On May 11, I found myself in the unlikely position of testifying before a congressional committee on a topic that most Americans would likely assume was totally irrelevant to that committee, and largely concerning the actions of a sub-agency under that committee’s jurisdiction that most Americans have likely never heard of.

“What,” they might ask, “does censorship have to do with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)?”

“And what in the world is the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), and what does it have to do with any of it?”

Indeed, in saner times a hearing of the House Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and Accountability on “Censorship Laundering: How the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Enables the Silencing of Dissent,” and specifically on CISA’s role in said laundering, would not only be unnecessary, but unthinkable.

But these are not sane times. Remarkably, and perversely, as the analysis I presented to the subcommittee demonstrates, DHS, led by CISA, has become a linchpin of the mass public-private censorship regime discussed in these digital pages previously.

This regime, linking federal agencies, top White House officials, and lawmakers to Big Tech companies and supportive “private” but often state-supported or like-minded entities – namely counter-disinformation academic and research organizations, and media outlets, ironically some of the greatest beneficiaries of our free speech principles – has used its collective power to silence speech contrary to the regime’s favored narratives in service of its power and privilege.

The regime has led arguably the most widespread censorship system in the history of mankind.

How and why an agency created in the wake of September 11 to target foreign jihadists came more than 20 years later to (i) train its sights on everyday Americans’ Tweets and Facebook posts touching on mail-in ballots or COVID-19’s origins – treating them like something approaching domestic digital terrorist attacks; and (ii) serving the censorship system as something of a “nerve center” aimed at “neutralizing” such attacks, is as shocking a story as it is a critical one to understanding the perilous state of our republic.

Only by grasping that story can we begin to understand what must be done to restore it.

The story has its origins in part on January 6 – not 2021 but 2017. On that day, then-outgoing Obama DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson formally designated “election infrastructure” as a critical infrastructure subsector, supposedly in partial response to claims of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election – particularly through the proliferation of disinformation on social media.

The State Department and FBI would shortly thereafter establish offices aimed at countering foreign influence operations, including those with an information warfare component.

In 2018, DHS’s National Protection and Programs Directorate would be redesignated as CISA, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency. CISA would be responsible for, among other things, “leading cybersecurity and critical infrastructure security programs, operations, and associated policy.” Because of former Sec. Johnson’s designation of election infrastructure as a critical infrastructure subsector, it would fall under CISA’s purview. DHS too would stand up a Countering Foreign Influence Task Force, comprised of CISA’s Election Security Initiative division, and Office of Intelligence and Analysis staff.

These developments would occur in conjunction with a swelling moral panic over foreign disinformation that would grow, ironically, alongside the moral panic over “Trump-Russia collusion” – which would itself prove to be the most destructive of disinformation operations.

Government officials, lawmakers, and like-minded media outlets fueled both moral panics, in connection with the former, threatening greater regulation of the social media platforms that had purportedly failed to sufficiently “defend democracy” in allowing dangerous rhetoric to proliferate in the run-up to the 2016 election. The platforms were either to engage in greater “content moderation” – read: censorship – or risk greater regulation. A constellation of sometimes state-funded but putatively non-governmental counter-disinformation organizations grew alongside this burgeoning counter-disinformation complex.

These cohorts, as detailed previously, would quickly turn their attention from the disinformation of foreign adversaries, to the purported “mis-, dis-, and mal-information” (MDM) of Americans.

CISA would sit at the forefront, reinterpreting its mission to protect physical infrastructure with one to defend Official Narratives concerning government policies and practices that might have some nexus to infrastructure. In this way, DHS’s Countering Foreign Influence Task Force took it upon itself to combat Americans’ “election infrastructure disinformation,” qualifying as virtually anything challenging the view that mass mail-in balloting and related radical changes to our voting system during the 2020 election were anything but secure and legitimate, and that the outcomes of that election were anything but normal.

CISA sought to combat such Wrongthink in three key ways during the 2020 election, and in some instances continuing thereafter, including:

  • Convening and coordinating meetings between national security and law enforcement agencies, and social media platforms aimed at inducing the platforms to police MDM on their platforms. These efforts included grooming the platforms, and other media companies, to be on the lookout for certain information warfare efforts such as “hack-and-leaks” – efforts that can be traced to the platforms’ censoring of the Hunter Biden laptop story on the eve of the 2020 election. Such meetings continue regularly and have generally increased with cadence in the run-up to elections.
  • In select cases originating, but primarily forwarding along reports of purported misinformation and disinformation from state and local authorities containing potentially offending social media posts, to flag the content directly for social media platforms for censorship. The platforms often escalated these requests and “actioned” them, censoring such items. CISA made no effort to discern whether the posts came from domestic or foreign actors.
  • Helping develop a private sector censorship apparatus whereby CISA-organized consortia of often state-funded, and/or otherwise government-linked NGOs lobby for social media platforms to modify terms of service to suppress core political speech, particularly around elections, then mass-surveil and flag social media content purportedly violating the revised terms of service for social media companies to censor.

This last effort proved particularly effective and insidious.

The Election Integrity Partnership (EIP) was the key apparatus to spring into action in the run-up to the 2020 election.

The non-governmental “anti-disinformation” consortium was conceived by and created in consultation with CISA officials in the run-up to the 2020 election. Its stated purpose was to fill the “critical gap” created by the fact no federal agency “has a focus on, or authority regarding, election misinformation originating from domestic sources within the United States.”

Stated differently, this was a vehicle CISA could use to outsource the censorship of domestic speech that for itself would likely constitute a violation of the First Amendment. Never mind that censorship by proxy itself may represent a First Amendment violation – a theory being tested right now in at least two cases concerning the very censorship regime of which CISA has played an integral part.

The relationship between EIP and CISA is incestuous.

EIP’s four partner organizations include the:

  • Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO) – Founded in June 2019 by former Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos, several of SIO’s students reportedly came up with the idea for EIP while serving as CISA interns. Stamos serves on CISA’s Cybersecurity Advisory Committee. He and Chris Krebs, CISA’s director through the 2020 election, formed a consultancy in late 2020 called the Krebs/Stamos Group. CISA’s top election official through 2020, Matt Masterson, who was involved in the establishment of EIP, joined SIO as a fellow after leaving CISA in January 2021. SIO’s Research Manager, Renee DiResta, served as a Subject Matter Expert for CISA’s Cybersecurity Advisory Committee’s since-abolished MDM Subcommittee.
  • University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public – Founded in December 2019, its cofounder Kate Starbird served as the chairperson of the since-abolished MDM Subcommittee – serving incidentally alongside former Twitter executive Vijaya Gadde, a leader of its censorship efforts prior to her ouster under new owner Elon Musk. UW’s Center, along with SIO, would share in a $3 million National Science Foundation grant awarded in August 2021 to “study ways to apply collaborative, rapid-response research to mitigate online disinformation.”
  • The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Lab – Founded in 2016, it receives substantial taxpayer funding from a variety of agencies.
  • Graphika – Founded in 2013, it reportedly has historically received funding from DARPA and the Defense Department’s Minerva Initiative.

Collectively, these groups sought to “fill the gap” by creating a mass-surveillance and censorship-flagging platform aimed at “content intended to suppress voting, reduce participation, confuse voters as to election processes, or delegitimize election results without evidence.”

In practice, this meant targeting for suppression speech dubious of an unprecedented election given the sweeping, pandemic-driven changes made to the voting system that cycle, whereby the final razor-thin results in key states did not materialize for days.

EIP did so in part through lobbying social media platforms to adopt more aggressive content moderation policies around election rhetoric and flagging relevant content including entire narratives via “tickets” for suppression by social media platforms under their often EIP-influenced terms.

EIP analysts – some 120 of whom worked on the project in the waning days of the 2020 election – both identified content for flagging via tickets, and incorporated requests from “trusted external stakeholders.”

It lists three such governmental stakeholders, including among them CISA, and the CISA-backed Election Infrastructure – Information Sharing & Analysis Center (EI-ISAC).

EIP in fact connected “government partners” with “platform partners” – understood to be the social media companies – to enable the former to debunk flagged content directly for the latter.

Some raw numbers concerning EIP’s efforts during the 2020 election cycle alone illustrate the size and scope of its effort. EIP:

  • Collected 859 million tweets for “misinformation” analysis.
  • Flagged for Twitter tweets shared 22 million times ultimately labeled “misinformation,” a disproportionate percentage of which were dinged for “delegitimization,” which Twitter adopted as a standard for suppression.
  • Impacted hundreds of millions of posts and videos across major social media platforms via the terms of service policy changes for which EIP lobbied. EIP members openly boasted that technology companies would never have modified their terms accordingly without EIP’s insistence and “huge regulatory pressure” from government.

Further demonstrating the interconnection between EIP and CISA, the group featured former CISA Director Chris Krebs at the launch seminar associated with the report in which it divulged some of these figures.

EIP coded less than one percent of its tickets for having an element of foreign interference. It characterized all 21 of the “most prominent repeat spreaders” of election integrity “misinformation” on Twitter as “conservative or right-wing.”

Of the civil society groups that submitted tickets to the EIP, many had a left-leaning bent – including the DNC itself.

None appear to have been right leaning.

This was effectively your taxpayer dollars at work through CISA.

Though the EIP’s efforts would re-emerge in the 2022 election, in the interim it also launched a successor effort called the Virality Project (VP) that would parallel it, targeting MDM spreading in relation to COVID-19, such as “narratives that questioned the safety, distribution, and effectiveness of the vaccines.”

Its leaders, including Stamos, communicated with CISA officials about their efforts, as they did during the original EIP operation. DiResta would serve as principal Executive Editor of its final April 2022 report, and contributors included herself alongside Kate Starbird and Matt Masterson. Several current and former CISA interns are also listed as “researchers and analysts” who monitored social media platforms in connection with the project.

The VP’s stakeholders included federal health agencies, working alongside social media platforms to combat, for example, vaccine-related “misinformation.” All told, the Virality Project tracked content with 6.7 million engagements on social media per week – or over 200 million during the seven months over which the project transpired.

Much of what the VP cast as “misinformation” included true facts to the extent they portrayed narratives with which the project’s leaders – and certainly its government partners – disapproved of, from reports of vaccine injuries to discussion of “breakthrough” cases and “natural immunity,” to discussion of potential then-hypothetical vaccine mandates. VP particularly targeted the speech of “health freedom” groups, and like EIP, overwhelmingly targeted right-leaning figures.

In recent years, according to a DHS Office of Inspector General report from August 2022, myriad DHS components have taken it upon themselves to “counter disinformation originating from…domestic sources.” Increasingly, according to a leaked draft of DHS’s authoritative Quadrennial Homeland Security Review, the Department seeks to combat “inaccurate information,” as it defines it, on topics ranging from “the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines,” to “racial justice, U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the nature of U.S. support to Ukraine.”

Despite the Biden administration’s shelving of a Disinformation Governance Board, “ministries of truth” in government focusing on MDM – domestic Wrongthink – persist, and continue cropping up.

The idea that Unauthorized Opinions threaten national security, or public health, or “our democracy” generally – or at least animate the purportedly most lethal domestic threat actors who do – and that therefore such ideas must be squelched has taken firm hold.

The Capitol riot added jet fuel to this view and was used in part to justify the Biden administration’s National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism that codifies, as a strategic imperative, the whole-of-society, public-private targeting of Wrongthink with which DHS has for several years already been engaged.

In my view not a single cent of taxpayer dollars – of our money – should go towards silencing ourselves, directly or by proxy.

Therefore, it is incumbent upon Congress use its oversight powers to develop a full and accurate accounting of government-led censorship efforts, directly, and by proxy, and then to use its power over the purse to defund and dismantle them.

Such a process would require that Congress identify every single office involved in any way in seeking to censor domestic speech, or in any way inducing private sector actors to do so, as well as any government funding of non-governmental groups like EIP that induce private sectors actors to do so – and zeroing out such funding.

It may also call for criminal penalties for government officers who engage in such behavior, to deter it.

Sustaining any such efforts may well require that the public is engaged on this issue.

As I argued in concluding my prepared testimony:

We may find much of the speech that social media platforms have suppressed in recent years under government coercion, cajoling, and/or collusion to be wrongheaded or objectionable. But infinitely more wrongheaded, objectionable, and indeed dangerous for a free society than the proliferation of “bad ideas” is perhaps the worst idea of all: That government should be the arbiter of what we are allowed to think and speak.

The notion that to ensure the health and safety of the country, the public and private sectors must work together to silence those who express unauthorized opinions, that such opinions are to be treated as threats to an infinitely flexible definition of “critical infrastructure,” and those who hold them as actual or would-be domestic terrorists, is the stuff of tyranny.

That the state itself has treated as dangerous MDM that which ultimately often has become settled science – indicating government officials and their partners en masse should have been deplatformed themselves by their own standards – illustrates the folly of this project.

To turn over to the state and its private sector ancillaries a monopoly on narrative would ultimately give these partners a monopoly on power, reducing us from citizens with agency to hapless subjects.

We are a free people capable of evaluating information and ideas for ourselves to discern fact from fiction, and separate good ideas from bad.

Historically, we would have held in utter contempt authorities who would suggest we are incapable of thinking for ourselves, and that for our own benefit, since the authorities know best, that they will do the thinking for us – while silencing those who dare dissent.

No American should stand for it today.

Indeed, we should not.

And I hope my testimony, and related writings on this subject such as this one, can help awaken Americans to this threat to our most essential liberty, and lead them to impress upon their representatives the imperative to defend it.

man in a suit wearing glasses

Ben Weingarten is editor-at-large at RealClearInvestigations, senior contributor at The Federalist, and columnist at Newsweek and The Epoch Times. He is the author of American Ingrate: Ilhan Omar and the Progressive-Islamist Takeover of the Democratic Party (Bombardier Books, 2020), and Fellow of the Claremont Institute. In 2019, Ben was selected by The Fund for American Studies as a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow, under which he wrote extensively on U.S.-China policy under the Trump administration. He is a 2010 graduate of Columbia University where he majored in Economics and Political Science.