Master List Of Official Russia Claims That Proved To Be Bogus
The Director of National Intelligence releases a report, and the press rushes to kick the football again.
On March 16th, 2021, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a much-hyped, much-cited new report on “Foreign Threats to the 2020 Elections.” The key conclusion:
We assess that Russian President Putin authorized, and a range of Russian government organizations conducted, influence operations aimed at denigrating President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party, supporting former President Trump, [and] undermining public confidence in the electoral process…
The report added Ukrainian legislator Andrey Derkach, described as having “ties” to “Russia’s intelligence services,” and Konstantin Kilimnik, a “Russian influence agent” (whatever that means), used “prominent U.S. persons” and “media conduits” to “launder their narratives” to American audiences. The “narratives” included “misleading or unsubstantiated allegations against President Biden” (note they didn’t use the word “false”). They added a small caveat at the end: “Judgments are not intended to imply that we have proof that shows something to be a fact.”
As Glenn Greenwald already pointed out, the “launder their narratives” passage was wolfed down by our intelligence services’ own “media conduits” here at home, and regurgitated as proof that the “Hunter Biden laptop story came from the Kremlin,” even though the report didn’t mention the laptop story at all. Exactly one prominent reporter, Chris Hayes, had the decency to admit this after advancing the claim initially.
With regard to the broader assessment: how many times are we going to do this? We’ve spent the last five years watching as anonymous officials make major Russia-related claims, only to have those evidence-free claims fizzle.
From the much-ballyhooed “changed RNC platform” story (Robert Mueller found no evidence the changed Republican platform was “undertaken at the behest of candidate Trump or Russia”), to the notion that Julian Assange was engaged in a conspiracy with the Russians (Mueller found no evidence for this either), to the story that Trump directed lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress (“not accurate,” said Mueller), to wild stories about Paul Manafort meeting Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy, to a “bombshell” tale about Trump foreknowledge of Wikileaks releases that blew up in CNN’s face in spectacular fashion, reporters for years chased unsubstantiated claims instead of waiting to see what they were based upon.
The latest report’s chief conclusions are assessments about Derkach and Kilimnik, information that the whole world knew before this report was released. Hell, even Rudy Giuliani, whose meeting with Derkach is supposedly the big scandal here, admitted there was a “50/50 chance” the guy was a Russian spy. Kilimnik meanwhile has now been characterized as having “ties” to Russian intelligence (Mueller), and as a “Russian intelligence officer” (Senate Intelligence Committee), and is now back to being a mere “influence agent.” If he is Russian intelligence, then John McCain’s International Republican Institute (where Kilimnik worked), as well as embassies in Kiev and Moscow (where Kilimnik regularly gave information, according to the New York Times), have a lot of explaining to do.
No matter what, the clear aim of this report is to cast certain stories about Joe or Hunter Biden as misinformation, when the evidence more likely shows that material like the Hunter Biden emails is real, just delivered from a disreputable source. That makes such stories just like, say, the Joe Biden-Petro Poroshenko tapes, which were also pushed by Derkach and reported on uncontroversially by major media outlets like the Washington Post, before it became fashionable to denounce those reporting such leaks as Russian “proxies” and “conduits.”
I never thought the Hunter Biden laptop story was anywhere near as big of a deal as the efforts by platforms like Facebook and Twitter to block access to it, which seemed a historic and dangerous precedent. This new effort to cast the reporting of “allegations against President Biden” as participation in a foreign intelligence campaign is nearly as ominous. Even worse is the degree to which press figures are devouring the message. Will any bother to point out the huge quantity of recent official takes on the Russia story that went pear-shaped?
What follows is a brief list of official claims that proved untrue. Initially published on March 18th, I’ll be updating this list regularly, placing the collapsed claims in roughly chronological order. It’ll take a while. So far:
Update 5/5/21 “The man who discovered CTE thinks Hillary Clinton may have been poisoned,” Washington Post, September 12, 2016. I’d forgotten about this one, but it was an early indicator of how absurdly easy it became, by late 2016, to get any story into a major American newspaper, if it had even a theoretical connection to Russia.
In September, 2016, Hillary Clinton stumbled in a public event commemorating 9/11. Donald Trump made a huge deal of it, and the video went viral. That same day, Bennet Omalu, the doctor who is credited with discovering Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (and whose life story became a movie called Concussion starring Will Smith), suggested online that Clinton had been poisoned by you-know-whom:I must advice the Clinton campaign to perform toxicologic analysis of Ms. Clinton's blood. It is possible she is being poisoned.
By itself, there’s nothing remarkable about this. Man has theory, man posts theory to Internet, Internet goes bananas. What made this interesting was that the Washington Post wrote the story up in quasi-seriousness. After noting that Omalu was mocked online, the Post wrote, “But this is Omalu, whose credentials and tenacity are well known,” adding that “his reasoning is that he does not trust Russian President Vladimir Putin or Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee who has expressed admiration for Putin.”
It’s already ethically dubious to publish someone’s completely unfounded theory that not only Vladimir Putin but also Donald Trump poisoned a presidential candidate, but the Post took things a step further:
Putin, as The Washington Post reported, was implicated by a British inquiry in January in the poisoning death of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB operative, in London in 2006…
The paper went on to quote an old story saying that the poisoning of a figure like Litvinenko on foreign soil would “probably” not have gone ahead without Putin’s direct approval.
A few days later, Hillary Clinton recovered from pneumonia, with her doctor saying her physical exam was “normal” and she was in “excellent medical condition.”
The “Back Channel to Russians” story, Yahoo! September 23, 2016. Yahoo! published a story by Michael Isikoff called, “U.S. Officials Probe Ties Between Trump Adviser and Kremlin.” The piece identified Trump advisor Carter Page as a “possible back channel to the Russians,” and claimed he passed information from the Kremlin to figures higher up in the Trump food chain, like former campaign chair Paul Manafort.
The assertion that a Trump-connected figure was a Russian cutout who’d met with high-ranking Putin aides like Igor Divyekin and “high-ranking sanctioned individuals” like Rosneft chief Igor Sechin became the basis for countless future news stories. Yahoo! wrote up the Sechin allegation as follows (emphasis mine):
That meeting, if confirmed, is viewed as especially problematic by U.S. officials because the Treasury Department in August 2014 named Sechin to a list of Russian officials and businessmen sanctioned over Russia’s “illegitimate and unlawful actions in the Ukraine.”
This proved incorrect on all fronts, with no evidence of any Page meetings with either man. In fact, the irregularities involved with the Isikoff story – particularly the use of information from British ex-spy Christopher Steele, identified as a “well-placed Western intelligence source” – became a bigger story than the alleged improper relationship between Page and Russians.
On the day the Isikoff story ran, the Hillary For America campaign released a statement about the “Bombshell Report On Trump Aide’s Chilling Ties to Kremlin.” They wrote:
"It's chilling to learn that U.S. intelligence officials are conducting a probe into suspected meetings between Trump's foreign policy adviser Carter Page and members of Putin's inner circle while in Moscow.”
The Clinton campaign, of course, did not disclose that it was the source of this story, meaning that all outlets quoting the press release about a “chilling” connection – see here, here, and here, for instance – had been fed disinformation.
An investigation by Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz later concluded that the FBI “did not have information corroborating the specific allegations against Carter Page in Steele's reporting” either at the time of the Isikoff piece or afterward, when it used the Steele allegations as a means to obtain authority to conduct secret surveillance of Page using the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
“All 17 intelligence agencies,” October 19, 2016. Before the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton and others publicly stated that all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies backed an assessment that cyberattacks in 2016 came from the “highest levels of the Kremlin.” That was later corrected in congressional testimony to four agencies. It was actually a hand-picked team from three agencies, and the chief conclusion from that group came mainly from CIA chief John Brennan, who in his own book, “Undaunted,” published in 2020, revealed that he had overlooked dissenting analysis from two members of the working group. Brennan said he believed “the quality of the sources justified the high confidence,” but the Times and other outlets reported that Brennan was basing much of his confidence on a single human source in Russia whose information was allowed to bypass the normal vetting process.
So a story that began as an assessment on Russian interference agreed upon by “all seventeen agencies,” became four agencies, then it was a hand-picked group from three agencies dominated by the CIA director, who overrode dissenting analysts within the group, likely because of confidence in one human source.
The “Alfa Server” story, Slate, October 31, 2016. Just before the 2016 election, it was reported by Slate that the Trump organization was communicating with Russia via a mysterious server tied to Russia’s Alfa Bank. Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz noted the FBI concluded “by early February 2017 that there were no such links,” yet stories pegged to anonymous intel officials persisted for years after that.
Ex-spy Christopher Steele was a “credible source,” October 31, 2016. In Mother Jones, David Corn cited a “senior U.S. government official,” who characterized an ex-spy who claimed Russia had been cultivating Donald Trump for at least five years, and could “blackmail him.” Corn’s senior official said the ex-spy, who we later found out was Christopher Steele, was “a credible source with a proven record of providing reliable, sensitive, and important information to the US government.”
But Steele was subsequently dismissed as an FBI source for his “completely untrustworthy” decision to talk to the media, and Horowitz not only discovered that both the FBI and the CIA (who dismissed his reports as “internet rumor”) had many reservations about his credibility, but that his famed “blackmail” claims about pee and prostitutes had been made in “jest,” over “beers.”
“Crowdstrike Retraction,” Washington Post, December 22, 2016. Ellen Nakashima at the Washington Post wrote a December, 2016 article called, “Cybersecurity Firm Finds Evidence that Russian Military Unit was Behind DNC Hack,”claiming analysis of fighting between Ukranians and Russian separatists established a link between a hacker group suspected of infiltrating the DNC, and Russian military intelligence. They claimed the GRU hacked into a Ukranian artillery app, causing heavy damage to Ukrainian howitzers.
Three months after this piece was published, Crowdstrike revised and retracted its conclusions. This came after a Voice of America report suggesting Crowdstrike misrepresented the analysis of a British think tank that measures the strength of military forces. Moreover, the Ukrainian government said the howitzer losses never happened.
This incident of apparent misreporting rarely made it into coverage of Crowdstrike’s pronouncements about Russian hacking. Media members continued to place unwavering faith in the company’s methods, rarely including mitigating information about credibility. This would happen with numerous other sources on, and would become important much later on with Crowdstrike in particular.
Russia “hacked a Vermont utility,” Washington Post. December 31, 2016. On December 29, 2016, the Department of Homeland Security for the outgoing Obama administration released a joint analysis report with the FBI called “Grizzly Steppe; Malicious Cyber Activity.” It was intended to aid cyber-defense operations in the public and private sector against Russian intrusion by providing “technical indicators related to many of these operations, recommended mitigations, suggested actions to take in response to the indicators provide,” with instructions on how to report incidents to officials.
The paper was, according to computer security experts, a little odd, reading more as a collection of generic suggestions about how to detect hacks of any type. For instance, it stressed that hackers engaged in “spearphishing” campaigns may use shortened URLs. These and other examples were “basically the same set of tactics used across unrelated campaigns for the last decade or more,” cyber expert and CEO of the firm Dragos Robert Lee commented at the time.
It also released a list of IP addresses possibly connected, at one time or another, with Russian hackers. It added a disclaimer: “Upon reviewing the traffic from these IPs, some traffic may correspond to malicious activity, and some may correspond to legitimate activity.”
Toward the end of 2016, an employee of the Vermont utility Burlington Electric saw an IP address on a computer he believed was connected to the government’s list. On Friday, December 30th, the company reported the possible intrusion to federal authorities. Federal authorities immediately tipped off the Washington Post, who ran the following headline:
This first version of the story, written by Pulitzer-winner Julia Eilperin and Adam Entous, said that a “code” connected to Grizzly Steppe had been detected “within the system” of the Vermont Utility, adding, “the penetration of the nation’s electrical grid is significant because it represents a potentially serious vulnerability.”
Within an hour, the actual utility, Burlington Electric, issued a statement, saying “We detected the malware in a single Burlington Electric Department laptop not connected to our organization’s grid systems. We took immediate action to isolate the laptop and alerted federal officials of this finding.”
This changed the story from penetration of the “U.S. electricity grid” by Russia to malware found on one laptop not even connected to one utility’s system. The Post changed the headline to reflect the new interpretation as much as the facts would permit, while preserving the original concept:
Only after the Post received a torrent of criticism for the changes did it finally write a new story, with the following headline.
Essentially, an employee in Vermont found a common piece of maybe-malware while scrolling Yahoo! mail, which led to a report to federal officials, “some” of whom immediately contacted the Post with hair ablaze, leading to the “penetration of the nation’s energy grid” story. A second group of officials became the source for the new story, which still included Eilperin but now had Entous switched out for Nakashima. In the new piece, the new sources appeared anxious to dump on the previous ones, leading to passages that said things like, “Authorities also were leaking… without having all the facts and before law enforcement officials were able to investigate.”
A footnote here is that even after the Post switched out the “Russian hackers penetrated U.S. electricity grid” headline, they added alarmist quotes from officials like Governor Peter Shumlin (““Vermonters and all Americans should be both alarmed and outraged that one of the world’s leading thugs, Vladimir Putin, has been attempting to hack our electric grid”) and Senator Pat Leahy (“This is beyond hackers having electronic joy rides — this is now about trying to access utilities to potentially manipulate the grid and shut it down in the middle of winter”). In other words, as the Post was learning that this was possibly a non-story, or at least a highly ambiguous one – they knew enough by the first day of publication to know the “penetration” narrative was incorrect and needed changing – they continued to solicit quotes highlighting the sensational dangers of the incident.
Evidence “very strong” for Russia’s hack of the DNC, January 3, 2017. This story probably should have been #1 on this list, as one reader points out. The initial Intelligence Community Assessment of Russian electoral interference, published in January of 2017, was unequivocal when it came to assigning blame for the hack of the Democratic National Committee, writing:
In July 2015, Russian intelligence gained access to Democratic National Committee (DNC) networks and maintained that access until at least June 2016.
Politicians and intelligence officials tended to use this same language for years (although Barack Obama used the term “not conclusive” just before he left office). This is from an interview California congressman Adam Schiff gave to NPR just a few days before the release of the ICA:
SCHIFF: Well, the evidence is very, very strong, and I think this is the consensus of the Democrats and Republicans on the Intelligence Committees. You know, we view, obviously, a variety of intelligence, different sources, different methods of gathering it, and none of us have a question really about Russia's involvement in the hacking of our institutions and the dumping of data.
Years later, however, we learned that the company charged with doing this analysis had no such evidence. Shawn Henry of Crowdstrike, testifying in secret to congress, has this exchange with none other than Schiff, saying there was not “concrete evidence that data was exfiltrated from the DNC,” never mind by whom:
Henry went on to dump all over several sacred cows of Russia reporting, saying, “we just don’t have the evidence that says [data] actually left.” Utah congressman Chris Stewart appeared dumbfounded, asking Henry if the lack of concrete evidence covered the “emails that, you know, everyone is so knowledgeable of”:
“US investigators corroborate some aspects of the Russia dossier,” CNN, February 10, 2017. Jim Sciutto and Evan Perez of CNN reported that “multiple current and former US law enforcement and intelligence officials” have “corroborated some of the communications detailed in a 35-page dossier compiled by a former British intelligence agent,” i.e. the “Steele Dossier.”
The corroboration, which CNN said was “based on intercepted communications,” gave “US intelligence and law enforcement ‘greater confidence’ in the credibility of some aspects of the dossier as they continue to actively investigate its contents, these sources say.”
This was a significant and apparently deliberate piece of misinformation. We know, from the report of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz, that the CIA months before had already dismissed the Steele reports as “Internet rumor,” while the FBI had already done several rounds of attempts to corroborate its independent reporting, coming up with negative results each time.
As Horowitz wrote, the FBI had actively withheld key information from the FISA court before this CNN report, saying it omitted to tell the FISA judge that “Steele's Primary Subsource, who the FBI found credible, had made statements in January 2017 raising significant questions about the reliability of allegations included in the FISA applications, including, for example, that… there was ‘nothing bad’ about the communications between the Kremlin and the Trump team, and that he/she did not report to Steele in July 2016 that Page had met with [Igor] Sechin.”
Moreover, the FBI in previous efforts “had corroborated limited information in the Steele election reporting, and much of that was publicly available information.” Far from having “greater confidence” in Steele, the FBI and the CIA had both privately determined that the report at minimum was seriously flawed. Although CNN added the caveat “none of the newly learned information relates to the salacious allegations in the dossier,” most of these reports stressed the idea that the report had been at least partially “confirmed,” when in fact little to none of the original reporting in the Steele reports was ever proven.
Trump had“repeated contacts” with Russian intelligence, New York Times, February 14, 2017. Four “current and former American officials,” citing a “trove of information the FBI is sifting through,” said the Trump campaign had “repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials.” Months later:
“More than Circumstantial Evidence” for collision, Meet The Press, March 22, 2017. The ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, was asked by Chuck Todd on Meet the Press if he only had a circumstantial case for collusion against Donald Trump.
“Actually no, Chuck,” he said. “I can tell you that the case is more than that and I can't go into the particulars, but there is more than circumstantial evidence now.”
Schiff never had such evidence, and never explained what he meant. Moreover, in secret testimony, he would repeatedly seek confirmation of his public statements, and would repeatedly be shot down. In July of 2017, he asked former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper if such evidence existed. Clapper said he “never saw any direct empirical evidence that the Trump campaign or someone in it was plotting/conspiring with the Russians to meddle with the election.” Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch later said, “I don't recall anything being briefed up to me.” Former Deputy AG Sally Yates said of her knowledge of the state of the case at the time she left office in early 2017, “We were at the fact-gathering stage, not the concluding stage.”
The continued use of Adam Schiff as a reliable source, when he repeatedly proved unreliable, was one of the major problems with Russia coverage during this period.
“FBI obtained FISA warrant to monitor former Trump adviser Carter Page,” Washington Post, April 11, 2017. Citing “law enforcement and other U.S. officials,” Post reporters Ellen Nakashima, Devlin Barrett and Adam Entous reported that the FBI “obtained the warrant targeting [former Trump aide] Carter Page’s communications” after “convincing a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge” that there was “probable cause to believe Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power, in this case Russia, according to the officials.”
This report was true. A FISA court had given the FBI such a warrant. However, as Horowitz would later reveal, the court was misled by the FBI, with “at least 17 significant errors or omissions in the Carter Page FISA applications,” and as such, there was not, actually, probable cause in the Page case. Moreover, the timeline suggests the Post’s sources had to have known of the problems with the warrant before this story was posted.
The FISA court later concluded it lacked probable cause against Page in at least two of the four warrants it considered. “The court understands the government to have concluded, in view of the material misstatements and omissions, that the court's (surveillance) authorizations...were not valid,” a court order read.
Carter Page was a “catalyst” for the FBI’s Trump-Russia probe. New York Times, April 19, 2017. It was reported that former Trump adviser Carter Page was a “catalyst” for the FBI investigation into connections between Donald Trump and Russia, according to “current and former law enforcement and counterintelligence officials.” Similarly, the New York Times cited court documents in describing George Papadopoulos: “Trump Campaign Adviser Met With Russian to Discuss ‘Dirt’ on Clinton.”
But Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe testified that as early as August of 2016, Page became the focus of secret surveillance because Papadopoulos had been deemed a dead end. This scarcely reported detail only rendered the entire predicate for the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation absurd:
Updated, May 14, 2021 “The NSA Confirms It: Russia Hacked French Election ‘Infrastructure’” WIRED, May 9, 2017. On May 5th, 2017, two days before an election between nationalist Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, a huge cache of documents was dumped online, purporting to show malfeasance by the campaign of Macron. French law forbade publication of potentially election-altering news in the days before a vote, but the material made its way to the public by various means, including the hashtag #MacronLeaks. American officials and media figures blamed Russia. As with the leak of DNC files, an early assessment was made by private cyber-analysts, in this case a firm called Flashpoint, whose analysis “suggests” that a hacker group known as Advanced Persistent Threat 28, or APT28 — the same group blamed for the DNC affair — was behind the document dump. This led to headlines like the Guardian’s, “Macron hackers linked to Russian-affiliated group behind US attack.”
In a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, NSA chief Mike Rogers said he warned France that “some elements” of its election infrastructure had been compromised by Russian intelligence. “We had become aware of Russian activity,” he said. This led to headlines like the aforementioned Wired clip, and from there it became a regular feature of Russia coverage, often reported as further proof of the wide-ranging conspiracy that victimized the United States. “Russian Hackers Who Targeted Clinton Appear to Attack France’s Macron,” was the New York Times formulation, while Reuters went with “U.S. increasingly convinced that Russia hacked French election: sources.”
Various news reports and analyses by the Atlantic Council’s omnipresent Digital Forensics Lab blamed Russian trolls for amplifying the document dump, while within days it became an issue that Donald Trump had not commented on the French hack. To some, this suggested co… the ongoing FBI investigation into whether Trump’s camp colluded with the Kremlin,” was how Politico put it.
When the head of France’s Cyber-Security Agency, Guillaume Poupard of the ANSSI, gave an interview to the Associated Press on June 1st, he quashed the notion of evidence of Russian involvement. After an investigation, he said, his agency determined the hack was “was so generic and simple that it could have been practically anyone,” saying it was likely the work of an “isolated individual… They could be in any country.” Macron never mentioned Russia in connection with that hack following that investigation’s conclusion.
Virtually none of the outlets that pushed the France-Russia hack angle in the U.S. picked up the AP story. When it did come out, it was usually buried in the text of another story, for instance after a later Wikileaks dump, or years later, after American authorities indicted Russian individuals for a wide range of hacks, with victims including “the French.”
The significance of this story isn’t that it was definitively proven that Russia didn’t do it — the French investigation never did identify a culprit — but rather that American press outlets effectively blacked out the inconvenient conclusions of the ANSSI, a pattern that would continue throughout Russiagate. The same lack of enthusiasm for going back to revisit earlier stories happened after Robert Mueller and Michael Horowitz cast doubt on a variety of high-profile stories, and also after declassified congressional testimony created holes in narratives about the DNC leak and the origins of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation, among many other things.
“Jeff Sessions and Sergei Kislyak,” CNN, May 24, 2017. Jeff Sessions did not disclose contacts with a Russian ambassador in a security clearance form, Justice Department sources told multiple outlets in May of 2017, in what became a major, front-page scandal. Except it came out later he didn’t have to make those disclosures. As for the contacts themselves? “Brief, public, and non-substantive,” said Robert Mueller, much later.
Updated 5/15/17 Joseph Mifsud had “substantial connections to Russian government officials,” October 5, 2017. In late 2017, the federal government indicted former Trump aide George Papadopoulos for lying to the FBI about… well, describing what about is complicated even in retrospect. The young aide met a Maltese professor named Joseph Mifsud who claimed to have connections to the Russian state, even at one point introducing him to a woman presented as “Putin’s niece” — Putin doesn’t have a niece — and supposedly intimated that he could get his Russian friends to produce “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.
Technically, the indictment nailed Papadopoulos for lying about whether or not he was a member of Trump’s team when all of this happened. There’s a separate controversy about that, not worth getting into here, but still: the crux of this story, what made it an explosive, news-cycle-dominating phenomenon, was the idea that a Trump aide met with “the Russians” to discuss getting “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. This was an early iteration of the collusion theory. The money shot in the indictment read:
Defendant PAPADOPOULOS further told the investigating agents that the professor was "a nothing" and "just a guy talk[ing] up connections or something." In truth and in fact, however, defendant PAPADOPOULOS understood that the professor had substantial connections to Russian government officials…
After the indictment was filed, an avalanche of stories hit the headlines. A crucial detail in coverage was the definitive statement that Papadopoulos had met with “Russia” or “Russians” or a “Russian,” as in:
Trump Campaign Adviser Met With Russian to Discuss ‘Dirt’ on Clinton
How a Trump Adviser Repeatedly Sought a Meeting With Russia
Trump Campaign Got Early Word Russia Had Democrats’ Emails
Of course, there was never any indication that Mifsud ever had any real Russian ties. As noted below, FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe testified that as early as August of 2016, the Bureau believed the Papadopoulos-Mifsud interactions “didn't particularly indicate that [Papadopoulos] was the person that had had — that was interacting with the Russians.” McCabe made that statement in testimony in December of 2017, right around the time the press was exploding with stories about how “Russia had political dirt on Hillary Clinton.” Beyond that, the U.S. government never formally asserted that Mifsud was any kind of Russian agent. Robert Mueller would describe him as someone suspected of “connections to Russia,” and James Comey after leaving office would write an op-ed claiming Mifsud was “a Russian agent,” but Mifsud not only disappeared from his home in Italy but disappeared from the news within about a year after the indictment of Papadopoulos.
That, however, did not prevent news agencies from continuing to describe Papadopoulos as having met with “Russians.” The quote from the indictment about “substantial connections” to Russia would appear repeatedly in news stories, often followed by statements like this in Politico’s “Definitive Trump-Russia timeline of events”:
In early April, Papadopoulos sends multiple emails to campaign officials about his contacts with the Russians…
For years, the meeting with the mysterious Maltese professor served as the predicate for news stories about the legitimacy of the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation. It should be noted that pro-Trump voices regularly asserted that Mifsud was a cutout for the FBI, and there was never evidence for this, either (the Horowitz report investigated that question and came up empty). But the man who was the most famous “Russian” in Russiagate for years has never been proved to be any kind of intelligence officer, for anyone, and his continued absence — and the press indifference to his whereabouts — remains one of the major mysteries of this affair.
Justice Department “unaware of any wrongdoing relating to the FISA process.” New York Times, January 24th, 2018. In response to the so-called “Nunes memo,” written by Republican House Intelligence Chair Devin Nunes alleging malfeasance on the part of the FBI in its applications for secret surveillance authority of former Trump aide Carter Page, multiple officials denounced Nunes as a liar. Stephen Boyd, an Assistant Attorney General, rebuked Nunes in a letter whose contents were reported in the New York Times, calling him “extraordinarily reckless,” adding that the Justice Department was “unaware of any wrongdoing relating to the FISA process.”
Press reports uniformly denounced Nunes as a peddler of fake news. “The Nunes memo is fake and the Russia scandal is very real,” wrote New York. “Devin Nunes and the invention of Fake Oversight,” wrote the Atlantic. Nancy Pelosi said Nunes should resign, and the release of the memo could trigger a “constitutional crisis” James Comey wrote this:That’s it? Dishonest and misleading memo wrecked the House intel committee, destroyed trust with Intelligence Community, damaged relationship with FISA court, and inexcusably exposed classified investigation of an American citizen. For what? DOJ & FBI must keep doing their jobs.
The Horowitz report validated nearly every one of the Nunes claims, and moreover made it clear that Justice, FBI, and CIA officials were all aware of problems with the FISA application involving Page at the time these complaints were made to the press about. The significance of this story had to do with the origin of the Trump-Russia probe. The notion that “probable cause” existed to believe that a Trump aide was an “agent of a foreign power” was one of the lynchpins of the conspiracy theory
“Funded first by Republicans.” April 26, 2018. One of the chief deceptions of the early years of Russiagate was the effort to hide the fact that the Steele dossier had been paid for by the Hillary Clinton campaign. This fact was hidden from congressional investigators for over a year, and only came out thanks to a quirk in the House rules that allowed intelligence committee chair Devin Nunes to issue a subpoena unilaterally.
Then, even after disclosure, there were repeated efforts by both officials and media members to claim the dossier had been “initially” funded” by Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, via the Free Beacon. One of the most shameless episodes came when former FBI Director James Comey did an interview with Bret Baier while on a book tour on Fox in April of 2018. Asked when he first knew that the dossier had been funded by Hillary Clinton and the DNC, Comey said, “I still don’t know that for a fact.”
An incredulous Baier asked, “What do you mean?” To which Comey replied, “I’ve only seen it in the media,” and “I never knew exactly which Democrats had funded… I knew it was first funded by Republicans.”
This was six months after a letter filed in court by Perkins Coie, a law firm that worked on behalf of the Clinton campaign, revealed that they commissioned the opposition research company Fusion-GPS, which in turn paid Steele. Comey was trying to sell the idea that Republicans paid for the Steele research because the Free Beacon also had a contract to do Trump oppo with Fusion-GPS. But that contract ended before Steele started work, and as congressional testimony later revealed, Steele was always paid directly by Perkins-Coie.
When news that Steele had been funded by Democrats first came out, denials ran rampant. Clinton spokesperson Brian Fallon insisted he never knew that his candidate paid for Steele’s work:I regret I didnt know about Christopher Steele's hiring pre-election. If I had, I would have volunteered to go to Europe and try to help him
Many outlets shaded the story by reporting that Perkins Coie merely “helped” pay for the research, as in, “Clinton Campaign and Democratic Party Helped Pay for Russia Trump Dossier” (New York Times) or “Clinton campaign, DNC helped fund dossier research” (CNN).
Others used a different semantic trick, writing headlines like “Anti-Donald Trump Research Initially Funded by Conservative Website, Report Says” (Newsweek). Another device was to report that the Free Beacon paid for opposition research that “led to” the commissioning of the Steele work, e.g. “Conservative website funded research that led to Donald Trump Russia dossier” (Telegraph). Few outlets — the AP was one exception — ever offered corrections after reports that either stated or implied that the dossier was “initially funded” by the GOP.
Lest there be any confusion, it has since come out in congressional testimony by (among others) Glenn Simpson of Fusion-GPS that Perkins Coie alone paid for Steele’s work:
“Lives at risk.” Washington Post, May 8, 2018. “Senior FBI and national intelligence officials” told the White House and major news outlets that releasing the name of an “informant” in the Trump-Russia investigation could “risk lives.”
This was one of many such stories (we heard similar warnings before the release of the name of Christopher Steele, his source Igor Danchenko, the “exfiltrated spy” Oleg Smolenkov, the “anonymous” New York Times editorialist, the Ukraine “whistleblower,” and others). The “informant” Haspel warned about, Stefan Halper, turned out to have been a professor outed by name as an intelligence source in the New York Times all the way back in 1983:
“Michael Cohen was in Prague,” 3/13/18
In April of 2018, McClatchy released one of a series of reports appearing to confirm a key claim of the so-called “Steele dossier,” insisting that former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen had, indeed, been in Prague. This was one of the dossier’s most explosive claims: that Trump’s lawyer had “secret discussions with Kremlin representatives and associated operators/hackers” to discuss “how to process deniable cash payments to operatives” as well as “contingency plans for covering up operations” and “action in event of a CLINTON election victory.”
The first McClatchy report claimed “investigators have traced evidence that Cohen entered the Czech Republic through Germany,” under a headline that made the strong and very specific claim that Special Counsel Robert Mueller had this evidence: “Sources: Mueller has evidence Cohen was in Prague in 2016, confirming part of dossier.”
The next McClatchy story in December of 2018 was more specific: “Cell signal puts Cohen outside Prague around time of purported Russian meeting.” This piece was sourced to “four people familiar with the matter,” and if that didn’t sound authoritative enough, reporters Peter Stone and Greg Gordon explained, “Four people spoke with McClatchy on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of information shared by their foreign intelligence connections. Each obtained their information independently from foreign intelligence connections.”
Cohen denied it all, hinting in a tweet that McClatchy would be proven wrong by the Mueller report (“I hear #Prague #Czech Republic is beautiful in the summertime… I wouldn’t know as I have never been. #Mueller knows everything!”). And indeed, when Mueller’s report finally came out, it stated bluntly: “Cohen had never traveled to Prague.”
When Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s report came out, it mentioned the Prague allegations, said they’d been investigated, and noted, “The FBI eventually concluded that these allegations against Cohen and the ‘Trump team’ were not true.” The New York Times later revealed that Mueller had tried and failed to find evidence of such a trip, adding that, “Mr. Cohen’s financial records and C.I.A. queries to foreign intelligence services revealed nothing to support it.”
How did McClatchy handle all this? With an editor’s note that read, “Robert Mueller’s report to the attorney general states that Mr. Cohen was not in Prague. It is silent on whether the investigation received evidence that Mr. Cohen’s phone pinged in or near Prague, as McClatchy reported.”
The organization would stand by its story, telling Erik Wemple at the Washington Post, “There’s been no indication that Czech intelligence monitored or was aware of such a meeting, so it’s difficult to see how Special Counsel Robert Mueller could have proved this allegation even with an admission by Mr. Cohen.” Essentially, they were saying it would be impossible even for Robert Mueller to prove a negative. They added the whole affair may be consigned to a “mystery.”
McClatchy was trying to say it didn’t report that Cohen was in Prague per se, just that his phone was there, according to sources. But its headline, which is still up, was unequivocal: the cell signal “puts Cohen outside Prague.” Moreover, McClatchy reported that Mueller had evidence “Cohen was in Prague in 2016,” and that this information “confirmed part of the dossier.”
All three of these assertions were wrong, which is why this entry counts for three bogus claims in one: Cohen was never in Prague, Mueller himself said Cohen was not in Prague (and subsequent reports insisted financial records and CIA queries revealed “nothing” to him to support the idea), and the story did not confirm part of the dossier. In fact, the Cohen-in-Prague story is now understood to be one of the most obvious proofs of its unreliability, trailing only Steele’s claim that Russia’s network of operatives was being paid out of a nonexistent consulate in Miami.
“Children sickened, ducks killed.” In April, 2019, “current and former intelligence officers” told the New York Times that CIA director Gina Haspel showed Donald Trump pictures of British children sickened, as well as ducks killed, by a Russian assassination in England using the deadly nerve agent Novichok. It turns out there were no such sick children or dead ducks, and Haspel didn’t show such pictures, an error the Times chalked up to lack of research time:
“Bountygate.” In July of 2020, according to “officials briefed on the matter,” the New York Times reported, and the Washington Post “confirmed,” that “a Russian military spy unit offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to attack coalition forces in Afghanistan.”
It’s impossible to overstate how head over heels the politicians and press alike went with this story. It became instantly election-year fodder, with Kamala Harris saying of Trump, “He let Putin get away with placing bounties on the heads of our troops.” Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth instantly called for hearings into the matter, making the inevitable Russiagate tie-in. “First, Donald Trump encouraged Russia to interfere in our democracy, and they did,” she said. “Now, Russia is secretly paying militants to kill U.S. troops. Trump has known for months but apparently done nothing to stop them.”
The story had a dual impact politically, dealing a blow to Trump throughout the summer of a general election, while also seeming to present a reason not to withdraw from Afghanistan two weeks before Congress voted on the re-authorization of the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) justifying the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. In hindsight, it’s incredible to see how easy it is for military or intelligence officials to impact budgetary or policy matters: just leak a hot story before a key vote.
The Daily Beast was one of many news outlets to go full click-farm, with banner headlines like, “Russian ‘Bounties’ Mess is all of Trump’s Scandals Rolled into One” and “Russian Bounties Led to U.S. Troops’ Deaths, Intelligence Officials Believe,” with graphics announcing “BOMBSHELL,” “HOSTILE POWER” and “SHOCK VALUE!” The Washington Post’s official “fact checker” column gave Trump its dreaded “four Pinocchios” rating for saying, “that’s an issue that many people said was fake news.”
In fact, many people did say it was fake news, including Colin Powell, who went on MSNBC to describe the coverage of the story as “hysterical,” adding, “What I know is that our military commanders on the ground did not think that it was as serious a problem as the newspapers were reporting and television was reporting.”
Two months after the story came out, an on-the-record military official was less certain:
Roughly seven months after that, on April 15, 2021, a senior administration official told reporters on a conference call that the U.S. now assessed with “low to moderate confidence that Russian intelligence officers sought to encourage Taliban attacks against U.S. coalition personnel in Afghanistan in 2019.”
The Beast, one of the chief propagators of the original fairy tale, ran a new story over the graphic, TURNAROUND. “U.S. Intel Walks Back Claim Russians Put Bounties on American Troops,” the headline read, adding, without irony, that “there were reasons to doubt the story at the time.”
One could go on and on with this list, from the bogus claims about Maria Butina that ended up as Times headlines (“Suspected Secret Agent Used Sex in Covert Plan”), to overhype of the Cambridge Analytica story (which turned out to have nothing to do with Brexit), to the bass-ackwards denunciations of the so-called “Nunes memo” (validated almost entirely by Horowitz), and on, and on.
Does this mean the Russians don’t meddle? Of course not. But we have to learn to separate real stories about foreign intelligence operations with posturing used to target domestic actors while suppressing criticism of domestic politicians. It’s only happened about a hundred times in the last five years — maybe it’s time to start asking for proof in these episodes?