WASHINGTON — On Jan. 23, 2017, the day he started as a Washington correspondent for Sputnik, Andrew Feinberg was emailed a copy of a “style guide” that laid out the organization’s mission.
The 103-page handbook for publications of Sputnik’s Kremlin-owned parent company, Rossiya Segodnya, made it clear that traditional journalistic neutrality was not the company’s mandate. Instead, Sputnik reporters were told they should provide readers “with a Russian viewpoint” on issues and “maintain allegiance” to the country.
“Our main goal is to inform the international audience about Russia’s political, economic and ideological stance on both local and global issues,” the guide reads. “To this end, we must always strive to be objective but we must also stay true to the national interest of the Russian Federation.”
The guide, which was written in English, is included among more than 10,000 internal Sputnik messages on a thumb drive that Feinberg provided to the FBI, which is investigating the agency for possible violations of the law that requires agents of foreign nations to register with the Justice Department. The guide appears to contradict repeated claims by Sputnik executives that they follow traditional journalistic standards and operate independently of the Kremlin. For example, in August, when Sputnik opened a headquarters in Scotland, Sputnik editor and director Nikolai Gorshkov told a local news agency, “No one has ever called me from Moscow.”
“I can assure you there is no hidden agenda,” Gorshkov said.
Contacted by Yahoo News, Sputnik spokeswoman Beverly Hunt denied that the style guide applied to the work of the company’s American reporters.
“To our knowledge, Feinberg has never been employed by Rossiya Segodnya, which is a Russian news agency and does not provide services on US territory,” Hunt said in a written statement.
In fact, Feinberg’s email shows the style guide was sent to him by his editor at Sputnik, Peter Martinichev.
Feinberg, who worked at Sputnik from January until May, turned over the flash drive filled with emails during an interview by an FBI agent and Justice Department national security lawyer for over two hours on Sept. 1. In August, another ex-Sputnik staffer, Joe Fionda, also gave the Justice Department a packet of information with hundreds of documents. Yahoo News obtained copies of the documents Feinberg and Fionda provided to law enforcement.
Hunt, the Sputnik spokeswoman, noted that the ex-staffers had “copied corporate emails and internal documents.”
Feinberg’s interview was part of an apparently widening investigation by the bureau into the role played by Sputnik and the Kremlin-owned television network, RT (formerly Russia Today), in seeking to shape the views of American audiences. In a report last January, the U.S. intelligence community identified both news organizations as part of “Russia’s state run propaganda machine” that serve “as a platform for Kremlin messaging” and played key roles in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “influence campaign” during the 2016 presidential election. Yahoo News has also learned that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is investigating RT and Sputnik as part of the broader probe into Russia’s election meddling. RT recently disclosed that a U.S. shell company that handles much of its production and operations in Washington was instructed by the Justice Department to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The move led RT to take down a series of ads it put up in Washington and New York mocking the intelligence community’s assertion Russian media outlets interfered in the election.
Yahoo News has independently verified the authenticity of some of the Sputnik emails Feinberg gave to the Justice Department. The messages depict a company that stuck closely to the Kremlin’s party line.
The documents also suggest Sputnik journalists had relationships with hackers linked to Russian intelligence and key American allies of Donald Trump. The information Fionda sent to the Justice Department highlighted a tweet in which one of Sputnik’s radio hosts boasted about his role in connecting Guccifer 2.0, the hacker behind the Democratic National Committee leaks, to Roger Stone, an early architect of Trump’s campaign. On April 30, Feinberg emailed Martinichev about a party he attended that was sponsored by the conservative blog Gateway Pundit. Feinberg said he stepped out for a cigarette and encountered Michael Flynn Jr., the son of Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
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“I introduced myself, told him I was Sputnik’s WH reporter and that I’d love a chance to give him and his dad to tell their story without the Russia conspiracy mongering. He said he and his dad are BIG fans of Sputnik and gave me his contact information,” Feinberg wrote.
Feinberg told Yahoo he and Flynn Jr. communicated via text messages after that initial conversation. Feinberg said he did not land an on-the-record interview or write about their conversations. The younger Flynn—who did not respond to a request for comment — worked with his father and was a member of Trump’s transition team. The elder Flynn was fired from his position as White House national security adviser in February after it was revealed he misled officials about his conversations with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak.
In a Jan. 26 letter — seeking credentials from the Washington Foreign Press Center — that was on Feinberg’s thumb drive, Sputnik’s U.S. editor in chief, Mindia Gavasheli, described RIA Global LLC as “a United States entity that has a contract to act as the United States bureau of Sputnik News, the multi-media news initiative of the Federal State Unitary Enterprise Rossiya Segodnya International Information Agency.” In another email — seeking credentials from the House of Representatives press gallery — Gavasheli acknowledged that “most of” their financing came from the Russian government, though he had claimed “roughly 10 to 20 percent of it comes from ads, paid subscriptions and other commercial activities.” In May, Sputnik was denied Capitol Hill press credentials because of its state funding.
It’s unclear exactly how many people Sputnik is reaching. In an April email, Feinberg asked Vasily Minakov, the company’s head of global public relations and communications, for information about the size of Sputnik’s audience. Minakov would not divulge those figures, but he noted Sputnik’s large social media footprint.
“We are not disclosing these figures openly. What we may say that Sputnik has around 14 M subscribers in total on social media,” Minakov said.
The emails Feinberg provided to the Justice Department show how Sputnik echoed the Kremlin’s message. In one instance, Feinberg’s bosses urged him to come up with stories deflecting blame for the chemical-weapons attack on Syrian civilians last spring away from Russia’s Syrian ally, President Bashar Assad. Feinberg told Yahoo News that he left the company earlier this year over pressure to advance a conspiracy theory, heavily promoted by Fox News commentator Sean Hannity, about the death of a young staffer at the Democratic National Committee.
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At Sputnik’s newswire, Feinberg’s work was edited by a group of four editors that included D.C. journalist Michael Hughes and Zlatko Kovach. The team was led by Martinichev and his deputy, Anastasia Sheveleva, both Russians. Multiple emails Feinberg provided to the Justice Department indicate he had to get approval and instructions from his superiors on “angles” for everything he wrote. A Feb. 23 message from Hughes was one of many times this rule was communicated to Feinberg.
“Always pitch story angle BEFORE you do anything, get approval before writing and submitting a story. You should never submit an unapproved story. We might kill it if angle does not fit,” Hughes wrote.
The word “before” was bolded, underlined and highlighted in yellow. All of the emails cited in this story are being presented as they were written, including any spelling and grammar mistakes.
According to the emails on Feinberg’s thumb drive, he also had to get approval for every question he asked White House officials including the press secretary at the daily briefing.
“We do it in this way to ensure we are on the same page regarding the question we ask on the record. It should never be a surprise,” Martinichev wrote in a March 13 missive.
In her email to Yahoo News, Hunt, the Sputnik spokeswoman, defended this pre-approval process as a standard procedure.
“Most editors in any news agency need to know questions for a briefing. It’s a regular practice,” Hunt said.
At Yahoo News and most U.S. media companies, editors may suggest and discuss questions with their White House correspondents, but there is no formal approval process. The emails suggest an extraordinary level of micromanagement.
While Feinberg’s immediate supervisors worked in Washington, the emails show Sputnik staff in Moscow were regularly involved in the publication of stories. Sputnik stories followed rigid style guidelines. In a Feb. 21 message to Feinberg, Hughes described how the American editors learned the ropes.
“When I first started they sent a couple ‘enforcers’ from Moscow that reviewed ALL of our stories in the beginning,” Hughes wrote, adding, “It beat the main guidelines into our brains – a little tough love, so to speak. I called it style indoctrination.”
Hunt provided Yahoo News with a statement from Hughes where he said this comment was “obviously a joke.”
“We ‘indoctrinate’ the very same way all news agencies ‘indoctrinate’ their newswire writers,” said Hughes.
On Feb. 9, Feinberg complained to Hughes that Sputnik staff in Moscow added an entire paragraph to a story he wrote without informing him.
“I didn’t write it, it’s slanted at best, and my name is on it,” Feinberg wrote.
The story in question covered comments Florida Sen. Marco Rubio made about U.S. sanctions imposed against Russia for allegedly interfering in last year’s presidential election and for taking control of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in 2014. Moscow has vehemently denied meddling in America’s presidential race, and insisted its presence in Crimea was supported by a democratic referendum. The paragraph added to Feinberg’s story reflected Russia’s positions on both issues.
“US-Russian relations soured following disagreements over the crisis in Ukraine. The United States imposed sanctions against Russia after Crimea held a referendum in 2014 in which a vast majority of its residents decided to reunify with Russia. Russian officials have denied meddling in Ukraine’s internal affairs and have called allegations of interfering in US elections absurd and an attempt to distract from domestic issues,” it said.
Hughes informed Feinberg that the disclaimers about Ukraine and alleged election intervention were required at Sputnik.
“We must write that paragraph- that’s the Russian position not to mention the truth,” Hughes wrote, adding, “Editors get in trouble for leaving it out. So, the option would be to take your name off the article if you have a problem with the last paragraph.”
“I suppose I’ll just have to get used to it and wrap my head around it. My name can stay on for now,” Feinberg replied.
“I had same experience!” said Hughes.
Hunt, Sputnik’s spokeswoman, defended the mandatory paragraph that was added to Feinberg’s story.
“Background with the second side position is required in stories for balance and a usual practice in many newswire services,” she said.
Hughes further argued the paragraph contained “simple facts.”
“Russian government officials have repeatedly denied involvement in U.S. elections. And we restated the Russian government’s position on the Ukraine crisis. No slant involved,” Hughes said.
The documents provided by Fionda and Feinberg could fuel growing demands by members of Congress that Sputnik and RT register with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which was passed by Congress in 1938 to combat Nazi propaganda. The law requires foreign agencies engaged in lobbying or efforts influence American public opinion to file detailed reports on their funding and operations. There is an exemption in the law for state-funded media organizations engaged in legitimate news gathering.
Fionda’s information packet included a letter to the Justice Department urging the government to investigate whether Sputnik is violating FARA. Fionda said he worked at the company from Sept. 5 to Oct. 19, 2015, and felt Sputnik engaged in “possible FARA violations” and was acting as a direct agent of the Russian government.
Sputnik has said both Fionda and Feinberg were fired due to performance-related issues. Indeed, the emails Feinberg provided to the Justice Department show multiple instances where his editors expressed unhappiness with his work, including his trouble mastering the company’s rigid story format and falling behind Sputnik’s fast-paced schedule. Sputnik’s spokeswoman, Hunt, reiterated these complaints about Feinberg’s work, and said he “continually failed to meet the most fundamental newswire language and requirements.”
In interviews with Yahoo News and others, Feinberg has said his last straw at Sputnik came when his editors pushed him to advance a conspiracy theory about the fatal shooting of DNC staffer Seth Rich. During a meeting on his last day at the company, May 26, Feinberg said his editors told him to ask whether Rich could have been involved in last year’s leak of DNC emails that law enforcement has attributed to the hacker Guccifer 2.0 and Russian intelligence. Rich was shot in Washington, D.C., last July, shortly after the emails were published by WikiLeaks. Though the case remains unsolved, police have said they believe Rich was killed in a botched robbery.
The thousands of documents Feinberg provided to the Justice Department do not show any discussion of Rich. They do include multiple instances of Feinberg being told to ask officials about the possibility Assad might not have been responsible for the chemical attacks in Syria.
On April 19, Martinichev wrote to Feinberg and pressed him to ask the White House “if they are reviewing all these recent controversial data” indicating other militants may have used chemical weapons in Syria “after their statement that only Assad had this capability.” Feinberg followed up by emailing multiple senior officials and asking an assistant to former press secretary Sean Spicer if he could ask a question about “chemical weapons capability” in Syria during that day’s televised White House briefing.
“It would make my editors’ day if Sean could be so kind as to call on me by name, if he can remember and its not a problem,” Feinberg wrote.
Sputnik has an office in the heart of downtown Washington about three blocks from the White House. The company was launched in 2014 after Putin dissolved the country’s main state news agency and replaced it with Rossiya Segodnya. Putin decreed that this new company should be focused on promoting Moscow’s agenda beyond its borders, and he tapped Dmitry Kiselyov — a conservative television host and staunch supporter of the Russian government — to head the new company.
Sputnik’s Washington bureau includes staffers who work for a wire service, a radio station and a website. The radio station began broadcasting in July after Sputnik took over a local Washington station that featured bluegrass music. The company’s newswire is less overtly political than its other offerings. Based on the messages on Feinberg’s thumb drive, the wire service largely published short briefs with rapid-fire quotes and updates. Sputnik’s radio station and web page offer a unique brand of political commentary. The homepage features a blog mockingly called “The Russians Did It” that satirizes claims that the Kremlin interfered in last year’s presidential race. The introduction to the blog dismisses these allegations from American intelligence agencies as the “ludicrous” product of a “fantasy realm.”
“Welcome to the treasury of all things Russia did… not do,” the blog’s introduction begins. “Take a considered view of all the allegations usually accepted as incontrovertible fact by the mainstream media.”
Sputnik’s expansion in Washington and the larger changes to Russia’s state media apparatus came after Moscow’s military leadership began emphasizing propaganda as a weapon in the country’s arsenal. In February 2013, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the operational head of the Russian armed forces, published a treatise advocating for expanding the country’s strategy to include “informational … and other non-military measures.” Gerasimov called for using “informational actions” along with “special-operations forces and internal opposition to create a permanently operating front through the entire territory of the enemy state.”
“Long-distance, contactless actions against the enemy are becoming the main means of achieving combat and operational goals,” Gerasimov wrote.
Experts in the U.S. and Europe have dubbed this “Gerasimov doctrine” of using media and technology to destabilize rivals “hybrid warfare.” Earlier this year, a group of nine countries, including the United States, teamed up to establish the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats. According to a press release from NATO, the center, which is based in Finland, will be dedicated to research and training to combat these new methods of warfare, and “actively counter propaganda with facts.”
“Countering hybrid threats is a priority for NATO, as they blur the line between war and peace — combining military aggression with political, diplomatic, economic, cyber and disinformation measures,” the press release said.
Here in America, some see Russia’s actions in last year’s election as a textbook example of this hybrid warfare. The U.S. intelligence community report that called Sputnik and the RT television network key parts of this “influence campaign” described “Kremlin loyal political figures, state media, and pro-Kremlin social media actors” working in concert during the U.S. campaign. Recently, Russia has been linked to a $100,000 Facebook ad campaign and an army of Twitter accounts with content designed to ramp up political tensions amid the American election. This month, Facebook said it estimated the ads tied to a Russian Internet agency were seen by about 10 million people before and after last year’s election.
The intelligence report noted the Russian state media outlets cast President Trump as “as the target of unfair coverage from traditional US media outlets that they claimed were subservient to a corrupt political establishment” and hailed his “victory as a vindication of Putin’s advocacy of global populist movements.” According to the report, the Kremlin-owned media organizations also attacked Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, with allegations of corruption, rumors of health problems and damaging emails hacked from her campaign and published by WikiLeaks.
The packet of information Fionda provided to the Justice Department focused on two Sputnik employees: Cassandra Fairbanks and Lee Stranahan.
Stranahan came to Sputnik in April. He previously had worked at the conservative website Breitbart, under Trump’s former campaign guru and adviser Steve Bannon. The month before he joined Sputnik, Stranahan sent out a tweet boasting that he was the one who “introduced” former Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone to Guccifer 2.0, the hacker who obtained emails from the Democratic National Committee that were published by WikiLeaks. American officials have said Guccifer 2.0 was working with Russia’s military intelligence agency GRU as part of the coordinated effort to help Trump in the election.
Fionda flagged the tweet in the packet of information he sent to the Justice Department.
Stone told Yahoo News that Stranahan was indeed the person who first told him about Guccifer 2.0.
“Introduce doesn’t mean introduce in the classic sense. He told me who he was. He believed he had hacked the DNC — that he was a hacker,” explained Stone.
Stone is a key figure in the congressional investigation into possible links between Trump’s campaign and the Kremlin, in part because he seemed to know in advance that WiklLeaks would be publishing emails hacked from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s account. Last month, he testified before the House Intelligence Committee about his communications with Guccifer 2.0 and WikiLeaks, saying that he never communicated directly with WikiLeaks’ mastermind Julian Assange but learned about the site’s plans to publish emails damaging to Clinton from an intermediary. He described the intermediary as a journalist, but has refused to identify him on the grounds that their conversations were off the record. Committee leaders said this week they may subpoena Stone to require him to identify the intermediary.
Stranahan said it’s not him. “I don’t know anything about that,” he said. “I have no relationship with anyone at all at WikiLeaks.”
However, Stranahan did confirm he connected Stone to the hacker. He also said Guccifer 2.0 offered him documents that his editors at Breitbart were wary of publishing.
“Breitbart didn’t want to run with them for whatever reason, and they were like, ‘Have Guccifer post them first,’” Stranahan said.
Stranahan noted he has discussed his interactions with Guccifer publicly on Twitter and in video broadcasts. He doesn’t believe the Justice Department has any reason to be concerned about his communications with the hacker.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Stranahan said.
Fionda also alerted law enforcement about another colleague who claimed to be in communication with Guccifer 2.0. In the information Fionda gave to the Justice Department, he included copies of Twitter messages in which Cassandra Fairbanks discussed exchanging messages with the hacker. Fairbanks is an activist who wrote for Sputnik from late 2015 until this year, when she joined the pro-Trump website Big League Politics.
Fairbanks told Yahoo News that Fionda was making too much of what she describes as a journalistic endeavor.
“I did communicate with Guccifer. I tried to interview him because … I was covering the leaks,” Fairbanks explained. “I published like all of my conversations with him so they’re public.”
Fairbanks said the hacker offered her documents, but she was unable to write about them on Sputnik. Hunt, the Sputnik spokeswoman, said Fairbanks asked the company’s U.S. editor in chief for permission to publish the emails and was denied.
“The answer was: ‘Absolutely not! We don’t have a legal department on the spot to clear them and we have no idea whether these emails are authentic.’ That was the end of the story for Sputnik,” Hunt said.
In a text message exchange with Yahoo News, Fionda said he alerted investigators about Stranahan and Fairbanks because they “bragged” about being in touch with the hacker, while having connections to the Trump campaign and the Russian government through their work at Sputnik. In his letter, Fionda described Stranahan, Stone and Fairbanks as some of the hacker’s highest-profile associates.
“Fairbanks, along with Roger J. Stone Jr., and Lee Stranahan of Breitbart News, are the three most prominent public figures to have disclosed contact with the purported Russian GRU persona Guccifer 2,” Fionda wrote.
The documents provided by Feinberg and Fionda also shed light on their fears the company was operating as an unconventional spy agency — a worry that was apparently shared by some inside the Trump White House.
In his conversations with investigators, Feinberg, whose previous jobs included writing for telecommunications industry trade publications and the Washington-insider website The Hill, detailed his concern that Sputnik’s reporting efforts may have served another purpose.
“In some ways, Sputnik was functioning as open source intelligence gathering,” Feinberg said in an interview with Yahoo News.
According to the emails, Sputnik reporters regularly covered the White House, Capitol Hill, the Pentagon and the State Department, where they gathered information that would be of interest to the Russian intelligence services. Messages on the thumb drive Feinberg gave to the Justice Department show Sputnik’s team constantly peppering government officials about policy matters with a focus on those relevant to Russia, including American aid to its rivals, U.S. diplomatic engagement with Moscow and ongoing negotiations and military operations in Syria. And this questioning of officials didn’t always result in news reports. While the emails show that Sputnik editors generally had a voracious appetite for quotes to publish on their newswire, in multiple messages Feinberg expressed confusion that stories were not being published after he did work he was assigned to do.
“I’m guessing nothing came of my quote from McCain?” feinberg asked in one email to an editor dated Feb. 2.
The messages show that Martinichev, one of Feinberg’s editors, repeatedly pressed him to get business cards from White House aides, including Spicer, to share with the Sputnik office.
“Did you have a chance to get Spicer’s business card? Is it possible in this crowd?” Martinichev asked Feinberg in a Feb. 2 message.
“Do you have any business cards from the deputies? Any contacts?” Martinichev pressed him in another email six days later.
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When he had meetings with sources, Feinberg was asked to provide reports with details far beyond what a typical American publication would demand of its reporters. He was reprimanded when he asked questions that weren’t approved by his superiors and when he failed to provide extensive details about his contacts with sources.
After he left Sputnik, Feinberg began to wonder whether he was being used to gather information for the Kremlin, not the public.
“I have friends and colleagues who stopped talking to me because I took this job. It’s humiliating,” Feinberg wrote in one frustrated email to an editor, later adding, “Honestly if the stigma is something I won’t ever be able to overcome I’m not sure what I’ll do.”
Feinberg’s fear that Sputnik could be operating as an unconventional intelligence agency was apparently shared by at least some officials in President Trump’s press shop. One former White House staffer told Yahoo News they “always viewed that as a potential issue.”
“Sputnik is a well-known arm of the Kremlin,” the staffer said. “Department of Defense blocks White House access to their website because it is not secure.”
When Feinberg was in the West Wing, the staffer said the White House press shop did its “best not to engage with him, particularly on more sensitive matters.”
“I think it was definitely something those who had to interact with him daily considered albeit maybe not in a totally serious way. I never ever once responded to an inquiry and urged colleagues to do the same,” the staffer said.
Since Feinberg’s departure, Sputnik correspondent Cara Rinkoff has reported from inside the West Wing.
Sputnik’s spokeswoman, Hunt, dismissed the concerns the company is engaged in espionage.
“Seven percent of Americans believe chocolate milk comes from brown cows … so it’s not a surprise that some people fear they could be abducted by aliens or that Sputnik could be a spy agency,” said Hunt, adding, “And probably even some former White House staffers share these views. If anyone has been playing spy it would be fired staffers who copied corporate emails and internal documents.”
Fionda, whose background includes stints as an actor and film producer — and under the pseudonym “subverzo” has ties to the activist and hacking communities, including Occupy Wall Street and Anonymous — shared some of Feinberg’s concerns about being used for intelligence gathering.
In the letter Fionda sent the Justice Department asking it to look into whether Sputnik is violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act, he said that he was asked to write articles that contained “categorically untrue” information while working at the company. Fionda also said he was fired after Gavasheli asked him to obtain and publish emails that had been hacked from former CIA Director John Brennan, a request Fionda said he saw as “a solicitation to espionage.” Gavasheli previously denied this in an interview with Yahoo News where he said Fionda was fired for lying about an illness in his family to take time off from work.
Along with all of the intrigue, the document cache also has details of daily life at Sputnik. Many of the emails paint a picture of a mundane workplace — albeit with a Russian twist. Email signatures and instructions from the IT department often came in Cyrillic, leaving American staffers asking for translators. On Feb. 23, reporter Delal Pektas sent a cheery email to the other Sputnik editors and reporters.
“Happy Defender of the Fatherland Day!” she wrote. “I brought some bagels — please help yourselves!”
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