Published February 11, 2022
America’s national-security apparatus is deeply interested in the link between Covid-19 and terrorism. Given that scientists have yet to identify Covid’s source, our intelligence agencies should be investigating whether the Covid catastrophe began with human hands in a lab because if so, it can be weaponized by foreign actors seeking to harm American interests. But that’s not what “the Interagency” is investigating. Instead, they are treating Americans who resist the government-approved narratives about Covid-19 as the true national-security threat.
On February 7, the Department of Homeland Security issued a National Terrorism Advisory System bulletin that sounds more like a plot from a dystopian sci-fi novel than a sober assessment of America’s enemies and their capabilities. The bulletin begins by stating, “The United States remains in a heightened threat environment fueled by several factors, including an online environment filled with false or misleading narratives and conspiracy theories, and other forms of mis- dis- and mal-information (MDM).” Note that the DHS is not here talking about speech actually coordinating or inciting violent terrorist actions. Such conduct is clearly criminal and is discussed elsewhere in the bulletin. Rather, the DHS makes clear that purely lawful speech and opinion is now the number one contributor to the current threat environment and cites “misleading narratives” regarding Covid-19 as a leading example of this terroristic threat.
The DHS defines Covid “misinformation” as being “false, but not created or shared with the intention of causing harm,” and defines Covid “malinformation” as being “based on fact, but used out of context to mislead, harm, or manipulate.” Under these definitions, you can be guilty of contributing to terrorism without any bad intent or by disseminating known Covid facts if you omit what the DHS considers proper context. Worse still, because “older, dated information [is] a potential catalyst of confusion and distrust as well,” you better keep up on the very latest from the CDC or risk being labelled a misinformationist for sending a non-footnoted tweet. You should also avoid mentioning how the CDC has frequently changed its position and advice on Covid or risk being labeled a malinformationist (we are, after all, not at war with East Asia, and never have been . . .).
To help us stay on the right side of the terrorist line, the DHS is rather explicit about the best Covid-19 information practices and points to three “trusted sources” you should rely on: state and local health officials, the CDC, and of course, the DHS. But if ever in doubt, “listen to local authorities and public safety officials,” the bulletin reminds us.
The bulletin additionally directs us to resources “to stay safe” including on how to “recognize and build resilience to false or misleading narratives.” For example, we are to “[t]ake care when viewing or sharing content that uses sensational terms to divide us in a time of crisis” and must be “especially careful of content that attempts to make people angry or sad or create division.” May as well close your Twitter account right now, just to be safe. You may think I am joking, but the DHS warns us that “spending more time online – increas[es] the risk of being exposed to false or misleading information.” The DHS also recommends a comprehensive guide for parents and caregivers, titled “Building Resilience and Confronting Risk in the COVID-19 Era” co-written by the hyper-partisan Southern Poverty Law Center. This DHS-endorsed resource includes advice such as “help children develop an understanding and appreciation for gender beyond the binary of boys and girls,” and “don’t stay silent about the history and ongoing injustices of white supremacy and male supremacy,” and conveniently provides links to local Black Lives Matter chapters.
Given so many different “resources,” you may be rightly wondering what exactly counts as Covid misinformation that would merit national-security suspicions. Here again, the DHS is surprisingly forthright (or brazen) in admitting the information of concern revolves around “false [COVID] treatment and prevention measures, unsubstantiated rumors regarding the origin of the virus, and more,” presumably, of the same.
There you have it, no actual threats of violence, just speech. The verboten topics likely include saying that ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine helps Covid symptoms; that the vaccines are ineffective at stopping the spread; that widespread natural immunity is a key part of ending the pandemic; that government-approved monoclonal treatments have failed; that adverse reactions to the vaccines can include heart inflammation and disrupted menstrual cycles; that mandates, lock downs, and cloth masks don’t work in practice and cause massive harms, especially to kids; and arguing that the virus likely originated in a Chinese lab. By the DHS’s logic, if you spread any of these claims, or fail to provide proper context, you are either providing “fuel” to terrorists or you are one in the making.
Rational people will still wonder how Covid information — even if false, outdated, or taken out of context — has anything remotely to do with terrorism. But to the DHS, the answer is blazingly clear: “Malignant actors [are] seeking to interfere with and undermine our democratic institutions and national cohesiveness,” duh. “COVID-19-related MDM activities seek to undermine public confidence and sow confusion,” of course. “Creating or spreading this type of online content can undermine public confidence in our system of government and its institutions,” obviously. Also “every individual plays an important role in recognizing and building resilience to [these] false and harmful narratives,” like that even needed to be said — what are you, a terrorist sympathizer?
Perhaps it is time to resurrect the House Un-American Activities Committee to uncover and root out every last unpatriotic Covid-misinformation terrorist and their fellow travelers out there in fly-over country. Sound far-fetched? Recall that Attorney General Merrick Garland had no problem unleashing the DOJ’s FBI and counterterrorism apparatus on parents angry about Covid mandates, critical-race curricula, and transgender policies endangering girls’ safe spaces. Garland has yet to disband his nationwide task force aimed at investigating parents who are especially vocal in school-board meetings about mandatory Covid vaccines and quarantines, virtual learning that doesn’t work, and mask and distancing mandates that force their kids to eat outdoors in the freezing cold.
When both the DHS and the FBI team up to investigate Americans who dissent from harmful policies emanating from our storied government institutions, it is clear that the party most responsible for eroding confidence in our system of government is the government itself.
Roger Severino is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he heads the HHS Accountability Project.