Washington - The U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday paused a new and controversial board's work on disinformation and accepted the resignation of its leader, capping weeks of concerns about impinging on free speech rights and at times frenzied conspiracy theories about the board itself.
What remains to be seen is whether the debate over the board will damage ongoing U.S. efforts to counter disinformation used as a weapon by Russia and other adversaries. Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas acknowledged the board had become a distraction to the department's other work, which includes safeguarding U.S. elections, two officials familiar with his decision said.
The Disinformation Governance Board's director, Nina Jankowicz, wrote Wednesday that the board's future was uncertain, according to a resignation letter obtained by The Associated Press.
While the board has not formally been shuttered, it will be reviewed by members of a DHS advisory council that's expected to make recommendations in 75 days. The Washington Post first reported the board's pause.
Federal and state agencies treat disinformation as a national security threat. In a statement announcing its launch, DHS said the new initiative would coordinate efforts around threats of Russian disinformation campaigns aimed at the U.S. and false claims that encourage migrants to travel to the U.S.-Mexico border.
But the new board was hampered from the start by questions about its purpose, funding and work with an uneven rollout that further confused its mission. Mayorkas struggled to answer questions about the board's work in front of lawmakers on Capitol Hill earlier this month.
Mayorkas made the decision to pause the board in response to the cumulative negative reaction and growing concerns that it was distracting from the department's other work on disinformation, according to two department officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
'The Board has been grossly and intentionally mischaracterized: It was never about censorship or policing speech in any manner,' the department said in a statement. 'It was designed to ensure we fulfill our mission to protect the homeland, while protecting core Constitutional rights.'
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre noted the board had never met and neither the department nor Jankowicz had any power to censor or remove content labeled as disinformation.
DHS officials had tried to quell concerns about how the board would impact issues of free speech and online privacy by describing it as an internal working group intended to study definitions of disinformation across the department.
But opponents remained unconvinced about the board's work and purpose.
The top Republicans on the House intelligence and homeland security committees issued a joint statement Wednesday calling the board 'a political tool to be wielded by the party in control.'
'This board was only successful in reinforcing that the Department of Homeland Security's priorities are severely misplaced,' wrote Representatives Mike Turner of Ohio and John Katko of New York, who previously said DHS had not disclosed information to them about the program.
Senator Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, told Mayorkas the board was a 'terrible idea' that 'communicates to the world that we're going to be spreading propaganda in our own country.'
Twenty Republican attorneys general, led by Jason Miyares of Virginia, threatened Mayorkas with legal action over the board 'unless you turn back now and disband this Orwellian Disinformation Governance Board immediately,' Miyares said in a statement.
Reception online and across conservative television shows to the board was even worse.
The phrase 'Ministry of Truth' - a reference to George Orwell's '1984' - trended on Twitter in discussions about the board. Conservative pundits and social media users pushed conspiracy theories and falsehoods around its purpose, with some falsely claiming the board was quickly developed by DHS in response to billionaire Elon Musk's quest to buy Twitter. Others put out false claims that Jankowicz planned to edit the tweets of everyday Twitter users.
'It's been really mischaracterized from the beginning,' said Cindy Otis, a disinformation researcher and former CIA analyst.
Experts on disinformation warned the controversy around the board could hurt existing efforts to identify and stop the spread of false narratives about elections and hot-button issues in American society.
Russia has tried to influence the last two presidential elections by boosting false stories and using social media to inflame divisions in American society on issues like race and the coronavirus pandemic. It has continued to spread false and misleading narratives about its invasion of Ukraine. U.S. intelligence officials have also accused China and Iran of peddling disinformation to Americans. DHS has several ongoing programs to counter disinformation, including the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency's efforts to debunk claims of election fraud.
But, Otis warned, 'It would be really unfortunate if they just decided that disinformation is too publicly sensitive of an issue.'
Jankowicz became the center of sexist and antisemitic attacks, and even death threats online. A Fox News personality recently questioned whether Jankowicz should have agreed to lead the board while pregnant.
Critics have pointed to statements made by Jankowicz that questioned the provenance of a laptop said to belong to Hunter Biden, the president's son.
Supporters of Jankowicz have accused the department of not doing enough to protect her from trolls and online attacks.