FBI in­ves­ti­gat­ing Rus­sian me­dia’s U.S. in­ten­tions

Two or­ga­ni­za­tions are ac­cused of spread­ing pro­pa­ganda, not news.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By David S. Cloud, Tracy Wilkin­son and Joseph Tan­fani

WASH­ING­TON — The FBI is in­ves­ti­gat­ing two Rus­sian gov­ern­ment­funded me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions that op­er­ate in the United States fol­low­ing ac­cu­sa­tions that they were part of a mas­sive Krem­lin oper­a­tion to help swing last year’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion to Don­ald Trump.

Rus­sia To­day, Moscow’s flag­ship English-lan­guage tele­vi­sion broad­caster, and Sput­nik News, a ra­dio and wire ser­vice funded by the Krem­lin, claim to be le­git­i­mate news gath­er­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions, no dif­fer­ent from the BBC.

But the FBI is ex­plor­ing whether the two Rus­sian or­ga­ni­za­tions should be re­quired to regis­ter as for­eign agents, in­vok­ing a U.S. law orig­i­nally passed be­fore World War II to pre­vent the spread of Nazi pro­pa­ganda.

A U.S. in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity re­port on Moscow’s in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial race con­cluded in Jan­uary that Sput­nik and RT, as Rus­sia To­day is known, were part of a mul­ti­fac­eted Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence oper­a­tion aimed at dis­cred­it­ing democ­racy and help­ing Trump win in Novem­ber.

Some for­mer em­ploy­ees of the Rus­sian me­dia or­gani-

za­tions, which op­er­ate from sep­a­rate of­fices sev­eral blocks from the White House, agree with that as­sess­ment.

Sput­nik “is not a news agency. It’s meant to look like one, but it’s pro­pa­ganda,” said An­drew Fein­berg, a for­mer White House cor­re­spon­dent for Sput­nik. He said FBI agents in­ter­viewed him for two hours last month about the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment’s inf lu­ence over the oper­a­tion.

Fein­berg said that dur­ing his five months at Sput­nik, his ed­i­tors were in­ter­ested al­most ex­clu­sively in sto­ries about po­lit­i­cal con­spir­a­cies, and made clear that the or­ga­ni­za­tion took or­ders from Moscow.

“They al­ways wanted to make the U.S. gov­ern­ment look stupid,” he said. “I was con­stantly told, ‘Moscow wanted this or Moscow wanted that.’ ”

The ques­tion of who dic­tated ed­i­to­rial de­ci­sions was of par­tic­u­lar con­cern to the FBI agents who ques­tioned him, Fein­berg said.

“They wanted to know, ‘Did they get their di­rec­tion from Moscow,’ and of course the an­swer was ‘Yes,’ ” he said. He said he gave the FBI thou­sands of emails to and from ed­i­tors from his time at Sput­nik.

Min­dia Gavasheli, the Sput­nik bureau chief in Wash­ing­ton, de­clined to com­ment Wed­nes­day.

RT said on its web­site Tues­day that it had re­ceived a let­ter from the Jus­tice De­part­ment re­quest­ing it regis­ter as a for­eign agent. The com­pany did not say if it would com­ply.

“The war the U.S. es­tab­lish­ment wages with our jour­nal­ists is ded­i­cated to all the starry-eyed ide­al­ists who still be­lieve in free­dom of speech,” RT Edi­tor in Chief Mar­garita Si­monyan said. “Those who in­vented it have buried it.”

The FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion was first re­ported by Ya­hoo News. It wasn’t im­me­di­ately clear if it was part of the much broader in­ves­ti­ga­tion be­ing led by spe­cial coun­sel Robert S. Mueller III into whether Trump’s aides il­le­gally co­op­er­ated with Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties be­fore or af­ter last year’s elec­tion. Trump and Rus­sia’s gov­ern­ment have de­nied im­proper deal­ings.

The For­eign Agents Reg­is­tra­tion Act, passed in 1938, re­quires any­one in the U.S. who acts “at the or­der, re­quest, or un­der the di­rec­tion or con­trol” of a for­eign gov­ern­ment to regis­ter with the Jus­tice De­part­ment and to dis­close fi­nan­cial in­for­ma­tion.

The statute, known as FARA, pro­vides an ex­cep­tion for “any news or press ser­vice” as long at its cov­er­age is not di­rected by a for­eign gov­ern­ment.

The ex­cep­tion has long al­lowed news or­ga­ni­za­tions funded by for­eign gov­ern­ments but free from their con­trol over ed­i­to­rial de­ci­sions — like the Bri­tish Broad­cast­ing Corp. or Ger­many’s Deutsche Welle — to op­er­ate on U.S. soil with­out reg­is­ter­ing with the Jus­tice De­part­ment.

FARA ex­perts say that if RT and Sput­nik refuse Jus­tice De­part­ment re­quests to regis­ter, they could face civil or crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion un­der the law. The law car­ries penal­ties of up to five years in prison and fines up to $10,000.

“If it’s the case that they are di­rected by the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment, then it raises a strong ques­tion as to why they are not reg­is­tered un­der FARA be­cause they would not be cov­ered by the me­dia ex­cep­tion,” said Joe San­dler, a Wash­ing­ton at­tor­ney who is an ex­pert on what FARA cov­ers.

Other for­eign me­dia un­der more di­rect gov­ern­ment con­trol have been reg­is­tered for years. They include China Daily, a Beijing news out­let; NHK Cos­mo­me­dia, a Ja­panese TV news oper­a­tion; and KBS Korean Broad­cast­ing Sys­tem, a South Korean com­pany, records show.

RT and Sput­nik dif­fer from most for­eign me­dia based in Wash­ing­ton in that they pro­duce English-lan­guage ar­ti­cles and pro­gram­ming in­tended for Amer­i­can au­di­ences.

Their re­porters show up rou­tinely at White House and State De­part­ment brief­ings. Their broad­casts, news sto­ries and opin­ion pieces fre­quently con­form to Krem­lin views on is­sues such as the war in Syria, Rus­sia’s seizure of Crimea and U.S. sanc­tions on Moscow.

The U.S. in­tel­li­gence re­port on Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 elec­tion de­scribes RT and Sput­nik as part of “Rus­sia’s staterun pro­pa­ganda ma­chine.” It said they “made in­creas­ingly fa­vor­able com­ments about” Trump as the cam­paign pro­gressed “while con­sis­tently of­fer­ing neg­a­tive cov­er­age” of Hil­lary Clin­ton.

Sput­nik has ex­panded its U.S. op­er­a­tions since the elec­tion. In June, it an­nounced that it had sub­leased a ra­dio sta­tion in Re­ston, Va., and be­gan broad­cast­ing on July 1 into Wash­ing­ton and its sub­urbs in north­ern Vir­ginia.

Us­ing a sig­nal that for­merly broad­cast blue­grass mu­sic, Sput­nik shifted the pro­gram­ming to a 24-hour talk for­mat that con­sis­tently crit­i­cizes U.S. gov­ern­ment pol­icy and par­rots Krem­lin themes. “Why the myth of Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in U.S. elec­tion is de­stroy­ing Amer­i­can democ­racy,” was the sub­ject of one re­cent Sput­nik pod­cast.

Rep. David Ci­cilline (DR.I.), co-spon­sor of a bill to strengthen Jus­tice De­part­ment en­force­ment of FARA, said RT “serves as a pro­pa­ganda arm for the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment to spread of­ten false, al­ways bi­ased, in­for­ma­tion to ben­e­fit what­ever whims of the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment and Vladimir Putin are the topic of the day.”

But Alexan­dra Eller­beck, North Amer­ica pro­gram di­rec­tor for the Com­mit­tee to Pro­tect Jour­nal­ists, said reg­is­ter­ing Rus­sian me­dia as for­eign agents could have “se­ri­ous reper­cus­sions,” es­pe­cially in Rus­sia.

The Rus­sian gov­ern­ment al­ready re­quires for­eign­ers work­ing for non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions, such as hu­man rights mon­i­tors and le­gal aid groups, to regis­ter. In an era of in­creas­ingly tense re­la­tions, and tit for tat diplo­matic ex­pul­sions, Rus­sia may now re­quire any for­eign me­dia op­er­at­ing in Rus­sia to regis­ter as well, she warned.

In a sep­a­rate move Wed­nes­day, the Home­land Se­cu­rity De­part­ment ordered fed­eral agen­cies to stop us­ing anti-virus soft­ware and other com­puter prod­ucts from AO Kaspersky Lab, a pri­vately owned Rus­sian com­pany, warn­ing that Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties might ex­ploit the soft­ware to pen­e­trate or dis­rupt sen­si­tive U.S. dig­i­tal sys­tems.

The or­der, is­sued by Home­land Se­cu­rity’s act­ing sec­re­tary, Elaine Duke, gave fed­eral civil­ian agen­cies 30 days to inventory all Kaspersky soft­ware prod­ucts on their sys­tems and 90 days to stop us­ing them.

“The de­part­ment is con­cerned about the ties be­tween cer­tain Kaspersky of­fi­cials and Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence and other gov­ern­ment agen­cies,” Home­land Se­cu­rity said in a state­ment.

“The risk that the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment, whether act­ing on its own or in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Kaspersky, could cap­i­tal­ize on ac­cess pro­vided by Kaspersky prod­ucts to com­pro­mise fed­eral in­for­ma­tion and in­for­ma­tion sys­tems di­rectly im­pli­cates U.S. na­tional se­cu­rity,” it added.

In a state­ment, Kaspersky de­nied “in­ap­pro­pri­ate ties with any gov­ern­ment.”

Vladimir Tre­filov Sput­nik

MAR­GARITA SI­MONYAN is the edi­tor of Rus­sia To­day, which has of­fices in Wash­ing­ton and pro­duces English-lan­guage con­tent in­tended for Amer­i­cans.

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