Another Terrible Choice for Biden’s “Disinformation Board”

Another Terrible Choice for Biden’s “Disinformation Board”

Another Terrible Choice for Biden’s “Disinformation Board”

Michael Chertoff’s experience detaining Muslim Americans, justifying CIA torture, and helping to draft the Patriot Act make him an all-too-appropriate choice to advise this Orwellian agency.

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Last week, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it was temporarily deactivating its Disinformation Governance Board, a “working group” ostensibly designed to help the government develop strategies to combat fake news. Around the same time, the board’s head, Nina Jankowicz, whose troubling past has been highlighted by many, including me in The Nation, tendered her resignation.

The DHS, Jankowicz, and numerous media outlets blamed the implosion on a right-wing smear campaign that spread lies about the institution and Jankowicz. Of course, that excuse is itself a lie: Warnings about the danger of government-run disinformation policing came from across the political spectrum; concerns about Jankowicz’s record were based on verifiable facts, which makes them the opposite of a smear campaign; and the notion of a disinformation-fighting body claiming to be undone by disinformation speaks volumes about its competence.

But instead of ushering in a moment of reflection, the decision that the board’s work would be “paused” immediately segued into a new scandal when the DHS appointed former Department of Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff to colead a “review and assessment” of the organ’s future.

If the Biden administration wanted to dispel the Orwellian aura around the very idea of a government-sponsored “disinformation board,” it couldn’t have picked a worse candidate: Chertoff is notorious for enabling some of the most egregious offenses of the War on Terrorism—from federal surveillance, to unlawful detention, to torture. Indeed, his previous governmental appointments were met with vociferous opposition from groups like Human Rights Watch and the ACLU.

The aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks led to widespread federal abuses. At the time, Chertoff was head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, where he supported actions that led to the baseless detention of hundreds of Muslims. He was also one of the principal authors of the Patriot Act—legislation that granted the government sweeping surveillance powers, which were promptly abused by federal agencies.

Above all, it was Chertoff’s involvement with CIA torture that defined his impact on one of the darker times in American history. Starting in 2002, the CIA embarked on a campaign of torture of terrorism suspects carried out in black sites and Guantánamo Bay. As was revealed later, the spy agency understood that waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques,” as they were euphemistically known, exposed it to legal jeopardy. This led the CIA to seek counsel from Chertoff, who headed the Justice Department’s criminal division.

Chertoff furnished the agency with guidance that led to the continuing use of such torture techniques. And as was noted in The Nation, he also appeared to have taken steps to keep the torture program concealed from the public eye.

However, the most salient aspect of Chertoff’s résumé—at least as it relates to running the DHS disinformation board review—is his dip into a common morally corrupt practice of Washington bigwigs: undisclosed lobbying via manipulation of public information.

On Christmas Day in 2009, a thwarted terrorist attempt to blow up an airliner with concealed explosives led to a burst of new air travel policies, including the use of the now-ubiquitous body scanners at airports. Chertoff, who at this point had retired from leading the DHS, was all over the news advocating for the scanners. What often went undisclosed, according to The Washington Post, was that Chertoff’s security consulting firm represented Rapiscan, a major scanner manufacturer. Presumably, a former government official trading in on his experience in order to lucratively sway national security policy is the type of action the DHS disinformation board might be looking to prevent.

Of course, Chertoff is far from the only facilitator of American torture to be rehabilitated by elite institutions in Washington and beyond. Gina Haspel, whom Congress confirmed to be the head of the CIA in 2013, used to run one of the black sites where “enhanced interrogation techniques” were practiced; Haspel’s confirmation took place thanks to votes from Democrats. John Yoo, the attorney who drafted the infamous George W. Bush administration “torture memos,” is now the Emanuel S. Heller Professor of Law at Berkeley (it’s unclear whether the man who cleared the path for the torture of Muslims is also involved in Berkeley’s “Racial Justice” initiative). And earlier this year, former vice president Dick Cheney, the face of the darkest aspects of the War on Terrorism, was warmly welcomed by virtually all Democratic members of Congress.

Even the human rights groups that protested Chertoff’s appointment to lead the DHS have remained largely silent on his new gig. In 2005, the ACLU organized a vigorous campaign slamming Chertoff in light of his DHS candidacy; this included a detailed memorandum as well as a coalition letter signed by watchdog groups. Now, the ACLU didn’t even issue a press release; when contacted for a comment, the organization replied, “As a general policy, the ACLU does not endorse or oppose candidates for elected or appointed office.” The group didn’t clarify why it strenuously highlighted Chertoff’s civil rights record in 2005 as opposed to today.

In 2005, Human Rights Watch also issued a statement condemning Chertoff; when contacted this week, the group said they “haven’t been tracking this current issue or Chertoff’s career” and “only comment on things we can back up with research.” Why HRW would require research on an individual it had already commented on isn’t clear.

The Biden administration’s decision to thrust a man as deeply tainted as Chertoff into a leadership position smacks of a particularly indolent kind of contempt. The disinformation board was already raising hackles with its Orwellian undertone. It would not have been difficult to find a candidate whose record on enabling unwarranted surveillance and torture as well as manipulating public perception in favor of lucrative consulting gigs was, if not cleaner, then at least a little less conspicuous. After all, most public campaigns—especially ones promoting censorship—are more convincing when accompanied by at least a modicum of authenticity.

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