How I Got Slimed By Russian Propagandist Site Sputnik

Last week, I wrote an opinion piece about an altered document that had appeared in Sputnik, a news site publicly identified by the U.S. Director of National Intelligence as a vehicle for Russian disinformation campaigns. Other U.S. intelligence officials have publicly described how false information from Russian operatives gets fed to the internet through blogs, Twitter and other social media. Frequently, it is then picked up by Russian media outlets such as Sputnik or other overseas media organizations, or is just allowed to spread on the internet. The purpose of these campaigns is to affect elections in other nations. So far, American intelligence has identified several countries targeted in this way: Estonia, Ukraine, the Netherlands, Germany, and now the United States.

The altered document involved purported statements by Sidney Blumenthal, a confidant of Hillary Clinton, in which words I wrote a year ago were presented as though he’d written them. This supposedly damaging email was written up on Sputnik, and a few hours later, Donald Trump cited the manipulated document at a rally as fact. A short time later, when I attempted to ask Sputnik about the piece, it was taken down.

10_20_trump_sputnik_01 Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, October 10. At another campaign rally in Pennsylvania later that day, Trump cited a manipulated document published in a Russian propaganda site as fact. A short time later, the story was removed from the site. Mike Segar/Reuters

There was some important information about that document I could not explicitly state in my article, because I needed to protect a government source. That source has now given me permission to say more. What I have not revealed until now is that American intelligence determined that the false document—10,000 words that had been snipped down to two sentences and then sent out as an image on Twitter—was originally altered by a Russian operative and fed onto the internet through Reddit. From there, it was picked up and tweeted as part of a coordinated Russian campaign. Eventually, it was picked up some people who believed the tweeted image was real, leading it to be spread further. It then appeared in Sputnik, the site identified by the U.S. government as a participant in Russian disinformation campaigns. The original, undoctored Blumenthal email was released last week by Wikileaks, which played no role in it being altered. Wikileaks is as much of a victim in this deception as anyone else.

Some reporters disputed my contention that Sputnik was part of this propaganda campaign. They argued that the Sputnik article could have simply been the consequence of error, a reporter blindly taking as fact something others had tweeted. I updated my original Newsweek story, adding as much as I could to show that wasn’t the case.

Newsweek then got an email from someone who identified himself as William Moran. Moran—who had not been identified in either my piece or the Sputnik  article—stated that he had written the Sputnik article and threatened to pursue legal action because, he claimed, he had lost his job as a result of what I wrote. Moran said he had pulled the anonymous, tweeted snippet that had been doctored, and published it as fact, going so far as to claim the document was an “October surprise” that could scuttle Hillary Clinton’s run for the White House. He wrote in his email to me and my editors that he had been fired not for making such an egregious error, but because Newsweek had pointed out that he had published falsehoods.

Last Thursday night, I was under a twitter attack by trolls over this piece, and began blocking them rapidly. I even tweeted an apology to anyone who may have been blocked accidentally, because I was blocking people quickly (the day before, some tweeters had threatened my family and started bogus twitter accounts with photographs of my children.) I saw a tweet from Moran claiming that I had blocked him and I figured this must be a new account. I decided to email him to explain that I had not blocked him specifically, but had done so as part of a mass blocking. We had a terse email exchange, and I then offered to call him the following day.

When we spoke, Moran told me a sob story—one he had told in his first email to me and to Newsweek. He said he had lost his job—for which he was paid $50,000 a year, a respectable sum for someone who says he has been in journalism for only nine months. He said getting fired meant he couldn’t close on a house he was about to buy and was putting stress on his marriage.

At that point, I believed Moran had been duped by Sputnik, that he did not understand the truth about his employer. I explained Sputnik’s connection to the Kremlin, and told him that being associated with the site could destroy his journalism career if he wanted to continue to work in Washington, D.C. I bought into his story about how his termination was destroying his life.

I told Moran I would think about how he could salvage his desperate situation, and would even consider forwarding his information to a publication if I could come up with an idea. I felt bad that this man’s life was being harmed because he had chosen the wrong employer. Over the weekend, I saw on a public jobs website that The New Republic had an opening for a political reporter. I know no one at The New Republic, but sent an email to an editor saying I knew someone who was out of a job and asked if I could send that person his way. I did not identify Moran,  nor did I ask for a favor. I received no response.

Then, Moran sent me an emailed legal threat and said he was going to expose everything, whatever that meant. With that, I decided I had no idea what Moran’s agenda was, and didn’t know if he was who he claimed to be. I replied by email that I was giving up on him and no longer trusted him.  I told him I had reached out to The New Republic, based on his sob story, but that I was no longer willing to help him.  It made no sense that he would publicly portray himself as incompetent in order to protect Sputnik, which supposedly had fired him. He seemed far more interested in portraying Sputnik as free of interference from the Kremlin than he did in saving his career. I did not know what Moran was—A useful idiot? Crazy? A knowing propagandist?—but I wanted nothing to do with him. In that email, I showed him the paragraph I was willing to add to the story to present his case (if allowed to do so by the editors and the lawyers, since we were still operating under a threat of a lawsuit from Moran.) Still, part of me thought this was a foolish person who did not understand the consequences; I knew, because of what I had heard from the government official, that Moran had printed Russian propaganda, whether by accident or not. I asked him if he was sure he wanted me to print the paragraph, since I had no doubt that describing his incompetence publicly would destroy his career... I never heard back.

Instead, a couple of hours later, Moran reappeared in Sputnik with an article headlined, “I Am Vladimir Putin: The First Victim of McCarthyism 2.0.” In it, he stated that he had been offered his job back at Sputnik, but rejected the offer so that he could take a long vacation. He began telling other publications that I had tried to bribe him with that discussion of the job open at The New Republic. Bribe him for what purpose, I wondered. To avoid revealing what he claimed was his innocent—and incompetent—role in this Russian propaganda campaign?

10_20_putin_sputnik Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during the annual VTB Capital "Russia Calling!" Investment Forum in Moscow, Russia, October 12. Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/Reuters

Other reporters began hearing from Moran as he spun more misrepresentations, handing out emails and spinning them into what they did not say and without the context of our phone calls. According to reporters who spoke to him, Moran denied ever telling me he was in dire straits or that he had played on my sympathies. He appeared to have forgotten he had told that same story in one of his emails to Newsweek, in which he wrote, “I've lost my job at a time when my wife and I are in the lead up to closing on a new home.”

Then, on Tuesday, came new information: Sputnik had done this before. On August 14, in what a fellow journalist told me was another article Moran article, he wrote a piece headlined, “Secret File Confirms Trump Claim: Obama, Hillary 'Founded ISIS' to Oust Assad.” The “secret file’’ was not secret—it was a 2012 Defense Intelligence Report that had been declassified; it said nothing to even suggest the “Hillary founded ISIS” canard. That article resulted in a rebuttal in The Washington Post by the former American Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul. In response, Sputnik ran a new article headlined “No, Ambassador McFaul: Putin Didn’t Order Me to Fall in Love with Donald Trump.” It advanced the same argument Sputnik had pushed on me.

McFaul tweeted in response: “You are not a journalist if you publish complete falsehoods. That's called propaganda.” McFaul also tweeted, “Im a professor, not a public official. & in my profession #factsmatter. You published lies. Clean it up, or face consequences.”

Then, this morning, Moran again tweeted the lie that I had attempted to bribe him, a falsehood he had gotten others to print. I decided I had to make sure no other reporter swallowed his poison, so I sent a Twitter-storm at him, informing him I knew of his deceptions. Apparently unable to keep up with his lies, he replied at one point that he had lost his job over this—I reminded him that he had said, in print, that Sputnik had offered his job back and he had turned it down.

Reached by email, Moran declined to respond to 14 questions I asked him about his deceptions or his motives. He called Newsweek’s decision to publish this article, “unprecedented” and “wildly illegal.”

So, to recount: According to U.S. government officials, a Moscow propagandist fed the altered document onto the internet through Reddit, which was then picked up and retweeted by other suspect accounts until it went viral, then appeared in Sputnik, which later took the story down. Seven days laters, a person who identified himself as the writer of that Sputnik article sacrificed his career to proclaim Sputnik independent, lied that I had offered him a bribe (for what, I still don’t know), lied to other reporters that he had never raised any issues of being in financial trouble, then spread more lies about me to further defend Sputnik, a known tool of Moscow’s propaganda machine.

Now, Bill Moran is coming at the media with new stories about the Twitter storm I launched to put reporters on notice about what he was doing.

Move on, Bill. I don’t know what your role is at Sputnik, but you’ve proven yourself willing to push propaganda to multiple news organizations in defense of a site controlled by the Russian government, even if it means destroying your professional reputation.