A division of the Department of Homeland Security expanded its mission to censor and conduct surveillance in coordination with Big Tech firms, according to a report from a House Judiciary subcommittee.
The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, also known as CISA, colluded with private companies and other private groups to block online content, the House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government said in findings released Monday.
The report, titled “The Weaponization of CISA: How a ‘Cybersecurity’ Agency Colluded With Big Tech and ‘Disinformation’ Partners to Censor Americans,” is an interim document in what the subcommittee calls an ongoing investigation of an agency created during Donald Trump’s presidency.
“Founded in 2018, CISA was originally intended to be an ancillary agency designed to protect ‘critical infrastructure’ and guard against cybersecurity threats,” the report says, adding:
In the years since its creation, however, CISA metastasized into the nerve center of the federal government’s domestic surveillance and censorship operations on social media. By 2020, CISA routinely reported social media posts that allegedly spread ‘disinformation’ to social media platforms.
By 2021, CISA had a formal ‘Mis-, Dis-, and Malinformation’ (MDM) team. In 2022 and 2023, in response to growing public and private criticism of CISA’s unconstitutional behavior, CISA attempted to camouflage its activities, duplicitously claiming it serves a purely ‘informational’ role.
President Joe Biden took office Jan. 21, 2021.
For its part, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency rejected the findings of the government weaponization subcommittee’s report.
“CISA does not and has never censored speech or facilitated censorship; any such claims are patently false,” CISA Executive Director Brandon Wales said in a written statement.
“Every day, the men and women of CISA execute the agency’s mission of reducing risk to U.S. critical infrastructure in a way that protects Americans’ freedom of speech, civil rights, civil liberties, and privacy,” Wales said. “In response to concerns from election officials of all parties regarding foreign influence operations and disinformation that may impact the security of election infrastructure, CISA mitigates the risk of disinformation by sharing information on election literacy and election security with the public and by amplifying the trusted voices of election officials across the nation.”
However, the subcommittee report notes that after Missouri and Louisiana filed a federal lawsuit challenging the agency’s censorship efforts, CISA outsourced its censorship operations to a nonprofit it financed.
The nonprofit, the Center for Internet Security, operates two centers: the Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center (MS-ISAC) and the Elections Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center.
The report adds: “CISA funds CIS, including spending $27 million in FY 2024 on operating the EI-ISAC and the MS-ISAC.”
“CISA moved its censorship operation to a CISA-funded non-profit after CISA and the Biden administration were sued in federal court, implicitly admitting that its censorship activities are unconstitutional,” the report says.
The agency considered establishing a “rapid response team” to address misinformation that could deploy physically across the United States, according to the report.
CISA wanted to use the nonprofit as its mouthpiece to “avoid the appearance of government propaganda,” the report says.
The report includes an email from a CISA advisory board member, Suzanne Spaulding, a former assistant general counsel for the CIA, to fellow board member Kate Starbird, associate professor and co-founder of the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public.
In the email, Spaulding expresses concern to Starbird that it was “only a matter of time before someone realizes we exist and starts asking about our work.”
The government weaponization committee’s report also says the agency within the Department of Homeland Security wasn’t transparent amid criticism.
“In response to mounting public scrutiny, CISA scrubbed its website of references to its domestic surveillance and censorship activities,” the report says.
Although CISA’s efforts to police speech are highly troubling overall, one particularly problematic aspect is CISA’s focus on ‘malinformation.’ According to CISA’s own definition, ‘[m]alinformation is based on fact, but used out of context to mislead, harm, or manipulate.’ In other words, malinformation is factual information that is objectionable not because it is false or untruthful, but because it is provided without adequate ‘context’—context as determined by the government.
In April 2022, the Biden administration established a Disinformation Governance Board within the Department of Homeland Scurity that was charged with “countering misinformation related to homeland security, focused specifically on irregular migration and Russia.”
However, after public blowback over the government’s policing free speech on illegal immigration and other topics, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas put a “pause” on the disinformation board in May 2022.
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