Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas gave “apparently misleading” testimony to Congress about his disinformation board, Senate Republicans charged Tuesday in a letter demanding that Democrats call Mr. Mayorkas back for another chance to explain.
Mr. Mayorkas told lawmakers at a May 4 hearing that the board had “not yet begun its work,” but new documents show the board was stood up earlier this year, the secretary signed a charter, and board members were already meeting with social media giant Twitter.
The Republicans said Mr. Mayorkas “misrepresented” the board’s purview by claiming it wouldn’t be involved in monitoring Americans’ activities. Talking points prepared by the board’s former executive director, Nina Jankowicz, “appear to show that the Department does in fact monitor American citizens and that the Board’s work is concentrated on domestic threats,” the senators said.
Mr. Mayorkas dismissed the suggestion by Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, that the board might be interested in policing the debate over pandemic masking as part of its disinformation purview, but the new documents listed “efficacy of masks as something the board was interested in.”
Republican Sens. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Josh Hawley of Missouri revealed the documents last week.
“The American public deserves transparency and honest answers to important questions about the true nature and purpose of the Disinformation Governance Board and it is clear that Secretary Mayorkas has not provided them — to the public or this committee,” said the letter from the senators, led by Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, the top Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
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They asked Sen. Gary C. Peters, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the committee, to call Mr. Mayorkas back for another appearance.
Neither Mr. Peters’ office nor the Department of Homeland Security responded to requests for comment Tuesday.
Ms. Jankowicz has quit her post, and Mr. Mayorkas has put the board on pause. The secretary asked two senior officials from the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations to lead a review of the board’s posture.
The possibility that the secretary might revive the board means it remains an issue for members of Congress.
The documents that Mr. Grassley and Mr. Hawley revealed showed Undersecretary for Policy Robert Silvers, one of the board’s co-chairs, had a meeting planned with Twitter to talk about “an opportunity to discuss operationalizing public-private partnerships between DHS and Twitter, as well as inform Twitter executives about DHS work” on misinformation and disinformation, including the new board.
A whistleblower who provided the documents suggested that Ms. Jankowicz may have been hired because of her relationship with executives at Twitter, Mr. Grassley and Mr. Hawley said.
Mr. Mayorkas has insisted that Ms. Jankowicz was hired because she was an expert in disinformation. Republicans said that expertise extended to spreading disinformation. Ms. Jankowicz peddled now-discredited theories about President Trump and a Russian bank, and about Hunter Biden’s laptop computer.
The documents Mr. Grassley and Mr. Hawley released also postulated efforts to connect state, local and even nongovernmental organizations with the private sector to “remove content at their discretion.”
Mr. Portman and fellow Republicans said they were “troubled” that the documents had to come from a whistleblower. Mr. Hawley asked Mr. Mayorkas for the documents at the May 4 hearing, and the secretary promised his department would produce them “unless there is a legal prohibition from us doing so.”
The letter also was signed by Mr. Paul, Mr. Hawley and Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, James Lankford of Oklahoma, Mitt Romney of Utah and Rick Scott of Florida.
Mr. Mayorkas’ exchange with Mr. Paul in May was heated.
Mr. Paul recounted YouTube pulling down videos with his statements that cloth masks didn’t stop the spread of the coronavirus and that natural immunity to COVID-19 was equal to a vaccine. He demanded to know whether Homeland Security would police information on those sorts of issues.
“We are not the public health experts to make those determinations,” Mr. Mayorkas said.
A September memo from Mr. Silvers laying out the idea for a disinformation board listed masking and vaccines as the types of disinformation that “presents serious homeland security risks.”
Other areas Homeland Security flagged were “conspiracy theories about the validity and security of elections” and “falsehoods surrounding U.S. government immigration policy.”
Mr. Mayorkas revealed the existence of the board in testimony to Congress in late April while answering a question about his department’s efforts to work with Spanish-speaking communities to combat election disinformation.
The secretary said the board was at the center of those activities.
A department memo said the board did not have a public-facing role but was supposed to be an internal cop for the department’s programs.
Mr. Mayorkas later called the board an internal working group that didn’t have operational authority. If anything, he said, the board would ensure that all of the department’s components respected civil liberties.
The Grassley-Hawley documents suggest a more active role. They noted that its charter said it would serve as the point of contact with state, local, tribal and territorial partners, the private sector and nongovernmental actors regarding disinformation.