Commentary By Hedieh Mirahmadi, Exclusive Columnist | Thursday, May 12, 2022
It was astonishing when I first read about the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Disinformation Governance Board.
In my 20 years of government service fighting terrorism, the most complicated element of our work was protecting the sanctity of free speech while preventing radicalization. We watched young Americans leave their families to either marry a stranger or die in a foreign war but could do nothing about it because they had not committed a crime. They believed the persuasive pleas of the recruiters and wanted to be part of something bigger than themselves.
Civil rights groups, free speech activists, and others were very wary of our efforts. They claimed we were infringing on religious freedom and free speech by monitoring the recruiters’ activity. Back then, the social media giants wanted no part in censoring online profiles unless they advocated the violent overthrow of the U.S. or encouraged acts of violence. We understood it as Americans; we are not in the business of policing ideas, however unpopular they may be.
The Supreme Court even established “an imminent threat” standard to ensure we did not regulate grossly unpopular or hateful speech. So, it was not until groups like ISIS and Al-Shabab were officially designated as foreign terrorist organizations that criminal charges could be imposed for recruitment and/or material support.
Fast forward to today, and this new board is tasked with addressing the threat of disinformation. The repeated use of the word “threat” by DHS Secretary Mayorkas should be a cause for concern. It purposely creates connectivity between disinformation and the potential for physical harm, so there is a crime that can be investigated and eventually prosecuted.
We already have laws to address any potential harm stemming from intentionally providing false information. There are civil penalties in defamation and slander cases and criminal charges for perjury or obstruction of justice against government officials. However, the Constitution does not allow the government to punish the exaggeration of a story or having a different opinion from the cultural norm.
Look, for example, at all the controversy surrounding the Hunter Biden laptop. What was commonly touted as a wacky MAGA conspiracy was eventually demonstrated to be fact. Same with the research about the utility of masks in fighting off COVID infections and the risks associated with vaccines. Just because something may sound outlandish to some does not mean it’s false. The power of free speech is that the marketplace of ideas allows our opinions to evolve and change with new data. Isn’t that how we defeated slavery and gave women equal rights?
This recent push to criminalize “unpopular” speech started with the backlash against the parental rights movement. Passionate and angry parents at school board meetings triggered the Justice Department to issue a memo about prosecuting the “threat” to school officials. Soon after, DHS issued a National Terrorism Advisory, warning of a heightened terrorism threat caused by disinformation introduced by foreign or domestic actors. Consider the language of the bulletin very carefully:
“These threat actors seek to exacerbate societal friction to sow discord and undermine public trust in government institutions to encourage unrest, which could potentially inspire acts of violence.”
The alarming conclusion is this: Our leading national security agency says the most significant domestic terrorism threat today is from people who share unpopular ideas with others, which could make them angry enough to commit a crime. To address this apparent threat, they create a Disinformation Governance Board to advise the operational departments of DHS on who to investigate and possibly prosecute for these alleged crimes.
I am shocked and dismayed this is happening in the public service sector, where I dedicated most of my professional career. How is the U.S. government suddenly the arbiter of “truth?” And why is lack of public trust defined now as a potential terrorism threat?
As if the unconstitutionality of regulating truth in the public square was not bad enough, the choice to govern the Disinformation Board makes it obvious who is the intended target of this effort. Nina Jankowicz, a clearly left-leaning social activist, has already labeled opponents of CRT “disinformers” and considers gender-based harassment online to be a national security threat, equal to terrorism.
U.S. law enforcement power should never be partisan. We saw how damaging that was during the Russian collusion debacle when corruption in senior leadership tarnished the stellar reputation of the FBI. DHS and FBI officials are also never meant to be the thought police. We pride ourselves on that as Americans. Thankfully, many legislators are voicing their objections to this partisan attempt to silence opposition.
Marsha Blackburn from Tennessee wrote to DHS that the “federal government has no place interfering with the rights of all Americans to speak publicly about their political views … In fact, the Supreme Court has made it abundantly clear that this kind of ‘core political speech’ is the primary object of First Amendment protection.” Ranking Senator Rob Portman said, “I do not believe that the United States government should turn the tools that we have used to assist our allies counter foreign adversaries onto the American people.”
It is no secret that the U.S. has directly engaged in “disinformation” campaigns in countries worldwide to defeat communism, totalitarianism, and in many cases, terrorist recruitment. The American people should not tolerate its government now turning around to tell us what truth we can or should believe.
As Christians, even those who try to remain “apolitical” must realize we will be the greatest casualty of this effort. Our truth about who Jesus Christ is as God incarnate and that life begins with conception can easily be weaponized against us when the arbiter does not believe in God’s word. Look at the underwhelming response by law enforcement as the radical’s torch Christian nonprofits and harass conservative Supreme Court judges at their homes. Nothing is being done to stop those crimes as if their truths or legal rights do not matter.
There are dark days ahead of us, “For the wrath of God is revealed from Heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18).