Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas gave “apparently misleading” testimony to Congress about his disinformation board, Senate Republicans charged Tuesday in a letter demanding Democrats call Mr. Mayorkas back for another chance to explain what he’s doing.
Mr. Mayorkas told lawmakers in a May 4 hearing that the board had “not yet begun its work,” but new documents show the board was stood up earlier this year, the secretary signed a charter, and board members were already meeting with social media giant Twitter.
The Republicans said Mr. Mayorkas “misrepresented” the board’s purview, saying it wouldn’t be involved in monitoring Americans’ activities. But talking points prepared by former board executive director Nina Jankowicz “appear to show that the Department does in fact monitor American citizens and that the Board’s work is concentrated on domestic threats,” the senators said.
And Mr. Mayorkas, at the May hearing, dismissed the suggestion by Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, that the board might be interested in policing the debate over pandemic masking as part of its disinformation purview. But the new documents, revealed last week by Sens. Charles E. Grassley and Josh Hawley, did list “efficacy of masks as something the board was interested in.”
“The American public deserves transparency and honest answers to important questions about the true nature and purpose of the Disinformation Governance Board and it is clear that Secretary Mayorkas has not provided them — to the public or this committee,” wrote the senators, led by Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, the top Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
They asked Sen. Gary Peters, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the committee, to call Mr. Mayorkas back for another appearance.
The Washington Times has reached out to Mr. Peters’ office and Homeland Security for comment.
Ms. Jankowicz has quit her post and Mr. Mayorkas has put the board on pause, asking two former senior officials from the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations to lead a review of the board’s posture.
The possibility that the secretary might revive the board means it remains an issue for members of Congress.
The documents Mr. Grassley and Mr. Hawley revealed last week showed Under Secretary for Policy Robert Silvers, one of the board’s co-chairs, had a meeting planned with Twitter to talk about “an opportunity to discuss operationalizing public-private partnerships between DHS and Twitter, as well as inform Twitter executives about DHS work” on misinformation and disinformation — including the new board.
A whistleblower who provided the documents said Ms. Jankowicz may have been hired because of her relationship with executives at Twitter, according to Mr. Grassley and Mr. Hawley, Republicans from Iowa and Missouri, respectively.
Mr. Mayorkas has insisted Ms. Jankowicz was hired because she was an expert in disinformation. Republicans said that expertise extended to spreading it — Ms. Jankowicz peddled now-discredited theories about President Trump and a Russian bank, and about Hunter Biden’s laptop computer.
The documents Mr. Grassley and Mr. Hawley released also postulated efforts to connect state, local and even nongovernmental organizations with the private sector to “remove content at their discretion.”
Mr. Portman and fellow Republicans, in their letter Tuesday, said they were also “troubled” that the documents had to come from a whistleblower. Mr. Hawley had asked Mr. Mayorkas for the documents at the May 4 hearing, and he had promised they would be produced “unless there is a legal prohibition from us doing so.”
In addition to Mr. Portman, Tuesday’s letter was signed by Mr. Paul, Mr. Hawley and Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, James Lankford of Oklahoma, Mitt Romney of Utah and Rick Scott of Florida.
Mr. Mayorkas revealed the existence of the board in testimony to Congress in late April in answering a question about his department’s efforts to work with Spanish-speaking communities to combat election disinformation.
The secretary said the new board was at the center of those activities.
The department, in a memo, later said the board did not have a public-facing role but was supposed to be an internal cop for the department’s already existing efforts.
Mr. Mayorkas later called the board an internal working group that didn’t have operational authority. If anything, he said, the board would ensure civil liberties were respected by all of the department’s components.
The Grassley-Hawley documents suggest a more active role than that, with its charter saying it would serve as the point of contact with state, local, tribal and territorial partners, the private sector and nongovernmental actors regarding disinformation.