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How U.S. Department of Homeland Security became global ‘thought police’

Originally published: Al Mayadeen on July 5, 2023 by Kit Klarenberg (more by Al Mayadeen)  | (Posted Jul 07, 2023)

On June 26th, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee published an incendiary report, The Weaponization of CISA, which documents how the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), a shadowy division of Washington’s highly controversial Department of Homeland Security,

colluded with big tech and ‘disinformation’ partners to censor Americans.

The report tracks how CISA, founded in 2018, “was originally intended to be an ancillary agency designed to protect critical infrastructure” and guard against cybersecurity threats,” but quickly “metastasized into the nerve center of the federal government’s domestic surveillance and censorship operations on social media.” Within two years of launch, the Agency was “routinely” reporting social media posts “that allegedly spread ‘disinformation’” to offending platforms, in particular Twitter.

Key to this sinister evolution was the creation in June 2021 of CISA’s Cybersecurity Advisory Committee, which in turn established a subcommittee known as “Protecting Critical Infrastructure from Misinformation & Disinformation”, commonly known as the “MDM Subcommittee”.

Since disbanded, it brought together representatives of government and the tech industry, along with purported “disinformation” experts, including University of Washington professor Kate Starbird, Twitter’s now former chief legal officer Vijaya Gadde, who led the social network’s suppression of the New York Post’s reporting on Hunter Biden’s laptop, and Suzanne Spaulding, a former CIA legal advisor.

Subsequently, CISA’s purview expanded dramatically, first to monitoring purported foreign “disinformation”, to eventually all “disinformation”, including the speech of average U.S. citizens online. In an email obtained by the Committee, this mission creep dismayed even a non-profit focused on foreign “disinformation” with which the Agency was collaborating.

That organization was one of many to which CISA outsourced responsibility for its ever-increasingly aggressive censorship crusade. Ostensibly independent civil society organizations provided a legitimizing rubber stamp to the Agency’s pronouncements of what did and did not constitute “disinformation”, and in turn pressured major tech firms to take action accordingly.

Major tech companies were overwhelmingly a highly receptive audience, and actively encouraged CISA to push further and further into unconstitutional territory, suggesting optimal means to malign, ostracize, and silence dissenting voices on their own platforms. In internal communications, Starbird openly acknowledged that the Agency’s definitions of disinformation, and examples of the phenomenon it cited publicly, were “inherently political.”

The Committee slams all of CISA’s counter “disinformation” activities as “highly troubling”, although considers the Agency’s focus on “malinformation” to have been “particularly problematic”. According to CISA’s official definition, “malinformation” is information “based on fact, but used out of context to mislead, harm, or manipulate.” Given that “context” is determined by the government, “malinformation” could mean literally any inconvenient fact authorities wanted to suppress.

Members of the MDM Subcommittee weren’t unaware of how poorly its policing of “malinformation” would likely be received by the outside world. Starbird dubbed this work “perhaps the hardest challenge”, given “current public discourse…seems to accept malinformation as ‘speech’ and within democratic norms,” which she amazingly attributed to “information operations”. She foresaw CISA being subject to “bad faith criticism” in the media for censoring truthful content as a result.

However, in seeking to construct a “whole-of-government approach” to “disinformation”, whereby CISA took the lead on censoring “disinformation” on behalf of every federal agency, its operatives encountered stern pushback from some officials. In August 2022, a representative of the National Association of Secretaries of State warned the Subcommittee that it was “important for CISA to remain within [its] operational and mission limits,” and “specifically should stick with misinformation and disinformation as related to cybersecurity issues.”

It’s clear too that despite CISA’s deep and cohering ties to major tech firms, not all were on board with its mission. In May 2022, due to public outcry over the DHS’ “Disinformation Governance Board”, CISA emailed high-ranking employees at professional networking site LinkedIn, informing them the company “can always reach out to CISA should you have any questions.” One recipient duly forwarded the email internally, eliciting a sardonic response from a coworker:

Hey LinkedIn friends, if you ever want to know what the Regime considers to be true or false, just drop a line. We have connections…

The next month, there were even anxieties expressed by members of the Subcommittee’s parent Cybersecurity Advisory Committee, about its ever-growing power. At a meeting, Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince “flagged his concerns with the MDM Subcommittee and the perception that CISA is influencing narratives.”

These comments were made right when members of the Subcommittee were increasingly worried that the recent closure of the Disinformation Governance Board, just three weeks after its inauspicious launch, would have negative implications for them. On May 20th, former CIA legal apparatchik Spaulding emailed Starbird, cautioning, “It’s only a matter of time before someone realizes we exist and starts asking about our work.” The latter concurred, noting the Subcommittee had “pretty obvious vulnerabilities.”

The pair went on to discuss methods by which to preemptively counter the controversy that would erupt if and when the Subcommittee’s activities were subject to external scrutiny. One idea outlined by Spaulding was to “socialize” its existence—“recruit subject matter experts to support the Subcommittee’s efforts, solicit different perspectives, and apply creditability to the Subcommittee’s work with a broader audience.” A senior CISA officer firmly rejected the proposal.

Fast forward to February this year, public concerns about CISA’s activities were ratcheting steadily, and the Judiciary Committee fired off subpoenas to major tech firms with which the Agency colluded in censorship, including Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Meta. The Agency struck upon a novel strategy for dealing with this unwanted, negative attention—it simply purged its website of all references to domestic “disinformation” work.

Watch this space…

To date, the Judiciary Committee’s findings have gone almost universally unmentioned by U.S. news outlets. This omertà is understandable, given the Senate probe was launched in response to the #TwitterFiles. A series of extended tweet threads, posted by journalists such as Matt Taibbi and Lee Fang on the social network from December 2022 onwards, it exposed in granular detail how Twitter was systematically co-opted and infiltrated by the U.S. national security state for malign ends.

Previously confidential company communications revealed that for many years, Twitter wittingly and willingly acted as a dedicated, dependable censorship wing of America’s spying and “security” agency alphabet soup, and the Democratic party. At the direct behest of entities such as the FBI, DHS, and even Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, high-ranking staffers unquestioningly suppressed or removed content arbitrarily deemed to be “disinformation”, and shadow-banned or outright suspended troublesome users. This was all despite frequent internal concerns the requests were unreasonable and illegitimate.

Bombshell stuff, which one might reasonably expect journalists to eagerly pounce upon. Yet, the  media’s lockstep response has been to determinedly discredit and diminish the #TwitterFiles by; criticizing the personalities and political persuasions of those reporting on them, and how they were reported; unilaterally declaring the content to be inconsequential and unworthy of attention, scrutiny, or the public’s time; or simply ignoring their existence entirely.

It would be highly unforthcoming for those same sources to now acknowledge the Judiciary Committee report conclusively confirms, and adds considerable color, contour and clarity to, the core contentions of the #TwitterFiles. There is also the obvious, open question of whether mainstream U.S. journalists were contemporaneously cognisant of CISA’s censorship machinations, but kept quiet as they and their employers materially benefited as a result.

After all, CISA’s “disinformation” busting activities served to systematically malign independent journalists and alternative media platforms, while reinforcing established news outlets as monopolies of truth. Leaked documents related to the short-lived DHS Disinformation Governance Board, which was intended to serve as the friendly, public face of CISA censorship connivances, repeatedly referred to the need to “pre-socialize” the Board prior to its launch with civil society voices, to ensure a friendly, smooth liftoff. It is highly likely mainstream reporters were among them.

Future Judiciary Committee investigations may lay this reality bare. As the report states, its work “is not done”—CISA “still has not adequately complied with a subpoena for relevant documents.” So it is, “much more fact finding is necessary,” and the Senate “will continue to investigate CISA’s and other executive branch agencies’ entanglement with social media platforms.” In other words, watch this space.

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