Skip to main content

Politics

Did the Disinformation Governance Board originate at a D.C. think tank?

An Atlantic Council report, many of whose ideas have been implemented by the Biden DHS, called for prioritizing the fight against disinformation

An Atlantic Council report, many of whose ideas have been implemented by the Biden DHS, called for prioritizing the fight against disinformation
An Atlantic Council report, many of whose ideas have been implemented by the Biden DHS, called for prioritizing the fight against disinformation | Wikimedia Commons

May 18, 2022 3:31am

Updated: May 18, 2022 2:12pm

The Department of Homeland Security's new and controversial Disinformation Governance Board may have originated from an under-the-radar think tank report that called on the department to change its focus by prioritizing "nonmilitary threats," such as white supremacism and disinformation.

The report, titled "Future of DHS Project: Key Findings and Recommendations," was published in September 2020 by the Atlantic Council, which is headquartered in Washington, D.C. and committed to a mission of "shaping the global future together."

Thomas Warrick and Caitlin Durkovich, the report's authors, both served in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) but left their posts during the Trump administration. Durkovich currently serves on the White House National Security Council.

"It's a reminder that the revolving door in Washington is very corrupt," John Zadrozny, former White House adviser to President Trump on homeland security matters, told the "Just the News, Not Noise" television program. "People from [previous administrations] working for the Atlantic Council and other organizations are churning out nonsense like this."

Many of the recommendations contained in the Atlantic Council report have been implemented by DHS under the Biden administration.

"The United States will be less secure, and American democracy will be at risk, unless [DHS] changes its priorities," the report stated. "Going forward, DHS needs to refocus its mission to lead the defense of the United States against major nonmilitary threats."

These threats include "infectious diseases; hostile nation-state cyber operations, threats to election security, and foreign disinformation; threats to critical infrastructure from climate change; vulnerabilities in new technologies; and growing white supremacism," according to the report, which described the need for DHS to still focus on its original mission — defending against terrorism — but also transition to a new age of different challenges.

"Domestic terrorism by white supremacists and other 'homegrown' causes needs more attention and resources by DHS, the [Justice Department], and the FBI," the report argued. "Since 9/11, more Americans have died in terrorist attacks by white supremacists and terrorists with similar political alignment than in attacks by ISIS or al Qaeda sympathizers."

DHS wrote that white supremacists "remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland" in its inaugural threat assessment, released a month after the Atlantic Council report.

The Biden administration amplified this notion after President Biden took office, putting a greater emphasis on the scale of the threat than previous administrations.

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas called white supremacists the greatest domestic threat facing the country.

"The department is taking a new approach to addressing domestic violent extremism, both internally and externally," he told lawmakers last year.

DHS proceeded to issue multiple warnings about white supremacy and even launched a probe to investigate such extremism within its own ranks.

Americans are "now being targeted" as a result of these ideas, according to Zadrozny.

The Atlantic Council report also elevated disinformation to the top of its priority list as a chief national security threat along with the likes of attacks on critical infrastructure.

"Cyberattacks, threats to election security, threats to critical infrastructure, disinformation, and foreign nation-state threats to confidence in U.S. institutions are, collectively, threats to American democracy itself" and "need to be treated as one of the United States' top national security priorities," the report stated.

Indeed, the report argued DHS needs "to lead the defense of the nation" on these issues, including foreign countries misusing social media, "under the mission to 'protect American democracy.'"

DHS seems to have followed through on prioritizing disinformation while maintaining its old mission of counterterrorism.

In February, the department put out a "National Terrorism Advisory Bulletin," which discussed how "conspiracy theories," "misleading narratives," and mis- and dis-information can fuel foreign and domestic terrorism.

The bulletin cited "false or misleading narratives regarding unsubstantiated widespread election fraud and COVID-19" online as "key factors contributing to the current heightened threat environment."

Late last month, DHS took this effort to another level and announced the creation of the Disinformation Governance Board to monitor and combat speech it deems "disinformation."

Mayorkas has defended the initiative as important in tackling the "threat" of disinformation, especially when it targets migrants or comes from the Russian government.

However, critics have lambasted the board as an Orwellian "Ministry of Truth" established to silence people with certain political views.

"We really need to have a serious national conversation about rethinking the Department of Homeland Security," said Zadrozny. "Nobody wants to talk about it ... we may have created a monster ... and maybe we have to have a serious conversation about breaking this monster up to prevent this type of abuse of the American people."

The Atlantic Council report was touted by Louisiana Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, the powerful chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

"The Atlantic Council, in its 'Future of DHS Project,' recommended reform, explaining that ... the best window of opportunity for this will be during the 90-day window between the Nov. 3 election and the start of the 117th Congress on Jan. 4, 2021,'" Thompson said in October 2020. "I could not agree more."

Thompson has spoken at the Atlantic Council about reforming DHS.

Beyond the report itself, the Atlantic Council has also promoted the ideas of Nina Jankowicz, who was recently appointed head of the Disinformation Governance Board.

In 2019, when Jankowicz was a fellow specializing in disinformation at the Wilson Center, another prominent think tank in D.C., she testified before a congressional committee on "U.S. efforts to counter Russian disinformation and malign influence." The Atlantic Council shortened and edited her testimony and published the text on its website.

"The United States is abdicating its leadership in countering Russian disinformation," said Jankowicz. "Disinformation is not a political issue; it is a democratic one ... the United States has not invested sufficient resources to be competitive in the fight against disinformation."

To combat the challenge of disinformation, Jankowicz recommended in part teaching people "how to navigate the modern information environment including through digital literacy training and civics programs. These programs would not simply teach people to separate 'real' and 'fake' news, but assist them in sampling a range of viewpoints to inform their daily lives and the criticism that is healthy for any democracy, while developing greater immunity to conspiratorial versions of the truth."

Ironically, critics have accused Jankowicz of spreading disinformation herself, such as erroneoulsy dismissing reporting on emails from Hunter Biden's abandoned laptop as "a Trump campaign product."

The Biden administration's new disinformation czar also dismissed the theory that COVID-19 leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China as something "politically convenient" for the Trump administration to entertain.

Last fall, Jankowicz referred to opponents of critical race theory as "disinformers," accusing them of peddling disinformation to stoke anger and make money off the uproar.

However, Jankowicz in 2020 said she didn't believe government should "be in the business" of fighting disinformation, appearing to contradict the mission undergirding her new DHS appointment.

Moreover, in her 2019 commentary posted to the Atlantic Council's website, Jankowicz spoke of "empowering individuals, not endlessly fact-checking" to combat disinformation.

Mayorkas recently acknowledged he had little to no knowledge of Jankowicz's online posts concerning disinformation before her hiring as head of the disinformation board, although he and the White House have defended Jankowicz as an expert on the topic.

DHS, the Atlantic Council, and the House Homeland Security Committee did not respond to requests for comment for this story.