Why Is The Nation Giving Space to Tinfoil Haberdashers and Pro-Putin Propagandists?

If you noticed an uptick on social media of conspiratorial chatter on both the left and the right the last couple of days, there’s a reason. The Nation has published a piece containing allegations which, if true, would be highly significant for the Trump-Russia investigations: That the Wikileaks documents from the DNC were not hacked from afar, but were instead downloaded locally.

Under the title "A New Report Raises Big Questions About last Year’s DNC Hack," author Patrick Lawrence presents to us a story of whistle-blowing former members of United States intelligence communities collaborating with fearless independent journalists and a couple of anonymous-but-trustworthy computer experts to expose that a major part of the case for Russian interference in the 2016 elections is a lie.

“If true” is the operative phrase. And there is significant reason to doubt the veracity of this report.

Lawrence omits some fairly important information that the reader might like to know. Such as: The remarkable number of Seth Rich conspiracy theorists involved in reporting this tale — the ones stubbornly clinging to the idea that the tragic death of the young man who was a low-level DNC staffer was part of a sinister Clinton cover-up.

Readers might also like to know that one of the journalists and one of the former IC professionals involved in the story both write for “Russia Insider” — a site that's been involved in producing pro-Putin disinformation. In a story at Forbes last November, Paul Roderick Gregory described its role in manufacturing the propaganda narrative that the United States created IS. Jeff Stein at Newsweek also describes the role of Russia Insider in trying to discredit critics of Russia’s actions towards Ukraine by recycling KGB-produced propaganda about them. Peter Himler at Forbes writes about their attempts at "media hacking."

Seems curious not to mention that some of the major sources for this story write for a Russian propaganda site, but that’s just me.

In fact, there are a whole lot of things that the reader might like to know in order to evaluate Lawrence’s story. He has omitted significant contextualizing facts, but The Nation published it anyway. How bad is it? It’s pretty bad, considering that journalists rise and fall on the honest presentation of their sources, and that credible media outlets normally do a fair amount of due diligence before presenting such explosive claims.

Settle in if you want some more detail.

The first thing that made me wonder about the article was, frankly, its style. The Nation has enjoyed a pretty fair reputation over the years for good writing, so I’m not accustomed to pieces that spend several paragraphs meandering through passive constructions that obscure rather than reveal. A sample:

Lost in a year that often appeared to veer into our peculiarly American kind of hysteria is the absence of any credible evidence of what happened last year and who was responsible for it. It is tiresome to note, but none has been made available. Instead, we are urged to accept the word of institutions and senior officials with long records of deception. These officials profess “high confidence” in their “assessment” as to what happened in the spring and summer of last year—this standing as their authoritative judgment. Few have noticed since these evasive terms first appeared that an assessment is an opinion, nothing more, and to express high confidence is an upside-down way of admitting the absence of certain knowledge. This is how officials avoid putting their names on the assertions we are so strongly urged to accept—as the record shows many of them have done.

So Lawrence has asserted that we can’t trust the people with the most obvious expertise, that we are being manipulated by whomever is doing the “urging” (passive constructions FTW!), that when officials express “high confidence” that a report is true it really means they don’t know, and… to be blunt, I’ve no idea what the last sentence is meant to mean. Possibly that the record shows some officials have spoken off the record.

Weird writing isn’t a sign that the information is bad, but it made me wonder how much scrutiny the editors had given the piece. That’s an important question for a piece which claims there is “hard science” proving that the DNC hack was in fact an internal leak; that forensic evidence “devastates” the Russia story. This is big — potentially Watergate big — kind of stuff.

Lawrence spends more paragraphs going on about how we must question everything, referencing the Maine and the CIA overthrow of Mossadegh, and casting aspersions on “the corporate media, which have been flaccidly satisfied with official explanations of the DNC matter from the start.” (New York Magazine says that the first 1000 words or so are “breathtakingly elaborate throat clearing.”)

Eventually, he gets to the experts who have been questioning the Russiagate narrative. They are members of “Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity” (VIPS), described as a 30-member group of former intelligence officers and other national security experts. Lawrence names the following as “key researchers” in the alleged leak: William Binney, Kirk Wiebe, Edward Loomis, and Ray McGovern.

Lawrence accurately notes these men’s credentials and indeed, they’re impressive. Three are former NSA officials and one was chief of the CIA’s USSR Foreign Policy Branch. And some of them were involved in attempted whistleblowing at the NSA early in the Bush administration, over concerns about warrantless spying on American citizens. PBS’s Frontline featured some of these men in The United States of Secrets, a program about whistleblowing under the Bush administration and the retaliation they say they faced for it.

All of that is relevant.

There are some other things about these men which also seem relevant in order for the reader to fully gauge their credibility

We might like to know, for example, that William Binney has given Trump cover over his claims that Obama was improperly spying on him. He’s also asserted that Trump would be better on civil liberties and warmongering than Hillary Clinton. Which, ahem. And ahem. Binney may know a good deal about certain kinds of national security, but I’m not too impressed with his analytical skill when it comes to Donald Trump-as-dove.

We might also like to know that Ray McGovern has a longstanding relationship with the fringe-iest of the fringe: Lyndon Larouche-affiliated organizations. (If you’re not familiar with financial fraud and perpetual conspiracy peddler LaRouche, do follow the links.) When his right-wing detractors pointed out this problematic connection in 2003, McGovern reportedly claimed to know nothing about LaRouche and saw “no downside” to contributing to LaRouche media. He’s had 14 years to learn, and has apparently not done so, since he’s still nattering on about the Deep State to LaRouchePAC and in fact “broke” this story to LaRouchePac before The Nation decided to give it credibility.

Either Ray McGovern is the most incurious spook in all of history and still doesn’t know the LaRouchies are conspiratorial fantasists, or he knows and thinks they’re legit. I have a problem with not informing readers of that when one is presenting him as a credible source. It would also be wise to disclose that he regularly writes for the above-mentioned propaganda outlet Russia Insider.

It also would have been nice to note that another one of Lawrence's experts, Kirk Wiebe, is RT’s go-to guy for general anti-CIA stories as well as conspiracy-minded ones alleging that shadowy government “monsters” controlled President Obama. We might also like to know that the group VIPS his a history of claims that Syrian chemical attacks are false flags.

In short, these are men who have genuine backgrounds in intelligence, and some of whom have genuine experience as whistleblowers. And some of them have also hopped on the fringey fantasist train. That seems relevant to judging their claims.

But Lawrence doesn’t do that. Instead he points to an “open letter” these men posted at ConsortiumNews, a site run by another man who has a respectable history of investigating government wrongdoing, journalist Robert Parry. (I’m not linking to the site for reasons that will shortly become evident.) He once wrote for AP and Newsweek and made documentaries for Frontline.

But these days, Robert Parry has become a Seth Rich conspiracy theorist, a booster for Julian Assange, and made frankly bizarre allegations against mainstream media such as The Washington Post and New York Times conspiring to bring about an Orwellian future. (As near as I can tell, his complaint is that these papers laud attempts to detect fake news sites.) Like McGovern, he also is a regular writer at Russia Insider. And like the men above, he seems to be a once-respected professional who is now mired in a world of conspiracy theories.

Lawrence doesn’t mention any of this, of course. Parry is presented as merely the conduit for publishing an open letter from VIPS alleging the hack was in fact a leak. After admitting they didn’t have any actual evidence for this assertion (but remember that, for Lawrence, the lack of evidence is proof there is evidence), he triumphantly gets to the big reveal: VIPS now has evidence that the DNC hack was not a hack at all, but an inside job.

And it's “real” evidence, thanks to another totally believable group of folks, the writers at "Disobedient Media," and two anonymous cyber security experts who are most definitely 100% not bad actors taking everyone for a ride. These two “experts” go by the handles “Forensicator” and “Adam Carter,” and they decided to break their mind-blowing forensic evidence via Elizabeth Vos, one of the writers at Disobedient Media, which Lawrence describes only as a “small, new website.”

Admittedly I am not a top investigative journalist. But it took me about 10 minutes to determine that the main founder of Disobedient Media has a Twitter bio that brags about having “exposed” the “Clinton-Silsby child trafficking scandal,” via a Donald Trump subreddit. (This claim is one of the pizzagate-related tangents accusing the Clintons of aiding and abetting pedophiles.)

It also didn’t take me long to discover that Disobedient Media peddles in Seth Rich conspiracy theories (very popular), Islamaphobic conspiracy theories, and claims that Berkeley riot organizers are pedophiles. Among other things. Many, many other things, which you may feel free to Google.

Did Lawrence even look at Disobedient Media? Did anyone at The Nation look at it and say to themselves “I wonder why two totally on the up-and-up cyber security experts would pick this outfit, rather than, say, the Washington Post or perhaps Fox News to leak to?”

And this is an important point, because we are meant to accept the bona fides of these guys based on the judgements of Elizabeth Vos and Kirk Wiebe, as well as the other “experts” Lawrence interviewed:

The Forensicator’s July 9 document indicates he lives in the Pacific Time Zone, which puts him on the West Coast. His notes describing his investigative procedures support this. But little else is known of him. Adam Carter, in turn, is located in England, but the name is a coy pseudonym: It derives from a character in a BBC espionage series called Spooks. It is protocol in this community, Elizabeth Vos told me in a telephone conversation this week, to respect this degree of anonymity. Kirk Wiebe, the former SIGINT analyst at the NSA, thinks Forensicator could be “someone very good with the FBI,” but there is no certainty. Unanimously, however, all the analysts and forensics investigators interviewed for this column say Forensicator’s advanced expertise, evident in the work he has done, is unassailable. They hold a similarly high opinion of Adam Carter’s work.
Elizabeth Vos, here trusted as an expert on the habits of the espionage community, is a Seth Rich conspiracy theorist. As is Parry. As is author Patrick Lawrence himself. If that’s their idea of a logical story based on trustworthy sources, then I don’t want to hear their evaluation of dog food safety, let alone two anonymous dudes (?) claiming to have hard forensic evidence that just happens to discredit the DNC, provide fodder for the Seth Rich story, and throw doubt into claims of Russian involvement — involvement in which both GOP and Democratic Congressional leaders with access to the relevant intelligence seem to believe.

It’s notable that Lawrence doesn’t quote a single skeptic. He didn’t go to anyone who’s on the record as an authority on the hack and ask their opinion (even if they said “no comment”). I’m not even clear if he has personally seen the alleged evidence, or asked an independent investigator to evaluate it.

He presents retired IBM program manager Norman “Skip” Folden as the main evaluator of the evidence, but Mr. Folden is an associate of VIPS (a piece of information Lawrence also omits). That’s not exactly somebody detached and independent of all involvement.

I’m not going to get into the rest of the article and its claims about download speeds proving that the information could not have been assessed remotely. It’s highly technical, and I suspect that’s part of the point — relatively few readers can assess the information, and we have to rely on the journalists and analysts involved to know that it all wasn’t forged anyway. And I don’t trust any of the people involved to know if the “proof” is fake or not. The kindest description of these people is “eccentric.” Less kind would be “gullible” — but then what are we to make of The Nation, which chooses to give them space?

And why on earth does Leonid Bershidsky over at Bloomberg pick up this story and treat it seriously, even though he admits it has weaknesses? He mentions VIPS’ history of “unruly activism” and that Ray McGovern was once removed from a Hillary Clinton event for protesting. Personally, I don’t call writing for Russian propagandists or LaRouche-ites “unruly activism,” but hey, YMMV. Bershidsky is no Putin fan, so I don’t know why he didn’t at least do a bit of checking.

Unless, of course, he trusted that folks at The Nation did their job and were pretty confident of everyone’s bona fides.

I am not a journalist, but a historian. One thing our professions have in common is the need to evaluate sources. That’s because our credibility rests entirely upon them. Those who really like this story and want it to be true may feel I am attacking the messengers rather than the message. That’s not the case, though; I’m pointing out that the messengers who vouch for the message aren’t very credible, so it’s hard to take their message seriously. Are they really able to evaluate the forensic evidence offered and tell it’s not forged or made up? Are they really able to evaluate their shadowy sources? Not from what I can tell.

Is it possible that “Adam Carter” and “Forensicator” are legit? Sure. But it’s not probable. The probable theory is that a lot of folks have gotten taken in, big time.

And this is important, because we know that bad actors have been trying to set up legitimate media with fake documents, in order to discredit them. Rachel Maddow was one of the targets, and thoroughly explained how her staff determined the documents were fake. (Video and transcript.)

Conferring credibility on fake evidence has a few bad effects. One of them is to weaken the credibility of mainstream media outlets. While I have plenty of criticisms of big media in the U.S., I usually trust them to do reasonable diligence on their sources. The Nation has egg on its face, and I certainly won’t trust them easily again.

But another effect is simply to keep the public confused. To be blunt: The sources claiming this was a leak are not equally credible, in number or quality, to those who have established a hack. I do this every day in my profession: Establish which sources are better or worse, and which theses have more or less evidence to support them. That kind of critical thinking becomes harder and harder when respected media outlets give credence to badly sourced stories.

I don’t know why The Nation chose to accept the account of a journalist with a history of peddling pro-Moscow narratives with regards to Ukraine, and who neglects to mention that his sources included propagandists for Russia, Seth Rich conspiracy theorists, LaRouche media contributors, and an assortment of paranoiac tale-spinners. I don’t know why they abandoned due diligence and full transparency. I just know I hope it doesn’t happen again, because we can’t afford this crap.

ETA: Apparently Lawrence appeared on RT with Michael Flynn. He also writes for Russia Insider. More points that seem relevant to disclose.

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