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Is Biden’s Disinfo Czar Qualified?

Nina Jankowicz unknowingly advanced Russian propaganda about the Czech Republic. Why has she been picked to lead DHS’s new anti-disinformation board?
May 6, 2022
Is Biden’s Disinfo Czar Qualified?
Nina Jankowicz (Photos via The Wilson Center / Shutterstock)

The rollout of the Biden administration’s Disinformation Governance Board at the Department of Homeland Security, announced in passing in Politico’s Playbook newsletter last Wednesday without accompanying official explanation, has been an unmitigated disaster. The hashtag #MinistryOfTruth trended on Twitter for two days after the news broke. This was exacerbated by days of inexplicably opaque communication from the White House about an initiative that was bound to be controversial even under the best of circumstances.

Thanks to a vacuum of official information, negative media coverage has dominated—particularly among right-wing sources, whose uproar about a party-political attempt to censor conservatives and undermine free speech in America helped set the tone of the public narrative. Meanwhile, much of the press coverage, starting with the original Politico item, conflated disinformation with misinformation, even though it is important to preserve the distinction between those terms. “Misinformation” refers to the unintentional spread of false information, whereas “disinformation” consists of deliberate fabrications cooked up to deceive people for strategic purposes. This sort of definitional confusion, particularly on such a complex and sensitive issue, undercuts public confidence while encouraging uncharitable speculation and conspiracism.

There is a good reason why the U.S. government has historically stayed away from the minefield that is domestic disinformation. As any expert in this field will tell you, one of the core aims of contemporary authoritarian disinformation is the erosion of trust in democratic government. What does it say of the Biden administration’s readiness to take on this problem that the launch of its anti-disinformation initiative does just what it’s meant to oppose by arousing skepticism—even among digital media and rights experts—and undermining public trust?

Compounding these issues is the matter of the individual selected to lead this new initiative. Nina Jankowicz, the Wilson Center fellow tapped for the job by DHS, launched her career as an expert on Russian disinformation with a one-year Fulbright Fellowship to Ukraine from 2016-17, during which she says that she served as a communications adviser to the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. There is reason to be skeptical that an American-educated twentysomething with a year and a half of postgraduate work experience in Washington (per Jankowicz’s own account) would serve as much of an “adviser” on counter-disinformation strategy for the government of a country that has been on the front lines of Russian information warfare for decades.

During her Fulbright, Jankowicz traveled around Europe compiling research for her first book, How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict, published in 2020. It looks at five Eastern European countries—Estonia, Georgia, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Ukraine, with additional material on the United States and the Netherlands—to see how Russia targeted each with bespoke disinformation campaigns. Jankowicz approaches each as a case study: She examines the various tactics used to erode trust and sow discord, each government’s response, and the immediate results, and she tries to derive lessons from these episodes that can be extrapolated to an American or a global context.

Among the countries Jankowicz profiles is one I know well: the Czech Republic.

Over the last six years, I have worked at the intersection of disinformation and authoritarian influence, both within the Czech Republic and at the level of the European Union. My experience includes serving on behalf of the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs with the East StratCom Task Force, a specialized unit of the EU’s diplomatic service devoted to exposing and countering Russian disinformation operations in Europe and the EU’s Eastern Partnership region. (Full disclosure: From 2017-18, I also worked at the European Values Center for Security Policy, formerly the European Values Think Tank, whose work Jankowicz discusses in the book. We never met and I was unaware of her research or interviews at the time.)

Jankowicz’s chapter about the Czech Republic aims to evaluate the early policy response to “hybrid threats,” the term chosen by the Czech government and stakeholders to encompass a variety of security challenges stemming from anti-democratic state and non-state actors. She focuses on the establishment of a unit within the Czech Ministry of the Interior, the Center Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats, which was founded at the beginning of 2017 on the recommendation of a National Security Audit. This audit had been prompted by changes in the security environment following Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine. The center’s founding goal was to monitor hybrid or “asymmetric” threats—not disinformation specifically—to increase understanding within state institutions and the government, and to propose policy solutions.

Jankowicz’s analysis of this initiative and its origins raises serious doubts about her qualifications for a government leadership role on disinformation policy. Her research is awash in errors, built on flawed assumptions, and—worst of all—it fails to identify and pursue real sources of pro-Kremlin influence in the country. In fact, she repeatedly indulges them.

You would think that writing a book about the responses of Central and Eastern European governments to “Russian information warfare” requires working knowledge of that environment. Without it, how can you possibly evaluate whether the respective government initiatives are fit for purpose? But Jankowicz lacks this basic competence. Comparing the Czech Republic to the other countries profiled, she writes:

None of these governments established intelligence units tasked with countering Russian disinformation. And yet the Czechs, who face no direct military risk and only host several loud but not-extremely-influential websites sympathetic to the Russian narrative, boast the first governmental unit tasked with responding to the Russian “hybrid threat.”

Students of Soviet and Russian influence operations will immediately recognize the absurdity of Jankowicz’s suggestion that the extent of the Kremlin’s influence in a former satellite state is limited to a handful of obscure websites. And nowhere does she explain the significantly broader and more complex constellation of pro-Kremlin influence and elite co-optation across business, politics, and media in the Czech Republic. This system of influence became an increasingly urgent concern after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, which saw a concerted effort from this “fifth column” to promote support for the Kremlin and undermine the Czech response to the invasion, both nationally and at the EU level.

For example, Czech President Miloš Zeman’s longstanding support for Putin and advocacy for Russian interests in the Czech Republic would give even Donald Trump a run for his money. (He’s a booster of Xi Jinping and China, too, for good measure.) When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, Zeman repeatedly amplified the Kremlin lie that the conflict was “a civil war between two groups of Ukrainian citizens.” After the 2018 poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Zeman cast doubt on Russia’s involvement and publicly suggested that the Novichok agent could have originated in the Czech Republic, even pressuring the security services to investigate. As president, Zeman has consistently sought to sabotage his own government’s policy on Russia, undermined the work of the Czech counterintelligence service (BIS), and promoted Kremlin-linked business and energy projects in the Czech Republic, all while dismissing any possibility of a national security threat from Russia. In 2017, when evidence emerged of Russian state-sponsored cyberattacks against the Czech Foreign Ministry, Zeman laughed it off. Zeman is so deeply compromised that a Czech commentator described him as “not a security risk, but a security threat.”

Jankowicz provides none of this context. She mentions in passing that Zeman “had toed the Kremlin line on Ukraine,” but goes on to treat him as a credible voice throughout her analysis. She cites his criticism of the Hybrid Threats Center as an authoritative perspective: “This focus on Russia turned Czech President Miloš Zeman against the Center as well, despite having signed the measures to approve its creation. . . . ‘We do not need censorship, we do not need idea police,’ he said.”

There are other glaring misrepresentations in the text as well.

Jankowicz writes that it was disinformation “surrounding the [2015 EU] migration crisis—not a pernicious pro-Putin narrative . . . that drove the Czech Republic’s creation of the first government-level anti-disinformation task force in NATO or the EU. What gave birth to the Czech Republic’s anti-Russian disinformation strategy was, quite simply, Islamophobia.”

This is false. It was Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine that mobilized the Czech government, as it also mobilized other Central and Eastern European countries, to mount a defense against the Kremlin’s malign activities. No question, the 2015 migration crisis was fodder for Russian disinformation efforts throughout Europe, and it did indeed stoke xenophobia and anti-EU sentiment in the Czech Republic. But the concern that Czech policy-makers began to grapple with after 2014 was the Kremlin’s many-sided influence and subversion campaign in the country. This campaign included not only disinformation but covert Russian intelligence operations on Czech soil, cyberattacks, political interference, and the weaponization of energy. In a stunning revelation last April, the Czech government confirmed that two deadly ammunition depot explosions in late 2014 were the work of the same GRU operatives who tried to assassinate Skripal in 2018.

This is the context in which the Center Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats was established. It began as a pilot initiative tasked with exploring vectors of hostile foreign influence in the Czech Republic, and its goal was ultimately inwardly focused: to improve competences for addressing various Russian threats within state institutions. To describe this unit, as Jankowicz repeatedly does, as an “anti-disinformation task force” focused on “debunking” or “fact-checking” disinformation is to inherently misunderstand what the Czech government was trying to achieve, the full spectrum of national security considerations that led to the center’s formation, and the political sensitivities required to ensure its independence and long-term viability.

The center’s core function was not to counter disinformation—especially not at a public level—precisely because doing so would have risked politicizing the unit and delegitimizing its work. Political neutrality was a priority from the start. This is why the center has deliberately—and rightly—stayed away from addressing domestic election-related disinformation. But Jankowicz suggests that the center was “somewhat impotent” because it did not “weigh in” on the “wave of disinformation [that] overtook the Czech presidential election in early 2018”— as though effectiveness in countering public disinformation should be the sole measure of its efficacy.

Indeed, she criticizes the center because it stayed out of the election campaign and did not adjudicate on any political (dis)information:

Despite tweeting that ‘the Ministry of Interior has taken all necessary steps to ensure that the presidential elections proceed in a standard and legal manner,’ the Center against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats took on few challenges related to the debunking of pernicious rumors spread during the election campaign. In addition to this self-congratulatory tweet, the Center issued only two corrections on Twitter during the entire election period: one clarified that President Zeman would not proceed to the second round of the elections automatically, and another refuted a claim that Germany was busing migrants into the Czech Republic through a forest.

Jankowicz’s poor grasp of the Czech policy response is unsurprising given that her analysis was based on interviews with just seven individuals, only one of whom was a government official—the head of the hybrid threats center. But even more egregious is the fact that two of her interviewees are open supporters of Kremlin-aligned manipulative media in the Czech Republic. Jankowicz acknowledges this in passing, but—as with Zeman—presents their misleading and ideologically biased criticism of the center as legitimate. One of them, Jaroslav Plesl, is the editor-in-chief of a newspaper that has been frequently criticized for promoting pro-Kremlin narratives. (The paper is owned by the holding company of former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš.) Last June, the Ukrainian embassy in Prague published an open letter to Plesl expressing concern about a series of articles that vilified Ukraine using the same framing as Russian state media. It is odd that Jankowicz, purportedly a former strategic communications adviser to Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry, would rely on someone as a source that Kyiv considered untrustworthy enough to publicly impugn.

Plesl, a vocal supporter of President Zeman, also sits on the board of the so-called “Kramerius Prize for Independent Journalism,” which Czech disinformation and “alt-news” outlets award to each other. Jankowicz, however, describes Plesl as being “part of the class of freedom-loving journalists who came of age during the Velvet Revolution and now find themselves running the media in the country.” In reference to the establishment of the Center against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats, she quotes Plesl as saying, “People feel that fighting lies means fighting opinion”—and then invests his statement with authority by making it the title of her chapter about the Czech Republic.

It is deeply ironic that the right-wing attacks on Jankowicz now parallel this very line: Conservatives accuse her of leading a “Ministry of Truth” that will censor American citizens. In practice, the Disinformation Governance Board is unlikely to live up to critics’ worst fears; whether it achieves much of anything at all—or instead languishes as yet another hollow organ in the federal bureaucracy destined for mothballing—seems a more apt question at this point. Indeed, in a CNN interview on Sunday, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas acknowledged that the board has “no operational authority” and would not monitor American citizens. A DHS factsheet posted the following day confirms that the “working group does not have any operational authority or capability,” and was instead introduced with the goal of “ensuring” that freedom of speech, civil rights, civil liberties, and privacy protections “are appropriately incorporated across DHS’s disinformation-related work and that rigorous safeguards are in place.”

But the chief problem with Jankowicz’s appointment, aside from the concerns about the quality of her research summarized above, is that she is a political activist, and her politics consistently color her judgment. Republican officeholders this week have highlighted Jankowicz’s embrace of the Steele dossier, her dismissal of the Hunter Biden laptop story, and her speculation that armed Trump supporters might show up at polls to intimidate voters. Each of these should disqualify her as a credible and fair-minded leader on an extremely sensitive and consequential issue for democratic stability in America. In a co-authored January 2022 piece for the Washington Post, for instance, Jankowicz claims that the State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) “struggled under the politicization of the Trump administration” but “is becoming more nimble under Biden.”

This is a tendentious assessment. While it is true that the GEC got off to a rocky start under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, significant progress was made under his successor Mike Pompeo and after Trump’s appointment of Lea Gabrielle as Special Envoy and Coordinator of the GEC in February 2019. During the latter half of the Trump administration, the GEC developed an impressive reputation with international partners. I experienced it firsthand while serving in the East StratCom Task Force. The GEC (particularly its Russia team) was our closest international partner and a staunch advocate of our work. In truth, they were often a better ally in pursuit of our shared objective of enhancing democratic security against authoritarian influence than our parent institution, the European External Action Service, which faltered under fainthearted leadership. The Trump administration did not hinder this agenda; on the contrary. Under Gabrielle’s leadership, the GEC wrote and published in August 2020 a landmark report on Russia’s disinformation and propaganda ecosystem—the first-ever such analysis by the U.S. government—that was widely endorsed by experts in the field.

It is therefore demonstrably false to claim that the GEC “struggled under the politicization of the Trump administration,” only to become “more nimble under Biden.” This sort of partisan signposting from the government-appointed head of a new counter-disinformation initiative is the best way to politicize and discredit that initiative from the get-go. It also contributes to the hyperpolarization that has made it so difficult to establish bipartisan consensus for tackling the broader challenge of “digital information disorder”—an umbrella term for the set of social and political pathologies resulting from our growing dependence on a digital information architecture that was never designed to sustain democracy or the civic values upon which it depends.

This set of issues, of which disinformation is only one component, constitutes one of the most consequential policy portfolios for democracies in this century. As the Czech experience shows, to have any chance of successfully addressing these issues, the respective institutions and initiatives must have maximal legitimacy across the political spectrum. They must be designed to be nonpartisan as a matter of principle, and independent of the executive branch.

The Biden administration has already failed at this essential prerequisite for the new Disinformation Governance Board, preemptively delegitimizing its work by choosing a person to lead it who falls for the very thing she is meant to expose.

Monika Richter

Monika Richter is head of research and analysis at Semantic Visions, a Prague-based digital intelligence company. Twitter: @mlrchtr.