The FBI is investigating whether Russia’s state-owned Sputnik News is a propaganda arm of the Kremlin and therefore operating in the United States in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), Yahoo News reported Sunday.
Sputnik’s former White House correspondent, Andrew Feinberg, confirmed to Business Insider on Monday that the bureau interviewed him on September 1 about his brief but eye-opening time at Sputnik, which he outlined in Politico late last month.
“As if my life wasn’t insane enough already,” Feinberg said in an email when asked about the news.
The FBI is now in possession of thousands of internal Sputnik emails and documents that Feinberg downloaded before he left the company and handed over earlier this month, according to Yahoo.
Feinberg took to Twitter in May to announce that he’d left Sputnik and “would love to tell you why.”
Sputnik and Russia’s other state-owned news outlet, Russia Today, share an editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan. The US intelligence community has pointed to outlets like Russia Today as being part of a disinformation campaign on behalf of the Kremlin to hurt Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning last year’s US election.
Sputnik US’s editor in chief, Mindia Gavasheli, told Yahoo that “any assertion that we are not a news organisation is simply false,” adding that “this is the first time I’m hearing about” the FBI probe.
But Sputnik’s slant is no secret. As the Atlantic Council has written, the presidential decree that founded Sputnik’s parent company described the outlet’s purpose as “reporting the state policy of the Russian Federation, and public life in the Russian Federation, abroad.”
‘There is a pattern of these interests aligning’
Feinberg told Business Insider earlier this year that it wasn’t long before Sputnik asked him to write things that either lacked appropriate context or had a decidedly pro-Russian slant that he argued distorted reality.
Feinberg said his editors pushed him to characterise Russia’s annexation of Crimea as the product of a “referendum” rather than an invasion. (An article from April 27, titled “Brussels to Keep Denying Crimean Self-Determination Until Trump Says Otherwise,” refers to the referendum several times, as do previous articles.)
“That referendum took place at gunpoint and tank-point,” Feinberg said, referring to the fact that the vote — which the EU and US condemned as illegal, and which most Crimeans boycotted entirely — took place after pro-Russian forces had taken control of the peninsula.
“If I had tried to add any of that context, it wouldn’t have gotten past the first edit,” Feinberg said.
He said his managers, most of whom “were on the young side, in their 20s or 30s,” scolded him after he asked former White House press secretary Sean Spicer earlier this year why the US was not sending weapons to Ukraine, he said, to help the army fend off pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east. (He ended up filing the story, anyway, and it was published.)
At one point, Feinberg said he was tasked with asking Spicer a question that framed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons attack as a false flag attack staged by Assad’s opponents. (Russian President Vladimir Putin, an Assad ally, subsequently repeated that claim.)
Feinberg said he couldn’t be sure how much instruction his higher-ups were getting directly from the Kremlin. And if they supported President Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, it wasn’t obvious.
“No one there really ever talked about Trump in glowing terms,” Feinberg said. “Most of the Americans there just want to do journalism.”
The final straw, Feinberg said, was when his managers told him to ask Spicer about Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee staffer whose death has spawned conspiracy theories on the far right. Police say he was the victim of a botched robbery, and the investigation is ongoing.
Fox News published a story advancing the theory in May that was subsequently retracted and is now the subject of a lawsuit filed by Rod Wheeler, a detective hired by Rich’s family to investigate his death.
Wheeler alleged that he was misquoted in the Fox story and that the White House, including President Donald Trump, had knowledge of the story before it was published. The lawsuit claims that a wealthy Trump supporter worked in concert with a Fox News reporter to push the story. Fox News has called the claims contained in the lawsuit “erroneous.”
“It’s disturbing but not surprising that the White House apparently was very eager to push the same unfounded story as the Russian state-owned news outfit that I worked for,” Feinberg said.
“I’m not going to spout any wild conspiracy theories, but there is a pattern of these interests aligning,” he said.
Feinberg says he refused to ask Spicer about Rich and was subsequently fired without explanation. Sputnik told Business Insider that the problem was not their editorial policy but Feinberg’s work ethic.
“We would like to extend our gratitude to Mr. Feinberg for passion he demonstrated at the beginning of his career at Sputnik,” the organisation told Business Insider.
“Unfortunately, as high as it was this passion did not convert into the same level of professional journalism and the amount of exclusive stories that our clients and readers are looking for.”
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