Recently, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines announced the creation of a new office within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI): The Foreign Malign Influence Center (FMIC). It would encompass ”election threat work, essentially looking at foreign influence and interference in elections, but it also deals with disinformation more generally.” Legislation creating the center was passed by Congress and signed into law in 2022.
Although its work nominally deals with disinformation targeting U.S. elections and public opinion within the United States, there are at least two questions that need to be asked: First, is this office essential or duplicative of other ongoing efforts? Second, is this even appropriate work in which the federal government should be engaged?
In the last few years, as disinformation and countering disinformation have become the staples of political and public policy discourse, a cottage industry has grown up within the federal government around these topics. Support in Congress means the money grab is on, with federal agencies vying to secure funds for the hot new topic to grow their bureaucracy, influence and power.
Other agencies already involved in disinformation are numerous. The State Department has the Global Engagement Center (GEC) that combats foreign disinformation through promoting U.S. interests and messaging. The GEC does its own assessments of foreign operations and shares its analyses with partners throughout the government, thereby creating an American disinformation distribution center.
The FBI, in 2017, created its own Foreign Influence Task Force. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) may be the most active of all government agencies that jumped on this bandwagon. The DHS has, or had, a Countering Foreign Influence Task Force, a Foreign Influence and Interference Branch, Countering Foreign Influence Subcommittee, and a heavily criticized, ridiculed and now disbanded ”Disinformation Governance Board.”
Not to be left out, the Pentagon also established an Influence and Perception Management Office responsible for coordinating the multiple counter-disinformation efforts conducted by the military.
The bottom line is that there are multiple groups and agencies already focused on disinformation, but has anyone thought through how these agencies coordinate and enhance the mission, or are they duplicative and overlap? Are they effective and efficient or a waste of taxpayer dollars? Is the threat of a new Orwellian ”Ministry of Truth” as big as it is toxic? There are many questions that need to be answered — above all, is this function for the federal government even appropriate?
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s center has as its motto, ”Exposing deception in defense of liberty.” That is a noble goal. How has the federal government been fulfilling this role as it has expanded its disinformation apparatus?
The U.S. Intelligence Community, spanning eighteen different agencies across the federal government, has some of the most effective disinformation capabilities of any organization on the planet. Think about the CIA, the State Department and the Pentagon. The CIA historically has participated in the undermining of foreign governments. The State Department, through its Global Engagement Center, has, as part of its mission, fighting foreign propaganda by promoting an American agenda. The Pentagon spends tremendous amounts of resources trying to deceive those who might be trying to ascertain its plans, intentions and capabilities. The American government is extremely capable at generating its own disinformation.
Disappointingly, Americans have seen this capability firsthand. Some U.S. intelligence leaders have used their status to aggressively plant disinformation to undermine presidents and influence elections. Some of these individuals are still on the government payroll, while others leveraged their titles and previous experience to deliberately deceive the people they are supposed be serving but instead repeatedly betray: their own citizens.
Consider Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and FBI Director James Comey, who used their positions to undermine incoming President-elect Donald Trump in January 2017 by leaking and hyping to the media information based on a deceptive briefing they provided to Trump to begin framing him for supposedly colluding with Russia in the disruptive, two-year pretend-investigation known inside the FBI as ”Crossfire Hurricane” and outside it as ”the Russia Hoax.”
As the Durham Report states:
”[A]t the time of the opening of Crossfire Hurricane, the FBI had no information in its holdings indicating that at any time during the campaign anyone in the Trump campaign had been in contact with any Russian intelligence officials.”
The report goes on to assert that during the fake Trump investigation, the FBI and DOJ had failed to practice ”strict fidelity to the law.” The FISA court chastised the FBI for fabrications it made in the Russia probe. The ”Russia Hoax,” it turned out — as its perpetrators reportedly knew all along — had been organized and funded by Trump’s presidential election opponent Hillary Clinton — evidently to deflect attention from her extensive destruction of classified material (here and here) — as well as the Democratic National Committee; fraudulently prosecuted by the FBI, and laundered by the Perkins Coie law firm.
In the case of Hunter Biden’s infamous laptop that first exposed massive influence peddling, Fifty-one former intelligence officials signed a letter falsely suggesting the Biden laptop story ”had all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.” Former Acting CIA Director Michael Morrell testified before Congress that Antony Blinken, current Secretary of State, played a key role in originating the letter and getting the signatories. Reports also include the allegation that a current CIA employee assisted in promoting the letter.
The ODNI met with social media companies prior to the 2020 election to inform them about potential disinformation by Russia and other nations. The ODNI, however, is a gatherer of foreign intelligence, not an arbiter of truth in U.S. presidential elections.
Other recent allegations about potentially malign activities by our government abound. The FBI incidentally collected data without a warrant on U.S. citizens 3.4 million times in 2021. Thirty percent of the times the FBI did so, it acted in error or roughly one million times. Remember, this is all work performed by government employees who are tasked with keeping our country safe, yet these are the ”mistakes” we keep seeing.
The evidence appears to be overwhelming. The broad expansion of the federal government’s reach into disinformation has been knee-jerk and uncoordinated. It seems even more evident that Congress has apparently not delineated the parameters within which the intelligence and law enforcement community should operate. When Congress has set lines, the Intelligence Community and law enforcement have been more than willing to overstep their bounds and stretch their legal authorities.
It is time to hold those responsible accountable. It is time to streamline the process and eliminate the duplication, redundancy, and waste that has sprouted up to become the federal disinformation bureaucracy. Crucially, given the federal government’s repeatedly demonstrated disregard for the law, it is time to consider whether it should even be engaged in this effort. It should not. The American government, based on the First Amendment, should not be anywhere near regulating protected speech. The American government should not be deciding what speech should be regulated and what speech should not.
Peter Hoekstra was US Ambassador to the Netherlands during the Trump administration. He served 18 years in the U.S. House of Representatives representing the second district of Michigan and served as Chairman and Ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee,and is presently a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.