(Billy Hathorn, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
The FBI aided a Ukrainian intelligence effort to ban Twitter users and collect their data, leaks reveal. Twitter declined to censor journalists targeted byUkraine, including Aaron Maté.
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.”
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.”
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).
In an email, I asked Special Agent Kobzanets if he had vetted Ukraine’s censorship request list before sending it to Twitter. I also asked Kobzanets if, after being informed by Twitter’s Roth that the FBI was trying to censor journalists on the SBU’s behalf, whether that had prompted any review or revision of his assistance to Ukrainian intelligence. Kobzanets did not respond.
The FBI’s National Press Office also declined to answer questions. Among several queries, I invoked Twitter’s warning that the FBI’s “assistance to Ukraine” entailed censoring journalists, and asked if that has prompted any changes to the bureau’s collaboration with Ukrainian intelligence.
“While we appreciate your inquiry, as a matter of practice we do not confirm, deny, or otherwise comment on specific interactions nor confirm the veracity of correspondence,” an FBI spokesperson wrote.
The FBI officials copied on the Kobzanets’ exchange with Twitter include Elvis Chan, an Assistant Special Agent in Charge (ASAC) of the FBI’s San Francisco field office, where he manages its Cyber Branch. Chan was active in the FBI’s contacts with Twitter when the social media giant’s censorship of reporting on Hunter Biden’s laptop shortly before the November 2020 election. (As I recently reported, he was also involved in FBI’s decision to forego a direct inspection of the DNC servers and instead rely on the Hillary Clinton-funded cyber firm CrowdStrike in the bureau’s probe of alleged Russian hacking in 2016).
Of the 163 accounts named by the SBU, 34 were suspended and 20 no longer exist. The rest remain active.
Those marked for censorship by Ukraine but remain online include Russian politicians Gennady Zyuganov, a longtime member of Russia’s Communist Party and parliamentarian who lost to Boris Yeltsin in Russia’s 1996 president election; Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s former Deputy Prime Minister; and Sergey Mironov, a Russian politician and parliamentarian. The list also includes Russian journalists Vladimir Solovyov, a television news host; and Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the Russian state-controlled network RT. Several Russian government agencies and media outlets were also listed.
The Ukrainian nationals targeted by the SBU’s suppression request include Anatoly Shariy, a video blogger and politician who fled Ukraine in 2012 and subsequently received European Union asylum; and Andriy Portnov, a Ukrainian lawyer and politician who served as a senior official under Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych until the latter’s ouster in the February 2014 Maidan coup. (Both Shariy and Portnov’s Twitter accounts remain active).
The disclosure of a collaboration on censorship between the FBI and SBU is the latest documented instance of Ukrainian state-tied attempts to target foreign voices. A Ukrainian website known as Myrotvorets maintains a list of what it calls “enemies of Ukraine.” I was recently added to that list along with The Grayzone’s Anya Parampil, as well as the comedian and YouTube host Jimmy Dore. The Myrotvorets database was co-founded by Anton Gerashchenko, former deputy minister at the Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, where he now serves as an advisor.
Last year, the global tech/media conference Web Summit withdrew a speaking invitation to The Grayzone’s Max Blumenthal and I after Olena Zelenska, the wife of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, demanded our cancellation. (Another Grayzone colleague, Kit Klarenberg, was recently detained and interrogated about his journalism by British authorities).
News of the FBI’s work with Ukrainian intelligence to censor Twitter users also follows reporting from journalist Lee Fang that the FBI has pressured Facebook to remove accounts and posts deemed by the SBU to be Russian “disinformation.” According to Fang, a senior Ukrainian official in regular contact with the FBI defined “disinformation” in such broad terms that it could mean viewpoints that “simply contradict the Ukrainian government’s narrative.”