Documents newly obtained by America First Legal Foundation reveal deep collusion between public officials and allies in Big Tech to silence dissenting voices.
The documents lay bare efforts by officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to push social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to censor so-called medical misinformation.
John Zadrozny, deputy director of investigations at America First Legal Foundation, joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss how deep the collusion goes and what it all means.
Listen to the [second] podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Doug Blair: My guest today is John Zadrozny, deputy director of investigations at America First Legal Foundation. John, welcome to the show.
John Zadrozny: Hey, Doug, thanks for having me on. I really appreciate it.
Blair: Of course. Well, we have to talk about this massive thing that you guys have found out, which is this trove of documents detailing the super cozy relationship between Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention] officials and Big Tech over their efforts to censor what is called misinformation surrounding COVID-19.
So just to start out with, could you give our listeners a broad overview of some of the revelations that these documents revealed?
Zadrozny: Absolutely, Doug.
So basically, you may recall last year that when she was still White House press secretary, from the White House podium in mid-July, Jen Psaki basically admitted to the public that they were working, colluding, I guess you could say, with Big Tech to make sure that “misinformation” was not spread on the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
And we were immediately piqued by this, so I think we sent a [Freedom of Information Act] request literally the next day to several agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the CDC. Not surprisingly, they were not tripping over themselves to release those documents because they were damning.
We filed a lawsuit this year and we have since been able to get documents as a result of being in court with the agency. They released a batch to us in July and we were able to roll out about 286 pages of initial production from the agency last week.
And what they show, Doug, it is pretty damning. It basically shows exactly what we thought—file this under horrifying but not surprising. They were in very close coordination with Google, Twitter, and Facebook. For emphasis, we don’t know if other Big Tech companies were involved yet. This is just what we were able to get our hands on to date.
Examples of what the communications showed were very close, frequent coordination between the government and officials at Google, Twitter, and Facebook. Very excited willingness on the part of officials at those three Big Tech companies to work with them.
In other words, it wasn’t a government strong-arming companies and them reluctantly going along. It was them saying, “We’re eager to work with you and help you.”
There were instances of basically the government told these agencies what to say in terms of vaccine safety. They basically told them what to say and concealed the origins as federal.
The CDC reached out to … Twitter, saying, “Hey, we found these posts. These are misinformation.” And then Twitter immediately proceeded to not only pull them down, but then suspend the accounts of some of those users.
The interaction, the degree of interaction and the type of interaction, Doug, is pretty gross. And it’s a reminder that we’re in a very dangerous time. It’s not just a question of an abusive government, but it’s an abusive government in cahoots with a large, monopolistic tech industry that has no interest in free speech for the public.
Blair: That sounds incredibly dangerous. And I think the fact is that it sounds like the government is skirting around First Amendment protections for speech by kind of nudge, nudge, wink, winking to these Big Tech companies and having them do the dirty work for them. So it’s not the government doing the censorship, it’s Twitter doing the censorship or YouTube doing the censorship.
Zadrozny: Yeah. Doug, that’s a great point. But I would counter that and say the following: There’s obviously a debate on the right about the private sector’s discretion to do what it chooses as the private industry, as nongovernmental. Remember, the First Amendment, the Bill of Rights, all those amendments are designed to curtail government conduct.
However, two things, one of which is, take the government out of it, in a vacuum these companies have reached a size and dimension, and reality in our modern digital age, where they are essentially the digital town square. There is no real public media forum absent these social media platforms.
And an argument could be made, it’s not uniform, there’s definitely disagreement on the right about this, but an argument could be made that they’re essentially, at this point, quasi-utilities.
Imagine a scenario where a phone company was cutting off phone calls of people when they didn’t like what they were saying. We would be aghast at that, and yet somehow this is considered OK.
But it’s even worse than that, Doug, because basically, I think the argument here is that the federal government, by interacting with these companies, whether voluntarily or not, has deputized them as an extension of the government. And so, I think the First Amendment argument is very much in play here.
They can’t say, “Well, we’re private.” Maybe, maybe they could have gotten away with that if they were doing this of their own volition. But it’s pretty clear they were working hand-in-glove with federal officials telling them what to say and not say.
Blair: How long and how extensive do these ties go back? And are there going to be any sort of implications between people like Dr. [Anthony] Fauci and other government officials that were directly responsible for this?
Zadrozny: Well, that’s a great question, Doug. We have other, for clarity, we have other letters out to other agencies to find out the degree to which they were involved in manipulating these Big Tech companies and their speech.
Troublingly, if you go look at the documents that we’ve produced, remember it’s only 286 pages, I suspect we’ve only scratched the surface. Some of those communications do go back to 2020, and so I think some of the people might say, “Well, gosh, doesn’t that mean the Trump administration was doing this?”
I think the answer is, if, based on all we saw during the Trump administration, and I was part of it, there are a lot of secretive nefarious actors who were not working in conjunction with the political leadership of the administration and doing what they wanted.
I suspect these ties existed between these officials and the employees of these companies for years. … Gosh only knows what else they were doing behind the scenes, Doug, to undercut the administration while the administration was happening. But it picked up another few notches in speed once we were gone, in order to facilitate the Biden administration’s rollout of the vaccine.
The horrible part about all this, Doug, is that the Biden administration and the Big Tech companies, they wouldn’t need to do any of this if they had anything resembling credibility on any issue, including the vaccine issue. But the reality is, when you’re in a position where nobody believes anything you’re saying, you have to censor—at least if you think like the left does.
And that’s exactly why they’re doing what they’re doing. Instead of having a full and open public debate, saying, “Look, these people who are critical of the safety of the vaccines, they’re completely wrong. Here are the data. We’re in the right. Trust us,” they can’t do that because the data don’t support them. And so, they’ve had to engage in this conduct.
And again, I really think we’ve only scratched the surface. Again, it’s only the first 286 pages and that’s just from the CDC, so there’s a lot more going on.
And Doug, I can break some news for you. We are issuing a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services inspector general, [Christi] Grimm, asking her to conduct an investigation of this. We think this is clearly illegal, clearly inappropriate. And with any luck, we’ll get a serious response from the IG. We’re really hoping that we do.
Blair: Well, John, that’s incredible news. And I guess, if you could go a little bit more in depth about what you’re hoping to find with that letter, what you’re hoping to find with these sort of revelations here?
Zadrozny: Yeah. So, I think what we’re hoping is that the inspector general’s investigation is not only able to bring to light some of the other components of HHS that were involved in this—again, we only were talking about CDC, which is technically under HHS. We sent letters to the National Institutes of Health. We sent letters to HHS headquarters and other federal officials and federal agencies.
She may be able to pull it all together in her investigation. But also, she’ll have access to documents that we don’t. And with any luck, she’ll actually bring to light the full scope of this.
We had to use what’s called the Freedom of Information Act to get the documents that we’ve got, and even then we had to take this all the way to a federal judge. She doesn’t have those constraints. With any luck, she’ll actually do her job. We’ll see.
Blair: Now, it sounds like she’s obviously not likely to do that, unless she’s forced to do so. What does it say about this administration that it seems like these revelations have to come out through the work of citizen journalists and organizations like yours, instead of them just saying, “Look, we have a vested interest in this policy going this one way”? What does that say about how this administration is viewing this topic?
Zadrozny: What it says to me, Doug, is that they view themselves as on the wrong side of the issue where they need to hide from the truth. And they can’t have an open conversation and win a credibility-based conversation with the American public.
And I think you could, unfortunately, I think you can apply this to almost every issue area in their purview right now—energy production to national security and so on. They’re too busy throwing, I guess, American parents who attend school board meetings in jail as domestic terrorists to focus on actual medical safety and integrity.
I think another lesson, too, Doug, if I may, is I think we’re probably seeing what happens when we have a federal government that’s just way too large.
People on the right for years—and to their credit, it’s a good argument, it just hasn’t really fallen on ears and it hasn’t resonated—the small government argument has always been a fiscal one. The argument has always been, “We spend too much money. We spend too much money.” Well, that’s all true.
And we may actually be seeing, we may have finally hit the point in the United States where we are starting to see those proverbial chickens come home to roost with high inflation, etc. But it doesn’t resonate.
And I think it’s partly, without getting too much into it, I think it’s because most Americans don’t deal with anything near those numbers of that type of money. Those numbers just kind of glaze over—a trillion here or a trillion there.
But I think the argument that really does resonate with Americans across the country at home in small communities is this is what happens when you have a government that’s too large, and has too much money, and has too many employees, it becomes too radical. And you need to rein it in.
And the only way to really rein it in, it’s not a bunch of old white guys wagging fingers at oversight hearings. It’s shrinking federal agency budgets, saying, “Look, you’re being punished for not doing your jobs. In fact, you’re being punished for using money for things that are dangerous, unconstitutional, and suppressing rights.”
I think it’s one of the most serious conversations we need to have over the next 10 years, Doug, is have we reached the point where we’ve seen too much? We’ve seen what a big federal government really means for the republic, it’s not good and it needs to be shrunk.
Blair: Right. Now, John, that raises an interesting point. We have this information, it sounds like you are taking action, specifically with this letter to the IG, but what can conservatives do? We have the proof now, we have the evidence to show that there was collusion between these massive government bodies and Big Tech. What do we do with that information?
Zadrozny: That’s a great question. That’s the million-dollar question, right? I think for now, because Republicans, conservatives don’t run the executive branch, there’s nothing that can be done there.
In theory, Republicans, if they are to win control of Congress and take it seriously, and actually push back against the corruption of this administration, they could cut budgets. There could be some oversight. Maybe they could recommend potential civil or criminal action against people who have potentially violated federal law.
That’s obviously not going to be acted on by this current administration, but you can put a file together and have it sit there and wait for the right time. And then say, “Look, this person should be looked at for civil violations. This person should be looked at for criminal violations.”
I think this information opens doors for states and even private litigants to possibly file their own litigation. And so I am tempted to say, I’m sure you are too, “Well, so what, John? Another lawsuit?” It does add up. And having been on the inside of an administration, every time you get sued, it takes attorneys and people away from doing X or Y because they have to deal with a lawsuit.
And if it’s not a frivolous lawsuit—and they shouldn’t be frivolous lawsuits, they should be legitimate lawsuits—you’re going to find a lot. There’s going to be a lot to talk about and there’s going to be a lot to answer for.
So for now, I think that’s the best-case scenario. But I would also say that the one thing everyone can do—public, anyone listening here, anyone who cares about this issue or any of these issues—just pay attention to all of this. And then when the time comes, make sure we remember all of this to take action inside the executive branch. An awful lot of people are going to need to be fired.
Blair: Now, as we’re having this conversation, it seems so odd to me that there’s been no, I don’t want to say justification because it doesn’t really sound like it’s justifiable, but there’s nothing coming from the administration to say, “Yeah, we own up to this.” They’re almost trying to push back. Has Big Tech even tried to justify this or are they just hoping this blows over?
Zadrozny: It’s to be determined. I haven’t really seen anyone on the government side respond to this in any meaningful way. And I suspect that private companies, the Big Tech companies are going to say exactly what you mentioned in the beginning, saying, “Well, we’re private. We can do what we want.” Although at the same time, it’s interesting because they’re in an interesting spot.
There are some Republicans, not all, it’s not a uniform opinion, but some Republicans have proposed getting rid of Section 230 of the federal Communications Act, which would strip the Big Tech platforms who operate via the internet with some of their protections.
Don’t forget the whole justification for Section 230 is immunity from content. So they got a lot of benefits by saying, “Look, we’re just kind of the Wild West forum. We don’t police.” Well, now they’re policing, and they’re policing at government direction, and it changes the equation.
And getting rid of Section 230 may or may not be a helpful thing. I actually defer to others on that. But I do think that the private sector’s going to say, “We can do what we want.” But then if you dare say, “Well, we have to change how you’re regulated,” I’m sure they’ll bristle at that.
I don’t expect the federal government to own up to any of this. But the reality is, again, this is just the tip of the iceberg. These people are very comfortable.
It’s pretty clear, too, by the way, there’s no concealment in these documents of their conduct. In other words, it’s not like we got five emails back and all of this happened by phone. They see no problem with this. And so, I don’t suspect that they are willing to say [they’ve] done anything wrong, because they probably don’t think they’ve done anything wrong.
I’m sure they had couch it as, “We’re doing this for the right reasons.” But as you know as well as I do, Doug, the road to hell is in fact paved with good intentions. And so, just because you feel like doing something and you think it’s a good thing, it … doesn’t mean it’s constitutional.
Blair: Right, right. I wonder if there was even some success to this. One of the arguments that I’ve almost heard a couple of different times from people on the right is that when you start to push censorship, it becomes much more difficult for you to justify yourself as the person in the right. To be super nerdy for a second, the quote from “Game of Thrones,” “If you rip a man’s tongue out, you’re afraid of what he has to say.”
It almost sounds like maybe there’s this sense of, “Well, we know we’re not in the right here, so we’re just going to do it anyway.” And that actually creates a backlash. What are your thoughts on that?
Zadrozny: No, I think you’re correct. Except the problem is I get the sense that the Biden administration, as the metaphor for the left writ large, is just kind of going for broke on all things right now. Because I think it’s a combination of things, at least that’s my theory.
One is, I think they see the writing on the wall for the fall elections. Now, Republicans can be weak at times, but I think at the end of the day, they’d still rather have control of Congress, and they’re not happy with the possibility of a wild card Congress asking a lot of questions, and obviously ruining their chances of winning reelection in 2024.
But I don’t think they see that they’ve done anything wrong. I think they’re just … going to double down or triple down. And they have to do a lot of this stuff, because I think to some degree on this issue and many, many others, the gig is up. And the more is exposed, the more it reveals the brokenness of federal government and the need to do things more than just wag fingers at oversight hearings.
And I’m hoping that what this does is actually get people to realize we can’t just do things the way we used to. The same old, same old is just not going to work in a future Congress, in a future administration. This federal government needs to be scrubbed and reassembled for the benefit of the American people.
Blair: And do you think that removing things like Section 230 or taking action against Big Tech companies that do this type of thing would be an acceptable solution?
Zadrozny: I think putting them in a place where they have to consider liability for removing people inappropriately or otherwise could actually be helpful. Why is it so that they get this protection that allows them to be immune from content?
In a way, you would think that if they had this immunity, this would be their way of responding to the federal government, “Look, sorry, Mr. President, we’re not going to work with you guys because we don’t want to lose our 230 status. We want this to be sort of a Wild West medium of communication.”
So yeah, I think that’s one thing that would make a difference. I think if you want to drive a point home, point at their dollars. And their ability to make money here is something that’s a big deal.
I’ve often thought, one thing, if governments—and I don’t just mean the federal government, I mean the state governments, local governments—they want to make a difference, I think one thing you could do is just get rid of your Twitter accounts, get rid of your Facebook accounts. Why are these governments that proclaim to be opposed to what these platforms are doing still on them?
Now, the devil’s advocate argument is, well, you might as well use their medium against them. But the reality is, once you start using their medium against them to an effective degree, you get pulled off. So why give them the revenue? Just get out of it.
And at some point I’d love to see the federal government deal with this when there’s an administration that is not interested in supporting these platforms anymore, and we’ll see what happens.
But yeah, follow the money. If you can make it painful for them economically, they’ll stop their behavior.
Blair: Now, as we begin to wrap-up here, I want to give you an opportunity to really focus in and highlight on what you think people should be looking at. So first off, where can people, if they want to look at these documents for themselves, where can they go? And then, what do you recommend they really pay attention to as they’re troving through these? As you mentioned, there’s quite a few of them. So what do you think they should be looking out for?
Zadrozny: Well, Doug, one thing I would strongly recommend is if people do want to see the documents—and thank you for the plug—please come to aflegal.org. That’s aflegal.org. You can see the work we’ve done on this and also many, many other things, everything from immigration to national security to education.
But in terms of this trove, again, we’re going to need some eyes, and people’s expertise and thoughts based on their conduct. So when you go look at these emails, please, please, let us know if you see anything of interest.
For example, … you’ll see names in these emails, but not all of them, because some of them are redacted. So if anyone has any information about any of the names around those FOIA exemptions the agency used to cover other people’s names, let us know.
One thing I’m curious to know is, are there any professional or economic connections between the people in the federal government and these companies? For example, it identifies by name some people who work for Twitter, Facebook, and Google, who interact with the federal government. But do they have a spouse at the CDC? Do they have a spouse at NIH? These are things that are frequently concealed.
And it’s funny because the leftist administrations always tend to have couples involved in things. And sometimes that manifests in the form of Mr. Jones works at the Department of Treasury and Mrs. Jones works on the White House counsel staff. But sometimes it’s not even all in government. So for example, maybe the federal job of Mr. Jones is dependent upon Mrs. Jones at Twitter, doing what the federal government says.
If it’s the stuff that we don’t know—in fact, the best way I could say it, Doug, is, it’s the unknown unknowns in the production. And if anyone’s got any thoughts, and also if you happen to be one of these people who are working for these Big Tech companies who are familiar with some of this, come reach out to us.
You don’t exist, we will make sure you don’t exist, but we could use your help and information, and anything you’ve got to offer. Because really, it comes down to the people behind the scenes who say, “Hey, I know I’m part of this. I’ve seen this, it’s wrong. I want to help.”
If you’re willing to come check out those documents, please give us a shout and keep your eyes out for further tranches of documents and further information from these agencies and hopefully an honest inspector general’s report regarding the content of this whole scandal across the Department of Health and Human Services.
Blair: Sounds like a wonderful opportunity for Americans to get involved. That was John Zadrozny, deputy director of investigations at the America First Legal Foundation. John, very much appreciate your time.
Zadrozny: Thank you, Doug, for your time. I appreciate it.
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