Cyber Agency Checks Itself on Fighting Disinformation Post-2020

  • Acting agency head calls some 2020 actions ‘controversial’
  • CISA reviewing its role in countering disinformation

The federal agency charged with safeguarding America’s elections said it needs to reevaluate its approach to disinformation so that agency leaders don’t “jeopardize” bipartisan congressional support, its acting leader said Wednesday.

Brandon Wales, acting director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, told state election officials that his agency is taking stock of its roles and authorities as the Biden administration seeks to combat disinformation.

“We need to look at the the appropriate role that CISA plays when it comes to countering disinformation, how we can focus on the security aspects where we have the broadest authorities, responsibilities, and ultimately expertise,” he said during a National Association of Secretaries of State event.

Christopher Krebs, who led the agency throughout the 2020 election cycle and in the weeks after the election, was fired by former President Donald Trump after penning a joint statement with U.S. secretaries of state and other election officials calling the 2020 election the “most secure in American history.” CISA under Krebs also ran the Rumor Control website that frequently took on false claims about voter fraud or election technology security from Trump and people in his orbit.

Krebs, a Republican and a Trump appointee, faced sharp questioning from Senate Republicans, including Ron Johnson (Wis.) and Rand Paul (Ky.), who both wondered how Krebs could call an election secure given instances of mail or voter fraud.

“This agency has long benefited from broad bipartisan support in this country and with our colleagues on the Hill, and I think that future political leadership will not want to jeopardize that,” Wales, the top career official at CISA, said.

Photo: Al Drago/Getty Images
A chalk message about “Fake News” is written on the street at Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House on Nov. 5, 2020, in Washington, DC., while the presidential election was still too close to call.

Rethinking Disinformation

CISA’s future role in responding to disinformation, especially around election security, is a top priority for the agency as it moves on from 2020, Wales said.

“That’s an area that we’re looking at now, particularly in the area of the agency’s role when it comes to countering disinformation and misinformation in the election context, but more broadly,” he said.

Agency staff are working on “thought papers” on successes and failures from the 2020 election to help future leaders decide how to approach disinformation, Wales said.

The Biden team is “eager to engage” on disinformation, so Wales expects more updates will be coming about CISA’s role in countering disinformation and misinformation, he said.

SolarWinds, Domestic Terror

CISA’s “primary focus” in the cybersecurity realm is its investigation with other federal partners into the supply chain compromise associated with SolarWinds Corp. software, Wales said.

“We have no evidence election systems were compromised as part of this campaign,” Wales assured the state election officials.

The agency continues its long-standing role in protecting more traditional forms of critical infrastructure, but also soft targets such as religious institutions or shopping areas, from terrorism, both international and domestic, Wales said. The Biden administration’s shift to refocus on domestic terrorism in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol doesn’t mark a change for CISA, Wales said.

“We were doing a lot of this work since the early days of the department, all through the through the Trump administration and we will continue to do so,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Shaun Courtney in Washington at scourtney@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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