Cruz calls for criminal investigation into Twitter over alleged Iranian sanction violations

Cruz calls for criminal investigation into Twitter over alleged Iranian sanction violations
© Greg Nash

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSenate GOP set to vote on Trump's Supreme Court pick before election Supreme Court fight pushes Senate toward brink Crenshaw looms large as Democrats look to flip Texas House seat MORE (R-Texas) on Friday called on the Trump administration to open a criminal investigation into allegations that Twitter had violated U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Cruz made this request the same day other top administration officials criticized Twitter for allowing accounts of top Iranian officials to remain active while flagging a tweet by President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Ocasio-Cortez: Trump contributed less in taxes 'than waitresses and undocumented immigrants' Third judge orders Postal Service to halt delivery cuts MORE for “glorifying violence.”

In a letter to Attorney General William BarrBill BarrFederal prosecutor speaks out, says Barr 'has brought shame' on Justice Dept. Why a backdoor to encrypted data is detrimental to cybersecurity and data integrity FBI official who worked with Mueller raised doubts about Russia investigation MORE and Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinHouseholds, businesses fall into financial holes as COVID aid dries up Centrist Democrats got their COVID bill, now they want a vote The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Republicans lawmakers rebuke Trump on election MORE, Cruz alleged that Twitter had violated U.S. sanctions by allowing the accounts of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to stay active. 

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Both Khamenei and Zarif were sanctioned under an executive order signed by President Trump last year for promoting terrorism, advancing its ballistic missile program and targeting U.S. civilian vessels. 

“In early April, Khamenei and Zarif used their Twitter accounts to post anti-American disinformation and conspiracy theories, not authoritative health information,” Cruz wrote. “They use their accounts provided by Twitter to threaten and taunt their enemies real and imagined. In any event, Twitter’s corporate values and grave misapprehension of the threat that Khamenei and Zarif pose are irrelevant.”

Cruz wrote to Twitter in February outlining his concerns around the Iranian accounts. Twitter responded to Cruz that the company did not apply its “violent extremist” policy to the accounts because of the “public interest in learning about these types of statements” from military or government accounts.

Twitter also pointed to the COVID-19 crisis as a reason to allow the accounts to remain active.

“With Iran’s people uniquely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Twitter is also a place where officials can communicate the challenges they are facing, as well as be held to account by a global audience for their actions,” the company wrote to Cruz. “We believe this Twitter use case is essential in times of crisis.”

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Cruz’s letter was sent the same day Twitter flagged a tweet of Trump's that threatened military action in response to riots in Minneapolis over the police killing of George Floyd. Trump tweeted that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” prompting Twitter to flag the tweet for “glorifying violence.”

The official White House Twitter account responded harshly to this decision, and criticized Twitter for allowing the account of Khamenei to stay up while flagging Trump’s tweet. 

@Twitter has determined that it will allow terrorists, dictators, and foreign propagandists to abuse its platform,” the White House tweeted.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican, tweeted out screenshots of Khamenei's tweets threatening violence against Israel and the Jewish people in also criticizing Twitter’s decision to flag Trump’s tweets.

“Serious question for @Twitter: Do these tweets from Supreme Leader of Iran @khamenei_ir violate ‘Twitter Rules about glorifying violence’?” Pai tweeted. 

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A spokesperson for Twitter told The Hill on Friday that "foreign policy saber-rattling on economic or military issues are generally not in violation of the Twitter Rules."

The Republican backlash against the platform comes after a week of heated pushback by President Trump against Twitter after two of his tweets on potential fraud stemming from mail-in voting were flagged for being misleading.

Trump signed an executive order on Thursday targeting liability protections for social media companies that protect platforms from facing legal action for what is posted by users. Congressional Republicans are also drafting legislation to target these protections.

-Updated at 5:35 p.m.