WASHINGTON — The FBI recently questioned a former White House correspondent for Sputnik, the Russian-government-funded news agency, as part of an investigation into whether it is acting as an undeclared propaganda arm of the Kremlin in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
As part of the probe, Yahoo News has learned, the bureau has obtained a thumb drive containing thousands of internal Sputnik emails and documents — material that could potentially help prosecutors build a case that the news agency played a role in the Russian government “influence campaign” that was waged during last year’s presidential election and, in the view of U.S. intelligence officials, is still ongoing.
The emails were turned over by Andrew Feinberg, the news agency’s former White House correspondent, who had downloaded the material onto his laptop before he was fired in May. He confirmed to Yahoo News that he was questioned for more than two hours on Sept. 1 by an FBI agent and a Justice Department national security lawyer at the bureau’s Washington field office.
Feinberg said the interview was focused on Sputnik’s “internal structure, editorial processes and funding.”
“They wanted to know where did my orders come from and if I ever got any direction from Moscow,” Feinberg told Yahoo News. “They were interested in examples of how I was steered towards covering certain issues.”
It is not clear whether the agent and prosecutor who questioned Feinberg were acting as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s broader investigation into Russian efforts to disrupt the 2016 election and possible links to the Trump campaign. “We are not confirming whether specific matters are or are not part of our ongoing investigation,” a spokesman for Mueller emailed. A spokesman for the Justice Department declined to comment, and the FBI did not respond to questions.
But the inquiry comes at a time when members of Congress and others have pushed the Justice Department to strengthen its enforcement of the FARA, especially as it relates to the operations in Washington of two Russian news organizations, Sputnik and RT (formerly known as Russia Today).
“This is incredibly significant,” said Asha Rangappa, a former FBI counterintelligence agent and now an associate dean of Yale Law School, about the bureau’s questioning of the former Sputnik reporter. “The FBI has since the 1970s taken pains not to be perceived in any way as infringing on First Amendment activity. But this tells me they have good information and intelligence that these organizations have been acting on behalf of the Kremlin and that there’s a direct line between them and the [Russian influence operations] that are a significant threat to our democracy.”
Sputnik is owned by Rossiya Segodnya, a Russian government media operation headed by Dmitri Kiselyov, a belligerent television broadcaster who is known as Putin’s “personal propagandist” and has been sanctioned by the European Union in response to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. On its website, Sputnik describes itself as a “modern news agency” that “covers global political and economic news targeting an international audience.”
Contacted by Yahoo News, Sputnik’s U.S. editor in chief, Mindia Gavasheli, said, “Any assertion that we are not a news organization is simply false.” He also said he was unaware of the FBI probe. “This is the first time I’m hearing about it, and I don’t think anyone at Sputnik was contacted, so thank you for letting us know,” Gavasheli said.
Gavasheli attributed the push to have Sputnik register through FARA to paranoia surrounding Russia. “I think it tells about the atmosphere of hysteria that we are witnessing now,” Gavasheli said. “Anything being related to Russia right now is being considered a spycraft of some sort.”
Shortly after this story was published on Monday, a Sputnik spokeswoman released a statement saying the company reached out to the Justice Department after being alerted to the investigation by Yahoo News.
“Unfortunately our requests to the Justice Department for information has not been answered to date,” the statement said. ” We are more than happy to answer any questions the DOJ or the FBI might have.”
The statement also defended Sputnik as “a news organization dedicated to accurate news reporting.”
“Our journalists have won multiple media awards throughout the world. Any assertion that Sputnik is anything but a credible news outlet is false,” the statement said.
Both Sputnik and RT were identified in a U.S. intelligence report in January as being arms of Russia’s “state-run propaganda machine” that served as a “platform for Kremlin messaging to Russian and international audiences.” As an example, the report said, Sputnik and RT “consistently cast President-elect Trump as the target of unfair coverage from traditional US media outlets that they claimed were subservient to a corrupt political establishment.”
The investigation appears to center on whether Sputnik should be covered by the foreign agents registration law, a 1938 act passed by Congress to combat Nazi propaganda. The law mandates that foreign entities seeking to influence American public opinion and engage in lobbying must file detailed reports with the Justice Department on their funding and operations. If the Justice Department concludes that Sputnik is covered by the law, its executives in the U.S. could face criminal charges and fines, while the news agency’s reports would have to be explicitly labeled as foreign propaganda rather than presented as news.
There is an exemption under the law for media organizations that engage in legitimate news-gathering activity. But Feinberg, the former Sputnik reporter, said the FBI agent and Justice prosecutor who interviewed him focused their questions on how Sputnik determined what stories it would cover, where its directions came from and what he knew about its sources of funding.
(Yahoo first learned about the FBI inquiry from a U.S. intelligence source. Feinberg then confirmed he was interviewed and showed the business cards of the FBI agent and Justice Department lawyer who questioned him.)
While his instructions as White House correspondent came from the senior editors and news directors at Sputnik’s Washington office, Feinberg said these supervisors regularly “would say, ‘Moscow wants this or Moscow wants that.’”
The thumb drive of emails and other documents that Feinberg turned over to the FBI contains messages that could shed light on Sputnik’s funding, its operations in Washington and how it makes editorial decisions. It includes documents Feinberg submitted on behalf of Sputnik to obtain congressional press credentials in which he confirmed that the Russian government is the company’s main funding source.
The questioning of Feinberg, Sputnik’s former White House correspondent, came just two weeks after Yahoo News published an interview in which he claimed he was fired by Sputnik’s D.C. bureau chief for refusing orders to ask the president’s press secretary about a since-discredited Fox News report in a televised briefing. That report claimed that WikiLeaks obtained internal Democratic National Committee emails not from material hacked by Russian intelligence services, as the U.S. government has asserted, but from a low-level DNC staffer, Seth Rich, who was murdered on the streets of Washington in July 2016. (Fox has since retracted the report.)
Feinberg, who first made his allegations on May 26, the day he left Sputnik, has also claimed the company pushed him to ask questions that suggested the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad, who is a staunch ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was not behind chemical attacks in that country. Feinberg said the interviewers specifically asked him about a piece he wrote detailing these claims that was published by Politico on Aug. 21. A spokeswoman for Sputnik has previously denied Feinberg’s allegations and told Yahoo News his contract with the company “was not renewed due to performance-related issues.”
The FBI reached out to Feinberg shortly after another former Sputnik staffer, Joseph John Fionda, sent a letter to the Justice Department’s national security division detailing a series of similar accusations against the news organization and requested that it be investigated for FARA violations.
In a brief conversation over an encrypted messaging app, Fionda told Yahoo News he also sent “a big packet” of information to the division on or about Aug. 15.
In his letter to Justice, Fionda said he was employed by RIA Global LLC, a media company associated with Sputnik, from Sept. 5 to Oct. 19, 2015. During that time, Fionda wrote, Sputnik conducted “a perception management information warfare program” about Russia’s military involvement in Syria. He said the news organization falsely described Russia’s targets in that country as “terrorists” affiliated with the jihadist group ISIS when, he asserted, the Russian forces were actually bombing other anti-Assad rebel groups.
In another instance, Fionda said, an article he wrote in September 2015 about President Obama’s repatriation of Guantánamo detainees to a number of countries was “censored” to omit any reference to the fact that six of the detainees were being sent back to Russia, where they were later imprisoned.
Fionda said his last straw with Sputnik came on Oct. 19, 2015, after excerpts of private emails from then-CIA Director John Brennan were published by a hacker on Twitter. He claimed Gavasheli, Sputnik’s U.S. editor in chief, asked him to “obtain the CIA Director’s stolen emails” from the hacker.
“I refused because I believed this was a solicitation to espionage,” Fionda wrote.
When he refused the order, Fionda wrote that Gavasheli told him to “get the f— out of my office” and then fired him. Gavasheli, in his interview with Yahoo News, denied this and said Fionda was fired after falsely claiming his father was ill in order to take time off from work.
The probe into Sputnik also comes shortly after the Russian news agency announced a significant expansion in the U.S. capital: It took over a popular Washington FM radio station dedicated to playing bluegrass music and replaced it with an all-talk format with hosts who regularly criticize U.S. policies — as well as one co-host who is a former Breitbart News reporter and Trump supporter. “I’m sure you heard a lot about us,” Gavasheli was quoted as saying by the Washington Post. “Now you can actually listen to us.”
This article was updated at 1:30 p.m. with an additional statement from Sputnik.
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