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Does Washington Know the Difference Between Dissent and Disinformation?

If not, we should be troubled by a passage buried in H.R. 1, the Democrats’ first House bill

The US Capitol Building is seen at sunset in Washington, DC, USA, 19 December 2018

The US Capitol Building is seen at sunset in Washington, DC, USA, 19 December 2018

MICHAEL REYNOLDS/EPA-EFE/REX/Shu

H.R. 1, better known as the For the People Act, has won praise from many Democrat-friendly pundits.

The first proposed legislation of the Democratic House would, among other things, expand voting rights by encouraging same-day registration, force presidents and vice presidents to release tax returns, and ban members of Congress from serving on corporate boards.

It’s not likely to become law, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already denounced it as a “power grab” in a Washington Post editorial. As Politifact put it, the bill might be better understood as a piece of Democratic Party messaging, “part of their political strategy ahead of the 2020 campaign.”

That’s what makes a provision buried deep in the bill a bit of a head-scratcher.

Page 268 of the bill, which was sponsored by Maryland Democrat John Sarbanes, features “Section 3201: National Strategy to Protect Democratic Institutions.”

The section mandates that the president work with the secretaries of Defense, State, and Education, along with the director of national intelligence, the chair of the Federal Election Commission and the “heads of any other appropriate federal agencies” to develop a “national strategy” against “cyber attacks, influence operations, disinformation campaigns” and other operations that could “undermine the security and integrity of United States democratic institutions.”

There’s nothing particularly odd about the president working with security agencies to come up with a plan to prevent cyber attacks and other foreign incursions. But this provision also specifically describes a strategy to combat domestic actors, and its mandate is couched in language that raises questions about its true purpose.

The president is required to consider the “threat of a foreign state actor, foreign terrorist organization, or a domestic actor carrying out a cyber attack, influence operation, disinformation campaign, or other activity aimed at undermining the security and integrity of United States.”

The strategy would be to prevent “potential consequences, such as an erosion of public trust or an undermining of the rule of law” that could result from such operations. Which makes sense in light of the 2016 elections (and other reported cyber incursions), but the potentially secret nature of the program is unsettling.

The bill states that all of this will be done in conjunction with a timeline that would include metrics, costs and objectives, and this “shall be in unclassified form.” But the bill goes on to say, there “may be a classified annex.”

Classified annexes are a legislative innovation that grew up after the Church-Pike congressional investigations in the 1970s into foreign assassinations and other unregulated behaviors of the intelligence agencies. Classified annexes basically allow for separate secret appropriations for personnel, costs, even directives. Though common, such a provision with this kind of bill would concern any rational observer.

To recap: A bill that’s ostensibly about promoting democracy would mandate the creation of a new, potentially classified Executive Branch directive targeting both foreign and domestic “disinformation” and “influence.” The president, the Defense Department and the security agencies would have a mandate to combat a broad range of activities deemed resultant in an “erosion of public trust” and/or a threat to “democracy.”

The issue this little legislative nugget raises is the same one that’s been hovering around the edges of the national security debate since 2016 — the possibility of leveraging legitimate fears over foreign cyber-attacks into more direct intervention by the government in domestic discourse. Although agencies like the FBI have broad investigatory power, intelligence services are traditionally barred from spying on Americans, raising questions about what role they could have here.

How would we define activity that “erodes public trust”? What would constitute a domestic “influence campaign”? What measures would be allowed in retaliation?

We’ve already seen in the past few years evidence of an increased interest in Washington in regulating the media and the internet, with tech companies asked in a Senate hearing to draw up plans to prevent the “foment of discord.” The only way a secret government strategy to prevent “an erosion of trust” wouldn’t be at least a little scary is if you have complete confidence the government knows the difference between legitimate dissent and improper “influence.”

Rolling Stone has reached out to the office of Congressman Sarbanes for an explanation, but we have not received comment.

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