‘Twitter Files’ show FBI offered executives top secret info to guide 2020 election censorship

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The FBI set up a classified briefing for Twitter lawyer James Baker weeks before news reports emerged about incriminating information found on Hunter Biden’s abandoned laptop computer, according to internal Twitter documents.

Mr. Baker, a former FBI lawyer chosen for the top-secret briefings, would later push Twitter to block the reports that threatened then-candidate Joseph R. Biden’s presidential run in October 2020.

Internal emails released on Monday by independent journalist Michael Shellenberger in the latest installment of Elon Musk’s Twitter Files, revealed the depth of ties between federal officials and social media platforms. It included this scheme to grant Twitter executives access to classified information as the FBI sought to discredit the laptop computer that had been in the bureau’s possession for 10 months before the New York Post broke the story about it in October 2020.

Nevertheless, the FBI and Mr. Baker allowed speculation to flourish that the laptop computer belonging to Mr. Biden’s son was part of a Russian disinformation operation.

In July 2020, Elvis Chan, the FBI assistant special agent in charge of the bureau’s San Francisco Cyber Branch wrote Twitter with a proposal to grant a group of employees temporary clearances to begin sharing information on the threats to the upcoming election.

The following month, Mr. Chan requested a list of Twitter employees who still had active Top Secret clearances from previous positions in the federal government so the FBI’s task force responsible for investigating foreign influence on U.S. elections, the Foreign Influence Task Force (FITF), could provide a specific briefing at the nation’s highest classification level.

“FITF asked us to work with you to identify if there is anyone at Twitter who currently holds a TS clearance so they can get a briefing on something,” Mr. Chan wrote in an email to Twitter in August 2020.

The company responded that it had two individuals with active Top Secret Clearances, including Mr. Baker, who served as Twitter’s deputy general counsel and vice president beginning in June 2020 and spent four years before that as the top lawyer for the FBI.

While serving in the FBI, Mr. Baker was a key facilitator of the FBI’s much-criticized investigation into whether former President Donald Trump colluded with Russia ahead of the 2016 presidential election and provided.

That investigation ramped up in the fall of 2016 after Mr. Baker provided a critical link between FBI investigators and Michael Sussmann, who was peddling a fabricated story to create an “October surprise” against Mr. Trump on behalf of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

Mr. Baker later came under criminal investigation for leaking unauthorized information to the media. He went on to hold a brief stint as a CNN legal analyst where he provided commentary about Mr. Trump and defended the Trump-Russia investigation.

“I don’t know how I forgot Baker is there now,” Mr. Chan responded. “Yes, he would be perfect.”

On Sept. 15, 2020, one month before the Hunter Biden laptop story was published, Mr. Chan and Laura Dehmlow, who heads the FITF, wrote Mr. Baker to request his presence at a classified briefing without other Twitter staff in attendance.

The request, Mr. Shellenberger wrote, came amid a growing push to discredit reports linking Mr. Biden to Hunter Biden’s potentially illegal business schemes.

In August of 2020, FBI and other intelligence community officials held an unsolicited briefing for lawmakers related to a Senate investigation of conflicts of interest arising from Hunter Biden’s position on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma Holdings while his father served as vice president in the Obama administration and as the White House point man for Ukraine.

FBI officials labeled the investigation, led by Republican Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa as Russian disinformation.

The senators said the briefing, weeks before they published their report, was a “scheme to downplay derogatory information on Hunter Biden for the purpose of shutting down investigative activity.”

The FBI took possession of the laptop in December 2019, 10 months before the newspaper published materials from the computer, raising questions as to whether the bureau actively sought to discredit materials they had already authenticated.

In September 2020, the Aspen Institute hosted a “tabletop exercise” on a potential “hack-and-dump” operation targeting Hunter Biden.

The goal of the exercise, which was attended by Twitter’s head of trust and safety, Yoel Roth, along with Facebook executives and top national security reporters for the New York Times and the Washington Post, was to “shape how the media covered” the story and “how social media carried it,” according to Mr. Shellenberger.

Mr. Roth also disclosed that in meetings before the 2020 election, federal law enforcement officials warned social media executives that Hunter Biden would be the target of a “hack and leak operation.”

“I was told in these meetings that the intelligence community expected that individuals associated with political campaigns would be subject to hacking attacks and that material obtained through those hacking attacks would likely be disseminated over social media platforms, including Twitter,” Mr. Roth in a 2020 disclosure to the Federal Elections Commission.

“These expectations of hack-and-leak operations were discussed throughout 2020,” he wrote.

The specific classified details provided to Mr. Baker by the FBI are not detailed in the internal emails released on Monday.

But as revealed in previous installments of the Twitter Files and reported by The Washington Times, Mr. Baker was an outspoken proponent of the platform’s censorship of the Hunter Biden laptop story in October 2020, despite other executives questioning the move.

Twitter went to extraordinary lengths to suppress the laptop story, labeling it “unsafe” and blocking users from sharing links to the story via direct message.

But internally, Twitter executives went back and forth on how to handle the story amid a deluge of criticism.

The executives decided that they could not determine whether the materials on the laptop had been hacked, and therefore they should block it.

In one email, Twitter Vice President of Global Communications Brandon Borrman asked, “Can we truthfully claim this is part of the policy?” 

Mr. Baker responded by saying that “caution is warranted.”

“I support the conclusion that we need more facts to assess whether the materials were hacked,” Mr. Baker wrote.

Mr. Roth also said soon after the story was published that “it isn’t clearly violative of our Hacked Materials Policy, nor is it clearly in violation of anything else.” He added, “This feels a lot like a somewhat subtle leak operation.”

In follow-up communications, Mr. Baker repeatedly insisted that the laptop materials were either faked, hacked or both, Mr. Shellenberger wrote.

Internal emails revealed that amid the chaos at Twitter on the day the New York Post published the story, Mr. Baker arranged a phone call with Matthew J. Perry from the FBI’s Office of the General Counsel. 

“In the end, the FBI’s influence campaign aimed at executives at news media, Twitter, & other social media companies worked: they censored & discredited the Hunter Biden laptop story,” Mr. Shellenberger wrote.

Monday’s revelations add to previous Twitter Files showing the platform’s left-wing bent that led to the censorship of conservative viewpoints, the suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story just weeks before the 2020 presidential election, and the chaotic decision to permanently ban President Trump from the platform in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Previous installments revealed the extent to which federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies worked with the platform to moderate speech including backchannel communications to flag posts and ban users.

The revelations have set off a firestorm on Capitol Hill.

Last week, Republicans on the House Oversight Committee sent letters to Mr. Musk and Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg requesting documents and communications from the companies for a congressional probe “to uncover any unconstitutional actions by government officials or agents working on their behalf.”

Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee are demanding several Big Tech companies hand over documents for its probe into the Biden administration’s attempts to curtail online freedom of speech.

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