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DHS Redacted Critical Details About ‘Anti-Disinformation’ Activities: Sens. Grassley, Hawley

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WASHINGTON, DC – Senate Judiciary Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-IA). (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has neglected to provide in full certain disclosures requested by members of the U.S. Senate relating to the department’s growing role in “counter-disinformation” activities, and this failure is particularly egregious in light of the co-equal roles of the executive and legislative branches of the government, two senators have charged in a Dec. 15 letter to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) charge the DHS with ignoring or downplaying their “serious concerns” about the DHS’s “growing counter-disinformation efforts” as conveyed previously in a letter of June 7, which formally requested “information necessary to inform our congressional oversight of DHS activities.”

Partly or completely redacted

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has neglected to provide in full certain disclosures requested by members of the U.S. Senate relating to the department’s growing role in “counter-disinformation” activities, and this failure is particularly egregious in light of the co-equal roles of the executive and legislative branches of the government, two senators have charged in a Dec. 15 letter to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) charge the DHS with ignoring or downplaying their “serious concerns” about the DHS’s “growing counter-disinformation efforts” as conveyed previously in a letter of June 7, which formally requested “information necessary to inform our congressional oversight of DHS activities.”

The senators are deeply concerned about the DHS’s admitted plans to ramp up its efforts to play a role in monitoring and mediating MDM, a common acronym for “mis-, dis-, and mal-information,” disseminated through social media, on topics as varied as the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, race relations in America, and the hasty U.S. pullout from Afghanistan in August 2021.

According to the senators, the DHS’s response to their June 7 letter, which was dated June 29, did not answer any of the ten questions they had posed in their June 7 communication.

Even more seriously, the DHS included with its June 29 letter three “document productions” supposedly intended to allay the senators’ concerns, but the first of these contained documents already in the public domain, and the third featured some 500 pages of information, half of which was partly or completely redacted.

“Based on our review of this material, it appears that many of the redactions are applied to pre-decisional and deliberative process material,” the senators write, before going on to remind Mayorkas that they have advanced their requests as sitting members of Congress whom DHS cannot legally ignore or blow off, given the separate and co-equal character of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches comprising the U.S. federal government.

The Freedom of Information Act applies neither to the requests nor to DHS’s procedures in protocols in responding to them, and the redaction of content—as DHS might do in response to a journalist’s request for information—is not appropriate here, the senators contend.

The senators also take DHS to task for complaining, in its letter of June 29, about Congress’s having made documents available to the senators without getting approval from DHS.

Here, too, Grassley and Hawley charge DHS with having misconstrued the nature of its relationship to other branches and having falsely assumed that DHS enjoys the right to apply executive branch designations such as “Predecisional,” “Deliberative,” and “For Official Use Only,” and thereby limit what documents and materials the senators may obtain by means of lawful whistleblower disclosures and oversight requests. In the case referenced in DHS’s June 29 letter, the senators state they did not unconditionally release all the material provided to them and included limited redactions of their own where appropriate.

“We make such decisions independently, based on our assessment of what will be in the best interest of transparency and the public interest. Moreover, DHS should learn a lesson in accountability and transparency when patriotic whistleblowers provide full and complete records in contrast to DHS failing to follow that standard and instead providing improperly redacted records,” Grassley and Hawley write.

Overstepping Bounds

The senators convey their considerable “alarm” at public reports that illuminate DHS’s growing role in “counter-disinformation activities.”

“These efforts stretch well beyond DHS’s seriously misguided effort to establish a Disinformation Governance Board (DGB),” they write, pointing to a document prepared by Cybersecurity Advisory Committee of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and released by The Intercept, which states that “CISA has a burgeoning MDM effort” that includes “directly engaging with social media companies to flag MDM.”

The same Intercept article also quotes a draft copy of DHS’s Quadrennial Homeland Security Review stating that in coming years DHS will aggressively combat what it sees as bogus information on a range of topics including “the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, racial justice, U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the nature of U.S. support to Ukraine.”

The senators conclude by making two formal requests to Mayorkas, namely, full and complete answers to all questions raised in the senators’ June 7 letter, along with unredacted copies of the documents provided in DHS’s initial response; and a detailed account of DHS’s policy for replying to congressional oversight requests, specifying how DHS makes decisions about redacting material that members of Congress have asked for.

 

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