November 14, 2019

Menendez Questions Twitter, State Department Following Arrest of Alleged Saudi Arabia Spy Ring at Twitter

WASHINGTON – Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent two separate letters regarding accusations that Twitter employees illegally passed sensitive information about prominent Saudi dissidents to agents of the Saudi government. 

In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia John Abizaid Menendez, Menendez called on the State Department to answer questions about the actions the Trump Administration is taking to address Saudi Arabia’s involvement in spying and human rights abuses against Americans. 

“As we know from the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi officials carefully surveil social media for any critical voices,” wrote Menendez to the State Department officials “However, these public charges reveal the extent to which Saudi Arabia is exploiting American companies for its oppressive tactics in the United States. This is unacceptable.”

Last week, federal prosecutors charged two former Twitter employees and a third man in the scheme to send Saudi critics’ user information to the Saudi government. According to a Wall Street Journal report, the men operated at the direction of a top lieutenant of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

In a separate letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Menendez listed a series of security questions around the arrests to help determine whether Twitter undermined our nation’s national security interests by letting a foreign nation exploit the company’s technologies for surveillance of dissidents.

“Unfortunately, bad actors can and have used technological innovative for evil.  Governments around the world use these tools to promote their repressive agendas. The arrests of your former employees case highlights how these regimes will not stop at their own borders in order to pursue their repressive tactics and tighten their grip on power,” wrote Menendez to Dorsey.

A copy of the Senator’s letters can be found here and here. Below are both letters.

Ambassador Abizaid and Secretary Pompeo:

I am deeply disturbed by recent reports of Twitter employees allegedly spying for Saudi Arabia by using the company’s private information on particular dissidents about whom the Kingdom was interested. The recent charges by the U.S. Justice Department are troubling, and demonstrate that more needs to be done to guard against exploitation of social media and private data to further oppressive monitoring and surveilling of dissidents.  I therefore seek clarity regarding your efforts in this vein and our diplomatic efforts with the Kingdom.

In countries like Saudi Arabia where fundamental freedoms including speech, assembly, and press are outlawed, the internet and social media are often the only means of public fora where citizens can access and exchange information.

As we know from the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi officials carefully surveil social media for any critical voices. However, these public charges reveal the extent to which Saudi Arabia is exploiting American companies for its oppressive tactics in the United States.

This is unacceptable. 

This Administration has been disappointingly silent in the face of gross human rights abuses across the world. It is even more important we raise these issues with countries with whom we have strategic partnerships. I was sorely disappointed to see high level U.S. officials travel to “Davos in the desert” last month and fail to publicly raise ongoing concerns about Saudi human rights abuses.

It is in our long-term national security interests to partner with countries who respect the rights of their citizens and fundamental values. This case highlights how these regimes will not stop at their own borders to pursue their repressive tactics.

While this spying was going on, and as Saudi Arabia claims to be making progress on human rights, many of the women authorities arrested in June 2018, who reported being tortured and sexually abused, remain in prison. Indeed, American citizens remain unjustly detained in Saudi Arabia. And Saudi Arabia has still not fully accounted for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

To that end, I request that you respond to the following by November 26, 2019:

  1. What steps are you taking, specifically, to raise concerns with Saudi officials about using U.S. technology companies to monitor and gather information on dissidents and those critical of the Kingdom?
  2. How are you working with technology companies to ensure they are not being exploited by foreign countries, including Saudi Arabia, for surveillance of dissidents?
  3. What efforts you are taking to secure the release of Americans in prison in Saudi Arabia?
  4. Please detail the U.S. embassy presence at the Saudi trials of those it says it is holding responsible for the death of Jamal Khashoggi.

Sincerely, 

 

Dear Mr. Dorsey,

I am deeply disturbed by the recent arrests of two former Twitter employees accused of spying for Saudi Arabia. These two men allegedly used Twitter’s internal systems to obtain private information on particular dissidents. These charges demonstrate that Twitter must do more to guard against exploitation of users’ private data, especially when that data is used to oppress and surveil dissidents. Therefore, I am requesting information about your efforts to prevent this kind of exploitation.

In countries like Saudi Arabia where the government outlaws fundamental freedoms including speech, assembly, and press, the Internet and social media are often the only means of public fora where citizens can access and exchange information. The United States takes pride in our innovative technologies that allow people around the world to connect and communicate in ways unheard of a generation ago. 

Unfortunately, bad actors can and have used technological innovative for evil.  Governments around the world use these tools to promote their repressive agendas. The arrests of your former employees case highlights how these regimes will not stop at their own borders in order to pursue their repressive tactics and tighten their grip on power.

As we know from the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi officials carefully surveil social media for any critical voices. However, these public charges against Ali Alzabarah and Ahmad Abouammo reveal the extent to which Saudi Arabia is willing to exploit American companies for its oppressive tactics in the United States. This is unacceptable. 

It is in our long-term national security interests to continue to promote American businesses and lead with our values. That mission is undermined when those companies fail to take adequate steps to protect consumers.

To that end, I request that you respond to the following by November 26, 2019:

  1. In light of the arrests of Alzabarah and Abouammo are you implementing additional security measures to protect user data?
  2. Approximately how many users had their data provided to Saudi Arabia? Have you, or do you have plans, to notify those users?
  3. What steps are you taking to ensure that all employees with access to private data are vetted and instructed on the appropriate use of this data?
  4. Are you raising concerns directly with Saudi officials about using U.S. technology companies to monitor and gather information on dissidents and those critical of the Kingdom?
  5. How are you working with U.S. governmental agencies to ensure your technologies are not exploited by foreign countries, including Saudi Arabia, for surveillance of dissidents?

 

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