Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas testified at two Senate committee hearings Wednesday. Across the hearings for the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Mayorkas addressed questions and concerns from senators regarding the recently established Disinformation Governance Board and the pick to lead it, Nina Jankowicz.
Here are some highlights from the exchanges on the DGB:
- Rebranding DGB
Mayorkas strove to recharacterize the new DGB as a working group consisting of existing DHS employees whose goal will be to create standards and procedures for already ongoing efforts to combat disinformation. He clarified that the DGB doesn’t have a separate budget and doesn’t have operational authority. He emphasized that besides Nina Jankowicz, most of the board consisted of “career employees” from existing DHS offices who “will work together to put policies and procedures in place.”
Mayorkas: “It was quite disconcerting, frankly, that the disinformation work that was well underway for many years across different administrations was not guided by guardrails.”
- Mayorkas in the Dark
In light of heavy scrutiny around the DGB lead pick, Nina Jankowicz, Secretary Mayorkas said he was unaware of her past partisan comments when she was selected.
Mayorkas: “I am ultimately responsible for hiring of Ms. Jankowicz to be the Executive Director of the Disinformation Governance Board in my capacities as Secretary… I understand that she is an expert in disinformation.”
John Kennedy (R-LA) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) both asked if Mayorkas knew prior to Jankowicz’s hiring about her TikToks, her vouching for the veracity of the Steele dossier, and her dismissal of the Hunter Biden laptop as a “Trump campaign product.” Mayorkas said he “was not aware.”
Mayorkas: “I am not focused on her past comments… I am focused on the mission upon us and ahead of us.”
James Lankford (R-OK): “The person you tapped to lead the disinformation campaign has been outspoken on TikTok and Twitter with disinformation specifically on election issues.”
- Mayorkas on Repeat
Secretary Mayorkas repeatedly used some variation of the following to answer almost every question about the DGB:
Mayorkas: “What this working group seeks to do is actually develop guidelines, standards, guardrails, to ensure that the work that has been ongoing for nearly ten years does not infringe on people’s free speech rights, rights of privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties… it is going to establish what should have been established years ago – standards, definitions, guidelines, and policies” for already ongoing efforts across agencies to combat disinformation.
- What Will be Treated as Disinformation Remains Unclear
Shelley Capito (R-WV): “It seems subjective and undefined to determine what disinformation is.”
Rand Paul (R-KY) began by quoting the DHS definition of disinformation: “False information that is deliberately spread with the intent to deceive or mislead, can take many forms.”
Mayorkas gave the same three examples of disinformation repeatedly (they are the same as those mentioned on the DGB fact sheet): Mexican cartels misleading potential smuggling victims by giving false information about U.S. immigration policies, FEMA disaster relief efforts being stymied by people who are introducing doubt about the information FEMA provides the public, and ‘disinformation in the Russian cyber domain.’
Paul asked if public health information would be in the purview of the board. Mayorkas responded “we become involved when disinformation poses a threat to the security of our country… it is when there’s a connectivity to a threat to our country.”
Paul: “Do you think the Steele Dossier contained Russian disinformation…? We can’t even agree on what disinformation is.”
- Bipartisan Agreement: No matter the intentions of the DGB, it’s a horrible name choice. Maybe We Should Abandon Altogether.
Shelley Capito (R-WV): “Maybe now is a good time to abandon this much-maligned and ludicrous idea.”
Jon Ossoff (D-GA): “I do think that anything so named and anything that purports to engage the department in work related to purported or real disinformation warrants Congressional scrutiny to ensure that there are not first amendment issues implicated.”
Josh Hawley (R-MO): “Why don’t you just dissolve this board? You haven’t heard a single senator support this board.”
Mitt Romney (R-UT): “I can’t begin to understand why you’d want to announce the creation of a misinformation board, I think it’s a terrible idea. It communicates to the world the idea that we’ll be spreading propaganda in our country and you ought to disband it.”