Cybersecurity Head Accused of Using Her Position to Advance Private Interests
- December 7, 2022
Watchdog alleges statement on government account ran afoul of federal ethics laws
Today, Protect the Public’s Trust announced it has filed an ethics complaint against the Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). The watchdog alleges CISA Director Jen Easterly violated ethics laws prohibiting federal employees from endorsing products or services on their official social media accounts. CISA has overseen efforts to police online “disinformation”; efforts that some experts claim have included censoring American citizens.
As recently reported, Ms. Easterly used her official Twitter account (@CISAJen) to issue a glowing review of a book about tech and the underworld. Federal ethics regulations provide that an employee shall not use her public office for her own private gain, for the endorsement of any product, service or enterprise, or for the private gain of friends with whom the employee is affiliated in a nongovernmental capacity. Though Ms. Easterly deleted the tweet, she did so, notably, only after being alerted by a member of the media that it may have constituted an ethics violation. After filing its complaint, PPT became aware of two additional tweets sent from Ms. Easterly’s CISA account that “praised other nonfiction books” and that she deleted after a journalist discovered them.
Ms. Easterly should be keenly aware of the ethics obligations that come with working in the federal Government. Prior to her appointment in the Biden administration, she served in the Obama administration at the National Security Agency and on the National Security Council. It is hard to fathom how a tweet fraught with so many ethics issues could have been sent without some knowledge of its implications.
While Ms. Easterly maintains at least two Twitter accounts, the bio for her personal account indicates the @CISAJen account is associated with her role in the federal government. Moreover, her personal account currently has less than 700 followers, while more than 50,000 follow her official @CISAJen account. This indicates that her reach and influence on the platform are due almost exclusively to her position in the government, as Director of CISA, rather than any private attributes she brings to the platform. As a result, it appears she traded on her position of public trust to lend cachet to the promotion of a private commercial interest.
“Restrictions on federal employees endorsing products and services are important tools to prevent corruption and ‘pay-to-play schemes.’” Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust, said. “An endorsement by the federal government, or a high-ranking official in the government, could potentially be just as valuable to a product or service provider as if it came from a famous athlete or entertainer. And it’s certainly not lost on us that this possible violation was committed by someone overseeing an agency involved in monitoring the speech of American citizens. Little wonder that the public’s trust in its government continues its precipitous decline.”
PPT asks the DHS Inspector General to investigate:
- The extent of the friendship between Ms. Easterly and the author and the perception by subordinates that they should purchase the book..
- Whether Ms. Easterly used her Government position or title or any authority associated with her public office in a manner that could reasonably be construed to imply that CISA or the Government sanctions or endorses the author’s work
- Whether Ms. Easterly used or permitted the use of her Government position or title or any authority associated with her public office in a manner that could reasonably be construed to imply that CISA or the Government sanctions or endorses the book.
- Whether, Ms. Easterly used Government time, property or her subordinates to tweet about the book.
- Whether Ms. Easterly sought ethics guidance or received counseling to avoid an inherent appearance of a conflict of interest or endorsement of the book.
- Whether Ms. Easterly has acted inappropriately through the use of Government resources, her official position or title, or other violation of federal law, rules, and policies in the course of her tenure as Director of CISA.