confirm such concerns.

In a memo written to Mayorkas, DHS officials wrote that disinformation threatens homeland security, especially "conspiracy theories about the validity and security of elections" and "disinformation related to the origins and effects of COVID-19 vaccines or the efficacy of masks."

The DHS officials also warned that "domestic violent extremists" spread such narratives to push "racially or ethnically motivated and anti-government/anti-authority violence," arguing the department must "respond" to disinformation for the good of the country.

The memo, which was penned in September 2021 and contained similar language to the February 2022 bulletin, also recommended the creation of a DGB.

The documents obtained by Hawley and Grassley also showed an effort by DHS to work with Twitter and other Big Tech firms to execute its mission to stamp out "disinformation."

Indeed, the Hawley-Grassley trove included the DGB charter, which calls for the board to "support and coordinate" its work with "the private sector" and "non-governmental actors." The trove also included internal DHS documents showing DHS officials discussing the benefits of sharing information with tech companies to empower them to remove content deemed threatening at their discretion.

One of the documents contained notes prepared in advance of a meeting between DHS officials and Twitter executives apparently set for April. Although it's unclear whether the meeting ever took place, the notes showed DHS planned to discuss "operationalizing public-private partnerships between DHS and Twitter" to combat mis- and dis-information and domestic violent extremism.

DHS also planned to brief Twitter on how "false or misleading narratives, which sow discord or undermine public trust in U.S. government institutions," contribute to a "heightened threat environment."

More recently, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana ruled this week that President Biden, senior members of his administration, and social media giants such as Twitter and Facebook parent company Meta must hand over documents and answer questions concerning alleged collusion to suppress freedom of speech.

"In May, Missouri and Louisiana filed a landmark lawsuit against top-ranking Biden administration officials for allegedly colluding with social media giants to suppress freedom of speech on a number of topics including the origins of COVID-19, the efficacy of masks, and election integrity," said Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt in a statement. "The court granted our motion for discovery, paving the way for my office to gather important documents to get to the bottom of that alleged collusion. This is a huge development."

Last week, meanwhile, the Heritage Foundation filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration demanding the release of all documents related to DHS' contract with Babel Street, a Virginia-based data mining and surveillance company.

The contract concerns a Babel Street product capable of retrieving and copying data both from online sources and from apps running on the smartphones and other devices of billions of people worldwide. Government agencies can reportedly search and aggregate the data.

In announcing its lawsuit, Heritage expressed concern about DHS working with private companies to monitor Americans' social media accounts.

"When Big Government and Big Tech work hand-in-hand, we the people are the ones who pay the price," Kara Frederick, director of Heritage's Tech Policy Center, said in a statement. "It should be extremely concerning that the same government agency that has broad surveillance and monitoring authority could be working with a private company to monitor Americans — not terrorists or other nefarious actors — and collect their personal data for purposes unknown, with no accountability or oversight. This is particularly troubling given DHS's recent attempts to use official channels like the Disinformation Governance Board to censor Americans and shut down speech it rules unacceptable."

As for CASA's lawsuit, the organization is confident its efforts will show DHS is waging an assault on free speech and dissenting views under the guise of combating disinformation and domestic terrorism.

"We believe that the requested documents will demonstrate that the Department of Homeland Security branded factually correct, constitutionally protected speech as 'misinformation' and, worse, incitement to violence or terrorism," said Turner.

DHS didn't respond to a request for comment for this story.