DHS recommended State Department contact 2020 election ‘censorship’ group: Emails

EXCLUSIVE — The State Department was “recommended” by the Department of Homeland Security to contact a group it later partnered with on pressuring social media platforms to suppress speech from conservatives before the 2020 election, emails show.

On Oct. 14, 2020, hours after the New York Post published a story based on Hunter Biden’s abandoned laptop that Twitter blocked from being shared online, the State Department’s Global Engagement Center reached out to “misinformation” researchers behind the Election Integrity Partnership, a collaboration between universities, left-wing think tanks, social media companies, and the U.S. government to thwart alleged falsehoods online in the lead-up to the presidential election. That outreach from the GEC, a foreign-focused office Republican lawmakers are investigating for its ties to anti-speech projects in the United States, was apparently thanks to guidance from the DHS and its Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, according to internal documents.

The newly unearthed coordination underscores the major role that CISA, an agency under scrutiny from the House GOP for allegedly colluding “with Big Tech and ‘disinformation’ partners to censor Americans” in 2020, played in the Election Integrity Partnership, or EIP. Both CISA and Alex Stamos, who directed the Stanford Internet Observatory, a Stanford University office behind the EIP, have appeared to downplay CISA’s role in the partnership despite some since-released records indicating a closer relationship than previously known, the Washington Examiner reported.

Moreover, news of the government coordination will likely lead to lawmakers raising further concerns about why the State Department’s GEC, which is tasked with countering “foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation,” would get involved with the EIP in the first place. Notably, FBI agent Elvis Chan, who was accused in a lawsuit by Republican state attorneys general of helping to suppress the Hunter Biden laptop story in 2020, testified in 2022 that GEC officials did not “have the same type of legal training” on First Amendment protections as he did at the FBI, calling the GEC “primarily a foreign-focus agency.”

To Republicans, Chan’s testimony highlighted why it was fundamentally wrong for the GEC to participate in the EIP or similar apparent domestic “censorship” operations. But according to an Oct. 14, 2020, email reviewed by the Washington Examiner, then-GEC academic and think tank liaison Adela Levis reached out to Renee DiResta and Shelby Grossman of the Stanford Internet Observatory, as well as co-founder Jevin West of the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, which also helped launch the EIP.

The University of Washington’s office is led by “misinformation” researcher Kate Starbird, who testified to Congress last year that she personally advised social media companies on crafting content moderation policies. Starbird told the Washington Examiner in April that social media platforms in 2017 began to “reach out to me, seeking insights based on my academic research to help them better understand how rumors and disinformation spread online.”

Writing in October 2020 to the trio of Stanford and University of Washington personnel, Levis said the GEC was “looking to connect with someone at the EIP [in] the coming days” and asked if DiResta, Grossman, or West would be available or have a good point of contact.

“Our colleagues at the Department of Homeland Security/CISA recommended we talk to you about your current efforts to protect the 2020 elections from foreign interference,” Levis told the trio. “There may be some synergies there with the work we’re doing. Warm regards, Adela.”

Earlier that day, on Oct. 14, the New York Post had published a story titled, “Smoking-gun email reveals how Hunter Biden introduced Ukrainian businessman to VP dad,” referring to Joe Biden. The story was restricted from being shared on Twitter by the platform, a close partner of the EIP, though there is no evidence the EIP was involved in suppressing the story.

However, the revelation about CISA apparently recommending the GEC to the EIP raises concerns about the “close coordination between agencies involved in domestic matters and those involved in foreign policy” for the 2020 initiative, said director Michael Chamberlain of Protect the Public’s Trust, a watchdog group that obtained the internal records. Individuals connected to the EIP are notably facing a lawsuit from the Trump-tied America First Legal group for facilitating “probably the largest mass-surveillance and mass-censorship program in American history,” according to a complaint.

“As more and more Americans lose trust in their government, the government reveals they are justified in doing so,” Chamberlain said.

West replied to Levis one day later, on Oct. 15, 2020, and included on the email Grossman, DiResta, an email account for the EIP, State Department employee Adele Ruppe, and Kate Starbird, records show.

The subject line of the email was “RE: GEC/Election Integrity Partnership.”

Hunter Biden, left, arrives with attorney Abbe Lowell at the O’Neill House Office Building for a closed-door deposition in a Republican-led investigation into the Biden family, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

“I would be happy to talk about the EIP project, at least from our perspective in the Center for an Informed Public (CIP) at UW,” West said at the time. “Kate Starbird (cced) is leading our efforts in the CIP. She would be the best person to talk about the details of the some of the most recent rapid responses, but I am also happy to talk about the broader project.”

“It would be great to learn more about the efforts from your side in the various government agencies,” West told the cohort.

Levis sent an invitation that day for an Oct. 16, 2020, call “to discuss a concrete idea we have for possible support of the EIP effort” to Starbird, Grossman, West, DiResta, Stanford’s Elena Cryst, and officials from the State Department, according to records.

The GEC ended up joining the Democratic National Committee and other left-wing groups in reporting “tickets” in 2020 to a software system the EIP used to flag alleged misinformation to Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, and others, the EIP said in a 2021 report. The EIP, in some cases, targeted posts by high-profile Republicans, including former President Donald Trump and GOP senators, as well as conservative commentators and websites, according to the House Judiciary Committee.

“EIP Team, I want to send my sincerest thanks for allowing me to participate in the Election Integrity Partnership as an analyst with the GEC,” State Department employee William Beebe would later email Stamos, Starbird, DiResta, and West in December 2020 after Biden’s victory. “My colleagues and I appreciate your taking the time to meet with us before the election and accommodating my involvement on short notice.”

Beebe called the EIP an “impactful” initiative, emails show.

In a statement to the Washington Examiner, Starbird said she and her colleagues at the University of Washington’s Center for an Unformed Public were not “in touch with DHS or CISA in the fall of 2020, and we have no idea who at CISA recommended GEC reach out to us or why they did.”

NOVEMBER 28, 2022 CORAL GABLES, FLORIDA,
Chris Krebs, Krebs Stamos Group, and Kate Starbird
University of Washington during the Knight Foundation’s Informed, Conversations on Democracy in the Digital Age, held at The Biltmore Hotel. (Photo by Patrick Farrell)

“Once again, the EIP did not ‘suppress domestic speech,’” Starbird said in the statement. “EIP researchers worked specifically to identify, amplify, and rapidly communicate about false claims that could have disenfranchised voters or diminished trust in election results. Those who benefit from the spread of falsehoods want others to believe that calling out their bulls*** is ‘censorship.’ We disagree.”

Starbird added that her research team “never spoke with anyone in the U.S. government” about Hunter Biden’s laptop.

CISA and the GEC declined to comment.

Stanford also declined to comment. A university spokesperson pointed the Washington Examiner to a prior statement arguing the GEC played a minor role in the EIP.

The GEC is up for reauthorization in 2024, meaning the interagency group could be scrapped if Congress decides not to re-up its funding. The GEC has a $61 million budget and a staff of around 125 people.

A spokesperson for the House Judiciary Committee said that “everything remains on the table” as far as holding the GEC responsible for being involved with the EIP.

But it’s unclear whether the GEC will get the green light to continue from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which oversees the office and has pressed it over GEC-tied federal grants to groups suppressing domestic speech, including the Global Disinformation Index, a group blacklisting conservative websites from advertising dollars.

The GEC’s $100,000 grant to this entity, which was first reported on by the Washington Examiner, prompted the state of Texas and two media outlets to file a lawsuit “to halt one of the most egregious government operations to censor the American press in the history of the nation,” according to a complaint.

Reauthorization “will depend on the GEC’s willingness to acknowledge its credibility problem,” said a source close to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE FROM THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER

A second source close to the committee said the GEC, including through its role with the EIP, has participated in what many lawmakers consider to be flagrantly anti-First Amendment activity.

“A central point of tension for many Republicans is the GEC’s clear record of domestic censorship and the targeting of conservatives, especially given that Congress enacted a statutory prohibition on State Department domestic activity of this kind,” the second source said.

Stanford did not return a request for comment.

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