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Expert hired to run DHS’ newly created disinformation board resigns

<i>PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>The disinformation expert hired to run the Department of Homeland Security's newly created disinformation board has resigned after the department paused the board.
AFP/Getty Images
The disinformation expert hired to run the Department of Homeland Security's newly created disinformation board has resigned after the department paused the board.

By Sean Lyngaas, Priscilla Alvarez and Natasha Bertrand, CNN

The disinformation expert hired to run the Department of Homeland Security’s newly created disinformation board has resigned after the department paused the board.

Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation expert with experience working on Ukraine and Russia issues, was tapped to helm the “Disinformation Governance Board” earlier this month. The interagency team was meant to coordinate department activities related to disinformation aimed at the US population and infrastructure.

But Jankowicz’s appointment quickly drew condemnation from GOP lawmakers and right-wing media, who pointed to her past tweets and statements regarding Hunter Biden’s laptop and Christopher Steele, the author of the so-called Steele Dossier. Jankowicz told CNN on Wednesday evening that she resigned because the board’s future was uncertain.

“I had hoped we would be more transparent about how the board was going to operate and what it was going to do,” she said, acknowledging that the new initiative should have been rolled out differently. “For whatever reason, that didn’t happen, and that information vacuum only grew. And I think the information vacuum kind of directed a lot of the attacks and digging around in my personal life.”

Some attacks, she said, were vicious and targeted her family and DHS engaged its Federal Protective Service to monitor threats against her online.

The Washington Post first reported on the suspension of the disinformation board and Jankowicz’s resignation.

The situation, Jankowicz told CNN, was “frustrating and saddening” because she had gone into the job “with the intention of serving the American people and bringing my expertise to bear to protect us from threats that affect all of us.”

Asked about the criticism that she was overly political in some of her tweets, Jankowicz said that her comments had been taken out of context. “All of the attempts to just decontextualize things I’ve written, and remove any nuance from them, just shows exactly how these disinformation campaigns work,” she said.

Review of the board

DHS and the White House had previously defended the new initiative, and backed Jankowicz to lead it.

In a statement, a DHS spokesperson said Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has asked former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff and former US Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick to lead a review of the board through the Homeland Security Advisory Council. During that review, the board’s work will be paused and it will not convene.

“The Board has been grossly and intentionally mischaracterized: it was never about censorship or policing speech in any manner. It was designed to ensure we fulfill our mission to protect the homeland, while protecting core Constitutional rights,” the spokesperson said. “However, false attacks have become a significant distraction from the Department’s vitally important work to combat disinformation that threatens the safety and security of the American people.”

Ultimately, Jankowicz told CNN she resigned because she wasn’t sure whether the board had a future after the “debacle” of the last few weeks. She said she was “deeply disappointed,” though, by the administration’s announcement that it will conduct a “review” of the board, because she believes it should continue even in her absence.

The board was “simple” and “anodyne,” she said, and largely revolved around coordinating efforts within DHS to combat misinformation related to threats to public safety, like natural disasters.

Jankowicz has focused on disinformation and Eastern Europe for years and advised the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry on the subject in 2016 and 2017, according to her website. She is fluent in Russian, and her book “How to Lose the Information War” examines how five Western governments have dealt with Russian disinformation.

Despite her expertise, critics argued she held biases on certain issues. For instance, in a TikTok video posted prior to her appointment to lead the board, Jankowicz singled out Rudy Giuliani and TikTok influencers to a Mary Poppins jingle.

DHS previously said Mayorkas asked department officials to enhance the public’s trust in the group. The board is an internal working group and doesn’t have operational authority, instead serving in a more advisory role. It’s intended to gather best practices and support counter-disinformation activities, not monitor Americans, according to DHS.

Rollout drew criticism

The concept of the board dates to last year. At the time, Homeland Security officials began discussing a group to provide guidance on policies and privacy protection questions, given that agencies within the department were already collecting information for purposes related to their missions, said John Cohen, the former acting head of the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis, in an interview with CNN earlier this month.

One of the questions the working group could help with, officials thought, was whether agencies could share information with one another that they had obtained through their own authorities, Cohen said.

Mayorkas acknowledged that some of the criticism of the board was brought on by the department’s own rollout.

“We probably could have done a better job of communicating what it does and does not do,” he said earlier this month in an interview with CNN’s Dana Bash.

The “Disinformation Governance Board” focuses first on disinformation surrounding human migration into the US and potential disinformation threats from Russia aimed at US critical infrastructure, DHS said in a news release announcing the board.

Russian disinformation campaigns against Americans have gone on for years, including during election cycles. US officials are always watching for new signs of Kremlin-backed efforts to sow divisions, particularly in light of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, US challenges in dealing with migrants trying to enter the US are exacerbated by smugglers who “make a profit by spreading false information that endangers lives,” DHS said in its news release.

This story has been updated with additional reporting Wednesday.

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