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Edward Snowden speaks during a technology conference

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden speaks during the Web Summit technology conference in Lisbon, Portugal on November 4, 2019. (Photo: Henrique Casinhas/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Snowden Says Shut Down DHS After Report Revealed Secretive Effort to Police Online Speech

The NSA whistleblower said creating the Department of Homeland Security "was always a mistake," but "its plan to become the Speech Police is the final straw."

Jake Johnson

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden said Wednesday that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security should be shut down after reporting shined light on the agency's sweeping campaign to police what it deems disinformation online, an effort that raised alarm among civil liberties groups.

"It's time to talk about shutting down the Department of Homeland Security," Snowden, a former NSA contractor who exposed the agency's illegal mass spying program in 2013, wrote on Twitter.

"The First Amendment bars the government from deciding for us what is true or false, online or anywhere."

DHS, formed in 2002 in the wake of the September 11 attacks, "was always a mistake, a costly artifact of the hysteric post-9/11 authoritarianism that left us no more safe, but much less free," Snowden continued. "Its plan to become the Speech Police is the final straw."

Snowden was responding to an in-depth story by The Intercept on Monday detailing secretive DHS attempts to "curb speech it considers dangerous" by trying to pressure and "influence tech platforms" such as Twitter and Facebook. The department's "stepped up counter-disinformation effort" began under former President Donald Trump and has continued under President Joe Biden, the outlet noted.

"According to a draft copy of DHS' Quadrennial Homeland Security Review, DHS' capstone report outlining the department's strategy and priorities in the coming years, the department plans to target 'inaccurate information' on a wide range of topics, including 'the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic and the efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines, racial justice, U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the nature of U.S. support to Ukraine," The Intercept's Ken Klippenstein and Lee Fang reported.

"How disinformation is defined by the government has not been clearly articulated, and the inherently subjective nature of what constitutes disinformation provides a broad opening for DHS officials to make politically motivated determinations about what constitutes dangerous speech," Klippenstein and Fang stressed.

"DHS justifies these goals—which have expanded far beyond its original purview on foreign threats to encompass disinformation originating domestically—by claiming that terrorist threats can be 'exacerbated by misinformation and disinformation spread online," they added. "But the laudable goal of protecting Americans from danger has often been used to conceal political maneuvering."

The ACLU, which has previously called for the dismantling of DHS over its myriad abuses, expressed concerns in response to the The Intercept's story, which noted that the agency's efforts to police disinformation online have only expanded in the wake of the agency's decision to scrap its widely derided Disinformation Governance Board earlier this year.

"The First Amendment bars the government from deciding for us what is true or false, online or anywhere," the ACLU tweeted earlier this week. "Our government can't use private pressure to get around our constitutional rights."

Adam Goldstein, the vice president of research at FIRE—a free speech organization that is fighting right-wing censorship campaigns across the U.S.—told The Intercept that "no matter your political allegiances, all of us have good reason to be concerned about government efforts to pressure private social media platforms into reaching the government's preferred decisions about what content we can see online."

"Any governmental requests to social media platforms to review or remove certain content should be made with extreme transparency," Goldstein added.


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