Russia Says Buzzfeed Is a 'Tool' of U.S. Intelligence After Suspicious Embassy Payments Report

Sergey Kislyak, Russia's then ambassador to the United States, arrives at Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Virginia, U.S., May 18, 2012. Joshua Roberts/Files/Reuters

Update| Russia has accused U.S.-based website Buzzfeed of "presenting itself as a news portal" while actually being in league with the U.S. intelligence services. The accusations from Moscow's Ministry of Foreign Affairs came after Buzzfeed News published a second article reporting on suspicious financial dealings by Russian diplomats around the time of the last U.S. election.

Russia's top diplomatic body issued a statement on Thursday, calling Buzzfeed an "informational tool of the American intelligence services" and accused it of spreading "fake news." The ministry suggested the site had portrayed ordinary staff payroll matters as events of a "conspiratorial nature." Buzzfeed's report listed several financial dealings that it said bankers had reported to the U.S. government as potentially suspicious.

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It included allegations of several payments in the aftermath of the U.S. election, such as Russia's then-Ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, receiving $120,000 only 10 days after Donald Trump's triumph at the polls. Kislyak, seemingly unwittingly, played a large role in the quick dismissal of Trump's first choice as National Security Adviser, Mike Flynn. Flynn left the White House after admitting to misleading Vice President Mike Pence about conversations he had with Kislyak. He later admitted to lying to the FBI too.

The scandal has become an important event into the ongoing investigation by Robert Mueller of the extent of Russia's interference in the election and allegations of collusion between the Trump team and Moscow.

Buzzfeed's article said there were several Russian transactions or attempted transactions, around the time of Trump's entry into office flagged as suspicious by banking staff. In one instance someone reportedly tried to withdraw $150,000 from the embassy's account, five days after Trump's inauguration, only for the embassy to block it.

In response, Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has claimed the only way Buzzfeed could have obtained this information is with the prior knowledge of U.S. authorities.

"Receiving such data without the sanction of the corresponding state bodies in the U.S. is simply impossible," the statement by the ministry, released on Thursday read. "In other words, encroachment on the inviolability of the accounts of the Russian Embassy and its employees who possess diplomatic immunity is the official work of Washington."

The ministry claimed that Buzzfeed's earlier report into Russian diplomatic finances, which cast suspicion on funds Moscow sent to embassies and consulates in 2016, was "maliciously construed" to draw links with the U.S. election. The latest report, the ministry argued, was more malign. "We are not just talking about fake news but about an actual criminal offense that, among other things, includes breaching the confidentiality of bank information and disclosure of personal data," the statement argued.

Russia continues to deny interfering in the election, despite the U.S. intelligence community having stated their belief that Russian hackers orchestrated attacks during the campaign and Russian trolls conducted a campaign via social media networks to sow division around the election.

The special counsel investigation, into Russia's influence and suspected collusion between Trump's team and Russia, which the president has frequently denied and denounced as a witch hunt, is ongoing.

When asked to comment on the allegations, a Buzzfeed News spokesperson told Newsweek that "being attacked by government spokespeople is par for the course if you're doing good journalism, but this is a first: No one has accused us of being an instrument of the Trump administration before."

This story has been updated with Buzzfeed's subsequent response to the allegations.