WASHINGTON (TND) — Independent writer Michael Shellenberger released the seventh installment of the "Twitter Files" series of information drops Monday, continuing the work of Substack writer Matt Taibbi’s recent entries in the series exploring the relationship between Twitter and the FBI.
Shellenberger – an author and former public relations professional but not a trained or professional journalist – focused his narrative around his claim that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, along with the Department of Justice, tried to discredit and dismiss leaked information about Hunter Biden and his abandoned laptop before and after The New York Post published an exposé based on the contents of the laptop in 2020.
The article – which the Post published while other, more credible journalistic outlets like The Wall Street Journal were still investigating the claims and evidence – alleged that Hunter "introduced his father, then-Vice President Joe Biden, to a top executive at a Ukrainian energy firm less than a year before the elder Biden pressured government officials in Ukraine into firing a prosecutor who was investigating the company." Conservative activists and lawmakers use this as “proof” that the then-vice president fired the prosecutor because he was investigating Hunter’s activities at Burisma, but fact check shows that the prosecutor was never investigating the younger Biden. Furthermore, the prosecutor was fired due to apparent inaction to pursue corruption investigations into Ukrainian officials (Civil society organizations in Ukraine, among other European nations, had been calling for his resignation).
Within hours after the story was posted online, Twitter and other social media companies censored the piece, "preventing it from spreading and, more importantly, undermining its credibility in the minds of many Americans." Twitter’s then-CEO Jack Dorsey admitted at the time that the social media platform handled the response poorly. While the communications Taibbi shared concerned Twitter’s response to the New York Port article reflect panicked and less than ideal decisions from the social media platform’s staff, they neglect the context of that moment in the 2020 campaign and the fear by many – including, as other “Twitter Files” installments have showed – within the company and in the intelligence community over possible attempts by Russia or other state actors to influence voters and spread misinformation.
In fact, Shellenberger notes in his tweet thread for the “Twitter Files” part seven, that Yoel Roth, the former Head of Trust & Safety at Twitter, gave sworn testimony that he had been briefed in weekly meetings by members of the intelligence community since 2018 about the potential for something like this. “During this weekly meetings, the federal law enforcement agencies communicated that they expected ‘hack-and-leak operations’ by state actors might occur in the period shortly before the 2020 presidential election, likely in October,” Roth told the Federal Election Commission in Dec. 2020. He said he also learned in these meetings that “there were rumors that a hack-and-leak operation would involve Hunter Biden.”
Shellenberger uses Roth’s testimony to allege how “the FBI and other law enforcement agencies repeatedly primed Yoel Roth to dismiss reports of Hunter Biden’s laptop as a Russian ‘hack and leak’ operation.” However, he does not break down the timing of when Roth began to hear those rumors as part of the likely more comprehensive briefings he would have received about potential disinformation campaigns and other interreference by state actors during the 2018 midterms and the 2020 election cycle starting in 2019. Hunter Biden was already a focus of Republican and conservative attempts to attack the Biden campaign. As an example, Breitbart News published an article in May 2019 – a day before Hunter was scheduled to campaign with his father in Philadelphia – based on a 2016 police report that named Hunter as a suspect in a possible narcotics offense.Since the beginning of the “Twitter Files” saga on Dec. 2, when Taibbi first shared information about the Hunter Biden laptop story, Shellenberger notes, “We have discovered new info that points to an organized effort by the intel community to influence Twitter & other platforms." He noted in his criticism of the FBI’s “priming” of Roth that San Francisco-based FBI Agent Elvis Chan, who is often named in the “Twitter Files,” said in a deposition from Nov. 29 that the FBI did not “see any similar competing intrusions to what happened in 2016” (intrusions here referring to “computer intrusions into national-level political committees or election officials or presidential candidates”). However, Chan notes in his next line of testimony “So although from our standpoint we had not see anything, we specifically, in an abundance of caution, warned the companies in case they saw something we did not.” Chan’s testimony comes from deposition he gave in November as part of a lawsuit by the Attorneys General of Missouri and Louisiana that allege the Biden administration colluded with social media companies to censor free speech.
Since the beginning of the “Twitter Files” saga on Dec. 2, when Taibbi first shared information about the Hunter Biden laptop story, Shellenberger notes, “We have discovered new info that points to an organized effort by the intel community to influence Twitter & other platforms." He noted in his criticism of the FBI’s “priming” of Roth that San Francisco-based FBI Agent Elvis Chan, who is often named in the “Twitter Files,” said in a deposition from Nov. 29 that the FBI did not “see any similar competing intrusions to what happened in 2016” (intrusions here referring to “computer intrusions into national-level political committees or election officials or presidential candidates”). However, Chan notes in his next line of testimony “So although from our standpoint we had not see anything, we specifically, in an abundance of caution, warned the companies in case they saw something we did not.” Chan’s testimony comes from deposition he gave in November as part of a lawsuit by the Attorneys General of Missouri and Louisiana that allege the Biden administration colluded with social media companies to censor free speech.
Shellenberger also continued Taibbi’s line of allegations of the “subsidiary” relationship between the Twitter and the FBI and the tension Taibbi established in the “Twitter Files Supplemental” between the social media platform and the bureau over levels of observed state-controlled media and propaganda present on Twitter this past summer. Taibbi left the narrative in July, when the FBI called for the company to submit written answers to a questionnaire concerned how the platform measures such activity on its site. As The National Desk reported Sunday, Roth expressed discomfort and wondered whether “there’s swirl somewhere in the IC [intelligence community] about a statement that may have been fundamentally misunderstood.”
Schellenberger notes that – what he calls – “pressure from the FBI on social media platforms” continued. He then presents a series of tweets trying to establish that mainstream media journalists as well as the FBI and other agencies were inflating or misconstruing the impact of potential foreign interference in American politics in 2020. He also notes an email from Carlos Monje – a then-Twitter employee who now serves as Under Secretary of Transportation for Policy – in which he writes, “We have seen a sustained (If uncoordinated) effort by the IC [intelligence community] to push us to share more info & change our API policies. They are probing & pushing everywhere they can (including by whispering to congressional staff).”
“Time and again,” Shellenberger continues, “FBI asks Twitter for evidence of foreign influence & Twitter responds that they aren’t finding anything worth reporting” – which is not a sign of overstep, just of continued pursual of possible sources of information and intelligence. In fact, as Shellenberger notes, Chan proposed an arrangement for certain high-ranking employees at Twitter to receive temporary “Top Secret” security clearances for the 30 days preceding the election. While Chan does not specify in the email why, it seems likely to keep the company informed of threats the bureau saw before the election and how those intersected with Twitter. He goes on to allege that communications and briefings by the bureau about the Russian hacking group APT28 somehow conditioned and primed Roth to automatically think of the Hunter Biden laptop story as the product of Russian interference – but many journalists also had the same idea in October 2020.
He alleges further wrongdoing by Roth in Twitter’s handling of the laptop story by citing the schedule for an Aspen Institute tabletop exercise/war game the Twitter executive participated in that examined how various news and government agencies would react to and cover a possible “hack and dump” operation involving Hunter Biden. As said above, Biden was already a prime target for disinformation opportunities in the 2020 election. NBC News reported in Oct. 2020 that far-right activists tried to “pizzagate” then-candidate Joe Biden’s son.
Shellenberger ultimately attempts to tie the suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story as the result of an almost “deep state”-like twist of federal law enforcement officials and social media executives who worked to purposefully suppress and discredit the story.
As a final note for his information drop Monday afternoon, Shellenberger cited an email circulated to Twitter executives about a meeting with the FBI on Sept. 6. The FBI’s main goal in the meeting – both Shellenberger and the document itself note – is to try and get Twitter to produce more EDRs. EDRs, “emergency data requests,” – are requests for obtaining information from service providers in emergency situations – such as in an imminent case of harm or death – and “largely bypasses any official review and does not require the requestor to supply any court-approved documents,” as defined by the security news blog KrebsonSecurity. While Shellenberger attempts to paint this as a “warrantless search,” and therefore a violation of the Fourth Amendment, the legal argument is questionable.
However, US case law does not protect a person from searches where that information is held and controlled by a third party and that third party voluntarily provides that information to the government. In United States v. Miller in 1976 and Smith v. Maryland in 1979, the Supreme Court affirmed that a person has no expectations of privacy in information they voluntarily turn over to a third party (such as Twitter)
The author of the email goes on to say the FBI seems to be orchestrating a campaign of pressure on the platform, including by having members of the National Threat Operations Center brief the executives on threats they are seeing and their standards for seeking EDRs, as well as citing Twitter’s apparently low rate of compliance with EDR requests, including some which the bureau was perplexed Twitter did not fill (“i.e. situations where the FBI view there is no reason why we would not have complied).
However, while Shellenberger points to the anonymous Twitter executive’s summary of the FBI’s goals for the meetings as further proof of some sort of overzealousness or malice on the part of the bureau, the same executive remarks in the email that “I get the feeling they are genuinely baffled and frustrated that their ‘rate of success’ (as they say) is so low at Twitter.” Furthermore, it is standard practice for the FBI to work with private sector companies to get information that could relate to cybercrime or terrorism, so while it could appear that the bureau is exerting undue pressure on Twitter, it is also possible – as was the case in the communications Taibbi cited in the “supplemental” – there is something more like a misunderstanding between the two parties.
Indeed, that could be said about much of the speculative claims Shellenberger made in part seven of the “Twitter Files.”
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