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Opinion A Fox News reporter’s schooling of Sean Hannity veers into dark territory

Fox News correspondent Jennifer Griffin. (Fox News via AP) (AP)

A virulent claim is circulating in right-wing media and among some Republicans: The United States might be working on biolabs in Ukraine. This assertion, which echoes Russian propaganda and implies that the United States and Ukraine are collaborating on something nefarious and dangerous, has been sharply refuted by Biden officials and independent experts.

But now someone who works for Fox News has also challenged the claim: national security correspondent Jennifer Griffin, who ventured into Sean Hannity’s lion’s den and did so to his face.

Griffin’s exchange with Hannity is remarkable on its own. But it raises a question: While this might be expected from some in right-wing media, why are Republican lawmakers echoing it?

The Griffin-Hannity moment arose after the White House pushed back against Russian claims of U.S. biological weapons labs in Ukraine. Press secretary Jen Psaki denounced this as “disinformation” that might telegraph a Russian bioweapons attack as a “false flag."

To no one’s surprise, Tucker Carlson devoted a segment to the idea Wednesday night, using his usual “I’m just asking questions” routine to imply there might be something to it. Griffin then went on Hannity and pushed back, noting that these labs are left over from the Soviet era and that the United States has been working to “convert the facilities safely.”

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As Hannity’s response suggests, central to this narrative is the idea that State Department official Victoria Nuland “admitted” the existence of these labs under questioning from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) at a hearing.

“What exactly they’re for we never got clarity on,” said Hannity.

“Well, we do have clarity,” Griffin rejoined, adding that the Pentagon has run a “long program” designed to “clean up these Soviet-era labs” after the Cold War.

Let’s go to Nuland’s exchange with Rubio. In it, Nuland did declare that Ukraine has “biological research facilities.” But Nuland specified that the United States is “working with the Ukrainians” to keep those leftover materials out of the wrong hands.

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Yet some treated this as an extraordinary revelation. Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) tweeted that this was a “serious admission” and that it’s time to take “concern over Ukrainian biological labs seriously.”

But as a CNN fact-check points out, there’s nothing revelatory here at all:

There are US-funded biolabs in Ukraine, that much is true. But they are not building bioweapons. Actually, it’s the opposite: Part of the reason for their creation was to secure old Soviet weapons left behind in the former Soviet republics.

Here’s something else: U.S. officials pointed out the truth about this program even during the Trump administration.

In April 2020, the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine put out a statement decrying “Russian disinformation” about these labs. It noted that the Pentagon’s program works with Ukraine to “secure pathogens and toxins” in these facilities, “while allowing for peaceful research and vaccine development.”

“There’s a long history of U.S. administrations on both sides of the aisle working on this program with Ukrainian and other former Soviet state labs,” Filippa Lentzos, an expert on international security at King’s College, told me.

Also note this: Griffin reminded Hannity that former Republican senator Richard Lugar of Indiana had long been working on these issues, to deal with “proliferation” of such weapons after the end of the Soviet Union.

And here’s a 2005 news article about Lugar’s success in negotiating a deal for U.S. aid to go to Ukraine to “improve security at facilities where dangerous microbes are kept.” That was 17 years ago.

Oh, and by the way, in 2013, President Barack Obama gave a speech honoring Lugar in which he joked about touring these same labs with Lugar. “Traveling with Dick,” wisecracked Obama, means getting close to “test tubes filled with anthrax and the plague.”

As Obama noted more seriously, this work in destroying old Soviet arsenals was “absolutely critical to making us safer in the wake of the Cold War.”

On that score, Dan Diller, director of policy at the Lugar Center, notes a deep irony. This is arguably an area where the Defense Department has done much good — something even critics who regularly decry its failures and destructiveness might allow — yet some on the right want to convert this into proof of U.S. perfidy and clandestine warmongering.

“It’s one of the great success stories of American government in the last half century,” Diller told me. “This is taking Defense Department dollars and applying it to the reduction of threat.”

To be clear, we should show skepticism toward government claims such as those now coming from the Biden administration, especially given the history of official lying about weapons of mass destruction. But here we have a long public record pointing to what this program really is, and what it’s supposed to accomplish.

So why are Republicans like Massie implying the United States is collaborating with Ukraine on something deeply nefarious and threatening, even as Russia is propagandizing along the same lines, to undermine the U.S.-led effort against a horrifyingly violent annexation of a U.S. ally and sovereign country? Is there any discernible vision of the national interest at work here?

As David Rothkopf points out, we’ve come face to face with “an extraordinarily demanding moment” and even a “turning point in history.” For some on the right, it’s almost as if typical partisan zeal to undermine the Biden administration has crossed into something much darker, at a moment when the stakes could not be higher.

This piece has been updated to correct Nuland’s quote.

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