Secretaries of state ask DHS to expand anti-disinformation fight

U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas delivers remarks while visiting a FEMA community vaccination center on March 2, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Mark Makela / Getty Images)

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A bipartisan group of 11 state election chiefs last week asked the Department of Homeland Security to do more in coming elections to push back against foreign disinformation campaigns aimed at undermining the U.S. democratic process.

In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Brandon Wales, the acting director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the officials thanked the agency for its efforts fighting false claims during the 2020 election — such as the Rumor Control website, on which CISA published rebuttals of foreign, and later domestic, disinformation and misinformation about voting procedures and election equipment. But the election officials also said that the heavy circulation of these rumors sowed distrust that continues today.

“There have been some good and bad days in the election community since November. On one hand, election officials successfully ran multiple elections during a pandemic,” the letter reads. “The general election was the most secure in recent history. On the other hand, because of disinformation, some Americans now lack confidence in the electoral process.”

The letter was led by Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat, and signed by Griswold’s fellow Democratic secretaries of state in California, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, Rhode Island and Vermont. Two Republicans also signed on: Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, and Alaska Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer, who oversees elections there.

The April 14 letter went out about a month after the U.S. intelligence community released a declassified report that the governments of both Russia and Iran mounted influence campaigns last year to exacerbate social tensions, including around the electoral process. The same report also found that China considered its own efforts, but did not follow through.

“Americans deserve correct information on the electoral process and exercising their right to vote,” Griswold said in a press release. “The 2020 elections were the most secure in our history, but foreign disinformation continues to pose an ongoing threat.”

While pushing back against misinformation and disinformation consumed much of election officials’ time last year, it also caused ruptures at the federal level as former President Donald Trump and his allies sought to overturn his loss to Joe Biden by amplifying false claims, only for CISA to correct the record. That conflict culminated in Trump’s firing CISA Director Chris Krebs.

During his first Senate hearing as CISA’s acting director, Wales said “our election security mission continues” and defended the agency’s actions.

In their letter, the election officials wrote that any expansion of CISA’s anti-disinformation efforts would have to be careful not to intrude into overtly political waters.

“To be clear, we are not asking CISA to address disinformation on topics such as candidate’s positions on economic or social issues,” the letter reads. “That absolutely is not CISA’s role. However, the electoral process—the system by which Americans register to vote, cast their ballot, and results are tallied—is not a political issue. It is a pillar of our democracy and a critical infrastructure sector. And, in our view, this absolutely is CISA’s responsibility to protect.”

DHS did not confirm if Mayorkas and Wales have read the letter. And CISA will soon be under new leadership, after the White House last week announced that President Biden intends to nominate Jen Easterly, a former Army intelligence officer, as the agency’s director.

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Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), disinformation, election security, Jena Griswold
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