At a moment when linking 2016 election events to malign Russian intelligence officers has seemingly gone out of style, Yahoo News’s Michael Isikoff has a spectacular new addition to the genre.
In a report published Tuesday in connection with a new podcast, Isikoff alleges that conspiracy theories involving a slain Democratic National Committee staffer named Seth Rich can be traced back to the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service SVR.
The agency “first circulated a phony ‘bulletin’ — disguised to read as a real intelligence report — about the alleged murder of the former DNC staffer on July 13, 2016,” Isikoff writes. That was three days after Rich was killed in Washington, a crime that police have said was probably a botched robbery attempt. The Russian report, though, alleged Rich was killed by people working for Hillary Clinton — “slain in the early hours of a Sunday morning by the former secretary of state’s hit squad.”
Isikoff’s source for this link is Deborah Sines, a former assistant U.S. attorney who led the Rich investigation. The Russian rumor, he writes, is “the first known instance of Rich’s murder being publicly linked to a political conspiracy.” In the podcast, “Conspiracyland,” Isikoff makes a similar claim.
But that’s not true. Unfounded links between Clinton and the Rich killing predate the July 13, 2016, “bulletin” and coverage of it by a sketchy site called WhatDoesItMean.com. What’s more, the “hit team” story, which Sines says was repeated several weeks later, wasn’t the primary Rich-related conspiracy that gained traction.
As Isikoff’s reporting makes obvious, it’s in fact much more accurate to pin the broad embrace of Seth Rich conspiracies on WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange — and on U.S. actors like Infowars’ Alex Jones and Fox News’s Sean Hannity.
Let’s first address the SVR allegation. According to Isikoff, it was produced July 13. But it was planted in fertile soil; since Bill Clinton’s administration, there had been unfounded rumors about the Clintons being involved in various alleged murders. As early as 2008, Jones’s site, Infowars, had a tally of the so-called Clinton Body Count. It was a concept familiar enough to political observers that New York magazine included it in a conspiracy-theory roundup in 2013.
In the hours after Rich’s slaying, his death was linked to Clinton by a number of people on social media. Here are six examples from July 2016. One of those tweets links to an article at the defunct site Heat Street which is already referring to rampant conspiracy theories.
Particularly at a heated moment in the Democratic presidential nominating contest — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) endorsed Clinton on July 12 — Rich’s death was embraced as a way to cast aspersions on Clinton. (Some Twitter users, for example, alleged Rich was going to blow the whistle on vote fraud in California that gave Clinton a victory. This was, of course, not true in any way.)
The “hit team” narrative from WhatDoesItMean ended up having relatively little traction. From July 13 to the election, there were only 33 tweets talking about Clinton, Rich and a “hit team.”
All of the aforementioned tweets are still active, suggesting they haven’t been identified as being linked to Russian intelligence by Twitter. Those tweets have been removed and archived. Isikoff’s report notes that one prominent Twitter account from that set, TEN_GOP, promoted the Rich conspiracy theory as articulated by Infowars. There were, he says, some 2,000 tweets focused on promoting Seth Rich conspiracies from accounts linked to Russian actors.
This fits with our understanding of Russia’s efforts in 2016: to highlight and exacerbate existing divides in American politics. An expert on Russia’s efforts made that point in the “Conspiracyland” podcast.
“They’re looking for ways that we’re attacking each other inside the country and again exploiting that,” he said. “So the Seth Rich conspiracy is a perfect thing for the Russians to attack onto.”
But it’s worth digging into this social media activity a bit. First, Isikoff’s report notes the Infowars report shared by TEN_GOP was about Rich having allegedly disappeared for several hours before his killing. (This, too, is apparently unfounded.) That report came out Aug. 18 and shares none of the unique details from the SVR “bulletin” that purportedly originated these conspiracy theories.
A search of the Russian tweets conducted by The Washington Post finds only 640 tweets mentioning “Seth Rich.” Most of those tweets came well after the election.
The TEN_GOP tweet was also more than a week after WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange implied in an interview on Dutch television both that Rich’s killing was suspect and that he might be the source of the material stolen from the DNC that WikiLeaks had published the prior month. This was obviously not the case, since WikiLeaks didn’t begin receiving that stolen information until days after Rich’s death, as special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report details. But it was a particularly potent strain of the Rich conspiracies, and one that has survived since.
It’s also not clearly linked to Russia in any way. Mueller’s report suggests Assange hoped to “obscure the source of the materials that WikiLeaks was releasing” by blaming Rich.
Isikoff’s report does highlight the particularly bad actors in the Seth Rich saga, however. It points to Alex Jones and Infowars as a vector for misinformation; the site was later forced to retract and apologize for some of its Rich stories. Isikoff also highlights the role played by Fox News and its prime-time host, Sean Hannity.
In May 2017, Fox News ran a story alleging that Rich had contact with WikiLeaks. Hannity spent a week hyping the purported link — but Fox eventually was forced to retract the story in its entirety.
Why? According to an individual quoted in “Conspiracyland,” “Fox executives grew frustrated they were unable to determine the identity of the other, and more important, source for the story: an anonymous ‘federal investigator’ whose agency was never revealed. The Fox editors came to have doubts that the person was in fact who he claimed to be or whether the person actually existed, said the source.”
Hannity, too, was eventually forced to drop the line of argument, one that he’d been effectively using as counterprogramming to Mueller’s appointment at that same time.
Isikoff’s report also alleges that sources within Trump’s White House were pushing the Rich conspiracy. Like Assange, it was beneficial to Trump’s version of the Russian interference question to have people believe Russia wasn’t involved in the DNC hack. In March 2017, then-senior White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon texted a producer at CBS News’s “60 Minutes.”
“Huge story … he was a Bernie guy … it was a contract kill, obviously,” Bannon wrote, referring to Rich. This, too, is completely unfounded.
It’s eternally tempting to suggest that out-there ideas like the Rich conspiracies were a function of nefarious external actors like Russian intelligence officials. That text from Bannon, though, underlines the more anodyne truth: It was politically useful for a number of people to hype the allegations at the expense of Rich’s reputation.
It was useful for Bannon in aiding Trump. It was useful for Hannity to aid Trump and entice viewers. It was useful for Jones because it fed into his long-standing conspiracy narrative. It was useful for Assange to deflect blame.
This was the real, if informal, conspiracy. And it was effective.
This article was updated with a link to the Heat Street article.