The Federal Bureau of Investigation has aided a Ukrainian intelligence effort to censor social media users and obtain their personal information, leaked emails reveal.
In March 2022, an FBI Special Agent sent Twitter a list of accounts on behalf of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), Ukraine’s main intelligence agency. The accounts, the FBI wrote, “are suspected by the SBU in spreading fear and disinformation.” In an attached memo, the SBU asked Twitter to remove the accounts and hand over their user data.
The Ukrainian government’s FBI-enabled targets extend to members of the media. The SBU list that the FBI provided to Twitter included my name and Twitter profile. In its response to the FBI, Twitter agreed to review the accounts for “inauthenticity” but raised concerns about the inclusion of me and other “American and Canadian journalists.”
The FBI’s attempt to ban Twitter accounts at the request of Ukrainian intelligence is among the most overt requests for censorship revealed to date in the Twitter Files, a cache of leaked communications from the social media giant.
The FBI’s censorship request was relayed in a March 27th, 2022 email from FBI Special Agent Aleksandr Kobzanets, the Assistant Legal Attaché at the US Embassy in Kyiv, to two Twitter executives. Four FBI colleagues were copied on the exchange.
“Thank you very much for your time to discuss the assistance to Ukraine,” Kobzanets wrote. “I am including a list of accounts I received over a couple of weeks from the Security Service of Ukraine. These accounts are suspected by the SBU in spreading fear and disinformation. For your review and consideration.”
FBI Special Agent Aleksandr Kobzanets’ censorship request to Twitter.
The attached document, drafted by Ukraine’s SBU, contained 163 accounts, including mine. (The list is numbered to 175, but some accounts have two corresponding numerical lines).
The listed Twitter profiles, the SBU alleged, have been “used to disseminate disinformation and fake news to inaccurately reflect events in Ukraine, justify war crimes of the Russian authorities on the territory of the Ukrainian state in violation of international law.”
In order “to stop Russian aggression on the information front,” the SBU continued, “we kindly ask you to take urgent measures to block these Twitter accounts and provide us with user data specified during registration.”
The SBU expressed its “gratitude for the existing level of interaction.”
If granted, the users on the list would not only have been banned from Twitter but had their phone number, date of birth, and email address disclosed to both the FBI and SBU.
In response, Yoel Roth, Twitter’s then-Head of Trust and Safety, informed Special Agent Kobzanets and his FBI colleagues that Twitter would “review the reported accounts under our Rules.” But he warned that the list included “a few accounts of American and Canadian journalists (e.g. Aaron Mate).” Therefore, Roth said, Twitter’s review would “focus first and foremost on identifying any potential inauthenticity.”
Roth then suggested that he would be open to suspending authentic accounts if it could be proven that they have a hidden tie to a foreign government. Journalists “who cover the conflict with a pro-Russian stance are unlikely to be found in violation of our rules absent other context that might establish some kind of covert/deceptive association between them and a government,” Roth wrote. “Any additional information or context in those areas is of course welcome and appreciated.”
Twitter executive Yoel Roth’s response to the FBI’s censorship request flags its inclusion of journalists, “e.g. Aaron Mate.”
In his reply, Kobzanets did not directly acknowledge Roth’s concerns about Ukraine’s FBI-abetted effort to censor journalists. “Understood,” Kobzanets told Roth. “Whatever your review determines and action Twitter deem[s] is appropriate.” He also indicated that the FBI would not meet Roth’s request for any “context” that might establish ties between journalists and a foreign government: “Unlikely there will be any additional information or context.”
Inside Twitter, Roth forwarded the FBI request to two colleagues. “This is the output of our meeting with the FBI last week,” he wrote. “The list of accounts is a mixed bag – there’s some state media mixed in with a bunch of other stuff – but given the context, I think a deep dive here warranted.” (Roth left Twitter in November 2022).
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