The only thing bigger than the news out of Russia this morning that leaked documents reveal Vladimir Putin personally authorised an operation to assist Donald Trump into the White House in 2016 is the caveat that comes with the story.
And by caveat, I mean it may or may not be true.
In case you missed, early this morning the Guardian reported, “Documents suggest Russia launched secret multi-agency effort to interfere in US democracy”. The headline on the story is “Kremlin papers appear to show Putin’s plot to put Trump in White House”.
The opening pars read:
personally authorised a secret spy agency operation to support a “mentally
unstable” Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election during a closed
session of Russia’s national security council, according to what are assessed
to be leaked Kremlin documents.
“The key meeting took place on 22 January 2016, the papers suggest, with the Russian president, his spy chiefs and senior ministers all present.
“They agreed a Trump White House would help secure Moscow’s strategic objectives, among them “social turmoil” in the US and a weakening of the American president’s negotiating position.
“Russia’s three spy agencies were ordered to find practical ways to support Trump, in a decree appearing to bear Putin’s signature.”
By any measure, it’s a very big story. If you believe it. But unfortunately the hurdle you have to get over to get there is huge, and I’m not referring to the last line of the opening paragraph, which reads ‘according to what are assessed to be leaked Kremlin documents’.
As qualifications go, that’s a ripper, as is the word ‘suggest’ in the headline. But this is a story from the heady world of Russian intelligence, so it’d be folly to accept anything at face value. But it’s also not the problem with this story.
The problem is who published it, and who helped write it… The Guardian newspaper, and one of the bylined authors, Luke Harding, a former Moscow correspondent.
You might remember Harding from such amazing, fantastical tales as “Manafort held secret talks with Assange in Ecuadorian embassy, sources say”. Here’s the opening par from that 2018 train wreck: “Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort held secret talks with Julian Assange inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and visited around the time he joined Trump’s campaign, the Guardian has been told.”
It’s entirely possible, indeed probable, The Guardian was told that… in which case, they should out the ‘multiple unnamed sources’ that Harding (and colleague Dan Collyns) relied on for the story, on the basis that they clearly lied and manufactured evidence.
Harding and The Guardian – with the sort of hubris you only see from such luminaries as, say, Donald Trump (or maybe Vladimir Putin) maintain the story is true. It remains online, uncorrected, without apology.
Virtually everyone else knows its false, which is how its widely regarded in media circles. The reason why is relatively simple: if Manafort had visited Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy, not only would Ecuador have footage of it (and released it by now), but so would British intelligence… because they staked out the front door for seven years. And yet, The Guardian story claims Manafort visited Assange not once, but at least three times – in 2013, 2015 and again in 2016.
The story relies entirely on anonymous sources (the ABC provides a great example of what can go wrong here when you do that) and ridiculous claims like this: “Manafort’s 2016 visit to Assange lasted about 40 minutes, one source said, adding that the American was casually dressed when he exited the embassy, wearing sandy-coloured chinos, a cardigan and a light-coloured shirt.”
Followed by this:
“Visitors normally register with embassy security guards and show their passports. Sources in Ecuador, however, say Manafort was not logged. Embassy staff were aware only later of the potential significance of Manafort’s visit and his political role with Trump, it is understood.”
So an ‘anonymous source’ remembered in great detail what a faceless, unremarkable guest to the embassy was wearing two and a half years earlier? Nothing dodgy about that.
And then there was this: “A separate internal document written by Ecuador’s Senain intelligence agency and seen by the Guardian lists ‘Paul Manaford [sic]’ as one of several well-known guests. It also mentions ‘Russians’.”
That document is only ‘seen’ by the Guardian, and not reproduced in the story. In other words, they don’t have it. (By contrast, today’s scoop on Putin does include images of the alleged documents, but still… Russian intelligence… American intelligence… and more to the point, Luke Harding and The Guardian.)
Unfortunately, this wasn’t just some ‘shitty deception gone wrong’, a regular occurrence in political reporting these days. The story actually caused harm, and was part of The Guardian’s broader campaign to assassinate Assange’s character around baseless claims he worked with Russian intelligence to advantage Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential elections. Or in the Guardian’s words: “The [fake Manafort]revelation could shed new light on the sequence of events in the run-up to summer 2016, when WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of emails hacked by the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency. Hillary Clinton has said the hack contributed to her defeat.”
Yeah, It can’t. It didn’t. Because it was made up. But in pondering whether on not the latest Guardian ‘scoop’ is credible, it’s also worth remembering how quickly Harding’s Manafort story fell apart.
The Guardian published on November 28, 2018. On December 3, 2018 The New York Times broke a story under the headline “Manafort Discussed Deal With Ecuador to Hand Assange Over to US”: “In mid-May 2017, Paul Manafort, facing intensifying pressure to settle debts and pay mounting legal bills, flew to Ecuador to offer his services to a potentially lucrative new client — the country’s incoming president, Lenín Moreno.”
A few months later, Moreno gave British police the green light to enter the embassy and snatch Assange. The Wikileaks founder has been in prison ever since, awaiting extradition to the US.
Remarkably, that revelation – that Moreno met with Manafort – was actually contained in The Guardian’s original story, but dismissed.
“In May 2017, Manafort flew to Ecuador to hold talks with the country’s president-elect Lenín Moreno. The discussions, days before Moreno was sworn in, and before Manafort was indicted – were ostensibly about a large-scale Chinese investment.
“However, one source in Quito suggests that Manafort also discreetly raised Assange’s plight. Another senior foreign ministry source said he was sceptical Assange was mentioned. At the time Moreno was expected to continue support for him.”
Unfortunately, the problems for this story go beyond even just the Guardian. Harding was also the co-author of Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, a hatchet job parading as a book which accused Assange of ‘rushing to publish’ the Wikileaks trove of leaked US documents without properly verifying some of the information. Oh, the irony.
The book also accused Assange of putting US informants in danger by blindly publishing random material. Assange and Wikileaks, along with Australian journalist Mark Davis, have started the opposite is true, in addition to revelations from the US that it has no record of any informants ever being harmed.
As a wild side note, the very book in which Harding (and Leigh) make this allegation includes the encrypted password given to them by Assange, which protected the unredacted trove of documents. You can’t make this stuff up.
Harding, who was The Guardian’s Moscow correspondent from 2007-2011 until his visa was cancelled, also wrote the book Mafia State… which lays the blame for his expulsion squarely at the feet of Putin. Plus he wrote Shadow State, which accuses Putin and Russia of all sorts of high crimes and misdemeanors: “No terrorist group has deployed a nerve agent in a civilian area or used a radioactive mini-bomb in London. The Kremlin has done both.”
It’s not hard to understand why anyone would write books critical of Putin – the only difference between Putin and Trump, apart from intellect, is the level of instability. So it’s entirely possible that Harding has got a lot more right on this issue than he’s got wrong.
But when you get something like the Manafort story so spectacularly wrong, and then you refuse to acknowledge or correct it… well, you surrender the right to be believed in future stories. Put simply, you’re hopelessly compromised at a depth that is matched only by The Guardian’s vicious betrayal and ongoing character assassination of Julian Assange.
By way of declaration, I’m a paid subscriber to Guardian Australia. I think by far they’re the best (and most ethical) mainstream media organisation in the country. As for their British arm… we all make errors, New Matilda included. But it’s impossible to trust a media source that pretends otherwise.
As for Putin, if he did authorise an operation to sow chaos in the US, I do wonder how hard Russian intelligence had to work to achieve it, and how much credit they might take in achieving it.
Sure, 70 million people voted for Donald Trump, but 73 million of them voted for Hillary Clinton. Either way, US voters were always going to get the government they deserved.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.