FBI Stonewalls on Twitter Files Records Request

FBI Stonewalls on Twitter Files Records Request

  • May 31, 2023
Agency twists requests to deny records that may reveal its role in censorship

Today, ethics watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust announced a fight against efforts by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to deny responding to a series of records requests related to the possible involvement of FBI officials in the censorship of American citizens. Conversations between FBI officials and Twitter employees have been revealed in the Twitter Files exposés and elsewhere. Despite the heightened level of public interest in these records, the FBI refused to comply – completely mischaracterizing the requests and closing them, without providing records, based upon its mischaracterizations.

In December 2022, journalists began reporting on the Twitter Files, thousands of internal documents and discussions involving Twitter employees about content moderation decisions. These communications detailed conversations in which federal government officials were advising, and in some cases demanding, Twitter to “shadow ban,” censor, and/or disable certain accounts under the guise of “combatting disinformation.”

Reporter Matt Taibbi revealed:

Between January 2020 and November 2022, there were over 150 emails between the FBI and former Twitter Trust and Safety chief, Yoel Roth […] [there were] 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.

In March, PPT submitted a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for records of the conversations between named Twitter employees and FBI officials. Just two weeks later, the FBI denied PPT’s requests, mischaracterizing them as requests for “records on one or more third party individuals,” and therefore exempted from FOIA because of privacy concerns.

In rejecting the requests, the FBI completely twists the substance of the requests. PPT is not seeking records “on one or more third party individuals,” but communications between the FBI and named third-party individuals. This difference is more than semantic. Records “on” an individual connotes records created by the FBI about a person – an individual’s FBI file or “rap sheet.” PPT is seeking records of communications between a government agency and third-party individuals. Those records are routinely sought from agencies and are subject to release under FOIA. Furthermore, Twitter employees and FBI officials have previously acknowledged that they communicated.

The FBI’s attempts to avoid transparency are becoming all too common. Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability James Comer and Senator Chuck Grassley were recently denied unclassified records by the FBI. The agency is reportedly defying a congressional subpoena for records alleging connections between then-Vice President Joe Biden and a foreign national.

“The FBI’s response to our requests appears to be part of a disturbing pattern of attempting to deny releasing information the American public deserves to know,” Protect the Public’s Trust Director Michael Chamberlain said. “Despite the FBI having already acknowledged that these records exist and the tremendous public interest in the conversations, as evidenced by the nearly 56 million views garnered by just one portion of the Twitter Files, the agency appears to be twisting both the law and the content of the requests to stonewall us. Far from reflecting the Biden Administration’s promises to be the most transparent in history, the FBI appears to be acting as if they don’t want the American public to know what they are up to.”

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