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Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is trying — so far in vain — to assuage Republican concerns that his department’s new disinformation governance board will respect civil liberties.
“Its purpose is to make sure that the work that is underway in protecting the homeland that has been executed for nearly 10 years is done within guardrails, according to policies and standards that ensure that that work does not infringe on people’s fundamental rights,” Mayorkas told the Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Wednesday. The board won’t have any operational authority and won’t impinge on privacy, he said.
The board was created to combat disinformation spread by foreign actors such as Russia, China, transnational criminal organizations and human smugglers, the department has said. Republican lawmakers have called it an attack on freedom of speech, Orwellian, and un-American.
Mayorkas conceded the rollout of the board wasn’t as effective as the department had hoped it would be. The department head had spoken about the board during an April 27 hearing but did not announce it formally until days later with a May 2 fact sheet.
“You’ve admitted the rollout has been vastly misunderstood,” subcommittee ranking member Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said. “It’s time to abandon this ludicrous idea.”
Subcommittee Chair Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) defended the creation of the board, saying that addressing the threats of domestic terrorism and foreign propaganda are at the top of his priority list.
“I don’t know why we would spend billions of dollars protecting the homeland without the capacity to protect our citizens from foreign actors and domestic terrorists who seek to spread hateful propaganda designed to tear apart our democracy,” Murphy said. Mayorkas should still set the record straight about what the goals of the board are, Murphy added.
Courtney Radsch, a fellow at UCLA’s Institute for Technology, Law and Policy, said it is problematic to base such a board in DHS because the department doesn’t have a history of disclosing information to the public.
“DHS has a very poor track record of engaging with civil society and proactively providing information to journalists, which needs to be part of the strategy to combat disinformation,” Radsch said in an interview.
Republicans also used the hearing to denounce DHS’s naming of Wilson Center disinformation fellow Nina Jankowicz as the board’s executive director.
Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) said he was “slack jawed” at the hiring of Jankowicz, pointing to what he called her “precocious” Tik Tok videos and previous statements she has made tying news about Hunter Biden to Russian disinformation.
Mayorkas said he wasn’t aware of her past assertions, and that the department doesn’t discuss internal hiring practices. He added that Jankowicz is a subject matter expert in the field.
Kennedy told Mayorkas he should figure out who recommended Jankowicz and “fire them on the spot.”
Republican Sens. Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) and Tom Cotton (Ark.) on Tuesday introduced legislation to bar federal funds from being used to establish the board. Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) introduced a companion bill.
To contact the reporter on this story: Maria Curi in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org