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How the Saudi government may have used Twitter to target dissidents in the U.S.

The Department of Justice alleges that the government of Saudi Arabia is surveilling people living in the United States — by leveraging Twitter. Specifically, the indictment charges that a Saudi official is recruiting Twitter employees to share personal details of critics of the Saudi government, so that those dissidents can be targeted for persecution. Nick Schifrin talks to Judy Woodruff.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This extraordinary indictment yesterday by the Department of Justice against Twitter, Twitter employee who were working for Saudi Arabia.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This is an extraordinary story, Judy.

    This is the first time that U.S. prosecutors have accused Saudi Arabia of surveilling people inside the United States. The story is basically two Twitter employees, one of whom is a U.S. citizen, accused of accessing info that we give to Twitter, our private information, basically, and sending that to the Saudi government.

    And the specific users' info they accessed, those were activists, those were dissidents, those were people critical of the Saudi government. So, bottom line, this is Saudi — the Saudi Arabian government basically infiltrating Twitter to contact and persecute its critics.

    Earlier this year, my colleague Layla Quran and I, we sat down with multiple of these Saudi critics. We interviewed actually dozens of people about this crackdown. And that crackdown went not only on Twitter, but used Twitter to go beyond Twitter.

    So we talked about the real-life ways that Saudi was pressuring some of its critics.

    And we talked to one critic, Abdullah Alaoudh, here in D.C.

    And how has the Saudi government targeted you while you're in the United States?

  • Abdullah Alaoudh:

    I get threats every day from Twitter accounts that a lot of people think are somehow associated to the Saudi government.

    I mean, just today, I got, for example, a threat from a Twitter account, saying that, we're going to lock you up, and we're going to find you, and we're going to bring you back and put you in a cell next to your father.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Alaoudh's father, Salman, is an outspoken activist and scholar who's released his own videos and called for a change in the Saudi government.

    He was arrested and now faces the death penalty. Alaoudh said his father's interrogators mention him during interrogation

  • Abdullah Alaoudh:

    Talking to somebody about his son and saying that, we are going to arrest him, we're going to torture him, we're going to do this and that to him, it's a way of intimidation and pressure.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And have they also tried to pressure you?

  • Abdullah Alaoudh:

    Yes, because they try to send the message that whatever you do is going to be reflected on my father and how they deal with my father.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Alaoudh says how the Saudis deal with him here is surveillance. He says, in 2016, before a public event, he was approached by another Saudi citizen, who said he was there to spy and report back.

  • Abdullah Alaoudh:

    The Saudi government has no limits. So, if you're dealing with somebody like this, it's just scary.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And we spoke to Abdullah Alaoudh today, Judy, and he was still receiving threats just today.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Nick, what is the evidence, is there evidence that this online surveillance is actually being conducted by the Saudi government?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The indictment is very specific.

    It says the main recruiter of these two Twitter employees was a Saudi official and heads the private office of Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. He is basically described as a secretary of Mohammed bin Salman and one of the people who control Mohammed bin Salman's private money.

    Bottom line, Judy, this is part of a global campaign by Saudi Arabia to silence its critics.

    And I should just mention, Twitter sent us a statement. They understand, according to them, that there are bad actors. They are trying to limit some of their employees' access to sensitive information, and they are committed to protecting users' freedom of speech.

    But, obviously, that failed in this case.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Remarkable. Just remarkable. Two really important stories.

    Nick Schifrin, thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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