Former Homeland Security Department leaders warned that the Biden administration had unleashed Orwellian thought police on Americans after the department revealed that its “disinformation” board to stop online misinformation is run by a woman who has spread disinformation and questioned First Amendment rights.
Nina Jankowicz, who once dismissed troubling reports about Hunter Biden’s laptop as a “Trump campaign ploy,” has been leading the new board for a couple of months, but Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas did not reveal the board’s existence until this week in testimony to Congress.
“The goal is to bring the resources of the department together to address this threat,” Mr. Mayorkas told lawmakers.
“Cat’s out of the bag,” Ms. Jankowicz then tweeted.
Homeland Security described the board’s expansive duties, saying it will combat the wide swath of disinformation in the country. In the immediate term, its focus will be on disinformation surrounding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and on the messaging smuggling groups are peddling to would-be illegal immigrants, the department said.
Mr. Mayorkas also suggested it will deal with election information.
That broad charge of duties, and the appointment of Ms. Jankowicz as its lead, stunned some former department officials.
“Secretary Mayorkas wants to implement the lesson of every dictator: that is to be the sole owner of what qualifies as ‘truth.’ George Orwell would be proud,” former Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Ken Cuccinelli told The Washington Times.
Lora Ries, a former homeland security deputy chief of staff and the director of the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Border Security and Immigration Center, called the board “an overtly political ploy” to try to chase opposing viewpoints from the political debate ahead of the midterm elections.
“The left can no longer use COVID restrictions, or now, seemingly Twitter, to mislabel and hide legitimate information American voters should have in casting their ballots. Instead, they are standing up this board to declare what the left believes is mis- or disinformation,” Ms. Ries said.
She said policing disinformation “is not remotely the mission of the Department of Homeland Security.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, called the board a “speech police.”
The disinformation board isn’t Mr. Mayorkas’ first foray into disinformation. Last year, he told Congress he was working with the Education Department on a program to help schoolchildren spot when they are being fed dangerous information.
In his testimony, Mr. Mayorkas said the new board was led by Robert Silvers, undersecretary for policy, and Jennifer Daskal, principal deputy general counsel at Homeland Security.
Homeland Security then revealed the board was “led” by Ms. Jankowicz, and Ms. Silvers and Ms. Daskal were co-chairs.
In 2020, as explosive reports of Hunter Biden’s laptop roiled the presidential campaign, Ms. Jankowicz told the New York Daily News that she thought it was disinformation spread by the Trump campaign.
Reporting by several news organizations has since substantiated the authenticity of the laptop, which was first reported by the New York Post.
Ms. Jankowicz also has expressed skepticism about the long-held belief of First Amendment advocates that the answer to bad messaging is more good messaging, according to a 2020 piece in The New Yorker. She says the solution lies in crafting a more just society where the dissonant voices feel heard.
Ms. Jankowicz has just published “How To Be a Woman Online,” a book about facing internet abuse and harassment. She detailed some of the “unsettling and creepy” messages she has received since she has become a public figure making television appearances.
Ms. Jankowicz, a prolific tweeter, confirmed her position in a post on Wednesday. She insisted that she isn’t a threat to robust speech and that a “key” reason the board was created was to protect “free speech, privacy, civil rights [and] civil liberties.”
Asked Thursday about her history, Mr. Mayorkas said he was “not familiar with those statements.”
Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican, pressed Mr. Mayorkas on whether premature rejections of theories that the coronavirus emerged from a Chinese lab would be considered targets for the disinformation board. He also wondered whether those who denied the Biden laptop story would be targets.
Mr. Mayorkas said the board’s focus would be information “that imperils the safety and security of the homeland,” with an emphasis on anything connected “to violence.”
The new board’s two immediate priorities, Russian propaganda and smuggling cartels’ messaging, have proved hard to combat over the years.
In the smuggling context, that’s because the story cartels are selling would-be migrants about chances of securing a foothold in the U.S. often turns out to be true.
In fact, migrants are posting success stories after being caught and released at the border, experts said, which is fueling an even bigger market for the cartels.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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