The Washington Post gave its readers a clear-eyed view this weekend of how American intel agencies work with sympathetic reporters to smear and discredit political opponents, ignoring a specific explanation from one of the article’s targets of how reporters were being used, and leading to embarrassing corrections in multiple articles (as well as in The New York Times and at NBC News).
The story targeted Rudy Giuliani and Wisconsin’s Sen. Ron Johnson, excitedly reporting that they were the targets of Russian disinformation campaigns and had been warned of this by the FBI. Sound familiar? Unsurprisingly, there were a number of problems.
First, powerful people across the planet are often the targets of foreign disinformation campaigns; this is normal. Second, powerful intel agencies have a history of conducting briefings solely to create records that can then be leaked to sympathetic reporters in order to generate stories about said threats.
Third, there were no actionable specifics in the Johnson briefing, as the senator explained to the Post, generating strong evidence for his suspicion the FBI was setting him up. And fourth, well, the big Giuliani briefing didn’t actually happen at all.
Let’s begin with how powerful people are often the targets of foreign disinformation campaigns. It isn’t novel: Since the early 20th century, the Russians have sought to influence reporters, politicians, entertainers, public intellectuals, and other powerful people around the planet. It isn’t new, it’s well-documented, and it isn’t partisan.
Johnson explained this pattern to The Washington Post. The publication decided to not include this important portion of his explanation, and it is being printed for the first time at The Federalist:
Because of my position as chairman of the Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation, I have always been aware of Russian disinformation and the need to be careful believing and using any information coming from sources from that region. In fact, during all my investigations we have viewed every piece of information and evidence with skepticism and rigorously worked to verify everything. Our report on Hunter Biden proves the meticulousness of our methods. That is why we asked for and received a briefing on [suspected Russian agent] Andrii Telizhenko, and received assurances from the FBI that there was no reason that the Committees should not continue their investigation (see report page 59). We made that clear in the report last September.
Next up — and crucially — powerful intel agencies have a known and well-documented history of conducting briefings solely to create records that can then be leaked to sympathetic corporate reporters in order to generate the narratives actors at the agencies want.
This isn’t conspiracy: Former FBI Director James Comey admitted it to the Senate four years ago, testifying that he had briefed the then-president on his theories of Russian collusion — allegations he also testified “was not true” — only to record his interactions and leak them to a friend to hand off to a sympathetic press. His goal, he explained, was to “prompt the appointment of a special counsel.”
He wasn’t alone in this. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and CIA Director John Brennan were both part of the plan, and played their roles well.
Of course, it seemed obvious enough to skeptical reporters way back when. But skepticism of the state isn’t the game with Trump and Republicans, is it? Instead of incredulity, the American public was treated to now five straight years of media mouthpieces spreading both the propaganda of our intel agencies and Russian disinformation, from the fake “pee tape” on down.
“A similar hit piece,” Johnson told the Post in another previously unpublished part of his statement, “had been published the day Senator [Gary] Peters disapproved of my subpoena request for Andrii Telizhenko.”
And then, there were no reportedly no actionable specifics in the Johnson briefing. The senator explained this to The Washington Post, and it’s worth notice because it itself is strong evidence for the senator’s near-immediate suspicion that the entire briefing was a set-up by the FBI — just as Trump’s had been.
“Based on this suspicion,” Johnson told the Post in yet another part of his statement they did not publish, “I asked the briefers for the name of who directed them to provide me this briefing. Other than to say it was a product of an inter-agency process, they refused to give me any names. To this day, I have not been told who ordered the completely unnecessary — but politically useful to my opponents — briefing. If you proceed to write this hit piece, you should know that you are being used as a tool and are acting with actual malice.”
“Defensive briefings,” the Post teased, “are given to people to alert them that they are being targeted by foreign governments for malign purposes, former officials said,” adding ominously: “But they’re also used ‘to see how they respond to that,’ said Frank Figliuzzi, a former senior FBI counterintelligence official. ‘They’re now on notice.'”
“Now on notice.”
Finally, the big Giuliani briefing didn’t even happen. Now, that’s not actually that important were you to read the story as it goes right now, but it sure was when it went live, as the original headline and subsequent headlines suggest.
We've deleted an earlier tweet saying the FBI warned Rudolph W. Giuliani that he was the target of a Russian misinformation campaign, which he has since disputed. This story has been corrected.
— The Washington Post (@washingtonpost) May 1, 2021
“Sheer recklessness” indeed.
This whole episode isn’t a one-off: Johnson was onto it right away precisely because he’d seen it done before. The Washington Post, of course, knew that too but they didn’t care. How many leaks from Rep. Adam Schiff’s committee turned out to be ridiculous and partisan falsehoods? How many from the FBI? The CIA? So why does it continue? Simply put, because it hurts The Washington Post’s enemies and protects The Washington Post’s friends.
Corporate media are no simple patsies for American intel, nor are they clever enough to called collaborators. For years now, a number of the country’s most prominent publications have assumed the groveling role of palace guards for the state and its friends in Congress. And what difference does it make to them if they get the wrong guys for what they (and their readers) call the right reasons?
“An overarching media rule in many sectors of US journalism,” left-wing investigative reporter Glenn Greenwald tweeted in March, “is if you recklessly publish a story that maligns people hated by the outlet & its readers/viewers, and the story turns out to be false, the audience doesn’t mind, so the outlet also doesn’t.”
Nor do The Washington Post’s friends. By the time the paper made its essential correction/retraction, allied outlets the country over, including The New York Times and NBC News, had repeated it, forcing embarrassing corrections across the industry. Not that it will reflect poorly on the reporters, who, like their peers in the entire Russia story, will be rewarded for their efforts with awards and job offers for years to come.
Consequences aren’t going to change the behavior of the media, leaving Americans with only one choice: know it’s all a game — and treat it as such.
Sen. Johnson’s statement to The Washington Post can be read in full below:
Because of my position as chairman of the Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation, I have always been aware of Russian disinformation and the need to be careful believing and using any information coming from sources from that region. In fact, during all my investigations we have viewed every piece of information and evidence with skepticism and rigorously worked to verify everything. Our report on Hunter Biden proves the meticulousness of our methods. That is why we asked for and received a briefing on Andrii Telizhenko, and received assurances from the FBI that there was no reason that the Committees should not continue their investigation (see report page 59). We made that clear in the report last September.
I never received a defensive briefing on my and Senator [Chuck] Grassley’s oversight of the Biden family’s foreign business ventures. Regarding reports that I received an FBI briefing warning me that I was a target of Russian disinformation, I can confirm I received such a briefing in August of 2020. I asked the briefers what specific evidence they had regarding this warning, and they could not provide me anything other than the generalized warning. Without specific information, I felt the briefing was completely useless and unnecessary (since I was fully aware of the dangers of Russian disinformation). Because there was no substance to the briefing, and because it followed the production and leaking of a false intelligence product by Democrat leaders, I suspected that the briefing was being given to be used at some future date for the purpose that it is now being used: to offer the biased media an opportunity to falsely accuse me of being a tool of Russia despite warnings. A similar hit piece had been published the day Senator Peters disapproved of my subpoena request for Andrii Telizhenko.
Based on this suspicion, I asked the briefers for the name of who directed them to provide me this briefing. Other than to say it was a product of an inter-agency process, they refused to give me any names. To this day, I have not been told who ordered the completely unnecessary — but politically useful to my opponents — briefing. If you proceed to write this hit piece, you should know that you are being used as a tool and are acting with actual malice.
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