McCaul, HFAC Members Demand Answers on GEC's Role in Censorship


Date: May 2, 2023
Location: Washington, D.C.
Issues: Foreign Affairs

Dear Secretary Blinken,

Last year, after the State's Department's Inspector General issued a detailed report1 chronicling inappropriate actions by the Global Engagement Center (GEC), members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee determined it was appropriate to delay reauthorizing the GEC until issues related to internal staffing, organizational structure, and policy priorities were resolved.

Since that time, however, additional news has come to light that suggests the GEC continues to stray from its founding mission through its subsidized censorship of free speech and disfavored opinions -- particularly by established conservative media and individuals -- through grants, partnerships, and awards to entities including the Global Disinformation Index, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensics Research Lab, and Moonshot CVE. The GEC also appears to take the official position that populism -- whether at home or abroad -- is an affront to democracy and the First Amendment rights of all Americans. For example:

In 2021, the GEC spent $275,000 producing a "counter-disinformation video game" that programmed audiences to associate citizen critiques of government waste, fraud, and abuse with a social media disinformation campaign.

In 2020, the GEC produced a similar "counter-disinformation video game" explicitly targeting "political misinformation," apparently modeled off the U.S. 2020 presidential election cycle.

In the above "counter-disinformation video games," the GEC selected and supported the University of Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab, whose recent "disinformation research" includes:

Targeting U.S. conservatives

Targeting "climate change deniers"

Targeting "vaccine skeptics"

Targeting "election deniers"

The GEC provided support12 to the Global Disinformation Index, which created blacklists of U.S. domestic media voices to cripple U.S. citizen journalists' advertising revenue.
The GEC partners on disinformation with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, whose other "disinformation research" includes advocacy for censoring:
"Climate misinformation"
"Covid misinformation," "anti-vaccine misinformation," and "Anti-Lockdown Activity"
"Abortion misinformation"

The GEC partners on disinformation with the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensics Research Lab, which appears to have played a significant role in censorship of U.S. citizens during both the Covid-19 pandemic and the 2020 and 2022 US elections.

The GEC partners on disinformation19 with Moonshot CVE, which previously used its "redirect method" to automatically redirect US citizens searching YouTube for right-wing political content to the channel of a left-wing anarchist instead.
The Twitter Files revealed GEC's potential role in censoring speech online,21 often under a flimsy pretense with thinly sourced evidence from non-credible sources.

The GEC allegedly also pressured LinkedIn to join domestic censorship efforts.
The GEC's founding mission, effectively, was to provide a ready resource for the truth about America and our fight against global terror, particularly ISIS. We therefore are forced to wonder about the authority by which the GEC justifies its mission creep, and the direction of its current evolutionary trajectory.

Congress originally authorized the GEC to "support the development and dissemination of fact- based narratives and analysis to counter propaganda and disinformation directed at the United States and United States allies and partner nations." While the GEC performs some unquestionably important work, it has also provided social media companies with access to tech applications that "detect and either knock down or flag malign-foreign-influence activity," but, according to the FBI, also "might accidentally pick up U.S. people["s] information."

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits government officials from censoring disfavored speakers and viewpoints. Merely labeling speech "misinformation" or "disinformation" does not strip away First Amendment protections, and government officials may not circumvent the First Amendment by inducing, threatening, and/or colluding with private entities to suppress protected speech.

In 2019, Richard Stengel, the very first head of the GEC after its 2016 founding, published an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for an effective end to the First Amendment. This fact calls into question not only the founder, but the founding vision of the GEC itself. Stengel went on to say in a televised interview: "[T]he basis of the First Amendment, the marketplace of ideas model, is actually not working. Marketplace of ideas is this notion that good ideas will drive out bad ideas. Well, it was kind of a mystical notion coming from Milton and John Stewart Mill and that doesn't really happen anymore … I'm actually very sympathetic now to the U.S. adopting some versions of hate speech laws in Europe."

Due to the lack of transparency regarding the GEC, and its potential violations of the Constitution, I write to request that you provide the committee the following documents and information no later than May 11, 2023:

All documents and communications between the GEC and any entity with a domestic presence in the United States, including media outlets, mentioning "disinformation", "disinfo", "misinformation", "misinfo" or "malinformation."

All documents and communications regarding the U.S. Department of State's contracts, grants, cooperative agreements, or other agreements for assistance covered in section 200.40 Federal financial assistance of the OMB Uniform Grant Guidance to any of the following entities:

Alliance for Securing Democracy;
Atlantic Council;
Digital Public Square;
German Marshall Fund of the United States;
Global Disinformation Index;
Google Jigsaw;
Institute for Strategic Dialogue;
Moonshot CVE;

All documents, emails, and correspondence to/from employees, contractors, subcontractors, or consultants at the GEC mentioning "disinformation", "misinformation, or "malinformation" in conjunction with the Washington Examiner, Real Clear Politics, the Federalist, Newsmax, Breitbart, the Daily Wire, One America News, and the New York Post; and

All documents, emails, and correspondence to/from employees, contractors, subcontractors, or consultants at the GEC pertaining to content moderation decisions by social media or online tech platforms in connection with Covid-19 policies and practices, including all GEC documents, emails and correspondence with private sector and civil society intermediaries with such social media or online tech platforms.

Material preservation is essential for Congress to conduct a comprehensive fact-finding investigation into actions by the GEC and grantees in stifling, censoring, and silencing conservative speech through the guise of labeling it as misinformation, disinformation, or malinformation.

More specifically, this request should also be construed as an instruction to preserve all documents, communications, and other information, including electronic information and metadata, that is or may be potentially responsive to this congressional inquiry. This includes electronic messages about the determined topic that are sent using official and personal accounts or drives, including records created using text messages, phone-based messaging applications, or encryption software. For purposes of this request, "preserve" includes taking reasonable steps to prevent the partial or full destruction, alteration, deletion, shredding, wiping, relocation, migration, theft, mutilation, reckless, or negligent handling of responsive documents, communications, and information that could render the information incomplete or inaccessible.

Please notify all relevant current and former employees, colleagues, officials, contractors, subcontractors, and consultants who may have worked on documents, communications, or information that is or would be potentially responsive to this congressional inquiry. Thank you for your cooperation in this critical oversight matter.