RT, or Russia Today, the Russian government-owned television network disclosed on Monday that one of its U.S. affiliates has been notified by the U.S. Department of Justice that it must register as a foreign agent that is disseminating propaganda in the United States.
In the statement posted on the RT website, Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the outlet, raged against the decision, saying, “The war the U.S. establishment wages with our journalists is dedicated to all the starry-eyed idealists who still believe in freedom of speech. Those who invented it, have buried it.” Simonyan, who previously served on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s campaign staff, strongly hinted that any Justice Department actions could have repercussions for the U.S. news organizations that operate in Moscow. “I wonder how U.S. media outlets, which have no problems while working in Moscow, and that are not required to register as foreign agents, will treat this initiative,” she said.
Simonyan explained that “the company that supplies all services for RT America channel, including TV production and operations, in the U.S., has received a letter from the U.S. Department of Justice, claiming that the company is obligated to register under FARA due to the work it does for RT.”
FARA, or the Foreign Agents Registration Act, was “enacted in 1938 in the run-up to World War II in response to concerns raised by a special congressional committee over the large number of Nazi and Communist propagandists active in the United States at the time.” Per the Justice Department’s “FARA FAQ,” posted online, “[t]he purpose of FARA is to insure that the U.S. Government and the people of the United States are informed of the source of information (propaganda) and the identity of persons attempting to influence U.S. public opinion, policy, and laws.”
In short, the purpose of FARA is not to bar any particular information or agenda but rather, to ensure that the public has full knowledge of the nature and origin of such information. In theory, a more informed public would be better able to determine whether they are subject to attempted manipulate by an agenda with ulterior motives.
The action taken against RT did not take place in a vacuum. Earlier that day, Yahoo News reported that the FBI “has obtained thousands of internal Sputnik emails as part of an investigation into whether that news agency, which is technically separate from RT, must also register under FARA.” RT and Sputnik are both state-media funded by the Russian government and both were identified in a declassified 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.”
The two Russian media outlets are also embroiled in the broader inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election in which Russia sought to damage Hillary Clinton and boost Donald Trump’s chances. The U.S. intelligence report goes on to state that Sputnik and RT “consistently cast President-elect Trump as the target of unfair coverage from traditional U.S. media outlets that they claimed were subservient to a corrupt political establishment.”
According to Yahoo News, the FBI “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.”
In particular, according to Andrew Feinberg, a former White House reporter for Sputnik who the FBI and Justice Department questioned as part of their probe, the two agencies “wanted to know where did my orders come from and if I ever got any direction from Moscow.” Feinberg continued that, “they were interested in examples of how I was steered towards covering certain issues,” and that the interview focused on “internal structure, editorial processes and funding.”
While Feinberg’s direct instructions as a White House correspondent came from editors and news directors at Sputnik’s local Washington D.C. office, Feinberg said these supervisors regularly “would say, ‘Moscow wants this or Moscow wants that.”
As part of the probe, the FBI also reached out to another former Sputnik staffer, Joseph John Fionda, who sent a letter to the Justice Department’s national security division detailing a series of similar accusations against the news organization, requesting that it be investigated for FARA violations.
Fionda’s 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. Fionda claimed Gavasheli, Sputnik’s U.S. editor in chief, asked him to “obtain the CIA Director’s stolen emails” from the hacker, something that Fionda said he “refused because I believed this was a solicitation to espionage.” When Fionda refused, his boss, Gavasheli told him to “get the f— out of my office” and then fired him. Gavasheli, in his interview with Yahoo News, personally denied this happened and claimed that Fionda was fired after falsely claiming his father was ill in order to take time off from work.
Regardless of the specifics of what the investigation finds, the very existence of it and the subsequent FARA registration is “incredibly significant,” according to Asha Rangappa, a former FBI counterintelligence agent and now an associate dean of Yale Law School. Rangappa explained, “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.”
• RT has been required to file as a “Foreign Agent” under FARA. Sputnik may soon be required to follow. This indicates that the Justice Department likely has a strong case that the U.S. affiliates are not operating independently of their Russian state-owned backers.
• There is an active FBI investigation into Sputnik and its operation as part of an “influence operation” that may have sought an impact on the 2016 election. This has implication in the ongoing FBI and Special Counsel investigation into Russian election interference and whether or not the Trump Campaign coordinated or colluded in these efforts.
• Will the FBI investigation find high level coordination between the U.S. owned RT and Sputnik affiliates and the Russian government? If so, will this form part of the broader investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and the potential cooperation of the Trump Campaign?
• Will there be Russian retaliation against U.S. outlets operating out of Russia? If so, will the U.S. government respond or consider it a private sector issue?