Dan O’Donnell reports on the FBI’s pressure campaign to censor the Hunter Biden laptop story and violate the First Amendment rights of journalists and citizens alike.
Dec. 7, 2022
Perspective by Dan O’Donnell
Elon Musk’s much-hyped release of “The Twitter Files” was met with exactly the sort of reaction one would expect: Outrage and “I told you sos” from the right and frantic obfuscation from the left. In their anger or their indifference, however, both sides managed to miss the even bigger scandal hidden just beneath the surface.
Twitter’s former leadership did indeed take orders from Joe Biden’s campaign in taking extraordinary steps to bury The New York Post’s bombshell report on the international influence-peddling scheme that Biden ran with his son serving as a sort of bag man. That sort of collusion would have been scandalous enough, but the FBI’s involvement in suppressing the story makes this ugly incident the single most significant and wide-ranging violation of First Amendment rights in American history.
John Paul Mac Isaac, the computer repair shop owner who assumed ownership of Hunter Biden’s laptop after Biden abandoned it, turned the laptop over to the FBI in December 2019. Even though the younger Biden’s position on the board of Ukrainian Holdings Limited played a central role in Congress’ impeachment of then-President Donald Trump, the FBI never shared its evidence with House investigators.
“When the impeachment trial began, that laptop was nowhere to be seen,” Mac Isaac said Monday. “I knew when they decided to ignore the laptop in the impeachment trial that the FBI had no intention of doing anything with it. I just assumed it was at the bottom of the Potomac.”
It may as well have been. The FBI could have cleared Trump of any wrongdoing in his calls for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to investigate Biden since the laptop contained clear evidence of pay-to-play, but it didn’t. It let him twist in the wind.
10 months later, when material from the laptop appeared in the Post’s reporting, the FBI could have confirmed the existence of an investigation into Biden to vindicate the paper, but it didn’t. It allowed more than 50 former top intelligence officials to claim in an open letter that the story “has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.”
That alone would have been unforgivable, but the FBI also sent agents to warn social media companies about this supposed “Russian disinformation” involving Hunter Biden that might come out before the 2020 election.
“The FBI basically came to some folks on our team and was like, ‘Hey, um, just so you know, like, you should be on high alert,’” Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted on the “Joe Rogan Experience” in August. “[The FBI said] ‘We thought that there was a lot of Russian propaganda in the 2016 election. We have it on notice that basically there’s about to be some kind of dump that’s similar to that. So just be vigilant.’”
“Did they specifically say you need to be on guard about that story?” Rogan asked.
“I don’t remember if it was that specifically, but it was — it basically fit the pattern,” Zuckerberg answered.
The FBI knew the Hunter Biden story was true—it had his laptop, after all—but was in the months before a presidential election actively pressuring social media companies to censor it. Top FBI agent Elvis Chan admitted in a deposition in an ongoing lawsuit that he led weekly meetings with Facebook and Twitter officials in the fall of 2020 to warn them about “hack-and-leak” operations designed to influence the upcoming presidential election.
In a sworn declaration to the Federal Elections Commission, Yoel Roth, Twitter’s former head of site integrity, said he 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.”
This warning was so dire that as soon as the Post’s story went live, Twitter censored it—taking the extraordinary step of immediately suspending accounts that shared the piece (including the Post itself) and blocking it from being shared even privately through direct messages.
The FBI was essentially conducting a disinformation campaign against social media companies, using them to censor a story that it knew to be completely true in an obvious effort to influence the election by protecting the preferred candidate from a damaging exposé on his likely corruption in the waning days of the campaign.
In so doing, the FBI violated the First Amendment rights of not only The New York Post as a journalistic entity, but also the free speech rights of every single person who wanted to share the Post’s story but could not.
“The Twitter Files” were oddly silent on the FBI’s involvement in the company’s censorship of the story, but on Tuesday evening it became clear why: Twitter’s deputy legal counsel, James Baker, had been in charge of vetting the first batch of materials released on Friday. Baker was the FBI’s general counsel during the agency’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election before being fired and criminally probed over leaks to reporters.
As he vetted Twitter’s files before their public release, he almost certainly excised all mention of the FBI’s pressure campaign. When Musk found out about Baker’s role in the vetting, he fired Baker immediately.
The damage, though, has already been done and it is irreparable. In a long and meticulous attempt to influence a presidential election, the FBI, the nation’s preeminent law enforcement agency, was using its power to suppress both the freedom of the press and the freedom of citizens to express themselves politically by sharing what the FBI knew was completely true reporting.
This wasn’t just a violation of sacred rights and the public trust, it was a power grab of the sort usually seen only in banana republics and it, more than anything, was the most important and chilling revelation in “The Twitter Files.”