Updated | I am Sidney Blumenthal. At least, that is what Vladimir Putin—and, somehow, Donald Trump—seems to believe. And that should raise concerns not only about Moscow’s attempts to manipulate this election but also about how Trump came to push Russian disinformation to American voters.
An email from Blumenthal—a confidant of Hillary Clinton and a man, second only to George Soros, at the center of conservative conspiracy theories—turned up in the recent document dump by WikiLeaks. At a time when American intelligence believes Russian hackers are trying to interfere with the presidential election, records have recently been fed to WikiLeaks out of multiple organizations of the Democratic Party. But now that I have been brought into the whole mess—and transformed into Blumenthal—there is even more proof that the Russians are not only orchestrating this act of cyberwar but also really, really dumb.
The latest emerged thanks to the incompetence of Sputnik—the Russian online news and radio service established by the government-controlled news agency Rossiya Segodnya—which took words written by me and attributed them to Blumenthal.
The documents that WikiLeaks has unloaded recently have been emails out of the account of John Podesta, the chairman of Clinton’s election campaign. Almost as soon as the pilfered documents emerged, Sputnik was all over them and rapidly found (or probably already knew about before the WikiLeaks dump) a purportedly incriminating email from Blumenthal.
The email was amazing—it linked Boogie Man Blumenthal, Podesta and the topic of conservative political fever dreams, Benghazi. This, it seemed, was the smoking gun finally proving Clinton bore total responsibility for the attack on the American outpost in Libya in 2012. Sputnik even declared that the email might be the “October surprise” that could undermine Clinton’s campaign.
But the Russians had faked it all, taking a real document released by WikiLeaks and altering it to create a bogus story—one that ultimately was picked up by Trump himself. Since Newsweek first broke the story online, some journalists have speculated that the misrepresentation of the email may have merely been an error by an overworked Russian news agency. However, according to a government official with direct knowledge of the American intelligence agencies’ inquiry into the Russian hacking campaign, and who spoke on condition of anonymity, that theory is “absurd.”
A classified report submitted last summer to the congressional intelligence committees and a September 23 letter from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence specifically identify Sputnik as a central participant in a Russian disinformation campaign designed to use hacking and other techniques to interfere with the American election while strengthening Moscow’s global influence.
“Moscow appears to use monetary support in combination with other tools of Russian statecraft, including propaganda in local media, direct lobbying by the Russian Government, economic pressure, and military intimidation,” the letter says. “Russian trolls and other cyber actors post comments on the Internet, maintain blogs, challenge ‘pro-Western’ journalists and media narratives, and spread pro-Russian information on social media.”
Because of its important role in the Russian effort, Sputnik does not simply publish whatever it chooses, the government official tells Newsweek. Articles pertaining to politics in the United States and Europe require high-level review. It is not clear if Russian authorities conduct that review, the official says, but no article directly related to American politics would just be sloppily thrown into public view without careful consideration. (The article in question disappeared from the website shortly after Newsweek attempted to contact Sputnik about it.)
How these altered documents are disseminated can be quite complex. Sometimes, they will appear in one of the Russian media outlets used in disinformation campaigns. In other instances, the manipulated records are pushed out through a network of Russian bloggers, tweeters and others on social media, then picked up by publications in Moscow or other media outlets where the Kremlin maintains influence. From there, the goal is to have the false stories bandied about by more Russian bloggers or other disinformation participants on social media. The desired end result: The allegations are picked up in the West, usually first in Europe and then in the United States.
William Moran, the writer for Sputnik, said he based his article not on directives from the Russian government but on an anonymous tweet he saw on the internet that used an altered image of the document. He said he accepted the anonymous tweeter’s description that this was from Blumenthal, and did so because he was rushed. However, as the government official with knowledge of the intelligence inquiry said, the original altered document that was tweeted onto the internet came from a location that has been identified as being connected to the Russian disinformation campaigns, and only the news outlet controlled by the Russian government published an article based on it.
Both Trump and Clinton have been briefed on the scope of the Russian campaign, the official says, although he did not know if the role of Sputnik was specifically explained to them.
American officials have recently been predicting that manipulated documents would soon be appearing in outlets like Sputnik, which, until now, has been a source of some real records. On October 6, 16 former high-level intelligence officials, senators and other experts on national security released a cautionary letter about the methods that Russia uses in these campaigns.
“It is imperative that we focus on the broad disinformation campaign that is already underway,” the officials wrote. “What is taking place in the United States follows a well-known Russian playbook: First leak compelling and truthful information to gain credibility. The next step: release fake documents that look the same. This leaves a discredited actor in the position of denying the authenticity in the merciless court of public opinion, just weeks before an election.”
According to these officials, Russia has used these techniques in Estonia, Georgia, Ukraine, the Netherlands, Germany and now in the United States.
“The process has begun and stage has been set for the introduction of false information,” the national security experts wrote. “Altering stolen documents and introducing them to the public is not the stuff of spy movies. It is a proven tactic of Russian intelligence, and we expect it will happen here.”
Other altered documents have already been the basis of articles on Sputnik, the government official with knowledge of the intelligence agencies’ inquiries tells Newsweek. However, the Blumenthal email appears to be the first manipulated record to be publicly identified.
To understand the full importance of the false Blumenthal story—and how much Putin and his Kremlin cronies must have been dancing with delight—I have to quote the top few paragraphs:
In a major revelation from the second batch of WikiLeaks emails from Clinton Campaign Chairman John Podesta it was learned that Hillary's top confidante [sic] Sidney Blumenthal believed that the investigation into Benghazi was legitimate because it was "preventable" and the result of State Department negligence.
In an email titled "The Truth" from Hillary's top confidante Sidney Blumenthal, the adviser writing to undisclosed recipients said that "one important point that has been universally acknowledged by nine previous reports about Benghazi: The attack was almost certainly preventable" in what may turn out to be the big October surprise from the WikiLeaks release of emails from the account of Clinton Campaign Chair John Podesta.
Then came the money quote:
"Clinton was in charge of the State Department, and it failed to protect U.S. personnel at an American consulate in Libya. If the GOP wants to raise that as a talking point against her, it is legitimate," said Blumenthal, putting to rest the Democratic Party talking point that the investigation into Clinton's management of the State Department at the time of the attack was nothing more than a partisan witch hunt.
Those words sounded really, really familiar. Really familiar. Like, so familiar they struck me as something I wrote. Because they were something I wrote.
The Russians were quoting two sentences from a 10,000-word piece I wrote for Newsweek, which Blumenthal had emailed to Podesta. There was no mistaking that Blumenthal was citing Newsweek—the magazine’s name and citations for photographs appeared throughout the attached article. In fact, the email was 75 pages long when printed out. The sentences quoted by the Russians were on page 19, following 22 different mentions that the words came from Newsweek.
The Russians had carefully selected the “of course” paragraph, which mentions there were legitimate points of criticism regarding Clinton and Benghazi, all of which had been acknowledged in nine reports about the attack and by the former secretary of state herself. But that was hardly the point of the story, “Benghazi Biopsy: A Comprehensive Guide to One of America’s Worst Political Outrages.” The piece is about the obscene politicization of the assault that killed four Americans, and the article slammed the Republican Benghazi committee, which was engaged in a political show trial disguised as a congressional investigation—the 10th inquiry into the tragedy.
Here is the real summation of my article, which the Russians failed to quote:
The historical significance of this moment can hardly be overstated, and it seems many Republicans, Democrats and members of the media don’t fully understand the magnitude of what is taking place. The awesome power of government—one that allows officials to pore through almost anything they demand and compel anyone to talk or suffer the shame of taking the Fifth Amendment—has been unleashed for purely political purposes. It is impossible to review what the Benghazi committee has done as anything other than taxpayer-funded political research of the opposing party’s leading candidate for president. Comparisons from America’s past are rare. Richard Nixon’s attempts to use the IRS to investigate his perceived enemies come to mind. So does Senator Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting during the 1950s, with reckless accusations of treason leveled at members of the State Department, military generals and even the secretary of the Army.... The consequences, however, are worse than the manipulation of the electoral process. By using Benghazi for political advantage, the Republicans have communicated to global militants that, through even limited attacks involving relatively few casualties, they can potentially influence the direction of American elections.
This false story was reported only by the Russian-controlled agency (a reference appeared in a Turkish publication, but it was nothing but a link to the Sputnik article). So how did Donald Trump end up advancing the same falsehood put out by Putin’s mouthpiece?
At a rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Trump spoke while holding a document in his hand. He told the assembled crowd that it was an email from Blumenthal, whom he called “sleazy Sidney.”
“This just came out a little while ago,” Trump said. “I have to tell you this.”
And then he read the words from my article.
“He’s now admitting they could have done something about Benghazi,” Trump said, dropping the document to the floor. “This just came out a little while ago.”
The crowd booed and chanted, “Lock her up!”
After Newsweek first published its article on Sputnik and the Blumenthal email, some reporters suggested that a tweet from an anonymous account may have been the source of the Russian article or Trump’s statement. An image attached to the tweet showed the sentences in question, but provided no indication that it came from an email. Based on the information from the government official with knowledge of the intelligence inquiries, Sputnik would never base a story it portrayed as the “October surprise” in the American election on a tweet with which it had no connection. The account in question is also quite unusual: It has put out an average of 285 tweets a day about American politics since it was created in February. (The account deleted the Blumenthal tweet on Monday.) The image from the tweet could have been anonymous propaganda by someone who searched through thousands of words to find sentences to attribute to Blumenthal. More troubling, it could have been distributed over social media as a step in the Russian effort to quote an altered email in Sputnik; that would match the tactics described by the government official who spoke to Newsweek. Either way, Trump spread the same story that the Russian government was pushing, whether by quoting propaganda whose origin he did not know or by using information that originated from Sputnik.
This is not funny. It is terrifying. The Russians engage in a sloppy disinformation effort and, before the day is out, the Republican nominee for president is standing on a stage reciting the same manufactured story as truth. How did this happen? Who in the Trump campaign fed him false allegations at the same time they were being advanced in a Russian disinformation campaign? (The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)
Americans should be outraged. This totalitarian regime, engaged in what are arguably war crimes in Syria to protect its government puppet, is working to upend a democracy to the benefit of an American candidate who uttered positive comments just Sunday about the Kremlin's campaign on behalf of Bashar al-Assad. Trump’s arguments were an incomprehensible explication of the complex Syrian situation, which put him right on the side of the Iranians and Syrians, who are fighting to preserve the government that is the primary conduit of weapons used against Israel.
So no, Mr. Putin, I’m not Sidney Blumenthal. And now that you have been exposed once again, get the hell out of our election. And, Mr. Trump, you have some explaining to do about how you were so reckless.
This story has been updated to include information about Donald Trump's speech in Pennsylvania, a request for comment from the Trump campaign, details from the intelligence community about Sputnik and the techniques used in Russian disinformation campaigns, and details of an anonymous tweet that advanced the same propaganda as the Moscow news agency. It was also updated to include an explanation by the writer of the Sputnik article about his sourcing.