Guarding Democracy From News

As Orwellian as the Disinformation Governance Board may be, it’s not even the most immediate threat to our freedom of speech, writes John Kiriakou.

By John Kyriakou *
Jun 3, 2022

The past month has seen blows against freedom of speech for independent news outlets and, indeed, for all Americans. I’m not being hyperbolic here. There are real threats to our freedom of speech against which we ought to mobilize.

First, the Biden administration named something called a “Disinformation Governance Board,” housed in the Department of Homeland Security, whose job will supposedly be to “standardize the treatment of disinformation by the agencies it oversees.”  That means that the government will be the final arbiter of what disinformation is. It will decide what we can and can’t read. At least that’s the plan. (It is now on hold after an angry backlash.)

Republicans were furious with the announcement, with Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) telling Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas at a Senate hearing last month, “This is an awful idea, and you ought to disband it.”

Twenty state attorneys general have already threatened to sue the Biden administration and are calling for it to “immediately disband” the board and to “cease all efforts to police Americans’ protected speech.”

For his part, Mayorkas, in that Senate hearing, said that the Disinformation Governance Board would protect the country from foreign disinformation tied to natural disasters, acts of terrorism and war.

When it became clear that senators weren’t buying that, he said that the board would help to combat human trafficking, a non-sequitur from which he quickly walked back

Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) said, “We don’t have a definition for what the board is. We don’t have boundaries on what it does. Why should we not have suspicions about this?” And when it became obvious that Mayorkas wasn’t getting any love even from Democrats, he admitted that the board had no charter and no mission statement.

Mayorkas never even bothered to raise the appointment of Nina Jankowicz as the Disinformation Governance Board’s chairman. She’s the hyper-partisan author of two books, How to Be a Woman Online: Surviving Abuse and Harassment and How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict, a former Fulbright-Clinton scholar who oversaw programs for Russia and Belarus for the National Democratic Institute. (She has now stepped down as chairman of the disinfo board).

She has also courted controversy with her social media posts, saying previously that the Hunter Biden laptop was “a Trump campaign product.” This was patently false and was, in fact, disinformation promoted by the Democratic National Committee.

She also endorsed a podcast appearance by Christopher Steele, the discredited author of the so-called Steele Dossier, alleging Russian collusion with the Trump campaign.

And commenting about Elon Musk’s recent purchase of Twitter, she said,

“I shudder to think about, if free speech absolutists were taking over more platforms, what that would be like for the marginalized communities around the world, which are already shouldering so much abuse, disproportionate amounts of abuse.”

So, disinformation doesn’t count when it matches your own political agenda, while free speech is actually a bad thing?

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Disinformation Governance Board never comes back from its suspension. But I also don’t think it’s the most immediate threat to our freedom of speech. That comes from purportedly private companies that take government money, name former government big-wigs to their boards, and then, feigning independence, crack down on alternative media that don’t tout the government narrative. I’m talking about a dangerous new organization called NewsGuard.

NewsGuard

NewsGuard is a private company created and run by Steven Brill and L. Gordon Crovitz. Brill founded CourtTV, as well as a number of publications. He is also a former columnist at Newsweek and Reuters. Crovitz is a former editorial writer and later publisher of The Wall Street Journal and the former vice president for planning at Dow Jones. These men have fine journalistic credentials. But that’s not where my complaint lies.

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My complaint is that NewsGuard issues what it calls “trust ratings” for news. The company brags on its website that these ratings are “produced by humans, not AI” (Artificial Intelligence.) It offers something called “Misinformation Fingerprints” to tell you when you are consuming what the company has determined to be disinformation.

They market this as a “journalistic solution to online misinformation,” and they claim “partnerships” with the Departments of State and Defense, Microsoft, Apple and other tech giants, although the nature of those partnerships is not clear.

We do know, however, that the Pentagon last year gave NewsGuard $750,000 for access to its “Disinformation Fingerprints” project, which it described in the contract as “a catalog of known hoaxes, lies, and disinformation stories spreading online.”

Their team of human beings rates alternative media sites all over the world and gives them a score of 0-100. These scores are based on the following list of criteria:

Does not repeatedly publish false content (22 points); Gathers and presents information responsibly (18 points); Regularly corrects or clarifies errors (12.5 points); Handles the difference between news and opinion responsibly (12.5 points); Avoids deceptive headlines (10 points); Discloses ownership and financing (7.5 points); Clearly labels advertising (7.5 points); Reveals who’s in charge, including possible conflicts of interest (5 points); Provides names of content creators and their contact or biographical information (5 points).

A score 60 points or more gives a site a “green” label. But a score below 60 points gives the site a dreaded “red” label.

So, who are these brilliant and unbiased human beings who get to decide if what we read is real news or disinformation?

One of them is Michael Hayden. (NewsGuard says its advisory board members don’t take part in rating news organizations). The name should ring a bell. Hayden is a retired four-star general who was the director of the National Security Agency (NSA) on Sept. 11, 2001. He was the guy who immediately implemented a massive program of warrantless wiretapping of American citizens, all in the name of “national security.”

Hayden later became director of the C.I.A., where he oversaw the agency’s illegal, immoral and unethical torture, kidnapping, and secret prison programs. He’s also a former principal deputy director of National Intelligence, as if he hadn’t already done enough damage to the country.

More recently, Hayden was a signatory on an open letter full of disinformation and outright lies that indicated that the Hunter Biden laptop was a “Russian intelligence operation.” That was laughable even before Hunter Biden stated publicly that the laptop was his.

Another one of NewGuard’s “advisers” is former Secretary of Homeland Security (DHS) Tom Ridge. It was Ridge who implemented the notorious Patriot Act in 2001 and the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which severely restricted Americans’ civil liberties. Those restrictions last to this day.

It was also Ridge who was the subject of a lawsuit in 2004 by Canadian national Maher Arar. Arar was a university professor in Toronto who had gone on vacation to Tunisia in 2002. On his way back to Toronto, while changing planes in New York, he was snatched by FBI agents at the request of the C.I.A., and with the cooperation of DHS agents, and sent to Syria, where he was tortured mercilessly for 10 months.

The U.S. maintained that he had “connections” to Al-Qaeda, allegations that were never proven. The Syrians finally informed the U.S. that, despite the fact that Arar had been forced to sign a confession, he had no information about Al-Qaeda. He was simply the wrong guy. Arar was released and finally returned to Toronto. Nothing ever came of his suit against Tom Ridge and others. Ridge cited “national security” to have it dismissed.

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Another of NewsGuard’s eminent advisers is Anders Rasmussen, the former prime minister of Denmark and former secretary general of NATO. It was Rasmussen who sent Danish troops into Iraq to look for weapons of mass destruction that never existed. And as the leader of NATO, it was Rasmussen who oversaw NATO’s wars in Afghanistan and Libya.

In 2014, this champion of transparency and opponent of disinformation told the Chatham House think tank,

“I have met allies who can report that Russia, as part of their sophisticated information and disinformation operations, engaged actively with so-called non-governmental organizations — environmental organizations working against shale gas — to maintain European dependence on imported Russian gas.”

Yes, he actually said this, with no evidence or proof whatsoever, that environmentalists oppose fracking only because the Russians have tricked them into it.

I know many of these people. Washington is a small town. Having spent 15 years at the C.I.A. and another two-and-a-half on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff, I’ve gotten to know a lot of the players in government.

I can tell you that they are as cynical and as dangerous as they seem. They are also the hypocrites they appear to be. Their thirst for power, and, once they have that, money, is exactly what you would expect of sociopaths who have climbed to the top of their fields on the backs of those around them.

Keep in mind that these “arbiters of truth” are the same men who have led us into false wars, who have gleefully violated even the most basic human rights and civil liberties, and who have made untold riches doing it. We must not trust them.

After all, they think so little of us that they won’t respect the constitutional rights and freedoms that are not even theirs to take away. I, for one, will not take my orders from the likes of Mike Hayden, Tom Ridge, Anders Rasmussen or the former corporate journalists who employ them.

NewsGuard recently launched a battle against independent news sites like Consortium News, Antiwar.com, The Grayzone and MintPress News.

In the case of Consortium News, for which I write on a regular basis, NewGuard’s initial email accused the outlet of categorically “publishing false content.” The NewsGuard employee making the accusation had only one previous job in journalism. It was as a science reporter for two years for a company that no longer exists. That’s it. That’s the extent of his experience in journalism. But it’s up to him (with input from NewsGuard senior editors) to decide if Consortium News is a worthy journalistic outlet.

Antiwar.com is going through the same experience. A source who works there said that NewsGuard is demanding that they now explain conclusions that they published in articles more than 10 years ago.

Antiwar.com is no longer willing to fight Newsguard’s likely “red label” designation. And Grayzone founder Max Blumenthal recently said on the Jimmy Dore Show that he wears NewsGuard’s red label as a “badge of honor.”

As bad as all this is, NewsGuard and the government’s silly Disinformation Governance Board aren’t the only problems that independent journalism sites are currently facing.

PayPal last month canceled the Consortium News account and, at least temporarily, seized its funds. (It finally released the funds after three days, but said that the account itself would be suspended permanently.) PayPal gave no warning or reason for the action and there was no due process or appeal. PayPal took the action on the first day of Consortium News’ biannual fundraising drive. MintPress News’ PayPal account also was suspended.

Consortium News is one of the country’s most highly-respected independent news sources. It was founded in 1995 by journalist Robert Parry, who gained fame at the Associated Press, and later at Newsweek, for his role in uncovering the Iran-Contra affair and for breaking the story of C.I.A. involvement in Contra cocaine trafficking. Parry was a winner of the prestigious George Polk Award for National Reporting and of the I. F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence, bestowed by Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation.

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Its board of directors includes Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges, foreign policy author Diana Johnstone, Black Agenda Report editor Margaret Kimberley, political consultant Garland Nixon, United Nations Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe communications director Nat Parry, documentary filmmaker John Pilger, award-winning investigative journalist Gareth Porter, producer and Academy Award nominee Julie Bergman Sender, 2012 Green Party presidential nominee Dr. Jill Stein, and this author.

These latest developments are more than a few odd organizations seeking to be players in the information space. This is a full-on threat to freedom of speech. NewsGuard is a throwback to the thought police in new clothes, a descendent of the mindset that cast peaceful, anti-war protestors Eugene V. Debs and Bertrand Russell into prison during World War I.

It’s one thing to flag statements of fact for proven falsity. It is quite another to cast aspersions on interpretations of facts that do not align with those of NewsGuard or the government to poison the minds of readers.

The latter is a form of censorship unfaithful to a free marketplace of ideas celebrated by the founders of this great nation. Indeed, as John Stuart Mill elaborated in On Liberty, both correct and wrongheaded ideas advance the search for truth:

“If the opinion is right, [members of the public] are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

Independent voices must be heard. Freedom of speech and press were among the basic tenets upon which this country was founded. We should all be willing to fight to keep those freedoms.

And now we have to take that fight to private corporations and even to our own government. Are we guarding the news against misinformation, or are we guarding the country from the news?

* John Kiriakou is a former C.I.A. analyst and case officer, former senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and former counterterrorism consultant. While employed by the C.I.A., he was involved in critical counterterrorism missions following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but refused to be trained in so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” After leaving the C.I.A., Kiriakou appeared on ABC News in an interview with Brian Ross, during which he became the first former C.I.A. officer to confirm that the agency waterboarded detainees and label waterboarding as torture. Kiriakou’s interview revealed that this practice was not just the result of a few rogue agents, but was official U.S. policy approved at the highest levels of the government.

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