The Federal Bureau of Investigation is supposed to be the world’s premiere law enforcement organization, but at least 80 agents were devoted to monitoring the silly jokes of ordinary citizens on social media, pressuring companies into removing protected speech, and ultimately into suppressing one of the most important stories of the 2020 campaign.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is supposed to be the world’s premiere law enforcement organization. From taking down the mob to disrupting terrorist attacks, the impressive track record the FBI has accumulated over its 100 year plus history has earned its agents a special place in our cultural imagination. Their purview is the very things that are supposed to keep us safe and secure. With authority across terrorism, cybercrime, counter intelligence, civil rights, public corruption, weapons of mass destruction, organized crime, violent crime, and white collar crime, they are the protectors of our persons, our finances, and our democracy. So special is this place they have earned, it extends into the fantastical: In fiction, FBI agents regularly investigate the extraterrestrial and the supernatural. Twin Peaks, X-Files, and others introduced us to household names like Special Agent Dale Cooper and Fox Mulder, who’s combination of smarts, savvy, determination, and investigative skills probed the far corners of reality. No mystery was too deep for them to penetrate. No crime was too complex for them to solve. No threat too big for them to neutralize. Or at least that’s what we believed once upon a time, what was pumped into our brains by the fiction and non-fiction media. I guess it was inevitable that the reality could not live up to the mystique, but little could we imagine that their next frontier, the undiscovered country as it was, was actually monitoring social media for unauthorized opinions and expressly interfering with elections.
New revelations from Matt Taibbi and Michael Shellenberger as part of the Twitter Files make it difficult to quantify how far the organization has fallen. The FBI has apparently become obsessed with policing speech itself, regardless of whether or not a crime had been committed or was imminent. Mr. Taibbi sets the stage by discussing “how the government collects, analyzes, and flags your social media content.” Between January and November 2020 upwards of 80 agents were devoted to Twitter alone, exchanging over 150 emails with Twitter’s recently fired Trust and Safety Chief, Yoel Roth. Of course, not every one of these exchanges is explosive, but the overall pattern is clear: There are a “surprisingly high number [of] requests by the FBI for Twitter to take action on election misinformation, even involving joke tweets from low follower accounts.” As Mr. Taibbi described it, “It’s no secret the government analyzes bulk data for all sorts of purposes, everything from tracking terror suspects to making economic forecasts,” but the “#TwitterFiles show something new: agencies like the FBI and DHS regularly sending social media content to Twitter through multiple entry points, pre-flagged for moderation.” This includes trolling Twitter for potential violations of service of the most minor kind, and then alerting the moderation team, as though the FBI was responsible for enforcing end user license agreements rather than the law, which of course is supposed to include First Amendment protections for free speech. “Hello Twitter contacts,” Fred from the San Francisco Field office began on November 10, 2022, meaning this trend continued until at least Elon Musk took over, the “FBI San Francisco is notifying you of the below accounts which may potentially constitute violations of Twitter’s Terms of Service for any action or inaction deemed appropriate within Twitter policy.” Twitter promptly reviewed and suspended four of the accounts in question, including for this joke “I want to remind republicans to vote tomorrow, Wednesday November 9.” Less than a week earlier, the FBI’s National Election Command Post, led by Elvis Chan, flagged even more accounts that “may warrant additional action.” The follow up was dutiful then as well. “Hi Elvis, Thank you for your patience as our team assessed the accounts that you flagged.” Sometimes, the requests were so fast and frequent that Twitter employees were congratulating themselves on the “monumental undertaking of reviewing them all.”
Disturbingly, not one of these accounts appears to have committed a crime of any kind, or is even alleged to have committed a crime. Satire was not illegal last time I checked. I am not aware of anyone who was prosecuted for joking that they voted early and often. Considering the average salary of an FBI agent is $67,890, it’s impossible to see how investing over $5 million per year in direct manpower costs to police anodyne speech alone can benefit anyone, save to create a cozy, likely illegal relationship between the government and a private business. This was a relationship the FBI, being the proverbial fox guarding the hen house, would repeatedly push for their own ends. Hence, it should be no surprise that Agent Chan is pressing Mr. Roth for action as early as July 2020. “Hi Yoel, I believe FTIF would like a response ahead of our meeting the week of August 10th. It can be a written response or we can set up a phone call. Whatever is easiest for you, I think you can tell from the nature of the questions, that there was quite a bit of discussion within the USIC to get clarifications from the company. Let me know how you would like to proceed. Thanks!” All that’s missing is the “nice little social media company you got there, be a shame if anything happened to it,” so much so that Mr. Roth was “perplexed” by the repeated inquiry, especially after he already told them that they “had not observed much recent activity” in regards to their query. “I’m frankly perplexed by the requests here, which seem more like something we’d get from a congressional committee than the Bureau,” he wrote in an internal email, adding that he was not “particularly comfortable with the Bureau (and by extension the [Intelligence Community]) demanding written answers.” Nor was the FBI interested only in public information on Twitter. At times, they requested private user location data based on their IP address, again without any indication that a crime had been committed, much less a warrant, but who cares about the Fourth Amendment when you are trashing the First?
Even more incredibly and disturbingly, the FBI paid Twitter for their services, some $3,415,323 as of October 2019. Jim Baker, a Twitter legal deputy who was also a former FBI employee, bragged that “Run the business – we made money” by policing the average person’s speech. The FBI wasn’t the only government agency involved, either. The Department of Homeland Security, other teams in the Department of Justice, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, all set up regular meetings with Twitter, conducting them at least through September 16, 2022. State officials were in on the act as well, in one case demanding “WHY WAS NO ACTION TAKEN?” in all caps. Overall the relationship was so tight the federal government extended temporary clearance to classified information for select Twitter employees. There is no reason to believe any of this was legal. Even if you set aside the First, Fourth, and possibly Fifth and Tenth Amendment, along with countless civil rights violations that necessarily occur when the government coerces a private company into doing its bidding without any investigative predicate, by what statute can the FBI pay a company millions of dollars to review your speech online? Who authorized them to do this and on what basis? 80 agents don’t end up on social media without someone being responsible, especially when there is no rational explanation for any of this: Someone, somewhere, thought it was a good idea for the FBI to monitor the communications of ordinary citizens expressing their opinions and making bad jokes? Indeed, it seems like a bad parody of an even worse science fiction film: The Meme Police. Think George Orwell’s Thought Police meets Cheap Trick’s Dream Police with a dash of Kurt Vonnegut. It’s too trite to call authoritarian or totalitarian, but also creepy enough to require some kind of special moniker.
I am not creative enough to come with one, but I do have a theory as to why they were doing all this, what the purpose of years of spending money and building relationships truly was, and that leads me to Mr. Shellenberger’s follow up story. His focus is on “How the FBI & intelligence community discredited factual information about Hunter Biden’s foreign business dealings both after and *before* The New York Post revealed the contents of its laptop on October 14, 2020.” He reveals how the FBI conducted at least two exercises with social media companies where the “sample” scenario just happened to be the hacked release of Hunter Biden’s private materials. As Mr. Roth described it in a sworn declaration, the “federal law enforcement agencies communicated that they expected ‘hack-and-leak” operations by state actors…I was told in these meetings that the intelligence community expected that individuals associated with political campaigns would be subject to hacking attacks and that material obtained through those hacking attacks would likely be disseminated over social media platforms, including Twitter. I also learned in these meetings that there were rumors that a hack-and-leak operation would involve Hunter Biden.” In September 2020, Mr. Roth participated in an Aspen Institute “tabletop exercise” where the sample scenario was once again the hack of sensitive information related to Hunter Biden. Mr. Roth described the result himself when the Post released its story that October. “It set off every single one of my finely tuned APT23 hack-and-leap campaign alarm bells,” but of course it did: The FBI was aware of the laptop in December 2019. They knew damn well it might make its way into the campaign and clearly, they took steps to spike the story in advance including spending years infiltrating Twitter for this kind of eventuality. Let you think I sound conspiratorial, by their own admission they had no new evidence an attack of this kind was likely. “Through our investigations, we did not see any similar competing intrusions to what had happened in 2016,” explained Agent Chan. Are we to believe they randomly stumbled onto the real story and just happened to perfectly prime Twitter for the actual release? Not just Twitter. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg candidly admitted that they ran the same operation against his company saying, “The FBI basically came to us [and] was like, ‘Hey, you should be on high alert. We thought that there was a lot of Russian propaganda in the 2016 election. There is about to be some kind of dump similar to that.” How can they say that so perfectly when they have no evidence of their own admission?
There is additional circumstantial evidence that was the case. Before running the story, the Post contacted Hunter Biden’s lawyer. Hunter Biden’s lawyer promptly called the repair shop from which the Post obtained the laptop in the first place. Two hours after that phone call, Agent Chan contacts Twitter with a package of 10 documents about potential hacked materials. We do not know specifically what was in those documents, but based on the totality of what we do know, “It’s impossible to believe that Chan and other officials in the FBI — not to mention the still-well-connected former intelligence operatives who signed that letter [claiming it was Russian disinformation] — didn’t know that Hunter Biden’s files were already in the wild. And that they knew they weren’t ‘hacked’ or made up,” as the Post put it. What other explanation could there be, unless we are to assume all of this was some massive cosmic coincidence? Recall that the FBI had the laptop in its possession for months. In a more fair and reasonable world, they could have cleared up any confusion and released a statement claiming the materials were not hacked. Instead, they chose to work behind the scenes, implementing what appears to be a coordinated plan to suppress it and remaining silent when they knew its veracity, allowing others from social media to the intelligence community to lie about it with impunity. The FBI did not establish close relationships with Twitter and other social media was not because the two are natural allies. They don’t do anything without a purpose, and an organization with that kind of power cannot engage in a two way partnership with a private company on an even playing field. The FBI holds all the cards. They could easily make Twitter’s “life” miserable if they so choose, and Twitter clearly knows this. Aside from any political desire to see Joe Biden in office over Donald Trump, what choice to Mr. Roth and others really have? It’s almost impossible to escape the conclusion that the FBI ran a years-long operation against the American people with the express aim of influencing the election. Sadly, this should not be surprising. They did more or less the same thing in 2016 with a different target. They did the same thing back in the 1960s, targeting Martin Luther King, Jr. and others with illegal operations before the Church Commission implemented reforms. Even more sadly, they will likely get away with it again unless we find the will to do something similar.