The FBI participated in a flawed effort to stop Russian disinformation at the behest of a Ukrainian intelligence agency that instead ensnared authentic American accounts – even a verified Russian-language US State Department account, the House Judiciary Committee alleges in a new report obtained first by CNN.
The report accuses the FBI of not properly vetting social media accounts that one of Ukraine’s main intelligence agencies, the SBU, flagged as spreading Russian disinformation. Some of the accounts that the FBI passed on to Meta for review, according to the report, were actually criticizing Russia and its war on Ukraine.
The report, drafted in tandem with the House subcommittee on the alleged weaponization of the federal government, draws on information from a subset of subpoenas the committee sent to Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, and Alphabet, the parent company of Google and YouTube, in February as part of its investigation into whether the federal government played a role in censoring speech on social media platforms.
The interim report is being released just two days before FBI Director Christopher Wray is scheduled to testify before the panel – a hearing that will place Wray in front of some of his harshest critics on Capitol Hill, including the committee’s chairman, Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, who has made Wray and the alleged politicization of the FBI a central focus of his panel’s investigative work.
It’s the latest in a series of Republican efforts to attack the Biden administration’s work with social media platforms, which ramped up over intervention on stories about Hunter Biden’s laptop. It comes after a federal judge ordered some Biden administration agencies, including the FBI and top officials, to stop communicating with social media companies about certain content, a ruling viewed as a victory for GOP states who filed a lawsuit accusing the government of going too far in its effort to combat Covid-19 disinformation.
Before and after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the FBI and other US agencies tried to blunt the impact of Russian propaganda about the war. Part of that work typically includes the FBI passing along tips to social media platforms about coordinated disinformation campaigns.
In this case, however, the committee is alleging that the FBI uncritically passed on information from the SBU without vetting the information.
The FBI declined to comment on this story.
CNN has requested comment from the SBU, Ukraine’s embassy in Washington, the State Department and Meta.
The committee says SBU sent the FBI lists of social media accounts that allegedly “spread Russian disinformation,” and that the FBI then “routinely relayed these lists to the relevant social media platforms, which distributed the information internally to their employees in charge of content moderation and enforcement.”
The committee claims that the FBI and SBU, “flagged for social media companies the authentic accounts of Americans, including a verified U.S. State Department account and those belonging to American journalists” as well as requested that those accounts be taken down.
The report reveals that the State Department’s Russian-language Instagram account, @usaporusski, was flagged for removal after the SBU and FBI provided a list of Instagram accounts they claimed engaged in “distribut[ing] content that promotes war, inaccurately reflects events in Ukraine, justifies Russian war crimes in Ukraine in violation of international law,” among other things. @usaporusski is the official, verified, Russian-language account of the US State Department.
Meta does not appear to have complied with the request. Indeed, the committee’s report details how one senior Twitter employee pointed out in an email to the FBI that some of the accounts that were included in one list included “even a few accounts of American and Canadian journalists.”
In the emails cited in the committee’s report, the FBI agents do not at any point demand that social media content be taken down. Instead, the FBI agents pass the information on from the SBU and ask the social media platforms to review the accounts and take action they deem appropriate.
The House panel also alleges that SBU had questionable motives in flagging the accounts, pointing to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s decision to fire the head of SBU in 2022 “on account of Russian infiltration of the SBU.”
While there have been longstanding concerns from Ukrainian and US officials that the SBU may have Russia moles, that doesn’t prevent Washington and other key allies of Ukraine from working with the SBU.
The report also alleges that the FBI “transmitted the SBU’s censorship requests for content on Google and YouTube.” The committee says they interviewed a senior employee on Google’s cybersecurity team who testified that Google was “deluged with various requests” for the removal of content following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“The employee testified that the primary sources of these requests for censorship were the Ukrainian government, other Eastern European governments, the European Union, and the European Commission,” the report states.
The committee plans to use the report and its findings to claim the FBI improperly interfered in free speech – allegations Republicans on the panel have been pushing for several months. This claim will be a key feature of the questions GOP members of the committee plan to grill Wray on during their Wednesday hearing, a Judiciary committee aide told CNN.
The panel also alleges that the report’s findings show “misconduct by the FBI that is unconstitutional,” and argues the activity “endangers national security.”