The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Hill’s flimsy Russia-uranium story lands with maximum effect

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) announces a probe into a deal on U.S. uranium mines reached under the Obama administration. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Hill is having an impact day. In a news conference Tuesday, House Republicans announced that two panels — the House Intelligence Committee and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee — would jointly probe the Obama administration’s October 2010 approval of a deal that gave a Russian company control of more than 20 percent of this country’s uranium production capacity.

“It’s important we find out why that deal went through,” said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) in the news conference.

Why was King so interested in a deal that closed seven years ago? Because of the Hill. “The renewed interest in the so-called Uranium One deal came after The Hill reported last week that the FBI had gathered solid evidence that Moscow had compromised an American uranium trucking firm with bribes and kickbacks as part of an effort to grow Vladimir Putin’s atomic energy business inside the United States,” noted an early version of a Hill report on Tuesday’s press conference. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) last week announced the beginning of a similar investigation.

As reported by the Erik Wemple Blog last week, an Oct. 17 article by the Hill’s John Solomon and Alison Spann managed to thrust the Uranium One story back into the spotlight.

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It shed light on a juxtaposition: A Russian energy concern, Rosatom, sought control of a Canadian mining firm that would later take on the name Uranium One. Given the company’s holdings in the United States, the transaction required the approval of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a multi-agency panel that included the State Department, which was headed by Hillary Clinton at the time. The New York Times pointed out in a complicated 2015 investigation: “As the Russians gradually assumed control of Uranium One in three separate transactions from 2009 to 2013, Canadian records show, a flow of cash made its way to the Clinton Foundation.” The deal was approved by the CFIUS and Russia secured control of a fifth of U.S. uranium production capacity.

Overlapping with the CFIUS review, noted Solomon and Spann, was a criminal investigation. “Moscow had compromised an American uranium trucking firm with bribes and kickbacks in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, FBI and court documents show,” reads their piece. As early as 2009, they reported, authorities gathered evidence that Vadim Mikerin — an official with Rosatom’s Tenex subsidiary — engaged in a series of illegal activities pertaining to the transportation of uranium in the United States. The alleged activity included extortion, bribery and kickbacks in dealings with transportation companies.

None of this was news. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, did extensive stories about the investigation into Mikerin. So the Hill performed an elaborate and creative repackaging exercise — marshaling already-known information into a newsy-sounding headline: “FBI uncovered Russian bribery plot before Obama administration approved controversial nuclear deal with Moscow.” It worked, at least as far as Fox News was concerned. The leading cable-news network lent a great deal of programming to the Hill piece, all rigged to engineer further suspicion of Clinton. In an interview with Hill Editor in Chief Bob Cusack last Thursday, Fox News host Jon Scott said, “Obviously your outlet has done some digging but it seems like a huge story that ought to be blared from the mountaintops and it has not gotten a lot of attention.”

Maybe that’s because mainstream outlets have smoked out the preposterous conspiracy-mongering in the Hill’s story. Over a few paragraphs, the story managed to suggest that the Justice Department, which successfully prosecuted Mikerin for his crimes, somehow sought to play down its achievements on this front — perhaps to suppress the news and prevent Clinton from suffering embarrassment over the Uranium One transaction (and it appears she was not personally involved). Here is the astonishing passage from the Solomon-Spann story:

Bringing down a major Russian nuclear corruption scheme that had both compromised a sensitive uranium transportation asset inside the U.S. and facilitated international money laundering would seem a major feather in any law enforcement agency’s cap.
But the Justice Department and FBI took little credit in 2014 when Mikerin, the Russian financier and the trucking firm executives were arrested and charged.
The only public statement occurred a year later when the Justice Department put out a little-noticed press release in August 2015, just days before Labor Day. The release noted that the various defendants had reached plea deals.

Oh really! Pause for a second and ponder the illogic in the text here. The Hill is writing that the issuance of a press release counts as evidence that the Justice Department was taking “little credit” for its work. Wouldn’t the act of not issuing a press release be better evidence thereof? Or how about just not pursuing the case at all?

There’s a further problem with this radical conspiracy: There were three press releases on the Mikerin case — one covering the charges in the case; one covering the plea deal; and one covering the sentencing. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland published them; they were hosted on the site of the FBI’s Washington field office; and, as the Hill noted, Justice Department headquarters issued a release on the plea deals.

Does that sound like a federal law-enforcement apparatus bent on hiding something? Contacted about the press releases, The Hill issued this statement: “Despite the international implications of the Russian scheme, the Justice Department press office in Washington, DC and the FBI headquarters press office that deal with national reporters did not call attention to the case in 2014. Instead it was treated like one of the many local run of the mill prosecutions that come out of field offices on a daily basis. FBI confirmed to us it did not do a national press roll out in 2014.”

The Hill apparently didn’t give much weight to the Maryland releases: “There is a difference between a national press release blasted to the national press corp and the local press releases that escape Washington’s press corps.”

Said Cusack on Fox News: “Interestingly … when they got the conviction and pressed charges, they didn’t make a big deal of it.”

The Hill should be excited at the prospect that its odd suggestions might just bear out. After all, the suppression of news via multiple press releases would require a fancy dance of bureaucratic corruption. The logistics of such a plot, too, would ensnare tens if not hundreds of career law-enforcement officials. This could be huge.