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Email disclosures leave 'breadcrumbs' leading to government-Twitter election censorship collusion

Twitter executive fired by Musk, Election Integrity Partnership leader discuss how to get around "troubling" comments voiced at DHS Cybersecurity Advisory Committee meeting.

Published: February 14, 2023 2:07pm

Updated: February 16, 2023 11:36am

Summer 2022 emails between participants in a federal misinformation subcommittee, recently turned over in response to public records requests, are prompting renewed calls for Congress to investigate the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency's role in shaping what Americans can see.

They apparently show a Twitter executive fired by Elon Musk last fall strategizing with a leader in the CISA-blessed Election Integrity Partnership on how to overcome internal objections to their plans for the Protecting Critical Infrastructure from Misinformation and Disinformation Subcommittee, part of CISA's Cybersecurity Advisory Committee.

An agency under the Department of Homeland Security that touts itself as the "quarterback for the federal cybersecurity team," CISA has become a lightning rod for public anger as it has sought to carve itself a role as stealth arbiter of domestic political debate about election security through a network of corporate and nonprofit information control surrogates.

"We may have discovered breadcrumbs showing the close relationship between one of the government's ordained censorship captains and her Big Tech ally who, as we've learned from the Twitter Files, executed government-ordered censorship," the Functional Government Initiative, which made the initial public records request, told Just the News.

"The records appear to show backroom conversations" about the June 22 CISA advisory committee meeting, where "censorship efforts may have run into resistance," the group said. "We will continue to follow this trail as the University of Washington slowly relinquishes control of more information" through further public records requests, adding "more context, information and names."

UW is home to the Center for an Informed Public, cofounded by faculty member Kate Starbird. The center is a leader in the EIP along with the Stanford Internet Observatory. It's been hit with a barrage of public records requests since Just the News reported on EIP's misinformation policing efforts in the 2020 and 2022 election cycles.  

The newly disclosed emails, mostly from June 22, are among Starbird, Twitter's then-chief of legal, policy and trust Vijaya Gadde, and Suzanne Spaulding, director of the Defending Democratic Institutions project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

They have a friendly and sometimes snarky tone, discussing what's happening at the June 22 advisory committee meeting and how to respond.

According to the official notes from the open session, Starbird urged CISA to "take the same action in response to countering mis-, dis-, and mal-information (MDM) as the Agency does to counter cyber threats."

Starbird recommended the agency alert the public to "MDM threats," which have "led to physical threats against elections officials," and "partner with frontline elections officials to inform the public and point to first-hand elections resources from Secretaries of State."

Starbird's subcommittee recommended a "civics education" campaign by CISA on "how to identify MDM and build an understanding of why citizens should not want to spread MDM." Such a campaign, Starbird noted, "aligns with CISA's cyber hygiene mission." Proactive education warning against MDM threats, she suggested, "should be in the form of pointing to trusted and authoritative sources of information at the local level," such as election officials. CISA should also "identify, communicate, and respond to actor-based threats," she added.

Starbird cited a quote from controversial Arizona election official Stephen Richer, the Maricopa County Recorder, that "responding to misinformation is my day job. My night job is running elections." 

Richer is among the defendants in a lawsuit filed by 2022 GOP gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake charging that malfunctioning ballot printers and tabulators in almost one-third of vote centers in Maricopa County effectively disenfranchised thousands of disproportionately Republican Election Day voters. Lake's suit is now pending before the Arizona Court of Appeals after being rejected by a county judge.

CISA Director Jen Easterly emphasized the agency is "beholden to supporting and defending the Constitution" and supporting states and localities "to help them ensure the security and resilience of elections."

Much of the context is missing from the emails, and some of the timestamps are out of order, making it difficult to tell the order of the messages, which may be a result of the multiple time zones of meeting participants. But they suggest that comments by a "Matthew" shifted the mood at the meeting during a closed session that is not recorded in the official notes, before Starbird's presentation from her "tiny" subcommittee that includes Gadde.

"Just a quick note to say thanks for your comments — I'm dialed in and listening," Gadde appears to first tell Starbird in a thread mentioning the closed session.

"The conversation tipped on Matthew's comments ... troubling," Starbird responds.

"I'm actually really surprised — I might reach out to him to understand more where he's coming from," Gadde says.

(Just the News was not able to nail down the identity of "Matthew" by press time.)

"Should I read the freedom of speech lines in my intro?" Starbird asks.

"I think making the point about this being about more speech and not affecting legal speech is good?" Gadde responds.

"Yes," Starbird answers. "Adding now."

Gadde then congratulates Starbird on her presentation, which the UW faculty member calls "a little stilted." Starbird complains that "other committee members don't even have the courage to comment (much less serve on our consequently tiny subcommittee)."

"These emails, added to the body of overwhelming evidence of domestic censorship coordination that currently exists, confirms it is past time for congressional committees to subpoena CISA," Foundation for Freedom Online Executive Director Mike Benz, a former State Department official, told Just the News.

"We need all emails, communications, meetings and minutes, free from the 'deliberative process' shield, so Americans get an unfiltered view of how their own government filters their views," Benz said.

Gadde, Starbird and Prince, the possible "Matthew" referenced in the emails, did not respond to queries.

You can follow me on Twitter @NGivasDC

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