Trial begins against ex-Twitter employee accused of espionage

SAN FRANCISCO — Was he a cunning spy who traveled the world to meet with his handlers and set up a shell company to hide his money? Or was he a dutiful Twitter employee who handled requests from VIP users and became the scapegoat when the government allowed the real spies to slip past his fingertips?

Those are the central questions of the trial that began Thursday against Ahmad Abouammo, a former Twitter employee accused of spying on users on behalf of Saudi Arabia. In 2019, Mr. Abouammo was arrested and charged with committing wire fraud and acting as an agent of a foreign government without disclosing that job.

In opening statements in federal court in San Francisco, the Justice Department described Mr. Abouammo as a Saudi Arabian agent who had used his insider access to unearth the personal information of dissidents on Twitter. He wanted money and proximity to power, prosecutors said. But Abouammo’s lawyers argued that he had requested the users’ information as part of his normal duties and had not provided it to Saudi officials.

“Energy. Greed. Lies. This will be the story told by the evidence,” said Assistant US Attorney Colin Sampson.

Abouammo had a close relationship with Bader Binasaker, who was a top adviser to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the government said. Prosecutors showed a photo of Abouammo and Binasaker standing in front of a wooden sculpture of the Twitter logo during a tour of the company’s San Francisco headquarters. The men also met in London, where Binasaker presented Abouammo with a luxury watch.

“I wanted to recruit a mole,” Sampson said of Binasaker. After receiving the watch, Abouammo began looking into a pseudonymous Twitter account that was critical of the Saudi government, Sampson said.

When he quit his job at Twitter in 2015, Abouammo connected Binasaker with another employee, Ali Alzabarah, who would go on to share dissident information, prosecutors said. He also contacted other Twitter employees to relay requests from Saudi officials.

But Abouammo’s lawyers argued that he had a right to see the account information as part of his work at Twitter and that he was unaware of Binasaker’s affiliation with the Saudi government.

His actions were “entirely legal, entirely appropriate and, most importantly, part of Mr. Abouammo’s job,” said Jerome Matthews, a federal public defender who represents Mr. Abouammo.

Twitter directed Abouammo to investigate complaints about the pseudonymous Twitter account, a critic of the Saudi government known as Mujtahidd, Matthews said. The government had no evidence that Abouammo passed information about the account to Binasaker, he added.

“There’s a big difference between looking at an account and then providing someone with information,” Mr. Matthews said.

While Abouammo was speaking with law enforcement officials who questioned him about his relationship with Binasaker, his former co-worker, Alzabraah, fled the country, Matthews said.

To illustrate the importance of Twitter to dissidents, the Justice Department presented testimony from Twitter executives.

“Partly because Twitter doesn’t require you to use your real name, Twitter is frequently used by people involved in political dissent and criticism,” said Yoel Roth, Twitter’s chief security and integrity officer. “That is an outstanding use of our service by many people around the world.”

In 2014 and 2015, during Abouammo’s tenure at Twitter, about six million people in Saudi Arabia used the social networking service, representing about 4 percent of its users worldwide, the Justice Department said. .

The trial is expected to continue for about two weeks.

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