State Dept. officials told they broke law by monitoring Americans during Ukraine scandal

Revelation undercuts impeachment testimony; conservative watchdog claims coverup.

Published: October 5, 2020 7:58pm

Updated: October 6, 2020 9:19am

State Department officials were explicitly ordered in spring 2019 to stop tracking 13 prominent Americans' social media accounts for information about the Joe Biden-Ukraine scandal because the monitoring violated federal law, according to emails that were originally redacted to hide the concerns from the American public.

"We are barred by law from actively monitoring the accounts of American citizens in aggregate — and particularly from identifying and monitoring individual, selected accounts," a State Department official wrote in an April 1, 2019 email to officials in Washington and the U.S. embassy in Kiev

The unredacted emails, obtained by Just the News, raise new questions about the accuracy of State Department officials' testimony during President Trump's impeachment proceedings. They also provide a window into how the department used redactions in a Freedom of Information Act case to hide the potentially explosive information just weeks before Election Day 2020.

The emails show State Department officials under Trump openly worried a year before the 2020 election that the emerging storyline that Vice President Joe Biden may have engaged in a conflict of interest by presiding over Ukraine policy while his son worked for a corrupt Ukrainian gas company might prove to be "the mother load [sic] and main thread to play out, possibly thru Nov. 2020."

The illegal monitoring was, in fact, ordered specifically to counter that narrative as well as another storyline that involved the liberal megadonor George Soros, the newly unredacted passages of the emails show.

The conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch first raised concerns earlier this year that the U.S. embassy in Kiev run by then-Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch had created an "enemies list" by ordering the monitoring of social media accounts of prominent Americans last year when the Ukraine scandal about Joe and Hunter Biden first surfaced.

After a protracted legal fight, the State Department released memos to the group last month confirming the embassy did in fact monitor the accounts of 13  Americans, including Fox News personalities Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Lou Dobbs, the president's son Don Jr., his lawyer Rudy Giuliani as well as this reporter, whose articles in The Hill first shined a light on the Bidens' possible conflict of interests in Ukraine.

The April 1 email was among those released, but it was heavily redacted to hide the statements showing the monitoring was ordered shut down specifically because it violated the law.

Tom Fitton, the Judicial Watch president, accused the State Department of editing the documents to hide the truth from the American people.

"It looks like this material was blacked out not for legal reason but for political reasons: namely to help Joe Biden," Fitton said. "Judicial Watch first exposed this illicit spy operation against Trump world, and the coverup of this material by the State Department for over a year is inexcusable. Our lawyers will review this new material and consider the legal ramifications."

You can view the redacted memo here.

And here is the unredacted version.

The possibility that U.S. officials in Ukraine and Washington were monitoring perceived critics of Joe Biden in the American news media first surfaced last winter during the Trump impeachment proceedings.

Yovanovitch, an Obama-appointed ambassador who carried over to the new administration before Trump fired her, testified to House investigators that her embassy had asked for the monitoring after a column in The Hill quoted a Ukrainian prosecutor raising questions about her and the embassy in March 2019.

"So we, you know, we're interested in, you know, kind of keeping track of the story so that we would know what was going on," she testified, acknowledging she received a "finished product" from the mining of the social accounts. "Because, I mean, there's an interest, obviously, I had an interest since I was being directly attacked."

She acknowledged her embassy asked State officials in Washington to assist in the monitoring. When asked why the monitoring stopped, she blamed a lack of resources.

"What we were told is that the folks in Washington were too busy to do this, etc, etc.," she testified.

In fact, the unredacted email shows the monitoring of the 13 email accounts using a mining tool known as CrowdTangle was ordered stopped by a lawyer in the State Department because federal law prohibited the agency from targeting Americans.

"I understand the urgency of having these types of reports developed around emerging conversations, but I have asked [redacted] to delete the CrowdTangle list, which explicitly pulls this information from lists that include the personal accounts of American citizens, amongst others," the official wrote.

His admonition that the activity was "barred by law" was underlined and bolded for emphasis.

"We can use CrowdTangle to monitor terms as they pertain to Yovanovitch, but these search terms cannot be used to target a particular list if it includes American citizens," the email added. 

Other unredacted emails also show that the search terms Yovanovitch's team sought to use included stories about herself as well as the liberal megadonor George Soros.

They also expressed a desire to combat the narrative — later confirmed in testimony to be  true — that State officials perceived Vice President Joe Biden had engaged in a conflict of interest in 2016 by continuing to preside over U.S. anti-corruption policy in Ukraine while his son Hunter served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company called Burisma Holdings that was under investigation for corruption.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs George Kent, then an official in the embassy, emailed the embassy team on March 27, 2019, imploring them to "get up to ramming speed" to counter four narratives in The Hill newspaper, including the Biden-Burisma controversy.

"This story is being set up to both snowball and slow burn with now four separate storylines having been put into play the past week," wrote Kent, previously Yovanovitch's top deputy at U.S. Embassy Kiev.

The third item on his list read: "Biden and Burisma, looking ahead to 2020 (note: to my mind the mother load [sic] and main thread to play out possibly through Nov. 2020)."

The emails don't explain why the embassy believed it had a policy reason to be concerned about the 2020 U.S. election or Biden.

But they are likely to provide fodder to Trump's defenders that the testimony given at his impeachment proceedings was inaccurate and that his own State Department was trying to counter a narrative deemed hurtful to Trump's likely opponent in 2020, Joe Biden.

To see the full list of Americans whose social media was monitored by the State Department, click here.

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