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All the President's Misinformation: Employees' rebuke of Biden exposes peril of feds' speech police

"If the administration does not believe Israel is committing war crimes," as several dozen State and USAID employees reportedly allege, "should it push to censor its own dissenting diplomats?" law professor asks.

Published: November 16, 2023 11:00pm

Et tu, USAID?

The Biden administration's wide-ranging efforts against purported mis-, dis- and mal-information – through federal agencies, allied private organizations and the power of the purse – blew back on the president this week.

More than 100 employees of the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, which have a close relationship, reportedly signed an internal memo accusing President Biden of "spreading misinformation" about Hamas' Oct. 7 terrorist attack against Israeli civilians and accusing Israel of "war crimes."

The decision by dozens of staff to turn the MDM cannons inward on "the big guy" shows the peril of the administration's apparent strategy to render disfavored narratives on elections, COVID-19, Ukraine, Hunter Biden's laptop and climate change as not only factually wrong but illegitimate.

"The question is whether, under the administration's own standards, President Biden should now be banned or blacklisted" by social media "to protect what his administration has called our 'cognitive infrastructure,'" George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, a recurring critic of the feds' MDM efforts, rhetorically asked in an essay for The Messenger.

Biden's hoisting by his own petard could also prove useful in ongoing litigation against what critics call the "Censorship-Industrial Complex," which encompass the Census Bureau, the departments of State and Homeland Security and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, such groups as the Virality Project and the Election Integrity Partnership, and many purported disinformation researchers and fact-checkers.

Missouri and Louisiana, the New Civil Liberties Alliance and former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson are all suing the feds for alleged First Amendment violations related to coercion of social media platforms to suppress disfavored content. America First Legal and Judicial Watch are suing for records of those interactions.

Elon Musk's X, formerly Twitter, is suing the U.K.'s Center for Countering Digital Hate on non-constitutional grounds. The platform accuses the purported disinformation cop of "unlawful acts designed to improperly gain access to protected" X data to "drive away advertisers."

Berenson said Tuesday he recently sent third-party subpoenas to X and law firm Cooley, which represented then-Twitter in Berenson's earlier lawsuit against the company, to "turn over all materials they have about me and my suspension, including the defense file" in the earlier suit.

Under their own "ill-defined" standards for MDM, DHS's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) "and other agencies may be confused who to censor," Turley wrote. "For example, if the administration does not believe Israel is committing war crimes, should it push to censor its own dissenting diplomats?"

Axios said it obtained the "scathing five-page memo" that was sent Nov. 3 through State's "dissent channel" for diplomats to formally oppose administration policies, one of a few that has leaked from the channel set up after the Vietnam War. Just the News has been unable to find a copy.

Reportedly the memo did not specify how President Biden spread misinformation in his Oct. 10 speech from the state dining room that made it "crystal clear" he supported Israel.

Biden cited "[s]tomach-turning reports of … babies being killed … [e]ntire families slain" and "[w]omen raped, assaulted, paraded as trophies," and he claimed that Hamas uses "Palestinian civilians as human shields."

The memo also criticized Biden for "questioning the number of deaths" in Gaza, apparently referring to the president's Oct. 27 statement that he had "no confidence" in the Gaza health ministry's figures, according to Axios.

The accusation of "ignoring facts" is a "classic justification for past administration demands to censor figures," GWU's Turley said.

CISA declined to comment on how its MDM efforts appear to differ from the memo accusing Biden of spreading misinformation, how Biden's claims different from the contested narratives CISA deems MDM, and why social media shouldn't throttle the president.

Axios said the memo was "organized" by Sylvia Yacoub, a foreign affairs officer in the Bureau of Middle East Affairs who was publicly critical of the administration's Israel-Hamas stance before marking her X account private earlier this month.

State has played a large role in policing MDM. It hosts the interagency Global Engagement Center, which like CISA participated in EIP, an effort to mass-report MDM to social media platforms for suppression.

GEC frequently met with tech companies' content moderation teams, but a top Twitter executive publicly accused GEC of "aggressively overstating threats through unverified accusations that can't be replicated either by external academics or by Twitter."

The center funded the creation of internet games designed to affect elections abroad, particularly by associating populist movements with conspiracy theories. Secretary Antony Blinken personally asked diplomatic and consular posts worldwide to promote its latest game, "Cat Park."

GEC also funded the Global Disinformation Index, which works to starve predominantly conservative publishers of advertising revenue, prompting the House Oversight Committee to demand answers from Blinken. GEC didn't respond to Just the News queries.

While Axios did not tell readers why it couldn't publish or quote at length from the memo, State did not dispute the contents of the report. 

The department's press office pointed Just the News to two press conferences this week in which reporters asked about the Axios report.

Blinken "wants to hear from those employees" who disagree with administration policies and "welcomes the dissent channel," spokesperson Matt Miller said Nov. 13 without commenting on the "internal dissent memo that’s saying the administration’s spreading misinformation," as a reporter called it.

Miller pushed back on suggestions at the Nov. 14 press conference that the administration does not scrutinize purported Israeli misinformation. 

While GEC "is constantly putting out material about governments around the world doing disinformation, misinformation," it tends to focus on "adversaries," a reporter said. 

Miller distinguished the "fog of war," in which governments update claims "when new facts become available," from "intentional, deliberate misinformation over a sustained period of time," which "tends to" come from authoritarian regimes. But "if we saw a sustained, deliberate misinformation campaign by Israel or any other government, of course, we would call it out," he said. 

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