The guilty plea of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn reminds dramatically how the saga of Russian involvement in American politics is as sprawling and at times impenetrable as the Russian Federation itself.
Big players such as The New York Times and The Washington Post have led the way, but there's ample superior work from others, including The Daily Beast. There's no monopoly on the topical avenues of opportunity.
The Daily Beast?
Yes, the Barry Diller-backed news, opinion and culture opinion site that focuses on politics and pop culture and was initially associated with founding editor Tina Brown. It may no longer have quite Brown's high-low flair (or be as visually impressive as it was initially) but it continues to do solid reporting and puncture pieties on various ideological sides (I once did a lot of work for Brown and some fine editors there).
Of late, its handiwork includes the tale of Russian trolls in St. Petersburg making an Election Day push to elect Donald Trump with "a combination of high-profile accounts with large and influential followings, and scores of lurking personas established years earlier with stolen photos and fabricated backgrounds."
As telling, a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing was marked by bipartisan references to its handiwork, especially as the panel scrutinized the role of social media goliaths in disseminating bogus news and conspiracy theories.
As the publication unavoidably noted, "Senators of both parties investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections — such as chairman Richard Burr, Marco Rubio and Susan Collins on the right; and Dianne Feinstein on the left — cited The Daily Beast’s scoops on the Facebook page 'Being Patriotic' promoting in-person rallies in the U.S. despite being Russian; Russia cyber squatting the United Muslims of America’s Facebook page; Russia’s use of fake Black Lives Matter activists 'Williams and Kalvin' on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube; the low cost of purchasing an army of Twitter bots to spread disinformation; and the social-media-borne persecution of Chinese dissident Guo Wengui."
It's work that's had impact, which is no small achievement in a Trump- and social media-fueled environment where gaining traction for even the most meritorious journalism is a challenge on any given day. How might one compete during some hours — forget days or entire news cycles — given the cascade of dueling smart phone bulletins: perhaps a crazy Trump statement, the indictment of Michael Flynn, and Jay Z and Warren Buffett sharing parenting advice (seriously, via CNBC). Oh, and what's that "BREAKING NEWS" chyron on CNN about?! Something about Trump, or Mueller, or a North Koreas ICBM, right?
To further illuminate labor that hasn't received quite the same attention as that by higher-profile competitors, I chatted with Noah Shachtman, the executive editor and a former executive editor for news at Foreign Policy magazine; political reporter Betsy Woodruff, a Slate and National Review alumna; and Spencer Ackerman, a senior national security correspondent.
How did you get involved in the whole issue, debate, whatever you want to call it, of Russian involvement in the campaign? And how, as a small operation, did you plot, if at all, how to make efficient use of your time and your resources? You don't, after all, have the resources of the likes of The Times, The Post or even digital relative newcomers like Vice.
Noah Shachtman: There are a lot of heavyweights covering this and doing a great job. But to extend the boxing metaphor, we would like to think of ourselves as best fighter in the game, especially on this story. We decided to pool resources from all parts of the operation: national security, politics and technology. Those are three desks in most operations that tend not to do business together. Here we pulled together to be one.
Spencer and I were at Wired together. And I went to Russia shortly after the 2011 protests, and Russian officials, and head of the Kremlin cyber security company, were complaining about how social media was pumping fake news into the echo system, and blamed Hillary Clinton for introducing these disruptive measures into their politics. Five years later, we saw the same techniques in reverse.
Betsy Woodruff: When talking about how the Daily Beast started covering this, back in 2016, shortly after Manafort became the Trump campaig's CEO, Tim Mak and I wrote the first comprehensive look at his foreign lobbying, and we delved quite deeply into his work for (Ukraine politician Viktor) Yanukovych, but also others (like Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos and Angolan rebel Jonas Savimbi). That helped put us on the radar.
Spencer Ackerman: One other point. Unlike a lot of news organizations, there is an explicit mandate from Noah and (editor-in-chief) John Avlon that we are not in commodity news business. We have to break news. I am not in a position where, like at a lot of other places, I have to rewrite other peoples' stories. It's a seemingly trivial observation but has tremendous amount of impact.
You've written about the connection between a firm called Cambridge Analytica, WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign. For those who missed all that, or eyes have glazed over when reading about it, what's that all about and why potentially is it of interest to a general audience?
Woodruff: Cambridge Analytica is a data analytics company mostly owned by Robert and Rebecca Mercer. He co-manages the most profitable hedge fund in the U.S. and his daughter, Rebecca, is investing heavily in conservative organizations and candidates for years. When they support a candidate, those candidates bring along Cambridge Analytica, which is unusual, since donors don't usually play a role in hiring (consultants). When a candidate receives donations from them, they ultimately wind up working with Cambridge Analytica.
It has a mixed reputation depending on whom you talk to. They have billed themselves as an evil mastermind, a bad boy data-mining firm. As Republican primaries were kicking off, when they started working for (Texas Sen.) Ted Cruz, they had an ominous, edgy, new-kid-on-the-block vibe. In the years since then, reporting has demonstrated that it was, said one source, more Keystone Cops than evil mastermind. Customers were frequently disappointed. The question that it raises is: If they're not that good at doing what they say they are doing, what are they good at?
The story that I broke was (Cambridge Analytica head) Alexander Nix reaching out to Julian Assange and offered its help in publishing and dispersing what they believed were 33,000 missing Hillary Clinton emails.
But with all the millions of words written on Trump and Russia and Robert Mueller, you guys have maintained that the interest among congressional Republicans — notably those investigating Russian links to the campaign — is modest. Explain what you've found and why you say that.
Woodruff: Spencer and I have reported that a lot of Republicans are extremely concerned but most of them are not on the committees responsible for the investigation. As Spencer and I have detailed, Republicans have been foot dragging at best.
Ackerman: We have seen for the past couple of months, since (House Intelligence Committee Chairman) Devin Nunez sort of stepped aside after blocking and tackling for the White House, a discrepancy between House and Senate subcommittees. The Senate seemed more focused on the core aspects. Was there collusion? The more we kept looking from the inside, the House investigation showed more concerns among Republicans on ancillary issues, like the unmasking of names in surveillance reports.
What in the world does some guy in Staten Island, New York — which most people get to via a ferry from lower Manhattan — have to do with Russian propaganda?
Shachtman: It shows off our reporting approach. This is a case where we used our tech teams and resources and our well-sourced people like Spencer to nail down this guy. We found that associated with two of the stranger Russian propaganda accounts that purported to be either against police violence or in favor of Black Lives Matter-style movements, those efforts were hosted by a company owned by a Russian-Ukrainian guy on Staten Island. So through some technical means, we found out this fine gentleman was also hosting rape porn sites and botnets and fishing campaigns, too.
So he was the worst of the worst of the Internet. We nailed that down technically. We also sent our Russian and Ukrainian speaking reporter, Katie Zavadski, to door knock the guy and his neighbors. He first denied, then confirmed, then denied, then had a bunch of excuses. But we traced the weird propaganda effort out of Saint Petersburg and purporting to be Americans interacting on Facebook.
This guy spoke Russian to Katie and made some technically sophisticated arguments that this couldn't be him. One of the cool things is we have as a contributing editor an old colleague of ours at Wired (Kevin Poulsen), who was once one of world's most notorious hackers. He was able to make quick work of those technical arguments.
Representatives of Facebook, Twitter and Google recently testified at three consecutive congressional hearings. What would you guys say was most interesting to you and make sure how it ties — if at all — into several stories you have done about Russian use of Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, among others. When it came to the financial relevance of Russian advertising — again, just advertising — the dollar amounts conceded were pretty small, especially when compared to the legitimate advertising dollars they got from the Trump and Clinton campaigns.
Ackerman: It was something like $46,000 on Facebook ads versus $81 million from the Trump and Clinton campaigns. Shows classic Sun Tzu (ancient Chinese military strategy principles). The impact you can have as a weaker power. I would say from an atmospheric perspective, the most important thing was that the three had never been called into account before. There had never been a situation where they were being asked about material they host on what they always portray as content-neutral platforms. Suddenly they were being asked about violations of campaign finance laws.
Facebook in particular is more comfortable talking about what they can do to treat the authenticity problem, tipping off users that material is not from where it purports to be. And from Senate Democrats, the real questions were about the substance of the content, (such as) a fake Texas group talking about violent secession. These are things Facebook and Twitter don't want to portray themselves as having editorial control over. But they do. What you get in your feeds is not the simple results of what your friends are sharing. They make algorithmic judgments about what is curated and presented to you.
Shachtman: There are tons of examples of Russian propaganda. And a lot of that was unearthed by the Daily Beast. The Senate Intelligence Committee mentioned five things that we had broken.
Final question: What's out there that is vexing or ambiguous to you guys on this whole topic of Russia and the campaign? If you had a crystal ball, what would you love to know? (This was asked prior to the Michael Flynn's indictment and plea agreement on lying to the FBI about contacts with the Russian ambassador).
Woodruff: I think there are two major pieces of this that ultimately will come out that we don't know about. First, from the counterintelligence aspects, which individuals in the Kremlin are responsible for activity that Russians engaged in, in the lead-up to the election and after? Are we going to be able to name names?
Second, the specific individuals in the Trump campaign who might have helped with those efforts. We still don't know the names of individuals in the campaign who helped Russians, if they actually did. We know some expressed openness to working with them. The head of Cambridge Analytica offered to help Assange interpret information. But we don't know if Americans on the Trump campaign knowingly and actively helped the Russians with their efforts.
That to me is the huge question, especially since so many Democrats all but said that was the case. If no names come out, a lot of Democrats will have egg on their face. If they do (have names), it's a mess for Trump World.