The U.S. government has long tolerated and excused Ukraine’s authoritarian behavior even as Washington and its NATO partners have lavished financial and military aid on Kyiv. Evidence has now emerged, though, that the US national security apparatus has actively assisted Volodymr Zelensky’s regime to undermine the Constitutional rights of Americans. CNN notes damning revelations in a new 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.’"
Ukraine has an obvious interest in trying to suppress any criticism of its policies – especially news stories and analyses that undermine the narrative that the Russia-Ukraine war is a crucial front in an existential global struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. However, it is both shameful and alarming for the FBI to assist such efforts by a foreign government to chill debate. Yet that is what is happening. The FBI apparently is a collaborator with Ukraine, serving as a conduit and facilitator for Kyiv’s overseas censorship efforts.
US officials have not made even a minimal effort to vet Kyiv’s allegations before pressuring social media companies to shut down the accounts of targeted individuals and organizations. Indeed, the effort was so sloppy that authorities attempted to suppress a US State Department Russian-language Instagram website. According to the House Judiciary Committee report, it "was flagged for removal after the SBU and FBI provided a list of Instagram accounts they claimed engaged in "distribut[ing] content that promotes war, inaccurately reflects events in Ukraine, justifies Russian war crimes in Ukraine in violation of international law."
More worrisome than a Monty Python-style effort by one set of bureaucrats to suppress the work product of another set of bureaucrats were measures targeting journalists and other private sector critics of Ukraine. Yet that apparently also was a significant component of the joint SBU-FBI censorship campaign.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that the US government has actively aided Kyiv’s goal of suppressing opposing views. In the summer of 2022, Ukraine’s Center for Countering Disinformation (CCD) published a “blacklist” of critics. Numerous prominent Americans were on that list, including University of Chicago Professor (and renowned foreign policy realist), John Mearsheimer, Fox News host Tucker Carlson, former congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, and Cato Institute Senior Fellow Doug Bandow. It was especially disgusting that Congress had approved funding for the CCD, making US taxpayers accomplices in a foreign government’s effort to undermine the First Amendment.
The ominous, intimidating purpose of the blacklist became even clearer in late September 2022, when the CCD issued a revised roster (including addresses) of the top 35 targets in early October. That narrower, high-priority list denounced those critics as “disinformation terrorists” and “war criminals.” Several Ukrainian and Russian individuals on the blacklist have been assassinated, with open praise from the creators and stewards of the list. Thus far, no Americans or other Westerners have met that fate, but smearing critics as terrorists and war criminals clearly is designed to encourage fanatics.
It is not surprising that Ukraine’s government would attempt to use any measures to silence critics. The Zelensky’s government’s entire track record shows that attempts to portray Ukraine as a noble democracy are obscene lies.
The latest collaboration with Kyiv confirms the growing contempt that the FBI and other law enforcement and national security agencies have for the fundamental rights of American citizens. It is especially alarming that this incident appears to be just one component of a comprehensive effort to chill debate on important foreign policy issues, such as the Russia-Ukraine war. Typically, the joint SBU-FBI campaign sought to use social media companies as proxies to shut down opposing views. As information from the leaked Twitter files confirmed in another context, censorship by proxy, rather than issuing direct government edicts, has become the preferred method of Washington’s national security apparatus.
A key question is whether the FBI’s flagrant collaboration with Ukraine’s government to silence critics is unique, or whether such collusion with other regimes also is taking place. It should be more than a little alarming that a powerful US agency is serving as a willing conduit for an authoritarian foreign government’s campaign to undermine the First Amendment. The work of the House Judiciary Committee needs to be just the first stage of a concerted investigative effort by Congress to expose such potential abuses.
Ted Galen Carpenter is a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute and a senior fellow at the Libertarian Institute. He also served in various policy positions 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).