House Democrat Threatens Twitter Files Journalist with Prosecution and Imprisonment
Rep. Plaskett, citing MSNBC's Mehdi Hasan, floats prison time for Matt Taibbi
The backlash against journalists reporting on the Department Homeland Security’s reach into social media platforms took an ominous turn in recent days.
In a letter I exclusively obtained, Rep. Stacey Plaskett, D-V.I., falsely claimed that “Twitter Files” journalist Matt Taibbi lied under oath in his congressional testimony, floating the possibility of criminal prosecution. Plaskett, the same lawmaker who described Taibbi as a “so-called journalist” during his March 9 testimony, also demanded sourcing information and asked that he detail his interactions with Elon Musk.
The Plaskett letter claimed that Taibbi "intentionally" provided false information during his testimony and mentioned the potential consequences of such actions. "Under the federal perjury statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1621, providing false information is punishable by up to five years imprisonment," Plaskett wrote.
The letter was swiftly condemned by press freedom organizations when reached for comment.
"It's disturbing that a member of Congress would attempt to threaten a journalist with imprisonment for summarizing his reporting during a congressional hearing," said Seth Stern, the director of advocacy with the Freedom of the Press Foundation, in a statement. “It seems apparent that she had no good faith basis to threaten a perjury prosecution and that the threat is an intimidation tactic.”
"Whatever one may think of Taibbi or his reporting on the Twitter files, baselessly threatening to imprison journalists is reprehensible, no matter if the threats are from Democratic members of Congress or Donald Trump,” noted Stern.
“The letter is shocking. The mistake in Taibbi's tweet does not show that he knowingly lied to Congress," said Aaron Terr, director of public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. “It's hard to think of anything more chilling to a free press than threatening a journalist with prison time based on a single, corrected mistake in their reporting.”
“Whether one agrees or disagrees with whatever practices are uncovered, interactions between the government and big tech are a legitimate focus for journalistic inquiry,” said David Segal, the executive director of Demand Progress.
House Democrats have rallied in partisan opposition against journalists who have reported on revelations from Twitter’s internal files. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., tweeted that the entire oversight hearing about DHS influence into social media "was based on these errors," citing MSNBC's Mehdi Hasan. The lawmaker called the hearing a waste of "tons of public time and dollars."
Although the letter came from Plaskett, it was a group effort that involved senior figures in the House Democratic Caucus. Plaskett referenced the letter in an April 13 press release, but the link to the letter was initially broken. I reached out to her office for a copy this week and earlier today, received a PDF with the file. Notably, after speaking to multiple officials in Plaskett’s office, a response to my inquiry was finally sent not by her staff, but by Earnestine Dawson, an advisor to House Democratic Leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y. The metadata on the letter shows it was authored by Jacqui Kappler, a lawyer with the House Judiciary Committee who works closely with former House Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y.
The Federal Trade Commission also took the unusual step last month of demanding that Twitter identify all journalists involved in accessing company records, as the Wall Street Journal reported.
Rep. Plaskett and Rep. Jeffries did not respond to a request for comment. I asked for information about the accuracy of her perjury claims, who else in Congress was involved in this letter to Taibbi, and whether such threats present a chilling effect upon freedom of the press.
The Plaskett letter explicitly regurgitates the deceptive accusations made by MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan that I have thoroughly debunked on this Substack. The letter only cites one line of Taibbi’s testimony, charging that the following is an example of perjury:
TAIBBI: [W]hat we see in The Twitter Files is that Twitter executives did not distinguish between DHS or CISA and this group EIP. For instance, we would see a communication that said, From CISA escalated by EIP. So they were essentially identical in the eyes of the company […] So, yes, we have come to the realization that this bright line that we imagine that exists between, say, the FBI or the DHS or the GEC and these private companies is illusory and that what’s more important is this constellation of kind of quasi private organizations that do this work.
Nothing in the quote from Taibbi is remotely inaccurate.
The context of the Taibbi quote is related to content-moderation requests to Twitter from both an arm of the Department of Homeland Security known as the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA, and the Election Integrity Partnership, a Stanford University-based NGO. Taibbi, in his remarks, said that the social media giant failed to distinguish between private sector and government demands for censorship.
After his hostile interview with Taibbi on MSNBC, Hasan took to social media to allege that Taibbi conflated the Center for Internet Security – a nonprofit contracted by DHS to coordinate communications between stakeholder groups and social media – with CISA, the arm of DHS.
Hasan alleged that Taibbi had not only swapped CIS as CISA in his testimony before Congress, but had “deliberately & under oath misrepresented” the truth, and undermined the “thesis” that the government had facilitated EIP’s requests to Twitter.
Taibbi has admitted mistaking CIS for CISA in a single tweet in one of his many threads, but his testimony to Congress was entirely different. Hasan deceptively conflated this quickly corrected tweet with Taibbi’s testimony.
But the evidence shows that Taibbi’s congressional remarks were correct. CIS and CISA collaborated with EIP on moderation requests, with both organizations directly appealing to Twitter for censorship, making Taibbi’s overall point and particular argument completely accurate.
"I just had outreach on this from DHS," wrote then-Twitter attorney Stacia Cardille, in an October 1, 2020 email thread, forwarding on a censorship demand from CISA, CIS and EIP. Other emails I published show more examples of the precise dynamic explained by Taibbi during his testimony.
Plaskett, a former UnitedHealth health insurance attorney, also pressed Taibbi in her letter for more information about the sources he relied on for his reporting on the Twitter Files.
The letter demands to know "when did Twitter CEO Elon Musk first contact you" and information about the contents of Taibbi's discussions with Musk.
The Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Seth Stern noted that it was “troublesome that Plaskett connected her threat to demands for Taibbi to answer questions regarding his conversations with his alleged sources.”
Stern added that this line of inquiry bolsters the case for passing the PRESS Act, legislation that would enshrine a federal shield to prevent the federal government from forcing journalists to reveal confidential source information.
A brief note to readers:
Yesterday, I appeared on The Hill's online show, Rising, to discuss other recent reporting on MSNBC's Mehdi Hasan. During the interview, I mentioned that Hasan's false claims against Taibbi, taken at face value, could lead to a federal perjury charge. At the time, I had no idea Rep. Stacey Plaskett had already directly threatened Matt Taibbi.
Watch the interview below:
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