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Pizzagate at the Nation

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The Columbia Journalist Review, which recently published an interminable MAGA propaganda series written by the Whitewater guy, spiked an earlier piece of media criticism detailing the Nation‘s extraordinary record of Putin apologism. The latter has now been published, and needless to say it is much more interesting. The most remarkable iteration of this period was the Nation hiring Patrick Lawrence after his semi-literate rantings in Salon about how the DNC hack was an inside job:

At The Nation office early in August 2017, vanden Heuvel received a copy of a story claiming to present “hard evidence” that the DNC had not been hacked during the recent presidential race. The author was Patrick Lawrence. Two years earlier, Lawrence had participated in the session on American media that vanden Heuvel had hosted in the Senate. Much of his writing, lately for Salon, had matched Cohen’s views and Russia’s foreign policy objectives. Of Cohen, he had written, “a place may await him among America’s many prophets without honor among their own.” After press reports broke news of the DNC hack, in July 2016, Lawrence had written a piece for Salon arguing that Democrats had fabricated a “Russian Hacker Conspiracy.” If shown evidence that a hacking had happened, he advised, “Join me, please, in having absolutely none of it. There is no ‘Russian actor’ at the bottom of this swamp, to put my position bluntly. You will never, ever be offered persuasive evidence otherwise.” Six weeks later, vanden Heuvel announced that she was hiring Lawrence for The Nation

When vanden Heuvel saw his new piece, it seemed, she was hooked. “Katrina was fast-tracking,” according to a staff member present at the time. Backchannel messages expressing concern about the story spread around the office—“It was suggested, let’s go a little slower,” a former Nation staffer recalls—but vanden Heuvel was not deterred. (The staffers I spoke with asked not to be quoted by name, fearing that their comments would prejudice current and future employers.) Several said that the two most senior editors who were shown Lawrence’s copy before publication—Executive Editor Richard Kim, who has since left, and Managing Editor Roane Carey—both advised against running it.

When I speak to vanden Heuvel, she confirms that she guided the Lawrence story directly to publication without fact-checking the substance of Lawrence’s claims. She says that her assistant checked that quotes from a report had been copied correctly in the text, but nothing more. She denies rushing the story out, however, and says that the two editors I’d been told had advised against publishing had, in fact, not. (Richard Kim has declined to comment. Roane Carey says that he advised vanden Heuvel to fact-check the article before publication and “to get an expert to review the article before publishing to evaluate the technical claims made.”)

The piece, “A New Report Raises Big Questions About Last Year’s DNC Hack,” with a sub-headline stating that it was “an inside job,” ran on the website of The Nation on August 9, 2017. “Forensic investigators, intelligence analysts, system designers, program architects, and computer scientists of long experience and strongly credentialed [sic] are now producing evidence disproving the official version of key events last year,” Lawrence wrote, of information retrieved from DNC headquarters. “Their work is intricate and continues at a kinetic pace as we speak.”

Lawrence invented situations and people, got facts wrong, and made far-reaching claims without substantiation. Information that Lawrence described as “hard evidence” had, in reality, been manufactured by members of a Trump-supporting website, Disobedient Media, founded in 2017 by William Craddick, a former law student who claimed to have started the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory.  The primary source in Lawrence’s story, cited eighteen times, was an anonymous figure, a supposed forensic expert known as “Forensicator.” That name was created by Disobedient Media in consultation with Tim Leonard, a British hacker, as an identity through which to present the “Forensicator report,” the document purporting to substantiate the “inside job” theory.

The report’s contention, that stolen DNC files were “likely downloaded by a person with physical access to a computer possibly connected to the informal DNC network,” was dynamite if true, appearing to support the Seth Rich conspiracy theory popularized by Fox News. Rich, a Democratic Party voting specialist, was murdered in Washington in July 2016; Sean Hannity told Fox News viewers that Rich had sent hacked emails from the DNC to Wikileaks. (Sued by Rich’s family, Fox withdrew the claim. Dreyfuss debunked the Rich allegation in The Nation.)

In his piece, Lawrence cited former intelligence officials, members of a group called Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), stating that they endorsed the report’s claims. “It’s QED, theorem demonstrated,” William Binney, a former technical director at the National Security Agency, was quoted as saying. Five days after the Nation story ran, Binney went on Tucker Carlson Tonight to say that official hacking reports were “not backed up by facts.” The appearance attracted the attention of President Trump, who instructed Mike Pompeo, head of the Central Intelligence Agency, to meet with Binney. (Nothing came of their discussion.)

When I met with Binney the next month, however, he told me that, when the Lawrence piece was published, the VIPS had not actually checked the evidence or reasoning in the Forensicator report.  When Binney eventually looked into one of its key claims—that the stolen data could be proven to have been copied directly at a computer on the east coast—he changed his mind. There was “no evidence to prove where the copy was done”, he told me.  The data “Forensicator” had given to VIPS had been “manipulated”, Binney said, and was “a fabrication”. 

But by then, The Nation had made the Forensicator report mainstream news. Upon the story’s publication, a firestorm erupted inside and outside The Nation’s offices—including waves of enthusiasm from Trump supporters. Pro-Russian social network accounts and right-wing outlets such as Breitbart chimed in to celebrate that a venerable magazine had exculpated Russian hackers. (“These are our friends now? Pollitt asked in the Washington Post.) “There was a clamor from outside writers and readers and from editors to have it retracted,” Dreyfuss says. “For many people, it was the final straw.”

Forensicator! What a time that was.

Anyway, among other things this is why today people perpetuating Lawrence’s conspiracy theories, like Gerth and Taibbi, prefer misdirection and lies-by-omission to affirmative claims.

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