WASHINGTON — In the summer of 2016, Russian intelligence agents secretly planted a fake report claiming that Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was gunned down by a squad of assassins working for Hillary Clinton, giving rise to a notorious conspiracy theory that captivated conservative activists and was later promoted from inside President Trump’s White House, a Yahoo News investigation has found.
Russia’s foreign intelligence service, known as the SVR, first circulated a phony “bulletin” — disguised to read as a real intelligence report —about the alleged murder of the former DNC staffer on July 13, 2016, according to the U.S. federal prosecutor who was in charge of the Rich case. That was just three days after Rich, 27, was killed in what police believed was a botched robbery while walking home to his group house in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Washington, D.C., about 30 blocks north of the Capitol.
The purported details in the SVR account seemed improbable on their face: that Rich, a data director in the DNC’s voter protection division, was on his way to alert the FBI to corrupt dealings by Clinton when he was slain in the early hours of a Sunday morning by the former secretary of state’s hit squad.
Yet in a graphic example of how fake news infects the internet, those precise details popped up the same day on an obscure website, whatdoesitmean.com, that is a frequent vehicle for Russian propaganda. The website’s article, which attributed its claims to “Russian intelligence,” was the first known instance of Rich’s murder being publicly linked to a political conspiracy.
“To me, having a foreign intelligence agency set up one of my decedents with lies and planting false stories, to me that’s pretty outrageous,” said Deborah Sines, the former assistant U.S. attorney in charge of the Rich case until her retirement last year. “Maybe other people don’t think it’s that outrageous. I did ... once it became clear to me that this was coming from the SVR, then that triggers a lot of very serious [questions about] ‘What do I do with this?’”
The previously unreported role of Russian intelligence in creating and fostering one of the most insidious conspiracy theories to arise out of the 2016 election is disclosed in “Yahoo News presents: Conspiracyland,” a six-part series by the news organization’s podcast “Skullduggery” that debuts this week on the third anniversary of Rich’s murder.
The Russian effort to exploit Rich’s tragic death didn’t stop with the fake SVR bulletin. Over the course of the next two and a half years, the Russian government-owned media organizations RT and Sputnik repeatedly played up stories that baselessly alleged that Rich, a relatively junior-level staffer, was the source of Democratic Party emails that had been leaked to WikiLeaks. It was an idea first floated by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who on Aug. 9, 2016, announced a $20,000 reward for information about Rich’s murder, saying — somewhat cryptically — that “our sources take risks.”
At the same time, online trolls working in St. Petersburg, Russia, for the Internet Research Agency (IRA) — the same shadowy outfit that conducted the Russian social media operation during the 2016 election — aggressively boosted the conspiracy theories. IRA-created fake accounts, masquerading as those of American citizens or political groups, tweeted and retweeted more than 2,000 times about Rich, helping to keep the bogus claims about his death in the social media bloodstream, according to an analysis of a database of Russia troll accounts by Yahoo News.
Speaking publicly about the case for the first time, Sines, the former prosecutor, said that the Russian conspiracy-mongering vastly complicated her efforts to solve the murder by forcing her and the Washington, D.C., police department to investigate a blizzard of false allegations in order to make sure there was nothing to any of them. “To waste your time investigating BS is just horrible,” said Sines.
The Russian-inspired conspiracy theories also have had a devastating effect on the Rich family, especially after the theories migrated to alt-right websites and, ultimately, primetime Fox News shows. As they did so, there were repeated suggestions by alt-right commentators that the DNC staffer’s parents and brother were concealing information about his conduct.
“You’re used, you’re lied to, you’re a pawn in your own son’s death,” said Mary Rich, Seth Rich’s mother, who, along with her husband, Joel, was interviewed for the podcast. “I wish they had the chance to experience the hell we have gone through. Because this is worse than losing my son the first time. This is like losing him all over again.”
In her efforts to better understand where the conspiracy theories were coming from, Sines used her security clearance to access copies of two SVR intelligence reports about Seth Rich that had been intercepted by U.S. intelligence officials. She later wrote a memo documenting the Russian role in fomenting the conspiracy theories that she sent to the Justice Department’s national security division, and personally briefed special counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecutors on her findings.
“It appeared to me that it was a very clear campaign to deflect an ongoing federal criminal investigation,” Sines said. “So then you have to look at why is Russia doing this? … It’s not rocket science before you add it up and you go, ’Oh, if Seth is the leaker to WikiLeaks — it doesn’t have anything to do with the Russians. So of course Russia’s interest in doing this is incredibly transparent.” The Russian strategy, Sines said, was diabolically simple: “Let’s blame it on Seth Rich. He’s a very convenient target.”
The “Conspiracyland” podcast traces the spread of the conspiracy theories about Rich. From their origins as a Russian disinformation plant, the bogus theories about his murder emerged as a persistent theme on alt-right websites and then were fanned by right-wing conspiracy entrepreneurs such as Alex Jones of Infowars and Matt Couch, the founder of an Arkansas-based group called America First Media, which bills itself as “the leading investigative team in America in the Seth Rich murder.”
Along the way, the idea that Rich was murdered in retaliation for leaking DNC emails to WikiLeaks was championed by multiple allies of Trump, including Roger Stone. The same day Assange falsely hinted that Rich may have been his source for DNC emails, Stone tweeted a picture of Rich, calling the late DNC staffer in a tweet “another dead body in the Clinton’s wake.” He then added: “Coincidence? I think not.”
Within months, the Rich conspiracy story was also being quietly promoted inside Trump’s White House. Questions about whether the White House pushed the conspiracy theories about Rich have been raised periodically over the last two and a half years — and were consistently denied by White House officials. But the Yahoo News investigation uncovered new evidence that the false claim that Rich was the victim of a political assassination was advanced by one of the White House’s most senior officials at the time.
“Huge story … he was a Bernie guy … it was a contract kill, obviously,” then-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon texted to a CBS “60 Minutes” producer about Rich on March 17, 2017, according to some of Bannon’s text messages that were reviewed by Yahoo News. (Bannon did not respond to requests for comment.)
The conspiracy claims reached their zenith in May 2017 — the same week as Mueller’s appointment as special counsel in the Russia probe — when Fox News’ website posted a sensational story claiming that an FBI forensic report had discovered evidence on Rich’s laptop that he had been in communication with WikiLeaks prior to his death. Sean Hannity, the network’s primetime star, treated the account as major news on his nightly broadcast, calling it “explosive” and proclaiming it “might expose the single biggest fraud, lies, perpetrated on the American people by the media and the Democrats in our history.”
Among Hannity’s guests that week who echoed his version of events was conservative lawyer Jay Sekulow. Although neither he nor Hannity mentioned it, Sekulow had just been hired as one of Trump’s lead lawyers in the Russia investigation. “It sure doesn’t look like a robbery,” said Sekulow on Hannity’s show on May 18, 2017, during a segment devoted to the Rich case. “There’s one thing this thing undercuts is this whole Russia argument, [which] is such subterfuge,” he added.
In fact, the Fox story was a “complete fabrication,” said Sines, who consulted with the FBI about the Fox News claims. There was “no connection between Seth and WikiLeaks. And there was no evidence on his work computer of him downloading and disseminating things from the DNC.” (A spokeswoman for the FBI’s Washington field office said the office had never opened an investigation into Rich’s murder, considering it a local crime for which the Washington Metropolitan Police Department had jurisdiction. Andrew McCabe, the FBI’s acting director at the time, said in an interview that he reached out to his agents after he heard about the conspiracy stories about Rich and was told, “There’s no there there.”)
After eight days of controversy, Fox News was forced to retract the story after one of its two key sources, former Washington, D.C., homicide detective Rod Wheeler, backed away from comments he had given the Fox News website reporter Malia Zimmerman and a local Fox affiliate reporter confirming the account. The article, the network said in a statement at the time, “was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting.” Fox News later announced it was conducting an internal investigation into how the story came to be posted on its website. The results have never been disclosed, and a spokeswoman for Fox News declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation against the news network brought by the Rich family.
But “Conspiracyland” quotes a source familiar with the network’s investigation saying that Fox executives grew frustrated they were unable to determine the identity of the other, and more important, source for the story: an anonymous “federal investigator” whose agency was never revealed. The Fox editors came to have doubts that the person was in fact who he claimed to be or whether the person actually existed, said the source.
In his recent report, Mueller briefly addressed the questions about Rich, writing that Assange had “implied falsely” that the DNC staffer was the source of the party emails leaked to WikiLeaks. His comments about Rich, Mueller wrote, “were apparently designed to obscure” how WikiLeaks really got them: from Guccifer 2.0, an online persona created by Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, who sent the group an encrypted file of DNC material on July 14, 2016, four days after Rich’s death.
In the meantime, the barrage of conspiracy theories — implying that Rich was a leaker who betrayed his DNC colleagues — has spawned multiple lawsuits that are still ongoing. Joel and Mary Rich have filed a defamation lawsuit against Fox News and Ed Butowsky, a Dallas financier who played a key behind-the-scenes role in the Zimmerman story. Aaron Rich, Seth’s older brother, has sued both Butowsky and Couch, the America First Media founder.
(Fox News, Butowsky and Couch have all denied the claims; the cable news network has argued in court papers that its reporting, while retracted, is a “classic case” of journalism protected by the First Amendment. The Rich family’s claim was initially rejected by a federal judge in New York on the grounds, in part, that the parents could not sue for the defamation of their deceased son. The parents are now appealing that decision. Mary Rich, in an interview for the podcast, said the fact that Fox retracted the false story is irrelevant. “It’s blasted across America with Fox and Hannity,” she said. “All they’ve done is taken it down, but it’s still up there on the internet. This can’t be retracted the way they did it.”)
Through interviews with family members and friends, “Conspiracyland” tells the story of Seth Rich. A Creighton University graduate from Omaha, Neb., Rich landed a job at the DNC to work on voting rights issues. Friends described him as an outgoing, fun-loving young man — he once showed up at a friend’s hospital room wearing a polar bear costume — who was nonetheless passionate about his job of expanding voting rights.
“I’ve never encountered someone so genuine in his belief that every American should be able to participate in that political process,” said Donna Brazile, the former interim chair of the DNC.
Contrary to the conspiracy theorists, Rich was not a disgruntled Bernie Sanders supporter; he never expressed a preference for the Vermont senator in the primary battle with Clinton, according to Pablo Manriquez, a friend and colleague from the DNC, echoing comments made by other friends of his in Washington. Moreover, Rich’s job gave him no access to the emails that were on the DNC server, making it unlikely from the start that he could have been the leaker of the internal party communications to WikiLeaks.
After a night of drinking at Lou’s City Bar, Rich was walking home in the early hours of July 10, 2016, and on the phone with his girlfriend when he was accosted by two assailants about a block and a half from his home. A fight ensued — Rich was found with bruises on his face, knuckles and knees — and he was shot twice in the back before the assailants fled. His billfold, watch and other valuables weren’t taken. But police quickly concluded that the scenario was most likely that of an attempted robbery that was foiled by Rich’s resistance.
The police and Sines, the prosecutor, believe there was good reason to draw that conclusion. In the six weeks prior to Rich’s shooting, there had been seven armed robberies in the same neighborhood, causing residents to complain to local police.
“We’ve had so many holdups on the same corner, with the same method of holdup, where two guys grab the person,” said Mark Mueller, a neighbor of Rich’s (and no relation to the special counsel) who was among the first to rush to the scene the night of the shooting. “They hold a gun to the head, while one person takes the phone and makes the owner of the phone go into the apps and unarm anything that could be traced.”
Agitated local residents took their concerns to the police. “We’ve had meetings with the police days before this, screaming at the police in our civic association meetings, begging for help,” said Mueller.
But over the past three years, it is unclear how much progress, if any, the Washington police has made in solving the case. No suspects in Rich’s murder have ever been identified, and the case was recently moved to Washington police department’s “major case/cold case” squad under the direction of a new detective in an effort to bring a fresh set of eyes to a stale case file.
Sines chalks up the lack of progress to what she calls the anti-snitch culture of the streets in Washington, D.C.
“In Washington, D.C., being a witness to a murder can mean a death sentence,” the former prosecutor said. “I’ve lost witnesses that were murdered because they were witnesses. Because they told me what happened. And it’s — there’s a very strong and anti-snitch culture in Washington, D.C., much stronger than it is in some other areas in the country. Add assassination language, Russians, add all those buzzwords, who wants to be a witness in a case like that?”
Nevertheless, even though she is no longer involved, Sines says she is hopeful that the case will ultimately be cracked.
“So I know that someone is going to talk. I know that,” she said. “It’s a lot easier after a couple of years go by for people to talk about this, because they think they got away with it.”
Sines said she believes there are two culprits at large — a shooter and an “aider and abettor” — and she suspects they are connected to drug-dealing activity in nearby housing projects. “I’m convinced one or both of them will eventually be brought to justice.”
In a recent interview, Seth’s father, Joel, said he was told in a call with the new prosecutor — who replaced Sines and the new detective — that the investigation into his son’s murder remains active. The prosecutor and the detective talk about it every day, Joel said he was told.
But while they wait for signs the murderers will be arrested, the Riches live with a painful reality that they say is reaffirmed on a near daily basis by Google alerts: The lies about their son’s death continue to circulate in the dark recesses of the internet, a powerful reminder that in the new world of social media, even the most discredited of conspiracy theories have a shelf life that never ends.
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