Tow Center

TL;DR: From Russia, with love

July 19, 2018
A photo of Donald Trump's notes altered to show his edits in Sharpie.

There’s something for most of the US news media to be ashamed of in two new court documents related to Russian political interference. The first, Friday’s indictment of 12 hackers who allegedly worked for the Russian military to disrupt the 2016 US election, got the most attention since it came from former FBI director Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation. But the second, an affidavit unsealed on Monday supporting the arrest of Maria Butina, a woman who is accused of serving as Russian government liaison to the National Rifle Association, has nearly as much tacit media criticism in its details.

The new court filings show that Russian disinformation in the media was not limited to the propagation of bizarre conspiracy theories like Pizzagate on social media, or the exhaustive coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails. The filings add detail about cases in which Russian spies and military officers freelanced under assumed names—and sometimes their own names—for junk news sites, writing opinion columns at prominent right-leaning publications, and praising Russian military action at low-wattage left-leaning media outlets.

The whole of the Russian disinformation campaign seems intended to eclipse of the much larger and more important stories of Donald Trump’s close ties to Eurasian real estate barons and dozens of credible accusations of sexual misconduct ranging from groping to rape. But while the US media may have been aggressively targeted, it also doesn’t appear to have presented Russian security services much of a challenge.

  • One party named in the Mueller indictment is “Alice Donovan,” a fictitious online personality created by the Russian military to spread disinformation, which “she” did by setting up a Facebook page for the Russian GRU security service’s DCLeaks distribution channel. “She” also moonlighted as a freelancer for left-leaning outlet Counterpunch, which published a half-apology when “she” was outed. The Counterpunch article also listed articles under the Donovan byline for its site and several other outlets, including Facebook-friendly pseudo-news sites like We Are Change and Restoring Liberty, for which “Donovan” had written in praise of Russian escalation in Syria.
  • An unnamed journalist in the indictment solicited dirt on the Democrats through the GRU’s Guccifer 2 cutout. That journalist appears to be Aaron Nevins, a GOP operative who ran a right-wing news site called HelloFLA under the pseudonym Mark Miewurd (get it?), who was outed for seeking information stolen from Democrats by the Wall Street Journal in 2017. The GRU happily obliged with 2.5 gigabytes of data including “donor records and personally identifying information for more than 2,000 Democratic donors,” according to the Mueller indictment. The document dump is still up at Nevins’s site for anyone’s perusal.

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  • In August 2016, Breitbart reporter Lee Stranahan—now with Russian state news service Sputnik—got help from Guccifer 2 with “vetting and exposing the real Black Lives Matter movement,“ a project he’d announced to his readers in January. Independent journalist Marcy Wheeler identified Stranahan as the unnamed party in the indictment and links to his DMs with Russian intelligence, archived here. The DMs include Stranahan earnestly saying, “I think blaming Russia is stupid, dishonest, and dangerous” to someone who clearly worked for Russian military, likely the officer who oversaw the account: Aleksey Potemkin (yes, really). Guccifer suggested that Stranahan look at the HelloFLA dump, which held detailed, and, to Republicans, valuable, information about the DCCC’s turnout projections and customized targeting plans for swing states, detailed down to the county and municipal level.
  • The affidavit cites Russian spy Maria Butina’s closeness to “gun rights organization 1,” obviously the NRA. But it wasn’t just Butina who kept close company with the powerful lobbying group—it was also her boss, Alexander Torshin. David Keene, former opinion page editor of The Washington Times, published Russian government bank executive and accused mobster Torshin in the pages of his newspaper, one of many points of contact Keene had with Torshin during and after Keene’s tenure as president of the NRA. Torshin was very proud of his association with the DC elite; in one selfie taken during the 2016 NRA convention posted to his Twitter feed, Torshin can be seen sitting next to Keene, wearing a button that says, “I’m the NRA, and I voted.”
  • Neoconservative DC opinion journal The National Interest was also happy to publish the musings of a Russian government cutout: Butina penned an essay for the outlet entitled “The Bear and the Elephant” in which the pull quote at the top of the article is “It may take the election of a Republican to the White House in 2016 to improve relations between the Russian Federation and the United States.”
    The sentiment echoes Butina’s direct question to then-candidate Trump at libertarian convocation Freedom Fest in July of the same year: “Do you want to continue the politics of sanctions that are damaging of both economy?”
    Trump, after a little preening about how “Obama gets along with nobody,” said he was sure Russian relations would improve under his administration.

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Sam Thielman is the former Tow editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, and a reporter and critic based in New York. He is the creator, with film critic Alissa Wilkinson, of Young Adult Movie Ministry, a podcast about Christianity and movies, and his writing has been featured in The Guardian, Talking Points Memo, and Variety, among others.