Will the Department of Justice go after a news outlet funded by the Russian government for working as undeclared foreign agents? Yahoo News’ Michael Isikoff and Hunter Walker report that the FBI has begun to look into whether Sputnik News operates not just as shills for Vladimir Putin but as active agents for the Russian government. That might raise questions about the direction of Robert Mueller’s probe, but also perhaps about the precedents this might set:
The FBI recently questioned a former White House correspondent for Sputnik, the Russian-government-funded news agency, as part of an investigation into whether it is acting as an undeclared propaganda arm of the Kremlin in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
As part of the probe, Yahoo News has learned, the bureau has obtained a thumb drive containing thousands of internal Sputnik emails and documents — material that could potentially help prosecutors build a case that the news agency played a role in the Russian government “influence campaign” that was waged during last year’s presidential election and, in the view of U.S. intelligence officials, is still ongoing.
The emails were turned over by Andrew Feinberg, the news agency’s former White House correspondent, who had downloaded the material onto his laptop before he was fired in May. He confirmed to Yahoo News that he was questioned for more than two hours on Sept. 1 by an FBI agent and a Justice Department national security lawyer at the bureau’s Washington field office.
Feinberg made waves earlier this year when he parted with Sputnik acrimoniously. Brian Stelter scored the first post-Sputnik interview with Feinberg, who accused his former employers of forcing him to ask nonsensical questions that didn’t comport with reality. “I’m being fed questions, top down,” he told Stelter. While there may be room for state-sponsored media, Feinberg says, which he knew Sputnik was when he took the job. The difference with Sputnik, Feinberg says, is that Sputnik — and Russia Today (RT), which operates from the same management structure — are state controlled:
That was equally true of TASS and Pravda back in the Cold War era, though. Did the US force them to register under FARA? I honestly do not recall whether we did or not, but that precedent might be helpful in this case. Do we do the same for other government-controlled media operating in the US now? For instance, Feinberg draws a distinction between Sputnik and al-Jazeera that may be less certain than what Feinberg assumes.
These aren’t questions designed to let Sputnik and RT off the hook. Both of them have reputations as shills for Putin and harbors for anti-American cranks, which is why they have about the same level of credibility that TASS and Pravda had back in the day. The White House Correspondents Association could have denied Sputnik credentials without getting the FBI involved, however, which might have reduced their credibility even further. Their market reach surely has been limited by their laughable propaganda.
The issue here is whether the FBI and DoJ should get into the business of regulating foreign news agencies, regardless of their connection to foreign governments. FARA is intended to heighten transparency in lobbying, not news media, and expanding it into the media realm could set dangerous precedents down the road for Americans engaged in free speech. Will the FBI look into those websites who regurgitated Sputnik’s nonsense for FARA violations, merely for publicly agreeing with it? In another administration, might pro-Israel websites and journalists get similarly probed for backing them?
Perhaps the FBI just wants to establish the “fake news” distribution chain for context in investigations of others. If so, that would make more sense than a probe into whether Sputnik or RT should register as foreign agents when they do not lobby government officials.