On March 9th, 2023, Matt Taibbi appeared before Congress regarding the revelations uncovered by the “Twitter Files,” which demonstrated the US federal government and social media companies worked together to censor information and accounts unfavorable to US interests. The same day, an IRS agent visited Taibbi’s home in New Jersey. Matt Taibbi joins The Chris Hedges Report to discuss the case opened against him, as well as the role of the FBI and multiple law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the Foreign Influence Task Force which identified accounts and stories for censorship from Twitter.
Matt Taibbi is a journalist, author, and co-host of the Useful Idiots podcast.
Studio: Adam Coley, David Hebden
Chris Hedges: The journalist Matt Taibbi has been targeted by the Democratic Party for exposing extensive government blacklists used to censor left-wing and right-wing critics. Given access to the internal traffic of Twitter by Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, he documented cases where the FBI and other government agencies repeatedly suppressed news and commentary. The censored content was almost exclusively produced by those critical of the dominant narrative advanced by the Democratic Party and the old establishment wing of the Republican Party, which has joined forces with the Democrats. Threads that were censored include those from the Yellow Vest movement; activists from the Occupy movement; Global Revolution Live; Negative stories about Joe Biden; reports on the Ukrainian Energy Company, Burisma, that paid Hunter Biden about $1 million a year while his father was vice president; positive stories about Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro; reports about Ukrainian human rights abuses; and details of the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop.
The accounts were flagged and usually disappeared. The so-called “moderation requests” were sent by an entity called the Foreign Influence Task Force. The FITF is an FBI-led inter-agency task force that includes numerous government agencies, including Homeland Security, the CIA, the Pentagon, and the State Department. It flags what it considers objectionable content for about two dozen social media companies, including Twitter, Facebook, Google, Pinterest, and Wikimedia. In March, Taibbi and Michael Shellenberger were called to testify before the select subcommittee on the weaponization of the federal government. While Taibbi was testifying on March 9, an IRS agent visited his house in New Jersey. Taibbi discovered that the IRS opened a case against him on the day he published a Christmas Eve Twitter thread, from a letter House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan sent to the IRS commissioner inquiring about Taibbi’s case.
It was a Saturday, it was Christmas Eve, Taibbi did not owe taxes, the case was four years old. All this suggests that the IRS case was politically motivated and the FBI was monitoring Taibbi. Taibbi ran into the buzzsaw of orchestrated character assassination when he testified. The Democratic members of the committee rarely let Taibbi speak, they delivered vicious and insulting diatribes, which were then broadcast on outlets such as MSNBC and CNN, part of the effort to further discredit him. The Ranking Committee Member, Stacey Plaskett, sent Taibbi a letter accusing him of lying to Congress and threatened Taibbi with a 5-year prison sentence.
Joining me to discuss this wholesale censorship and the efforts by the ruling establishment, especially the Democratic Party, to discredit him and his work is Matt Taibbi. Matt, let’s go back to Dec. 24, 2022. You’re in the Park 55 Hotel in San Francisco, and explain what you’re doing.
Matt Taibbi: Well, I was putting together the final touches on a story about… It was going to be called Twitter and Other Government Agencies. About a week and a half into the Twitter Files project, we found a series of documents that had come to Twitter through the Foreign Influence Task Force, and it was a pile of reports that came from various government agencies. Sometimes we could tell which ones they were, sometimes not. But in essence, most of them were simply a few paragraphs of text along with a gigantic Excel spreadsheet of account names. And they would say things like, we assess that the following are related to Russia’s Internet Research Agency or are working to further anti-Ukraine objectives, or whatever. And we would check and see that sometimes all of the accounts were gone. Sometimes it was a percentage of them, but in most cases, there was some action. And this was an important story that we put out. I was very nervous about it. It included information about the CIA, the DNI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI, and that’s what I was preparing to do on Christmas Eve.
Chris Hedges: And we should be clear that before you made this release on December 24, the FBI had already denounced your work on the Twitter Files saying it was, “The product of conspiracy theorists,” this is quoting them, “who fed the public ‘misinformation,’ whose sole purpose was discrediting the agency.”
Matt Taibbi: Right. Yeah. In fact, I even referenced the FBI’s quote at the beginning of the thread. Sarcastically I said, of course, my sole purpose isn’t discrediting the FBI; there are other agencies I want to discredit as well. And the idea of that was to, among other things, make the public aware that the FBI had commented on the story in a way that was intended to intimidate a little bit, in addition to not answering the questions that we sent. But yes, they had already made it known that they were paying attention to the story, and that was unnerving, certainly on one level.
Chris Hedges: Let’s talk about the Foreign Influence Task Force. You said you estimate that it has a staff of about 80. What is it? Who’s on it, to the extent that you know of? When was it set up? And how does it work?
Matt Taibbi: I don’t know a whole lot about when it was set up. Other reporters have done some work on that. Lee Fong, who is one of the Twitter Files reporters, had done some work on it. He was where we got the number 80 for staff for the FITF. As far as we could determine it was mostly comprised of FBI, Homeland Security, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The FITF became the throughway junction for government requests for content moderation. And the system they worked out was, requests that came from the federal government would come through the FBI, and anything that came up through the states would come through DHS.
And they had a very specific means of doing that. They had a communications platform they called Teleporter. It was like a one-way door. It was a little bit like Mission Impossible. There was a way to rig it so that once content went through there, it wouldn’t last very long. It would delete after a period of time, but we recovered some of the stuff that was in there. But that’s what the FITF does. And there are two things that are interesting: One, it claims that it’s only monitoring foreign material, but we found ample evidence of them looking at the accounts of very small domestic American account holders. And the other thing is, these are not personnel that are trying to make cases, they’re monitoring social media. It’s FBI agents who aren’t trying to put together something for trial, they’re just watching.
Chris Hedges: They’re not producing evidence.
Matt Taibbi: Right. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. They’re not compiling anything towards any case. Yeah.
Chris Hedges: Which is exactly how, in the McCarthy era, the FBI worked. They’d show up even at high schools – Elaine Schreker has written about this – with a list. There was no evidence. There was a list of names, and all of those teachers were gone. And not only were they gone; they were blacklisted.
Matt Taibbi: Well, right. And that’s why one of the major reforms that came out of the Church Committee was a change in the whole idea of what the FBI would do. They had to have some predicate to initiate an investigation. We don’t have that anymore. They started to make that change right around 2008 or so. But now it’s firmly entrenched that the FBI is a counterintelligence operation that has a criminal division to it. It’s in the intelligence-gathering business as much as it is the case-making business.
Chris Hedges: So the FITF has an industry meeting, explain what that is. And you had told me that, at first it was monthly, and then it was weekly as the 2020 election approached.
Matt Taibbi: So the moment that was the light bulb moment for a lot of us on the Twitter Files story was when we first found emails that talked about what you referred to, the industry meeting. And you would see something would be forwarded to one of the members of Twitter’s Trust and Safety Department, and there would be an agenda, and it would come from the FITF, and you would see the agenda for what they call the industry meeting. And all these people would be CC’d on the email, it would probably be two dozen companies or more. And it would say something like, OGA briefing, (Ukraine). So that would be at the top. And OGA as you know, is usually a euphemism for either intelligence generally or the CIA specifically.
We had emails that showed that the CIA attended a couple of these meetings, that they asked to be there. So we thought that was pretty damning stuff, because, among other things, not only did it show that all of these companies were in regular contact with federal enforcement agencies, but that there was this rather elaborate anti-competitive situation going on that I don’t think anybody’s even thought about that angle of. The anti-trust component of this, where you have 20 or 25 tech companies getting together and making secret agreements on what content they’re going to show the public, that’s very serious. And it was all in one email. So that was the thing where you could show the public one picture and it would be powerful in that way.
Chris Hedges: Was there any indication that they were producing content?
Matt Taibbi: No. Although we did have some indication from a couple of sources. And we were never able to really report this, but we heard it from enough people that it’s worth mentioning, that there were some indications that the government had some input into the drafting of the terms of service of some of these companies. So we would see that the FBI was assigning lots of people to monitor different communications for possible violations of terms of service. And we even saw Twitter personnel complaining about that. One of the lawyers was saying, my God, it’s like they’re entering search terms looking for violations of our terms of service. So we know they were doing that, but there’s a big question as to whether they were also working on the other end to help devise what those terms were, and the implications of that are obviously very serious.
Chris Hedges: Terms of service. That’s what you’re allowed to disseminate and what you can’t.
Matt Taibbi: Right. So Twitter has policies about what it can disallow and why they can disallow it. They have policies about harm, about expressing hate towards a certain group. So if the government had any role in helping draft policies like that for, not just Twitter but for other platforms, that would be significant. We didn’t find that smoking gun, but we certainly heard it from some people.
Chris Hedges: Let’s talk about the Select Subcommittee on Weaponization of the Federal Government. It’s run by the GOP. You were crucified for cooperating by the establishment – I don’t know, I don’t want to call it liberal, whatever it is, media – Democratic-allied media. Talk about the committee and what happened there.
Matt Taibbi: Well, so this is Jim Jordan, the congressman from Ohio. He’s the House Judiciary Chair. He has a subcommittee, the Weaponization of the Federal Government Committee and he invited Michael Shellenberger and me to testify about the Twitter Files. And we were very happy to do it for one very big reason which was that none of the stories we were doing, no matter how explosive they were, were getting picked up by national media. So we thought this was a unique opportunity to get in front of a big audience that would hear some of this for the first time. And I have to say, Jim Jordan I thought was very sincere in his appreciation for the First Amendment. He’s a throwback to the days when members of Congress could hate each other about certain issues but agree about basic things. And he really does believe in the First Amendment, is my guess. He worked on a SHIELD law for reporters too.
But they brought us in and we testified. And instead of engaging with the material, the democratic members, one after the other, went after us personally and they didn’t let us speak. And this ended up being a big moment because audiences didn’t get to hear about the Twitter Files but they saw the way we were being treated, and it got them so angry that they went and educated themselves about what the material was. I thought it was a politically disastrous move by the Democrats. I didn’t understand it.
Chris Hedges: Well, let’s talk about what they did. Like Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. I watched that, she didn’t let you speak at all. You couldn’t even get three words before she cut you off saying, it’s my time. And the smears and insults were quite remarkable. Be specific about what they did.
Matt Taibbi: So the Ranking Member, Plaskett, called me a so-called journalist. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, her line of questioning was devoted to the idea that I was a paid scribe of Elon Musk and that I was making a fortune doing the Twitter Files story and that that was my entire motivation. When she asked me about how much money I was making and I told her truthfully, that I didn’t think I’d actually made that much on it, she wouldn’t let me answer that question.
I was told by another member from Texas that I had to take off my tinfoil hat and learn to appreciate the FBI’s efforts to keep us all protected. Daniel Goldman, the member from New York, got mad at me when I said I couldn’t agree or disagree with Robert Mueller’s indictments of purported GRU members. He’s a lawyer, I thought he should know, but indictments aren’t something you can agree or disagree with. When I said that he got upset, shut me down, and reclaimed his time again. But that was the pattern. They were accusing us of being un-American, financially motivated, paid operatives of Elon Musk, and somehow connected to the Russians. And that was the entire theme of their questioning.
Chris Hedges: And then outlets like MSNBC, Mehdi Hasan, followed up on all of that. Explain what they did.
Matt Taibbi: All they did is they took those clips and that’s how they built their stories about what happened in that hearing. And we weren’t the only ones they did that to, by the way. The Weaponization of Federal Government Committee has had other hearings where they’ve had people who were FBI whistleblowers and it’s the same formula every time: These people get accused, they’re taking payoffs from somebody, they get accused of being in league with Russia, or in league with insurrectionists, or whatever it is. And then there’s a little sound bite that gets produced and that ends up being broadcast on MSNBC or CNN, and that’s the entirety of the report.
Which, Chris, there was so much frustration on our part because a lot of what the Twitter Files were about, they weren’t even partisan stories. That’s what’s so amazing about it. I thought, I guess somewhat naively in retrospect, that at least some of the stuff we put out would be reported on or would attract some interest. But it turned out not to be that way, it turned out to be that we were the enemy for even bringing this up, which was remarkable.
Chris Hedges: I want to talk about censorship. Because we’re talking about blacklists, we’re talking about wholesale censorship, embraced by government agencies and the Democratic Party, and the old wing of the GOP that’s defected from Trump: Liz Cheney-types, who have now been incorporated into the Democratic Party. But this is a change for the old ACLU, Anthony Lewis liberals. It’s something new.
Matt Taibbi: Yeah, I’m old enough to have been an intern and worked in the same office with Nat Hentoff, if you remember –
Chris Hedges: Oh, I know Nat.
Matt Taibbi: Yeah, yeah. And that was back in the day when the Village Voice was the Bible of American liberalism and Nat Hentoff’s views on free speech. He would pick up the smallest case of somebody trying to trample on free speech rights and he would make the biggest deal out of it. And that was a big thing in American intellectual life at the time. We did not truck anybody messing with the First Amendment –
Chris Hedges: Well, I want to interrupt, because people like Nat would defend right-wing free speech, like the famous case with the neo-Nazis marching through Skokie, Illinois.
Matt Taibbi: Right. And to American liberalism back then, as you know, the rationale behind that was not hard to understand. If you don’t protect the right of people to march in Skokie, the next thing that’s going to happen is that every mayor in every small town in Alabama, Mississippi, and the panhandle of Florida, is going to prevent the NAACP from marching. This stuff’s not rocket science, it was really simple reasoning but it’s gone out of style. There’s been this massive public relations campaign that has told a whole generation of young people that counter-speech and allowing certain people to talk doesn’t work, and de-platforming does. And people believe it. And this is the rationale behind this new movement. And they see Donald Trump as evidence that more stringent measures are needed, and it’s provided the cover for this incredible revolution and technological censorship that we found in the Twitter Files.
Chris Hedges: I want to talk about Mehdi Hasan, who I have zero respect for.
Matt Taibbi: He’s a good interviewer though.
Chris Hedges: No, he’s a bully. It’s the classic technique, he seized on these incredibly minor errors. We’ve all made them, we used to run error boxes in the New York Times. You’ve made them, I’ve made them, we all make them. But they were almost irrelevant. You confused a timeline, you had a misplaced acronym. But then he blows this up into evidence that you’ve lied to Congress. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez seconds this accusation and that’s when Plaskett sends this letter. And that’s the first step in trying to destroy. If you look at the pattern and the attacks on Julian Assange, it’s the same. You discredit their reporting then you begin a sustained campaign of character assassination. And once they’re isolated the way Julian was, you can pretty much do whatever you want to them. And it hasn’t gone as far, obviously, as it has with Julian but I certainly see that pattern being played out against you.
Matt Taibbi: Yeah. So I made a big mistake with Mehdi. I had beef with MSNBC for years because I used to be a regular guest on the channel. I was the last person on MSNBC who was invited on who expressed any skepticism at all about the Russia case. And even then it was quite mild. But after that, I wasn’t invited back on. And I always thought that MSNBC owed it to its audience to answer critics about its wrong reporting on the Russia story. So I thought it would’ve been hypocritical to refuse an invitation to come on Mehdi’s show.
I did come on and I wasn’t prepared. I was overconfident and I thought I had everything locked up. I thought the worst thing that could happen to me was that I’d sound a little bit stupid on air but he found some errors and that rattled me. But the problem was he misunderstood what those errors meant. He thought they were far more significant than they were, in fact. I confused the Center for American Security and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the latter being a part of the Homeland Security Agency. And he thought that I was saying an intelligence agency was involved with content moderation when it wasn’t. In fact, both CIS and CISA were involved in this one program and he didn’t understand that. So he thought it was a huge, significant, intentional error. It was actually a picayune, meaningless error.
But then he took the additional step of trying to get members of Congress interested in prosecuting me for lying to Congress. And it was at this point that I tweeted at him and I said, Mehdi, come on. All jokes aside now, it’s time to get serious. You’re trying to put me in jail for this stuff and you’re wrong. And nothing. And that was a real eye-opener for me. I get all’s fair in love and war, even on Twitter everything’s in bounds. But this is no joke. And they really mean it. They really want to press this stuff as far as they can.
Chris Hedges: You’ve raised this, but it’s important, about the National Guard Technology support staffer who posted documents online and then the response of the media, which like you, I found terrifying.
Matt Taibbi: So this is the so-called Pentagon leaker story, where you have a 21-year-old Air National Guardsman from Massachusetts, and God knows how he gets access to this intelligence, but he does. And he’s in a Discord room where he is playing Minecraft, which is a game I play with my kids, and they’re passing around some intelligence. And what’s incredible about this is that the Washington Post, The New York Times, and Bellingcat track down this person and deliver them to the authorities. And now they’re doing stories based on the stuff he was leaking.
Can you ever remember, Chris, journalists working to turn in sources? It’s a total violation of what journalism is. We’re not on the side, we’re not part of the government’s investigatory apparatus. But they see themselves that way. And when they pair up with these organizations like Bellingcat, which are government funded, what they call open-source intelligence agencies, it’s a totally new role for the media. And they see themselves as doing the right thing by putting the people in the crosshairs of the government.
Chris Hedges: Is this driven by fear of Trump? Would you say that’s the engine?
Matt Taibbi: I would hope so. Because that’s at least a reason. But I worry sometimes that it’s an even baser phenomenon in that this is groupthink, it’s careerism, and it’s a new political movement that is developing where there’s a new sensation within the media business that I had not clued into for a long time. But it’s this belief that whatever we were doing before, when the type of approach we were taking to reporting no longer works, we can’t put stuff out there and hope that the public makes the right decisions.
We have to act and make sure that they do the right thing with the information, which means that we have to have lockstep discipline about what we say. We have to filter out things that we think the public can’t handle and we have to exaggerate things that we think they need to know. And this is a new vision for how information is disseminated. Again, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on it. But to me, it reminds me of something that you would’ve seen in the Soviet Union in the late ‘20s or early ‘30s, or in other countries that have authoritarian traditions.
Chris Hedges: Well, isn’t it because their own credibility has been shredded?
Matt Taibbi: Well, yes. Yes. But to me, that’s exactly the wrong way to respond to –
Chris Hedges: Well of course, but that’s the way they’re responding. They’re not trusted. What’s the approval rating for the press? It’s probably in the single digits. Who knows? It’s pretty low.
Matt Taibbi: Well, they’re probably looking up at Congress right now, right? It’s remarkable, you would think it’s impossible, right? It’s like the Woody Allen joke: they’re a notch below child molesters at this point. But as you know, the only way to win back trust in media is to be straight with people and own up to mistakes and to look people in the eye and say, we got this wrong. We’re going to try to be square with you the next time.
They’re not doing that. Instead, they’re locking arms and saying, we are the only source of information. We have legitimacy because we’re credentialed and that gives us authority that other people lack, and we want you to discount any information you get from any other source. And they’re going with that. You know, as well as anybody else, that this is a belief system that’s become pervasive.
Chris Hedges: Great. Thanks, Matt. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, David Hebden, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.