Contempt for Press Freedoms: U S Officials Bar Tucker Carlson from Interviewing Putin

Tucker Carlson reports that the U.S. government prevented him from interviewing Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Carlson told the Swiss magazine Die Weltwoche that he had sought to arrange an interview with Putin, but U.S. officials blocked him. “I tried to interview Vladimir Putin, but the U.S. government prevented me from doing so. Think about [the implications],” Carlson told the newspaper on September 24.  Worse, according to Carlson, no one in the U.S. news media supported his right as a journalist to report on the Russian leader’s views regarding the Ukraine conflict.

Such obstructionism reflects a growing contempt on the part of officials in the United States and other supposedly liberal democratic countries for freedom of the press.  It is merely the latest episode in a lengthening parade of restrictions, ranging from petty to truly alarming.  The highest priority targets are critics who dare condemn or even dispute the accounts that Western leaders put forth regarding key foreign policy objectives

European Union governments have been even more brazen than Washington in their efforts to impede critics.  Just days after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the EU banned the two most prominent Russian outlets, RT and Sputnik.  The official rationale was that those organizations were Kremlin controlled and were disseminating “disinformation” regarding the war in Ukraine.  EU officials even ordered the removal of RT and Sputnik material from search engines.

More than 300 million inhabitants of EU countries were thus deprived from accessing Russia’s views about the war or its causes.  Conversely, EU authorities did not impose the slightest restrictions on the tsunami of propaganda coming out of Kyiv regarding the war.  Such gross imbalance has been a transparent effort to rig public opinion on a major international issue.

U.S. officials have been somewhat more subtle in their efforts to squelch dissenting views, especially on Russia, but they have been bad enough. The FBI, the CIA, and other agencies have engaged in a two-front assault on freedom of the press.  One method is to emulate the EU and take direct action against alternative news outlets and other dissenters.  The other strategy, which has become increasingly pervasive over the past decade is to pressure or collude with social media platforms to harass, marginalize, or eliminate sources that Washington dislikes.  Such censorship by proxy is both insidious and dangerous.

The FBI took a major step toward implementing the first approach in October 2017.  FBI leaders created a new Foreign Influence Task Force (FITF) in the bureau’s Counterintelligence Division. The FBI subsequently considered any effort by states designated by the Department of Defense as major adversaries (Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea) to influence American public opinion as a threat to U.S. national security.  Targets for suppression were not confined to publications and outlets that were indisputably under the control of one of those hostile powers.

However, censorship by proxy has become by far the U.S. national security state’s preferred method.  The U.S. national security apparatus has even actively assisted Volodymr Zelensky’s Ukrainian regime to undermine the constitutional rights of Americans.  CNN noted a worrisome revelations in a July 2023 report from the House Judiciary Committee.  “The committee says SBU [Ukraine’s top security agency] 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.’”

In other words, the FBI served as a willing conduit and facilitator for Kyiv’s overseas censorship efforts.  Moreover, U.S. officials did not make even a minimal effort to vet Kyiv’s allegations before pressuring social media companies to shut down the accounts of targeted organizations and individuals.

Revelations from the so-called Twitter files, confirm the extent of such ideological collusion between federal agencies and social media companies.  Among other unhealthy aspects was that the FBI had paid Twitter $3.4 million.  In a so-called fact-check, USA Today conceded that “the FBI flagged Twitter accounts the agency believed violated Twitter’s terms of service. Second, another document shows the FBI paid Twitter $3.4 million for Twitter’s processing of information requests the FBI made through the Stored Communications Act.”  However, “fact-checker” Molly Stelino concluded that the FBI was not using Twitter for censorship purposes, insisting that “the $3.4 million is unrelated to the FBI flagging accounts.”  Such an argument deserves an award for gullibility.

The extent of the government’s collusion campaign was even more apparent because Yoel Roth, the Twitter executive in charge of content moderation and members of his staff met weekly with the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.  It is a safe bet that those meetings were not to discuss the weather.  Such meetings also cast even more doubt on the allegedly benign nature of the FBI’s $3.4 million payment to Twitter for processing “information requests.”  Yet even Roth apparently balked at some of the FBI’s more far-reaching demands.  Roth contended that the list of alleged Russian disinformation offenders even included “‘a few accounts of American and Canadian journalists (e.g. [Grayzone’s] Aaron Mate),’ and said that Twitter would focus on rule violations and inauthentic behavior (i.e., bots).”

One interaction between the FBI and Facebook was as alarming as the collusion with Twitter. The FBI worked to discredit the New York Post’s blockbuster story on Hunter Biden’s laptop.  Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg later reported that FBI officials had approached him with a warning that Russia was conducting a concerted disinformation campaign during the 2020 U.S. election cycle, just as the Kremlin did in 2016.  It was hard to miss the government’s implication that the laptop probably was part of the latest disinformation effort, and that Facebook should take down posts or algorithmically throttle accounts contending that revelations contained in the files were genuine. Yet there was no evidence at the time or subsequently that the laptop involved Russian disinformation.  The allegation further poisoned relations with Russia, though, as well as stifled debate on a crucial issue.

In an early September 2023 ruling, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the Biden administration’s meetings with social media companies had violated the First Amendment.   That is an encouraging development in the battle against censorship by proxy, but it is unlikely that agencies in the national security apparatus will abandon their efforts to curb dissent, especially on controversial issues related to Washington’s role in the world.  Freedom of the press clearly is under siege even in supposedly liberal, democratic countries.

Ted Galen Carpenter is a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute and a senior fellow at the Libertarian Institute.  He also held various senior policy posts during a 37-year career at the Cato Institute.  Dr. Carpenter is the author of 13 books and more than 1,200 articles on international affairs.  His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022).

Author: Ted Galen Carpenter

Ted Galen Carpenter, Senior Fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, is the author of 13 books and more than 1,100 articles on international affairs. Dr. Carpenter held various senior policy positions during a 37-year career at the Cato institute. His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022).