Last week leaders of the Senate intelligence committee, senators Richard Burr and Mark Warner, gave a press conference in which they announced they are eager to speak with Christopher Steele, the former British MI6 officer believed to have compiled the controversial dossier of allegations about President Trump’s connections to Russia. Steele reportedly spoke with special counselor Robert Mueller about the dossier, but the committee has yet to hear from the man who laid the foundations for the theory that Trump or his campaign team colluded with Russian officials to fix the 2016 presidential election for him.
One reporter, however, claims that the Senate intelligence committee has verified “some of the Steele dossier.” Ken Dilanian of NBC News told MSNBC Thursday morning that “Burr said they had been able to corroborate some aspects of it.”
But in the 40-minute-long press conference, neither Burr nor Warner suggested anything of the sort. Rather, Burr said “the committee cannot really decide the credibility of the dossier without understanding things like who paid for it, who are your sources and subsources?” Dilanian explained that “two sources told NBC News the committee has corroborated parts of the dossier.”
Dilanian did not explain to viewers what Burr was clearly hinting at—namely, that the Steele dossier is the paid product of a private information company called Fusion GPS, which has become notorious for inventing sleazy and often fact-free attacks on democratic whistleblowers and political figures and feeding them to journalists. Dilanian himself is no stranger to Fusion GPS.
Who Is Fusion GPS?
In summer 2016, Fusion GPS distributed the dossier under Steele’s name to a number of major news organizations. All refrained from publishing a document they couldn’t verify. It was finally published by BuzzFeed in January after CNN reported U.S. intelligence agencies had briefed outgoing president Barack Obama and his incoming successor Donald Trump on the existence of the dossier.
It was Fusion GPS that also spearheaded a campaign to dismantle the Magnitsky Act, the 2012 legislation that imposes sanctions on Russian officials and figures associated with the regime of Vladimir Putin who are known to have played a role in the 2009 death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. Fusion GPS’ effort, according to William Browder, the driving force behind the Magnitsky Act and head of the Magnitsky Global Justice Campaign, included a smear campaign against him and his late friend and lawyer.
In his explosive July 27 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Browder, the 53-year-old CEO and founder of Hermitage Capital Management, alleged Fusion GPS may have violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) by spreading Russian state propaganda. Washington DC journalists, Browder added, were in on the game—getting stories from the company that first tried to torque American law to benefit Putin and his cronies then spread the salacious Steele dossier.
“I suspect that a number of journalists,” Browder testified, “and one in particular here in Washington was operating so far outside the bounds of normal journalistic integrity that there must have been some incentive for them to be doing it coming from Fusion GPS.”
The journalist Browder alluded to is NBC News’ intelligence and national security reporter: Ken Dilanian. In extensive interviews, Browder alleged to me that a number of journalists, including Dilanian, were beholden to Fusion GPS and its principals, including former Wall Street Journal reporter Glenn Simpson, for supplying them with stories in the past. Reporters, Browder argued, were therefore reluctant to look too deeply into Fusion GPS’s smear campaign against him and Magnitsky. Multiple attempts to reach Dilanian for comment went unanswered.
To back up his assertion about NBC and Dilanian, Browder showed me documents that chronicled Dilanian’s reporting on the Magnitsky Act—reporting that Browder believes moved in tandem with Fusion GPS’s campaign to discredit both himself and Magnitsky in the hope of repealing the law and lifting sanctions against Russia.
Russia’s Target: Corrupting the American Press
What these records and other accompanying documents also suggest is that Russia’s attempt to “hack” the 2016 election was hardly just about the election, and that a main target and beneficiary of that effort—which is ongoing—is the American press.
In an email hacked from the account of a U.S. foreign service officer, Dilanian asked Sen. Ben Cardin’s office if the senior Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee wanted to comment on the story about Magnitsky that he was reporting. “There is no evidence he was beaten in prison, as Browder has alleged,” Dilanian declares:
and it’s clear from police and court records that he wasn’t detained because he blew the whistle on an alleged fraud scheme. He was detained over tax evasion by Browder’s companies. In fact, there are credible allegations in court documents that Browder and his associates are suspects in the fraud—and that Browder concocted the whistleblower story to cover that up.
We plan to publish something about this next week, and I wanted to give Sen. Cardin a chance to comment on it. He is not a large part of the story, and if these allegations are true, he is one of many smart and influential people who were misled, obviously.
Another email, hacked from the same cache, written by a Democratic staffer for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, dismisses Dilanian’s thesis: “There is overwhelming evidence that Sergei Magnitsky was beaten in prison”—after which the staffer makes his case clearly:
Photographs of his beaten body were available to us, which show physical evidence of him having been beaten. … We reviewed the detention center protocol, which reports that Magnitsky was beaten with rubber batons by guards on the evening of November 16, 2009—the night he died. … Magnitsky’s Death Certificate refers to a cerebral cranial injury. … The forensic postmortem conducted by Russian state experts refers to injuries on Magnitsky’s body consistent with the use of rubber batons.
The email concludes with a statement to be attributed to Cardin:
Attempts to defame Sergei Magnitsky are as old as the crime he uncovered. One need only look to the posthumous prosecution and conviction of Magnitsky to understand the lengths Putin’s violent kleptocracy is willing to go to keep its crimes hidden from the Russian people. Sergei Magnitsky may be gone, but his legacy of courageous patriotism remains an inspiration to those in Russia, and around the world, who work for a better future. And I am proud to stand with them.
While this correspondence reflects very well on Cardin and Democratic Foreign Relations Committee staffers, it raises very troubling questions about NBC News, and the way that the American press may have been manipulated by outfits like Fusion GPS and the people who hire them.
There is no evidence of anyone getting money from Fusion GPS to provide unfavorable coverage of Browder and Magnitsky. In fact, Browder told the Senate Judiciary Committee he had no evidence of any such payments. But money is not the most important currency in American journalism: Scoops are.
Why William Browder Pushed the Magnitsky Act
Repealing the Magnitsky Act is a key foreign policy goal of the Russian government, since it touches directly on the interests of the ruling clique and Putin himself. That was the purpose of Browder lobbying for the law.
Understanding who Browder is, and how the Magnitsky Act came about, is essential to understanding the campaign Fusion GPS helped lead against both, and the role reporters played in it. Browder’s company, Hermitage, opened for business in Russia in the mid-1990s and became one of the largest investment advisers in that country. In 2005, Browder was expelled from Russia and his offices raided; documents seized in that raid were later used to misappropriate $230 million in taxes his company had paid to the Russian government.
In response, Browder hired, as he told the Senate committee, “the smartest Russian lawyer I knew”—Sergei Magnitsky—to investigate what happened. In 2008, the then 35-year-old Magnitsky was arrested. Russian authorities demanded he sign a false statement that he had personally stolen the $230 million. Magnitsky refused. His health steadily deteriorated in prison, and on November 16, 2009, after 358 days in prison, his body was found dead on the floor of his cell.
Browder understood that there was no justice to be had in Russia, but the officials and regime cronies responsible for Magnitsky’s death could still be held accountable. Their money, invested in the West, was vulnerable.
In Washington DC, Browder enlisted allies on both sides of the aisle, Cardin and Republican Sen. John McCain, who put forth the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. The practical purpose of the law was to freeze assets and deny visas for Russian officials and other figures close to the regime involved in Magnitsky’s detention and death. Its larger aim was to fire a shot across Putin’s bow. The Obama administration, which sought to reset relations with Russia and get Putin’s support on Iran sanctions, was not happy with the law, but the president nonetheless signed it in December 2012.
The Magnitsky Act affected Putin directly in two ways. A close friend of Putin’s, Sergei Roldugin, a beneficiary of at least $2 billion of state largesse and kickbacks from oligarchs, was implicated in the scheme Magnitsky exposed. The language of the bill made Putin himself personally subject to sanctions.
Further, the law showed that Putin was incapable of protecting regime figures. Previously Putin could guarantee them impunity for whatever acts—kidnapping, bribery, torture, murder, etc.—they’d committed to gather and maintain wealth. “This system of illegal wealth accumulation worked smoothly,” Browder said in his testimony. “However, after the passage of the Magnitsky Act, Putin’s guarantee disappeared.”
Russia Fights Back Through Subterfuge
Putin’s immediate countermeasure was to institute a ban preventing Americans from adopting Russian orphans. Thus, as experienced Putin watchers understand, when Russian officials, their representatives, or hired contractors, are talking about Russian adoptions, as Putin did with President Trump in July, it is coded language for repealing the Magnitsky Act. That is why Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya raised the subject of “adoptions” with the eldest son of the Republican nominee for president in June 2016. But to get her foot in the door, she promised Donald Trump Jr. dirt on Hillary Clinton—which suggests Veselnitskaya understood that her mark was not only ignorant and careless but also unscrupulous.
The Trump meeting was part of Veselnitskaya’s larger effort to repeal the Magnitsky Act, a continuation of a Russian campaign against Browder that started with his 2005 expulsion and culminated in the 2009 murder of Magnitsky. After the act passed in 2012, Browder wrote me in an email, the Russians “put Sergei and me on trial in 2013 (in the first posthumous trial in Russian history) and found us both guilty. I was sentenced to 9 years in absentia.”
When the Global Magnitsky Act, a worldwide extension of the law empowering the executive to target foreign nationals across the globe for human rights abuses, was gaining steam in Congress in spring 2016, the Russian campaign kicked into full gear. Veselnitskaya worked with a number of other figures, including former Soviet intelligence officer Rinat Akhmetshin—who also attended the meeting with Trump Jr. in June 2016.
Veselnitskaya represented Prevezon, a Russian holding company, in its defense against Justice Department allegations that it laundered money stolen in the fraud Magnitsky uncovered. She hired an American law firm, Baker Hostetler, which brought on Fusion GPS for “litigation support,” as it said in an April 2017 statement. Yet several sources familiar with Fusion GPS’s operations say instead that it was “hired to get out Russia’s narrative about Browder and Magnitsky.”
“You undermine Browder, you undermine Magnitsky. You undermine Magnitsky, you undermine the sanctions,” one U.S. government official told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty last July. “Then you undermine the entire sanctions regime.”
Journalists Won’t Touch Glenn Simpson
Yet even after Fusion GPS’s role in compiling the “Steele dossier” was widely reported, Browder says, none of the major press organizations he approached were willing to report on the part Fusion GPS and Simpson played in the anti-Magnitsky campaign.
“I discovered that Glenn Simpson was so deeply embedded as a source for different stories, no one wanted to write a story about him,” Browder told me. “I was told explicitly by journalists in those organizations that their editors wouldn’t touch Simpson, he was so firmly entrenched. I was told by a few journalists who wanted to do a story on Fusion GPS that Simpson called their editor and tried to get them fired.”
The fact that Fusion GPS was the source of both the anti-Magnitsky smear campaign and the anti-Trump dossier was perhaps too confusing, or too troubling for most reporters to consider. Putting both stories together suggests both the Steele dossier and Fusion GPS’s anti-Magnitsky work were Russian state-sponsored hit-jobs.
While critics of the current White House charge that it has covered up institutional or accidental collusion with Moscow, the refusal of the press to out itself calls into question its heroic narrative as a last bastion of democracy holding out against the dictatorial and factually impaired Trump. Instead, it implied that members of both the Trump circle and the media were at once victims of and willing participants in the same Russian-sourced scam.
The Media’s Comfort With Sleaze
Fusion GPS’s work includes waging smear campaigns against people who are trying to do the right thing under difficult circumstances. People like Alek Boyd, whose investigations of a corrupt oligarchy in Venezuela with ties to that vicious regime put them in Fusion GPS’s crosshairs. And Browder, whose efforts to get some justice for a friend and underscore the nature of the Putin regime made him a Fusion GPS target. There’s something especially toxic about Fusion GPS’s smearing of Magnitsky, who was tortured and murdered by a regime responsible for countless human rights violations in Russia and elsewhere, like Syria.
But in the end, the founders and employees of Fusion GPS are just paid operatives who are doing their job—a sleazy job. It’s the journalists who took handouts from these people and presented them to the public as news that are the real problem, because their job is to be honest, and level with the public—even when it might make them look bad.
Journalists often write favorable stories about a well-placed figure, usually in government, whom they see as likely to feed them stories in the future. These stories are known as “beat-sweeteners.” In contrast, Dilanian’s July 27, 2017 profile of Simpson reads more like a rear-guard defensive action. Simpson, writes Dilanian, “has a long history of investigating corruption and influence in and around Russia. Simpson,” Dilanian continues, “has told friends that he was troubled that his work on the [Magnitsky] case might help Putin. But, he has said, he stands by his investigative findings.”
Dilanian had shown a previous willingness to collaborate with sub-rosa sources in exchange for scoops—intelligence agencies included. A story in The Intercept showed that when working for the Los Angeles Times, he had a “closely collaborative relationship with the CIA.” In documents obtained by The Intercept, Dilanian can be seen writing emails promising the agency good coverage. He also submitted drafts of his actual stories to Langley, which in at least one instance led to a major revision more favorable to America’s clandestine service. He then joined the Associated Press in 2014, and in December 2015 moved to NBC News.
Turning the News Business Upside Down
If the news business used to look like a pyramid, with the three TV network news channels at the apex supported by a base of hundreds of newspapers providing original reporting, the pyramid has now been turned upside down, with many more TV channels feeding off a drastically smaller and dramatically impoverished number of newspapers. Outfits like Fusion GPS make it possible for reporters to do a job that is increasingly difficult, especially if you report for TV—one of the few media sectors where journalists still get paid enough to feed their families, but where only a tiny percentage of resources are available for actual journalism.
This is not a knock against the work TV news producers and reporters do, which has its own rigors, and is still able to move public opinion while turning a profit. But from its beginnings, TV news, like Dilanian’s employers at NBC, depended on the hundreds of American newspapers that produced stories: local, national, and international. TV breaks news not primarily by contributing original reporting, but by airing interviews with important people that appear in newspapers the next day.
Put some makeup on Bashar al-Assad, for instance, and no matter how embarrassingly ingratiating and ill-informed the questions may be, the answers of a mass murderer will make news. The same holds for pop stars. In the old days, print media served as a testing ground for TV—if there’s enough momentum in print, it’s maybe worth the risk to re-do that Los Angeles Times or Wall Street Journal story for national broadcast.
Today, thanks to the rise of the Internet; gross mismanagement, including the failure to protect intellectual property rights; and the rise of social media platforms like Facebook, hundreds of print outfits have closed their doors—and only a handful of papers and magazines do reputable, informed reporting. At the same time, TV networks have proliferated.
Now, there aren’t just three networks with CNN giving them a run for the money, there are dozens of networks and platforms, with many spinning off clones to pick up extra ad dollars—not just NBC, but CNBC and MSNBC; FOX and FOX Business; CNN and CNN Headline News; etc.
The inverted-pyramid of TV news and hard journalism—as opposed to people airing opinions or peddling partisan propaganda on social media—is one reason the Trump-Russia story has led the news for nine months now, in print and broadcast media: There just aren’t enough real stories to go around anymore. Thus, media organizations are likely to cluster around one story like a pack of stray dogs. The current state of journalism allows them little choice: You don’t dare let the competition get a leg up by ignoring a story like Trump-Russia. And since no one wants to kill the golden goose, everyone has to collaborate to keep the story alive—and no one dares call bullsh-t on anyone else’s story.
What every TV news operation wants and needs every day is a new slice of the big Kremlin-Trump story—hopefully a slice that’s exclusive to them. That’s the function Fusion GPS may have served for Dilanian. In other words, onetime reporter Simpson replaced the role newspapers once played for TV news reporters: he fed reporters stories, and helped them get on the air.
Russians All Start Mentioning A Certain Documentary
On April 26, 2016, Dilanian emailed Browder with a number of questions regarding Magnitsky for a story he said he was reporting for NBC News. He wanted to know about Browder’s business relationship with the lawyer, Magnitsky’s imprisonment, and most importantly the circumstances of his death. After all, the case for the Magnitsky Act rests in large part on the fact that the lawyer was murdered in prison. Had he perished from an illness, his death would constitute a tragedy and perhaps a chilling indictment of Russian medical facilities for inmates, but not appear to be sufficient cause for U.S. lawmakers to target high-ranking Russian officials and regime associates.
Dilanian’s line of questioning to Browder closely followed the pattern of his questions to Cardin’s office. Dilanian appeared to base his questioning partly on a film made by Andrei Nekrasov that disputes Browder’s account of the Magnitsky case. Nekrasov’s film, “The Magnitsky Act: Behind The Scenes,” contends that Browder was responsible for the $230 million tax fraud and lied about the circumstances of Magnitsky’s death.
“As you know,” writes Dilanian, in correspondence I’ve seen, “the filmmaker Andrei Nekrasov and the lawyers for Prevazon have accused you of mischaracterizing what the documents [describing the circumstances of Magnisky’s detention and death] say. How do you respond?”
Browder answered: “It appears that you have relied on a highly biased and one side briefing of the facts of this case based on the tone of your questions. As you will see, the facts disprove allegations the Prevezon/Nekrasov people make. If you don’t understand the documents we would expect you to make that clear to us rather than defaulting to the version of accused Russian money launderers and a compromised filmmaker with financial difficulties.”
Prevezon is the Russian company Veselnitskaya represented in its defense against the Justice Department. Her associate at the meeting with Trump Jr., Akhmetshin, paid for the June 2016 screening of Nekrasov’s movie at the Newseum in Washington DC.
“The movie is definitely the core in the West of the recent efforts to repeal the Magnitsky Act,” Browder told The American Interest, shortly after the film was shown in Washington. “You can tell that by the fact that everybody in the Russian government is now quoting from this movie. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been discussing the movie publicly in his statements recently. This week, you had Yuri Chaika, the General Prosecutor, refer to this movie as some type of proof that Magnitsky and I are bad. So it’s clear that this is a well-coordinated FSB operation, approved and endorsed at the highest level of the Russian government, to try withdraw the Magnitsky Act in America.”
Dilanian’s reporting, Browder argued, was shaped by the Nekrasov film and the rest of the anti-Magnitsky network.
Ken Dilianian Emails William Browder
“You have repeatedly said Magnitsky was beaten with rubber batons just before his death by eight guards for more than an hour,” Dilanian wrote to Browder. “‘Eight riot guards with rubber batons beat him for an hour and 18 minutes until he died,’ you said on MSNBC on Feb 5, 2015.” And:
The report by Russia’s Public Oversight Commission for Human Rights, which has been widely cited as a definitive account of Magnitsky’s treatment, makes no mention of beatings, and says there were no marks on Magnitsky’s body other than handcuff bruises. What is the evidence that he was beaten by eight riot guards for 78 minutes before he died? If that happened, why would there be no bruises or other marks on his head and torso?
Browder answered by supplying supporting documents for evidence of the beating. The following excerpts from Browder’s response are abridged for reasons of space:
- Photographic records of Sergei Magnitsky from the Russian state autopsy of 17 November 2009.
- The Death Certificate of Sergei Magnitsky, dated 16 November 2009 and signed by five officials of Matrosskaya Tishina Detention Center, which stated that Sergei Magnitsky had a suspected “cerebral cranial injury.”
- The Russian government’s official post-mortem forensic expert opinion: “The injuries which S.L. Magnitsky had were caused resultantly from the traumatic application of the blunt hard object (objects) which is confirmed by the closed type of the trauma and their morphological manifestations in the form of the abrasions, ecchymomas, blood effusions into the soft tissues. The determined mechanism of S.L.Magnitsky’s injuries formation does not exclude the possibility that part of the injuries formed based on the traumatic impact of the rubber truncheon which is testified by the following:- the injuries are caused through the impact of the blunt hard object (objects); the rubber truncheon is a blunt hard object.”
- Application from Sergei Magnitsky’s family, filed on 23 November 2009 with Preobrazhensky District Investigative Committee of the city of Moscow, Russia, who suspected an unnatural cause of death following the discovery of injuries on his body at the morgue: “On 20/11/2009 on the basis of the authorization you granted, the deceased’s relatives receives Sergei Leonidovitch [Magnitsky]’s body for burial, on which they discovered injuries of the following nature: On both hands the skin was torn off at the knuckles, and the thumbs were completely dark blue (bruised) in colour. The received provided by relatives who saw the body give serious grounds to suspect that S.L. Magnitsky’s death was not natural.”
Despite Browder providing this voluminous and convincing evidence, Dilanian wrote to Browder in an email the next day that the death certificate included in Browder’s documentation asserts “no signs of violent death detected.” How, Dilanian asked, did that square with Browder’s account that Magnitsky was beaten before his death?
Then Browder’s lawyers, the Washington DC offices of Kobre and Kim, stepped in. The reporter’s questions, the lawyers told NBC executives, indicated he had not read the report.
“[O]n Monday April 25, 2016, Mr. Dilanian initially claimed that his team had found ‘no evidence’ that Magnitsky was severely beaten just before his death.’ This is strange given the publicly available photos from the official autopsy of Mr. Magnitsky, which show injuries consistent with a beating,” Browder’s lawyers wrote. “Furthermore, as Mr. Browder pointed out to Mr. Dilanian in his response, the evidence concerning eight riot guards is from the first report published by an independent Moscow Public Oversight Commission, which was widely covered. There is additional evidence of 8 riot guards in applications by Mr. Magnitsky’s mother, Mrs. Magnitskaya, who has sought to open a torture and murder investigation into her son’s death….
“It is inconceivable that Mr. Dilanian could publish an article for an esteemed media company such as NBC while ignoring this evidence.”
Whatever story Dilanian might have been reporting did not run. But Browder saw the reporter’s questions as evidence of a larger maneuver. “April 2016, the smear campaign began in earnest,” Browder told me in a phone call. “The point was to assert that all the facts of the Magnitsky case were not true, so in effect I’d been lying to lawmaking bodies around the world.”
The Same Narrative-Pusher Feeds Conflicting Stories
In July 2016, Browder filed a Foreign Agent Registration Act complaint with the Department of Justice “regarding the violation of U.S. Lobbying Laws” that listed individuals and organizations involved in the campaign against the Magnitsky Act, including Fusion GPS and Simpson. In March 2017, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley wrote a letter to the DOJ asking for an update on Browder’s complaint—while noting that Fusion GPS was the same “company behind the creation of the unsubstantiated dossier alleging a conspiracy between President Trump and Russia.”
Even odder is the fact that, as Dilanian himself reported, then FBI director James Comey briefed newly elected Trump in January 2017 on the Steele dossier—a dossier compiled and distributed by a company named in a FARA complaint filed with the FBI’s parent agency. Did America’s top law enforcement official not know that Fusion GPS was part of an ongoing campaign on behalf of a foreign government to repeal a piece of legislation that helps shape American policy toward Russia? Request for comment from the Department of Justice went unanswered.
While a few news organizations (like Politico and The Daily Caller) reported on the two hats Fusion GPS was wearing—as patrons of the Steele dossier and assets in the anti-Magnitsky campaign—only when the story reporting the June 9, 2016 meeting between Veselnitskaya and Trump’s eldest son broke did the rest of the press square the circle.
The same comms shop that laid the foundations for the narrative holding that Trump had colluded with Putin to win the presidency in exchange for undoing sanctions was now shown to be working on Russia’s behalf to undo sanctions. You can imagine the sorts of issues raised in Washington and New York newsrooms.
“Fusion was feeding them lots of stories, and the Trump Russia narrative was the story of the moment,” Browder told me. But for the press there was a scary part. Now that Fusion GPS’s double game was out in the open, maybe the media would be exposed, too.
Why Is Ken Dilanian Leaving Details Out of His Reporting?
On July 14, Dilanian reported a breaking news story about a fifth man at the meeting with Trump Jr. a year earlier, a former Soviet intelligence officer. Dilanian failed to identify the man. Browder did in a tweet when the story came out—“Curious NBC doesn’t name the ‘Former Intelligence Officer,’” Browder wrote. “The only known associate of Veselnitskaya who fits that profile is [Rinat] Akhmetshin”—the Fusion GPS employee who worked on the anti-Magnitsky campaign.
The AP later confirmed Browder’s educated guess. It was indeed Akhmetshin, one of Veselnitskaya’s instruments, along with Fusion GPS, in the anti-Magnitsky campaign. NBC News subsequently updated its story. But why hadn’t Dilanian named him right at the outset?
I emailed Dilanian to ask why he didn’t disclose in his July 14, 2017 report that Akhmetshin was the fifth person in the June 9, 2016 meeting with Trump Jr. He did not respond.
But soon after, Dilanian revived the Magnitsky story that he or NBC had put aside for whatever reason more than a year earlier—the meeting in Trump Tower would tie it to theTrump-Russia narrative. On July 14, 2017, Dilanian wrote to Browder’s colleagues: “We plan to publish a story soon and I have a few follow up questions.” He also had a question he’d been asking for more than a year: “Mr. Browder said on MSNBC on February 5, 2015, that ‘Eight riot guards with rubber batons beat him for an hour and 18 minutes until he died.’ Does he stand by that statement?”
Browder replied, remarking that Dilanian had asked the exact same question the previous year. “On the same day, I provided a detailed response,” Browder wrote. “I don’t know whether you have access to our previous correspondence, so I include my response from April 26, 2016 below for your information which answers your question.”
I wrote Dilanian asking if he has reasons to doubt Browder’s account of their interactions. I asked if he has evidence Browder or U.S. lawmakers are being untruthful regarding the Magnitsky case. Dilanian did not respond to my queries.
On July 24, 2017 NBC News published a story under Dilanian’s byline, “The Legal Battle Behind the Trump Tower Meeting.” It’s a solid piece of “he said/she said” reporting that gives both sides plenty of room to make its argument, pro or con, regarding the Magnitsky case. It’s a fair account—once you put aside the fact that the anti-Magnitsky case is a Russian information operation waged by operatives paid to undermine U.S. legislation on behalf of Vladimir Putin, Russian officials, and regime associates. I emailed Dilanian to ask if Fusion GPS is a source for his reporting on Magnitsky. Dilanian did not respond.
I emailed NBC executive David McCormick, executive producer of broadcast standards and ombudsman, to ask why the story Dilanian was reporting on Magnitsky last year did not run. Did it require more reporting? Or were there journalistic standards not met last year—like not being able to understand or process the evidence Browder provided?
I asked if new information had recently come to light. Did NBC have evidence Browder or U.S. lawmakers were being untruthful? I asked whether NBC knew if Russian officials or figures in the anti-Magnitsky campaign had evidence that Browder or U.S. legislators were being untruthful. McCormick did not respond.
The Media Doesn’t Have to Come Clean
In a way, why should Dilanian or McCormick or NBC News bother to explain themselves at all, when most of Washington—the ex-officials who preen all day on Twitter, the 27-year-old national security journalists who can’t locate Baghdad or Tel Aviv on a map—is complicit in the same or worse? For them and their bosses, part of the joy of anti-Trump is the golden opportunity it provides to consign all their gross errors during the Obama years—the stomach-turning sycophancy to power, the reluctance to stand up to real threats that have now become components of an increasingly scary reality—to the memory hole. Next to Trump’s latest tweet, it’s all golden.
How many of the self-styled patriots who now work to outdo each other in their opposition to the dark lord in Moscow protested when Putin escalated in Syria in September 2015 to assist Iran and al-Assad in a campaign of sectarian mass murder? Where were they when Putin stepped in to save Obama from having to strike Assad after the Syrian despot had used chemical weapons? Putin offered the White House a phony deal to rid Assad of his unconventional arsenal—he continued to use chemical weapons throughout Obama’s term—but none of today’s patriots objected when a Russian thug humiliated America before the world, on behalf of a man who gasses small children.
Whatever Trump’s sins—and there are plenty of them—the “Russia” chord struck now by so much of the “resistance” rings false, because they were the same people who scoffed at the idea that Russia posed any real threat to America or anyone else over the past eight years. The Obama administration’s Russia policy was overtly to play nice with Putin and get him on board for Iran sanctions—because, in Obama’s eyes, it was finally time to fix the Cold War mindset that saw Russia and others, like Cuba and Iran, as threats to vital American interests.
So there was little noise about Putin’s aggression against America when Russians assaulted U.S. diplomats in Moscow, cornered or invaded U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East, or even undermined the American political system—until Clinton lost the 2016 election. Many on the Right and Left know that the Trump-Russia story is nonsense but, in their view, why put yourself out for a creep like Trump, who is certainly guilty of something, and probably many things, however large or small?
If Fusion GPS is found to have violated FARA, I trust they’ll pay the price. But the real problem isn’t with them. After all, journalism is in trouble. So they got out of a damaged and dying business and picked up a new line of work. Yes, the Fusion GPS crew is employed by lots of bad people, but so is a large part of Washington, representing the interests of some of the foulest regimes and people imaginable.
The real problem is with those journalists hiding behind brand names, whose purpose at one time was to provide Americans the news and opinion that would help us make choices about how we live at home and influence others abroad. What they’ve done instead over the last nine months—the lifetime of the Trump-Russia narrative—is posture as heroes while dismantling the public credibility of a vital American institution.