Enemies list? State Department monitored 13 Americans' social media in possible legal violation

Memos detail effort to monitor social media of Fox News personalities Hannity, Ingraham and Dobbs, as well as president's son Don. Jr. and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

Updated: September 1, 2020 - 4:22pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

Officials at the U.S. embassy in Kiev ordered the monitoring of 13 prominent Americans' social media accounts during the early days of the Ukraine scandal in spring 2019 and later were informed their activities potentially violated the Privacy Act, according to State Department memos made public on Tuesday.

The memos, released under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the conservative watchdog Judicial Watch, show those targeted for monitoring included President Trump's eldest son, Don Jr., the president's personal lawyer and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and Fox News personalities Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Lou Dobbs. This reporter was one of the 13 individuals on the list targeted.

The U.S. ambassador at the time, Marie Yovanovitch, and one of her top deputies, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent, were apprised of the social media monitoring, emails show.

Embassy officials used search terms indicating they were interested in social media posts involving the ambassador, liberal megadonor George Soros, and the controversy around Joe Biden and Burisma Holdings, the Ukrainian gas company engulfed in a corruption controversy that hired the vice president's son Hunter in 2014. State officials testified during last year's impeachment proceedings that the Bidens' role in Ukraine created an uncomfortable appearance of a conflict of interest that undercut U.S. efforts to fight corruption inside Ukraine.  

"Key thing is to get up to ramming speed from the get go," Kent wrote in a March 27, 2019 email that discussed the social media monitoring efforts, which appear to have been prompted by early stories about the embassy's activities with Ukrainian prosecutors and the Bidens at The Hill newspaper (written by this reporter) and on Fox News.

The same day, Yovanovitch received an email updating her on the social media monitoring.

"Thanks Ambassador — I just wanted you to be aware as we are really trying to help them and recognize how hard everyone is working in this especially trying time," an official whose name was redacted wrote Yovanovitch. "The good news is our social media team back here is now helping to provide them with the reports they want when Kyiv is asleep/offline — through existing PD tools — so this should greatly help."

You can read the memos here.

By April 1, 2019, the embassy appears to have been instructed to cease the social media monitoring by officials in Washington.

"Thank you so very much for alerting everyone to this issue. We appreciate you shutting down the automated report," an email entitled "Ukraine Twitter report" read.

By May 15, 2019, a redacted Digital Media Associate for EUR/PD Keniya-Trusant Group advised the State Department of legal issues related to monitoring social media, suggesting the automated targeting of Americans violated federal law.

"Going to chime in here — so regarding the influencers, there are some legal implications of making a list of Facebook influencers of Twitter influencers since they are technically private citizens (even though they're publicly on the internet) and we cannot compile them into a list and monitor what they are saying using a third-party application without their knowledge," the email read. "To see what they're saying, you unfortunately need to use the old school way and manually go to their feeds and view that way. Cumbersome but it's in compliance with the Privacy Act of 1974."

Current and former officials familiar with the memos say some of the redactions involved additional analysis of the legal issues surrounding the monitoring that occurred. "Congress may be entitled to see more about the nature of the concerns than was publicly released," one current official said.

Amanda Milius, a former senior adviser and deputy assistant secretary in the early Trump State Department, told Just the News she was alerted by State Department leadership about the embassy's social media monitoring early on and was assured the embassy was instructed to stop the activity targeting Americans because it violated federal law. 

"Personally I find it hard to believe that senior communication officials at post were not aware of the limitations of the Privacy Act because all communications employees and contractors are very well versed on what they are allowed and not allowed to do in regards to the Privacy Act and the Smith-Mundt law," Milius said in an interview Tuesday.

The memos show the embassy sought to use a Facebook-related product called CrowdTangle to handle automated social media monitoring. A deck about the product's capabilities was included in the FOIA release.

In addition to the Fox hosts, this reporter, the president's son, and the president's personal lawyer, the other figures whose social media were targeted include Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton, radio host and former Trump White House adviser Seb Gorka, One America News personality Jack Posobiec, and Fox News personalities Sara Carter and Dan Bongino.

Fitton, who first raised concerns about possible social media monitoring last year, said Tuesday he was deeply troubled by what was revealed in the memos.

"These new documents confirm Deep State officials at the Ukraine Embassy seemed to set up an enemies list to help illicitly monitor and report on the social media postings of President Trump's family and lawyer, as well as journalists," he said. "The State Department hid these smoking gun documents for months."

Just the News Spotlight