The government compelled Microsoft to turn over emails, Project Veritas says

US attorneys investigating the theft of Ashley Biden’s diary during the 2020 election campaign compelled Microsoft to turn over emails from nine accounts associated with Project Veritas, a conservative group known for hidden-camera sting operations designed to embarrass liberals and mainstream news outlets, according to a court filing from Veritas that Microsoft confirmed.

According to the filing, beginning in November 2020, under Attorney General Bill Barr, attorneys for the Department of Justice obtained secret warrants, nondisclosure orders, and a subpoena demanding Microsoft share emails and contact information from the Veritas members, who use Microsoft cloud software.

In a motion filed yesterday, Veritas condemned the surveillance as overly broad—in one case stretching back eight months before the group began pursuing the diary—and asked a judge to halt use of the information obtained via Microsoft.

A Microsoft employee shared the information with Veritas earlier this month after the nondisclosure orders were lifted. “It is our policy to always push back on legal demands for enterprise customer data and to notify the customer as soon as we’re legally able if we’re forced to comply with such orders,” said a Microsoft spokesperson. “We did both in this instance.”

The American Civil Liberties Union lent Veritas its support, with a caveat. “We deplore Project Veritas’s deceptions, and we don’t have a full picture of the government’s investigation,” said Brian Hauss, a senior ACLU staff attorney. “But we’re concerned that the precedent set by this case could have serious consequences for press freedom.”

A Department of Justice spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment.

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James O’Keefe, Veritas’s founder, says his organization did purchase the Biden diary, which it ultimately did not publish. But he said in an interview that Veritas was not directly involved in its theft, and is therefore protected under the law.

“If it was illegal for someone to receive a document that a source stole, then you should incarcerate all people at the Washington Post and New York Times,” O’Keefe said by phone yesterday.

Government lawyers seem to be suggesting that Veritas’s involvement was more direct, and they have resisted categorizing the group as journalists. “There is no First Amendment protection for the theft and interstate transport of stolen property,” they wrote in a filing. In November 2021, roughly a year after the first subpoena of Microsoft, a federal judge in the Southern District of New York found probable cause to authorize a search warrant of O’Keefe’s apartment related to federal crimes including “conspiracy to transport stolen property across state lines” and “interstate transportation of stolen property.” Searches were also executed at the homes of two other Veritas members.

A month after the raids, a judge agreed to appoint an independent third party, known as a special master, to review the materials seized by FBI agents. But even after the raids were highly publicized, US attorneys sought to extend the nondisclosure orders against Microsoft.

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Caleb Pershan is a CJR fellow.