FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Navy Day parade in St. Petersburg, Russia, July 30, 2017. REUTERS/Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool/File Photo
Russian
President Vladimir Putin.

Thomson
Reuters


The FBI is investigating whether Russia’s state-owned Sputnik
News is a propaganda arm of the Kremlin and therefore operating
in the United States in violation of the Foreign Agents
Registration Act,
Yahoo News
reported Sunday.

Sputnik’s former White House correspondent, Andrew Feinberg,
confirmed to Business Insider on Monday that the bureau
interviewed him on September 1 about his brief but eye-opening
time at Sputnik, which he
outlined in Politico
late last month.

“As if my life wasn’t insane enough already,” Feinberg said in an
email when asked about the news.

The FBI is now in possession of thousands of internal Sputnik
emails and documents that Feinberg downloaded before he left the
company and handed over earlier this month, according to Yahoo.

Feinberg used Twitter in May to announce that he’d left Sputnik
and “would love to tell you why.”

Sputnik and Russia’s other state-owned news outlet, Russia Today,
share an editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan. The US intelligence
community has
pointed to outlets like Russia Today as being
part of a
disinformation campaign on behalf of the Kremlin to hurt Hillary
Clinton’s chances of winning last year’s US election.

Sputnik US’s editor-in-chief, Mindia Gavasheli, told Yahoo that
“any assertion that we are not a news organization is simply
false,” adding that “this is the first time I’m hearing about”
the FBI investigation.

But Sputnik’s slant is no secret. As
the Atlantic Council
has written, the presidential decree
that founded Sputnik’s parent company described the outlet’s
purpose as “reporting the state policy of the Russian Federation,
and public life in the Russian Federation, abroad.”

Asha Rangappa, a former FBI counterintelligence agent, noted
that the FBI
“stays away from REAL journalists.”

“If the FBI is willing to directly confront ‘journalists,’ it
means that they don’t think that independent news is what they
are up to,” Rangappa said. “It suggests to me that they believe —
and are potentially willing to show a court — that these
‘journalists’ are actually foreign agents and are taking
direction pretty directly from a foreign power (in this case, the
Kremlin).”

‘There is a pattern of these interests aligning’

Feinberg
told Business Insider earlier this year
that it wasn’t long
before Sputnik asked him to write things that either lacked
appropriate context or had a decidedly pro-Russian slant that he
argued distorted reality.

Feinberg said his editors pushed him to characterize Russia’s
annexation of Crimea as the product of a “referendum” rather than
an invasion. (An article from April 27, titled “Brussels to Keep
Denying Crimean Self-Determination Until Trump Says Otherwise,”
refers to the referendum several times, as do
previous articles
.)

“That referendum took place at gunpoint and tank-point,” Feinberg
said, referring to the fact that the vote — which the European
Union and US condemned as illegal, and which most Crimeans
boycotted entirely — took place after pro-Russian forces had
taken control of the peninsula.

“If I had tried to add any of that context, it wouldn’t have
gotten past the first edit,” Feinberg said.

He said his managers, most of whom “were on the young side, in
their 20s or 30s,” scolded him after he asked former White House
press secretary Sean Spicer earlier this year why the US was not
sending weapons to Ukraine, he said, to help the army fend off
pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east. (He ended up

filing the story
, anyway, and it was published.)

At one point, Feinberg said he was tasked with asking Spicer a
question that framed Syrian President Bashar Assad’s
chemical-weapons attack as a so-called false-flag attack staged
by Assad’s opponents. (Russian President Vladimir Putin, an Assad
ally, subsequently repeated that claim.)

Feinberg said that he couldn’t be sure how much instruction his
higher-ups were getting directly from the Kremlin and that it
wasn’t obvious whether they supported President Donald Trump over
Hillary Clinton.

“No one there really ever talked about Trump in glowing terms,”
Feinberg said. “Most of the Americans there just want to do
journalism.”

The final straw, Feinberg said, was when his managers told him to
ask Spicer about Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee
staffer whose killing has
spawned conspiracy theories on the far right
. The police say
he was the victim of a botched robbery, and the investigation is
ongoing.

Fox News published a story advancing an alternative theory in May
that was subsequently retracted
and is now the subject of a lawsuit filed by Rod Wheeler
, a
detective hired by Rich’s family to investigate his death.

Wheeler alleged that he was misquoted in the Fox story and that
the White House, including Trump, had knowledge of the story
before it was published. The lawsuit claims that a wealthy Trump
supporter worked in concert with a Fox News reporter to push the
story. Fox News has called the claims contained in the lawsuit
“erroneous.”

“It’s disturbing but not surprising that the White House
apparently was very eager to push the same unfounded story as the
Russian state-owned news outfit that I worked for,” Feinberg
said.

“I’m not going to spout any wild conspiracy theories, but there
is a pattern of these interests aligning,” he said.

Feinberg says he refused to ask Spicer about Rich and was
subsequently fired without explanation. Sputnik told Business
Insider that the problem was not its editorial policy but
Feinberg’s work ethic.

“We would like to extend our gratitude to Mr. Feinberg for
passion he demonstrated at the beginning of his career at
Sputnik,” the organization told Business Insider.

“Unfortunately, as high as it was this passion did not convert
into the same level of professional journalism and the amount of
exclusive stories that our clients and readers are looking for.”