Yahoo News has learned that the FBI is investigating whether the Kremlin propaganda outlet Sputnik participated in last year’s influence campaign against American democracy.
Former Sputnik White House correspondent Andrew Feinberg confirmed the story for reporters Hunter Walker and Michael Isikoff. They say Feinberg gave the FBI “a thumb drive containing thousands of internal Sputnik emails and documents” earlier this year.
While the bureau will not confirm that the matter is related to Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation, agents have already interviewed Feinberg for two hours with questions about the “internal structure, editorial processes and funding” at Sputnik, which may have broken the law by acting as an unregistered foreign agent.
“They wanted to know where did my orders come from and if I ever got any direction from Moscow,” Feinberg says. “They were interested in examples of how I was steered towards covering certain issues.”
“This is incredibly significant,” said Asha Rangappa, a former FBI counterintelligence agent and now an associate dean of Yale Law School, about the bureau’s questioning of the former Sputnik reporter. “The FBI has since the 1970s taken pains not to be perceived in any way as infringing on First Amendment activity. But this tells me they have good information and intelligence that these organizations have been acting on behalf of the Kremlin and that there’s a direct line between them and the [Russian influence operations] that are a significant threat to our democracy.”
Sputnik is owned by Rossiya Segodnya, a Russian government media operation headed by Dmitri Kiselyov, a belligerent television broadcaster who is known as Putin’s “personal propagandist” and has been sanctioned by the European Union in response to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.
[…] While his instructions as White House correspondent came from the senior editors and news directors at Sputnik’s Washington office, Feinberg said these supervisors regularly “would say, ‘Moscow wants this or Moscow wants that.’”
The investigation appears to have begun with a letter to the FBI from reporter Joseph John Fionda, who says he was fired from the network in 2015 after refusing to contact a hacker for emails stolen from CIA Director John Brennan. Prior to his firing, Fionda says Sputnik consistently walked the Kremlin’s line on Syria news.
Feinberg says he was fired in May for refusing to ask questions in a White House press briefing about a conspiracy theory in which murdered Democratic staffer Seth Rich was supposedly the source of stolen DNC emails. Though it is entirely baseless and fabricated, that story has fed denials of Russian involvement in hacking related to the 2016 elections.
“It’s really telling that the White House is pushing the same narrative as a state-run Russian propaganda outlet,” Feinberg observed at the time.
Within an hour of the Yahoo News report, Sputnik was already spinning the FBI investigation as a “violation” of international agreements related to press freedom.
In a statement to Sputnik, Deputy Secretary of the Russian Civic Chamber Sergey Ordzhonikidze opined that the bureau was intimidating “media representatives who they believe provide the information they do not like.”
Of course, the Committee to Protect Journalists ranks Vladimir Putin’s oligarchy as the fifth deadliest country in the world to be a reporter, but Ordzhonikidze had nothing to say about that.
If the FBI determines that Sputnik has violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act, the company could be liable for civil penalties and its managers could face criminal charges.
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