Should journalists be worried about the Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act?

The Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act was rolled into H.R. 6393 and is headed to the President for approval.

Freedom of Speech
Credit: Newtown grafitti

With previous anti-First Amendment statements by President-elect Donald Trump, there has been some worry by journalists that writing something the soon-to-be President doesn’t like may result in unpleasant consequences. Yet that is not the same thing as reporting “fake” news or spreading disinformation.

Hillary Clinton recently said that fake news has “real-world consequences” and puts lives “at risk.” She mentioned bipartisan legislation meant to help the US government respond to “malicious fake news and false propaganda.”

The same day, Ohio Senator Rob Portman announced that the “Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act – legislation designed to help American allies counter foreign government propaganda from Russia, China, and other nations – has passed the Senate” as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2017 (pdf). H.R. 6393 passed the House on Nov 30, then the Senate on Dec. 8, and next goes to the President.

One of the priorities of this bill stuffed into NDAA is to “increase the authority, resources, and mandate of the Global Engagement Center to include state actors like Russia and China in addition to violent extremists.” Portman added, “With the help of this bipartisan bill, the disinformation and propaganda used against our allies and our interests will fail.”

If Guccifer 2.0 is a front for Russian authorities, and a journalist reports on ‘his’ hacking actions or viewpoints, that shouldn't be considered propaganda, spreading disinformation or fake news…or will that and other such pieces be blacklisted?

The first I heard about this was a link via Slashdot to ZeroHedge; that article was alarming as it claimed the bill:

“will effectively give the government a full mandate to punish, shut down or otherwise prosecute, any website it deems offensive and a source of ‘foreign government propaganda from Russia, China or other nations.’ And since there is no formal way of proving whether or not there is indeed a foreign propaganda sponsor, all that will be sufficient to eliminate any ‘dissenting’ website, will be the government's word against that of the website. One can be confident that the US government will almost certainly prevail in every single time.”

Yes, I know ZeroHedge is one of the 180 sites listed by the website PropOrNot for allegedly spreading fake news during the election and echoing Russian propaganda. PropOrNot is run by an “independent team” of volunteers whom, as The Intercept pointed out, suspect the individuals writing the articles “have violated the Espionage Act, the Foreign Agent Registration Act, and other related laws, but determining that is up to the FBI and DOJ.” That seems extreme to say the least.

Nevertheless, if the new bill is aimed at voices of dissent, then people need to know that … so I read the 93-page H.R. 6393.

It starts off by stating that 2017 fiscal year funds for the conduct of intelligence activities were approved for: The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, CIA, DoD, DIA, NSA, Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, State Department, Treasury Department, Energy Department, DOJ, FBI, DHS, DEA, the National Reconnaissance Office and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

It has a multitude of sections which deal with all sorts of aspects regarding US intelligence-related activities such as whistleblowing procedures, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, oversight of National Security systems and even a publicly accessible Cyber Center for Education and Innovation which the Secretary of Defense will add to the NSA’s National Cryptologic Museum.

Section 301 on page 11 caught my attention as it deals with the restriction on conduct of intelligence activities. Those restrictions amount to one paragraph which states: “The authorization of appropriations by this Act shall not be deemed to constitute authority for the conduct of any intelligence activity which is not otherwise authorized by the Constitution or the laws of the United States.”

Section 403, “Assistance for governmental entities and private entities in recognizing online violent extremist content,” begins on page 39. It explains that 180 days after the enactment of the Act, “the Director of National Intelligence shall publish on a publicly available internet website a list of al logos, symbols, insignia, and other markings commonly associated with, or adopted by, an organization designated by the Secretary of State as a foreign terrorist organization under section 219(a) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 21 1189(a).” The list is to be updated at least every 180 days.

Section 501, “Committee to counter active measures by the Russian Federation to exert covert influence over peoples and governments” begins on page 47 and ends on page 51. It lays out which heads of agencies or departments would be on the committee as well as top dogs designated by the President.

The term ‘‘active measures by Russia to exert covert influence’’ means activities intended to influence a person or government that are carried out in coordination with, or at the behest of, political leaders or the security services of the Russian Federation and the role of the Russian Federation has been hidden or not acknowledged publicly, including the following:

(A) Establishment or funding of a front group. (B) Covert broadcasting. (C) Media manipulation. (D) Disinformation and forgeries. (E) Funding agents of influence. (F) Incitement and offensive counterintelligence. (G) Assassinations.

Further down it mentions duties, such as “To counter active measures by Russia to exert covert influence, including by exposing falsehoods, agents of influence, corruption, human rights abuses, terrorism, and assassinations carried out by the security services or political elites of the Russian Federation or their proxies.” It adds, “Such other duties as the President may designate for purposes of this section.”

You can make of that what you will, but there is no mention of dissenters. Considering the restriction on intelligence activities to not act beyond what is allowed by the Constitution – which clearly supports First Amendment rights – then voices of dissent may not be in imminent danger of being labeled as fake news or blacklisted as a spewer of foreign propaganda. If H.R. 6393 is approved by the President, then we will need to keep an eye on this.

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