The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The often subtle distinction between anti-U.S. and pro-Putin rhetoric

Screen capture of Russian television by Julia Davis. (Russia-1/Julia Davis on Twitter)
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There’s one point in Ben Collins’s assessment of the emergence of the U.S.-funded biolabs conspiracy theory that best encapsulates how that theory has been deployed — directly or indirectly to the benefit of the Russian government. The biolabs claims, the NBC News reporter wrote on Twitter, gave “pro-Trump and Q forums” an opportunity “to refocus on their major enemies: the Bidens and [National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director] Anthony S. Fauci.”

At the outset of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there wasn’t much gray area. Russian President Vladimir Putin was invading a sovereign nation for trumped-up reasons. There were defenses made, including by Fox News’s Tucker Carlson. But that was unsatisfying, particularly for an information ecosystem structured largely around amplifying criticisms of President Biden or downplaying the coronavirus pandemic. And then, from the heavens, a theory about covert weapons research at labs in Ukraine.

Collins traces the route this theory took from a little-noticed post from an anti-vaccine activist on a right-wing social media site to the country’s most-watched cable-news network. But it is worth fleshing out and expanding the point above. Here, at last, was an agreed-upon locus for those looking to question the Biden administration and the government more broadly.

Even if — as in the case of Carlson — that meant consistently shifting the goal posts. And even if that meant handing a propaganda win to Putin and Russia.

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The existence of labs in Ukraine that receive funding from the U.S. government was never a secret. Russia has long tried to claim that the U.S. was involved in illicit bioweapons research. In 2018, it claimed that there was a secret U.S.-funded bioweapons lab in the country of Georgia. At the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, it sought to pin blame for the virus on American actions. In April 2020, the State Department released a statement explaining the genesis of the U.S.'s involvement with those labs: containing Soviet-era bioweapons and allowing for pathogen monitoring, among other things.

Then, a month ago, an anti-vaccine account on Gab stumbled onto the existence of the labs, as Collins determined. That post, which included a map of the lab locations, received little attention at the time.

By late February, Carlson was already actively deriding the American government’s handling of the threat posed by Russia, earning him frequent mentions on Russian state television. The Daily Beast’s Julia Davis has been tracking Carlson’s appearances on Russian television and, only hours before the invasion of Ukraine, reported on yet another example of Russia elevating the Fox News host’s rhetoric.

Russia invaded. The same day, Collins found, a Twitter account called WarClandestine shared the same map as had appeared in that Gab post and implied that Russia was perhaps attacking those facilities. From there, it spread quickly.

So much so that USA Today quickly published a fact-check. It centered on the available information about the labs, linking assertions about U.S. involvement in weapons research to “Russian disinformation.” Posts about the labs “misrepresent a treaty between the United States and Ukraine aimed at preventing biological threats,” the paper concluded. “The labs are owned and funded by the Ukrainian government. The Security Service of Ukraine and the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine have said the claim is false. Reports indicate the claim is tied to a years-long Russian disinformation campaign aimed at discrediting the United States.”

On Feb. 25, the day the USA Today fact-check was published, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists ran an interview with Robert Pope, director of the Defense Department program focused on neutralizing former Soviet Union bioweapons research. He stated that the Ukrainian labs had “more pathogens in more places than we recommend,” but that his program aimed at preserving genetic information about viruses before destroying live samples. He worried that the Russians might accidentally damage a lab or that they “could potentially go to one of these facilities and fabricate something that they call evidence of nefarious activity at the facility.”

A few days later, the Russian government began elevating the story. On March 6, it published documents that it claimed showed an effort to destroy pathogens in the labs — something it offered as nefarious but, if true, could also be seen as an effort to prevent the pathogens’ release due to an accident. That Russia’s attention turned to bioweapons, though, spurred alarm among American observers: Was this an attempt to preestablish an alibi for a bioweapon attack of their own?

During a hearing on March 8, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), among those concerned about such an event, asked State Department official Victoria Nuland directly whether Ukraine had bioweapons — clearly worried about Ukraine being blamed for such an attack.

“Ukraine has biological research facilities which, in fact, we are now quite concerned Russian troops, Russian forces may be seeking to gain control of,” Nuland replied, “so we are working with the Ukrainians on how they can prevent any of those research materials from falling into the hands of Russian forces should they approach.”

This is in keeping with what was known about the facilities and the work being conducted at them. But it was this quote that served as the trigger for Carlson to embrace the theory. Nuland, after all, was a long-standing foil for the right, having been at the State Department at the time of the Benghazi attacks in 2012. It all came together: old enemies, an urge to cast doubt on the administration, a compelling theory about biological weapons that could build on two years of conspiracies.

On March 9 — even after Fox News’s news side had rejected the conspiracy theories — Carlson first dove into the conspiracy theory.

It’s important to recognize the dishonesty of his approach, both within a show and over time. So, for example, he pointed to that USA Today debunk that suggested that the assertions was “linked to disinformation.” But here was Nuland admitting the labs existed, Carlson marveled! The debunk was wrong!

But of course, Nuland’s comment was fully in line with the USA Today report. There were labs but there was no evidence they were manufacturing or concealing biological weapons. Carlson implied that the debunking was aimed at the existence of labs, which it wasn’t, so that he could present the labs themselves as part of a coverup, which they weren’t.

Then, remarkably, he quoted directly from a Russian official who elevated the claim first made on March 6. During the “special military operation,” the official said — using Russia’s preferred nomenclature for the war — they’d found evidence of attempts at “mopping up traces of military biological program under development in Ukraine, financed by the U.S. Defense Ministry.”

Notice the inclusion of the word “military” there. Carlson did. He stated that, in her response to Rubio, Nuland “all but said it, that there’s a military application to this research.” Remember, this is on television; his viewers couldn’t easily go back and see what Nuland actually said, just as they relied on Carlson to depict the USA Today story accurately. In neither case does quick scrutiny bolster Carlson’s argument. Then, for good measure, Carlson quoted a Chinese official echoing Russia’s claim, even as he called China “a country we despise.”

“Oh, they’re putting Russian and Chinese propaganda on the screen! Yeah, we did,” Carlson said. “We also put U.S. government propaganda on the screen and the difference is we expect to be lied to by foreign governments. … We do not expect to be lied to by our government and we won’t accept it.”

For contrast, here’s how Carlson framed Nuland’s response to Rubio’s question only a few minutes prior: “Nuland just confirmed that the Russian disinformation they’ve been telling us for days is a lie and a conspiracy theory and crazy and immoral to believe is, in fact, totally and completely true.” Setting aside the fact that, again, she did not confirm that Russian disinformation was true, this was purportedly Nuland offering remarkable honesty. Yet Carlson’s summary of the situation was that the government was also lying — since his primary interest is in attacking the administration.

The next morning, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov reinforced the new importance of the biolab story in his country’s rhetoric.

“We did not attack Ukraine,” he said. “We explained to Ukraine many times that there is a situation which is posing a direct threat to the Russian Federation.” He claimed that Russian troops had found evidence of an imminent attack on Russia. “Of course,” he continued, “all these horrible facts of what the Pentagon is doing in the biological laboratories that are created using Pentagon money on the Ukrainian territory in order to experiment using pathogens which could be used to create biological weapons.”

That evening, Carlson — the enemy of Lavrov’s enemy — returned to the theme. Suddenly, the nefarious thing wasn’t that the government was aiding the effort to contain bioweapons but that it was taking so long.

“How long does it take to eliminate Soviet bioweapons? Seventeen years seems like a long time,” he said, referring to the origin of the 2005 treaty between U.S. and Ukraine. “If you had 17 years and ample funding from Congress, you could probably remove and catalogue every grain of sand on Waikiki Beach and yet somehow, over that same period 17 years, the Pentagon has not finished removing test tubes from Soviet-era freezers.”

He misrepresented Pope’s interview with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, claiming that Pope said that “they don’t want to destroy all the bio weapons. Instead, they’re using them to conduct new bio weapons research,” which he didn’t. See for yourself.

“Apparently, there is a lot of this going on in Ukraine funded by the United States,” Carlson added. “Did you know that? Why Ukraine? We don’t know. We can only guess.”

That line alone is deeply revealing. Carlson knows exactly why: Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union broke apart, there was a broad effort to contain the weapons it had in former republics like Ukraine, including biological weapons. It’s not complicated — but it serves Carlson to play dumb because he wants to imply some sort of coverup.

On Sunday, former Hawaii representative Tulsi Gabbard (D) published a video to her Twitter account in which she called for the lab facilities to be cease-fire zones so that the pathogens they contained could be destroyed. By itself, an innocuous request — save for two details.

The first is that she claimed that the U.S. and its allies should try to implement a cease-fire “instead of trying to cover this up.” Cover what up? The agreement that’s been in place for years focused on the labs that have been public for just as long? This is not simply a call for sanity. It’s an amplification of the idea that the U.S. is acting suspiciously.

That’s the second detail. There’s no reason to make this demand except to contribute to the conversation about the biolabs on the right. Gabbard is generating attention and engagement while she is amplifying this negative and misleading assertion about the U.S. government.

It is likely the case that Gabbard and Carlson don’t share many political views, but they operate in symbiosis. Gabbard gets a platform from appearing on his program and Carlson gets to point at a Democrat who agrees with him on whatever thing she’s there to discuss. It is very much akin to Carlson’s relationship with Russian misinformation efforts: He gets to tear down the Biden administration and Russia gets to point at an American who agrees with their framing.

On Monday night, he marveled that anyone would say he’s “siding with Putin,” as shown in snippets of video he aired. Carlson may, in fact, simply see himself as objecting to Biden and the broader American establishment of which Romney is a part. It is, however, undeniable that this has often meant he takes Russia’s side in debates, as on the biolab claims or on the risk to Russia of Ukraine joining NATO — something that he’d mentioned only shortly prior as being a point on which Zelensky would be wise to capitulate to Putin.

Then he rose to Gabbard’s defense, in the wake of (admittedly often overheated) criticisms of her post about the biolabs. He played her video, stopping just before she talked about the government’s apparently nonexistent “cover up” of its work in Ukraine.

“Everything that Tulsi Gabbard said, as you know, is true,” he said about the clip he played — though not the video overall. “It’s not a Republican issue. It’s not a Democrat issue. It’s a factual issue and even in war, truth is a defense. In fact, it’s the only defense. Is it true? And in a free country, you can speak the truth. That right can never be taken away or else it’s not a free country.”

In sharing the clip of his show on Twitter, Carlson dragged the goalposts off the playing field: “The U.S. government confirmed there are biolabs in Ukraine. But now anyone who says that out loud is accused of treason.” See how this works? Show Gabbard saying something non-controversial, pretend that’s what people are alarmed about and claim that it’s those people who want to undermine the country.

It is the role of journalists, both in the United States and abroad, to question those in power. To not take anything for granted; to challenge the stories powerful politicians, business leaders and celebrities would like to tell. There’s an inherent tension to this, particularly in times of military conflict: Politicians are adept at casting criticisms and questions offered during geopolitical tensions as unpatriotic or harmful. It is at such moments, though, that scrutiny is more important, not less.

What Carlson offers here isn’t that. He’s credulous about claims from Russian and Chinese officials based solely on their word and eager to reframe assertions from more-reliable voices as conniving or shaded. The role of journalists is to raise questions and then try to answer them. Carlson instead simply raises questions — except when he has the opportunity to answer them in a way that makes Biden and the left look bad.

Notice how far downstream this has gotten from that original post on Gab. What was just some perhaps deluded social-media user’s effort to cast the U.S. government as being involved in weird biomedical research became a core part of Russia’s defense of its invasion of Ukraine — as made clear by Lavrov — and then a multiday fight for Carlson as he recast everything in his preferred establishment-against-common-man narrative.

Russia doesn’t care why Carlson’s doing that, but it appreciates that he is.