Biden Justice Dept. Intervened to Block Release of Social Media Censorship Docs
Newly obtained emails reveal an attempt to censor the censorship documents.
As journalists and civil libertarians began raising questions in September about the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to police certain kinds of political content on social media platforms, senior officials in the Biden administration’s Department of Justice intervened to slow the release of public records that might have shed more light on the nature of the federal government’s anti-misinformation crusade.
The stalling effort highlights not only the broad authority that the federal government has to shape the political content available to the public, but also the toolkit that it relies upon to limit scrutiny of its involvement in the regulation of speech.
“We’ve heard from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA) within the Department of Homeland Security that the Daily Caller News Foundation has requested documents from the university, which may include documents that belong to CISA,” wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Annalisa Cravens of the Western District of Washington in an email to Kate Starbird, a computer science professor at the University of Washington (UW).
Starbird, who runs a government-funded disinformation think tank at UW, serves on the CISA advisory panel tasked with helping the agency shape content moderation decisions at platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. The agency made a controversial push to censor social media during the 2020 election in partnership with several nonprofit groups. At the time of the email, sent on Sept. 26, a number of journalists and watchdog groups were beginning to investigate the DHS-CISA censorship apparatus.
Last fall, I filed a records request with Starbird. Around the same time, journalists from Daily Caller and Tech Inquiry, as well as officials at the pro-transparency nonprofit, the Government Accountability Project, individually submitted record requests to UW. The requests differed in scope but all of them related to Starbird’s work with CISA and its push to censor certain forms of speech on social media.
In response, the DOJ sought a delay to review any records released to the public and assess whether to take legal action in order to block some or all of the documents.
“Could we please see a copy of any relevant CISA documents that you may plan to produce?” Cravens, the assistant U.S. attorney, wrote in her email to Starbird. “[W]e would also ask to have an extension of time before the records are produced so that we can have time to review them and assess whether we’ll have to file suit to protect them from disclosure.”
It is not clear which documents may have ultimately been delayed, withheld, or redacted because of the Biden administration’s interference in the public records request. The DHS and DOJ did not respond to a request for comment. Notably, I received multiple notifications from UW seeking to extend the deadline to comply with the request I made last year, and the documents were not released until after congressional hearings on this subject back in March.
The federal government maintains what is known as the “state secrets privilege,” which permits the Department of Justice to block the release of any information that could undermine national security. There are, no doubt, cases in which the federal government’s stated national security concerns provide a legitimate reason for withholding a document from the public.
But there is abundant evidence that the federal government abuses this power to shield itself from scrutiny. Multiple administrations in the past have intervened in record release cases to prevent transparency using similar legal tactics.
Starbird herself has used exaggerated claims of harassment to dismiss journalistic interest in her organization’s work. In reaction to the public records requests from journalists last year, Starbird announced that she was under “harassment mobilized by right wing media/influencers.” In a thread on Twitter registering her disapproval, Starbird characterized the requests as akin to a cyber attack, and claimed the documents were requested because she is a “woman with short hair who works at a public university.”
“In particular, the 5 FOIA (public records) requests that my colleagues and I have received – some so broad that they’d require 100s of hours of work to assemble – essentially look like a denial of service attack, attempting to make it untenable to continue our research,” Starbird tweeted, referencing a distributed denial-of-service attack, known as a DDoS, a tactic to shut down a target website or service with a flood of artificial queries.