Say that you want to discredit the idea that Vladimir Putin’s Russian spies hacked the Democratic National Committee last year and weaponized the data via WikiLeaks. (Leave out, for a moment, whether or not Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russians, though that’s precisely what special counsel Robert Mueller and the FBI are trying to find out.) You’d need a counter-theory, right?
For the past year or so, one of the most prominent counter-theories—involving a veritable field-full of rabbit holes, naturally—involves Seth Rich, a mid-level staffer at the DNC who was murdered on July 10, 2016. (The Washington, DC, police say that their investigation of the murder is still open, but their working assumption is that it was an attempted robbery.) It didn’t take long before conspiracy theorists, with zero evidence, pounced on the story. Rich, they declared, was killed (“assassinated,” as Newt Gingrich said) because he had stolen vast swaths of data from the DNC and handed it to WikiLeaks—so, voilà, both Moscow and the Trump campaign are innocent. The Democrats did it! The story bounced from Twitter to various conspiratorial rumor-mongers and onto websites such as Reddit and 4chan, thence to Breitbart News and eventually to Fox, where—as we shall see—it met its Waterloo.
Not to belabor the more-than-obvious, but if the police and the FBI had any inkling whatsoever that the WikiLeaks ammunition had come from Rich rather than Russia—say, by examining his computer—an army of federal investigators would have torn apart Rich’s apartment, interviewed his friends and colleagues, and a lot more. None of that happened.
The disproven and discredited story—which was grudgingly retracted by Fox in May, and extensively debunked by Olivia Nuzzi in New York magazine and by John Whitehouse at Media Matters—is now the subject of a new lawsuit, filed on August 1 in New York by one of the people originally mixed up in the attempt to spread fake news about Rich—and it sheds new light on how the story may have evolved. Rod Wheeler, a former DC detective and Fox contributor, is suing Fox News and two other defendants over what he says were deliberate efforts to falsify the story. According to Wheeler—in a 33-page complaint that was reviewed by The Nation—President Trump himself, along with then–press secretary Sean Spicer, participated directly in helping Fox spread lies about Rich. As the story unfolds, we’ll encounter Newt Gingrich, Sean Hannity, WikiLeaks’s Julian Assange, Steve Bannon, Roger Stone, and a wild cast of characters—one that, unfortunately, seems to include legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh.
In all of this, it’s important to remember that Seth Rich, 27, was a living, breathing person until the early morning of July 10, 2016, when he took two bullets in his back not far from his home in Washington. His family, in Omaha, Nebraska, agonized over his untimely death, and they’ve suffered doubly because Rich became a pawn in an ugly game to undermine the widely accepted notion that Russia was responsible for the hack-and-spearphishing attack against Hillary Clinton and John Podesta last year. The Rich family has repeatedly denounced the nonsense that has sprouted since his death, and they issued the following statement in response to the August 1 lawsuit filed by Wheeler: “We are hopeful that this brings an end to what has been the most emotionally difficult time in our lives and an end to conspiracy theories surrounding our beloved Seth.”
Since details began emerging last summer about Russian involvement in the DNC revelations, a number of oddball stories have emerged encouraging critics to claim that Moscow wasn’t involved. And right-wing and pro-Trump media and Internet sources aren’t the only ones who have given credence to off-the-wall theories about Russiagate; so have liberal and left-leaning ones such as Counterpunch and Robert Parry’s Consortium News.
One that emerged in 2016 involved Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan. Last December, Murray, who is a close associate of WikiLeaks’s Julian Assange, told London’s Daily Mail a fanciful story: that he himself received a package containing the purloined e-mails “during a clandestine meeting in a wooded area near American University.” Murray also claimed that “neither of the leaks came from the Russians.” But Murray’s secret rendezvous—which no one has ever corroborated, and for which Murray himself provided no details—supposedly happened in September 2016, long after WikiLeaks published the Guccifer 2.0–linked DNC e-mails, which surfaced months earlier. Still, as Media Matters reported, the conspiracy-mongers started tying Murray to Rich, who of course had been murdered months earlier.
But it was the original Seth Rich story that had the longest shelf life.
Though dark murmuring about Rich’s possible role in the WikiLeaks-DNC story began on the Internet within days of his murder, the real impetus for the conspiracy-minded came from Julian Assange himself. In a YouTube interview on August 9, 2016, Assange was asked whether WikiLeaks had “an October surprise” coming in regard to Clinton and the DNC, and, unprompted, he brought up Rich. Here’s a partial transcript:
Q: Is an October Surprise sitting in there?
Assange: WikiLeaks never sits on material. Whistle-blowers go to significant efforts to get us material, and often very significant risks. A 27-year-old, that works for the DNC, was shot in the back, murdered, just two weeks ago, for unknown reasons, as he was walking down the street in Washington.
Q: That was just a robbery, I believe, wasn’t it?
Assange: No. There’s no finding.
Q: So what are you suggesting?
Assange: I’m suggesting that our sources take risks, and they become concerned at things occurring like that.
Q: Well, was he one of your sources then?
Assange: We don’t comment on who our sources are.
Q: Then why make the suggestion?
Assange: Because we have to understand how high the stakes are in the United States. Our sources face serious risks…
Q: But it’s quite something to suggest a murder. That’s basically what you’re doing.
Assange: Well, others have suggested that. We are investigating to understand what happened in the situation with Seth Rich.
The implication of Assange’s comments was clear: that Seth Rich may very well have been his source. Days later, WikiLeaks offered a $20,000 reward for information about the murder of Rich. The alt-right’s Mike Cernovich picked it up, Alex Jones’s InfoWars chimed in, and soon thereafter it was being spread on Sean Hannity’s radio show. A disturbing echo of the early 1990s conspiracy theories about Bill and Hillary Clinton, such as the alleged “murder” of Hillary’s former law partner and deputy White House counsel Vince Foster (who, in fact, committed suicide), came from Roger Stone, the Trump-allied provocateur and former business partner of Paul Manafort, who managed Trump’s campaign last year. Citing Rich and other mythical victims of the Clintons, Stone tweeted: “Four more dead bodies in Clinton’s wake. Coincidence? I think not.” Stone’s tweet claimed that Rich was “on his way to meet with the FBI to discuss election fraud,” a claim manufactured out of thin air. The story was off and running.
For months, Seth Rich conspiracy theories bubbled up again and again on Gateway Pundit, Heat Street, the subreddit r/TheDonald, and elsewhere. But they burst into full bloom in mid-May of this year, just days after President Trump had touched off a firestorm by firing FBI Director James Comey, when a Fox News exclusive ran with the Rich story—and it’s that episode that is the subject of the new, and very revealing, lawsuit filed this month.
On May 16, Malia Zimmerman, a Fox reporter in Washington with a questionable track record, published a story on DC’s Fox 5 News outlining a conspiratorial view of the Rich murder. That night, Sean Hannity broadcast a lengthy segment based on Zimmerman’s story. And in both cases, in Zimmerman’s piece and on Hannity’s program, the star witness was Rod Wheeler. But in his lawsuit, Wheeler says that he was a victim of manipulation by others involved in the story, that he had been lied to by others involved in the investigation, that quotes attributed to him were fabricated outright, and—most explosive—that the White House itself was directly involved in helping to engineer a false story. Fox also attributed part of its story to an unnamed “federal investigator,” who appears never to have existed. On May 23, Fox would retract the entire story and purge it from its archives.
First, some background. Back in March, Wheeler, himself an occasional Fox News contributor and an African-American former detective in Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department, was recruited to serve as a paid investigator by the Rich family. The person who recruited him was a Dallas financier, Trump supporter, and longtime Fox contributor named Ed Butowsky. Butowsky, who’d been a strong supporter of Trump’s presidential campaign and who claimed Steve Bannon as a personal friend, had already talked to the Rich family, and he had agreed to foot the bill for the family to hire an investigator to help solve the murder case. Even before securing Wheeler’s agreement to work on the case, Butowsky was already in touch with Malia Zimmerman.
Enter Sy Hersh. According to Wheeler’s lawsuit, “even before Butowsky had ever contacted Mr. Wheeler, Butowsky had already had a conversation on this topic with Seymour (Sy) Hersh.” Hersh claimed—and there’s a recording to support this—that he, Hersh, had had access to a secret FBI report about the Rich case. Hersh also said that Rich had created a Dropbox for DNC e-mails, that WikiLeaks had access to it, that Rich had warned friends in case “something happens to me,” and more. Here’s an excerpt from what Hersh told Butowsky, from an audiotape of parts of the conversation between Hersh and Butowsky, released by Butowsky, and published on YouTube by InfoWars:
He had submitted a series of documents, of e-mails. Some juicy e-mails from the DNC.… All I know is that he [Seth] offered a sample, an extensive sample, you know I’m sure dozens of e-mail and said “I want money.” Then later Wikileaks did get the password, he had a Dropbox, a protected Dropbox, which isn’t hard to do, I mean you don’t have to be a wizard IT, you know, he was certainly not a dumb kid. They got access to the Dropbox. He also, and this is also in the FBI report, he also let people know, with whom he was dealing, and I don’t know how he dealt, I’ll tell you about Wikileaks in a second. I don’t know how he dealt with the Wikileaks and the mechanism but he also, the word was passed according to the FBI report, “I’ve also shared this box with a couple of friends so if anything happens to me it’s not going to solve your problem.” OK. I don’t know what that means….
I have somebody on the inside, you know I’ve been around a long time, and I write a lot of stuff. I have somebody on the inside who will go and read a file for me. This person is unbelievably accurate and careful, he’s a very high-level guy and he’ll do a favor. You’re just going to have to trust me.
Before we continue with the story, let’s unpack Hersh’s part in this. Contacted by The Nation via e-mail, Hersh affirmed that he didn’t know that Butowsky had recorded the call, for which both the text and audio have been made available. Interviewed by NPR for its story, he admitted talking to Butowsky. “I hear gossip,” Hersh told NPR’s David Folkenflik. “[Butowsky] took two and two and made forty-five out of it.” Indeed, Butowsky, focused on coming up with an alternate explanation for the release of the DNC e-mails, and did go a lot further. But Hersh appears to have provided Butowsky (and by extension, Zimmerman and Wheeler) with unsupported claims about an FBI report on Rich—coming from a single unnamed source, from documents that Hersh admits he didn’t see but only heard about—that concluded that Rich was involved with WikiLeaks. As Caitlin Johnstone, writing for Medium, notes, “Hersh owes the world an explanation for his Seth Rich comments.”
In an August 8 interview with Folkenflik, Hersh provided a partial explanation. Reported Folkenflik: “Hersh now says he was fishing for information from Butowsky. ‘I did not talk to anybody at the FBI—not about this,’ Hersh tells NPR. ‘Nothing is certain until it’s proved. And I didn’t publish any story on this.’” But that hardly explains his lengthy comments in the recorded call.
In his response to The Nation, Hersh was reluctant to revisit the episode. “I’d rather bay at the moon than say anything more about someone like Butowsky,” Hersh wrote in his e-mail. Pressed to explain his comments, however, he said, “What I write and what I say to someone…are different animals,” adding, “I did not write about the issue at the time.” Butowsky, he said, “used the tape to push a story that he wanted to believe.”
In a step-by-step account, Wheeler’s lawsuit outlines the alleged role of the White House in promoting the Seth Rich conspiracy story and in ultimately getting it onto the air in May, just days after Trump fired James Comey over what the president called “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia.” A day or so before the article was published by Fox, Butowsky texted Wheeler: “Not to add any more pressure but the president just read the article. He wants the article out immediately.” In a voicemail message the same day, Butowsky told Wheeler: “A couple of minutes ago I got a note that we have the full, uh, attention of the White House on this.… The White House is onto this now.” Wheeler’s lawsuit adds that Butowsky had all along “kept in regular contact with Trump administration officials—including Mr. Spicer [and] Mr. Bannon.”
Weeks earlier, on April 20, Butowsky and Wheeler met with Sean Spicer at the White House. Spicer, who admits to the meeting, downplays its significance. “Ed [Butowsky] is a longtime supporter of the president’s agenda who often appears in the media,” Spicer told the Associated Press. “He asked for a 10-minute meeting, with no specified topic, to catch up and said he would be bringing along a contributor to Fox News.… The White House had nothing to do with his story.” Nevertheless, Douglas Wigdor, Wheeler’s attorney, tells The Nation that he plans seek sworn depositions from Spicer, Steve Bannon, and the president himself as the case moves forward.
“Part of our case is to corroborate our client’s claim that the White House was involved in preparing this fake-news story,” says Wigdor. “We’ll be seeking any and all communications, text e-mails, between Fox News, Ms. Zimmerman, and the White House or between Ed Butowsky and the White House and get phone records, logs, whatever.”
At the heart of Wheeler’s lawsuit is his charge that Butowsky and Zimmerman—the other two parties named in his suit, along with Fox News—deliberately fabricated quotes attributed to him. As stated in his complaint, the two statements in question—which appeared in the deleted article—are “My investigation up to this point shows there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks” and that either the DC government, the DNC, or the “Clinton team” are “blocking the murder investigation from going forward.”
In repeated messages to Wheeler, Butowsky said that the story would prove definitively that “the Russians didn’t hack into the DNC.” In one text message, archived by Wheeler and included in the complaint, Butowsky said, “The Russian hacking narrative of stealing the records from the DNC is officially dead.”
Somewhat hilariously, in a recorded conversation, Butowsky told Wheeler—in regard to the made-up quotes—“one day you’re going to win an award for having said those things you didn’t say.” Wigdor says that the myriad text messages, e-mail messages, and phone calls cited in the complaint are taken verbatim from exchanges between Wheeler and Butowsky, and are backed up by copies on file with Wheeler’s attorneys.
As reported by Snopes, the Fox report of May 16 had this to say:
An FBI forensic report of Rich’s computer—generated within 96 hours after Rich’s murder—showed that he made contact with WikiLeaks through Gavin MacFadyen, a now deceased American investigative reporter.… “I have seen and read the emails between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks,” the federal source told Fox News.”
Headlines followed, in the predictable places. “not russia, but an inside job?” screamed Breitbart. “dead dnc staffer ‘had contact’ with wikileaks,” shouted Drudge Report.
Naturally, major questions emerged over Fox’s use of unnamed sources in its report. In both the print piece and the broadcast, Zimmerman and Wheeler refer to unnamed FBI and “federal” sources. It isn’t clear whether they’re relying on Hersh’s comments about an FBI source, whether someone else misleadingly told them that the FBI had the goods on Rich, or whether they just concocted a source out of whole cloth. “Butowsky and Zimmerman told Rod that they had an FBI source,” says Wigdor. “I don’t know whether that source was the same as Sy Hersh’s source, or was it a different source, or whether there was no source.” He adds, “Rod never met the alleged source, so he was relying on the representations from Butowsky and Fox.”
After an outcry, and with no corroborating information presented, on May 23 Fox withdrew its discredited report. Admitted Fox: “On May 16, a story was posted on the Fox News website on the investigation into the 2016 murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich. The article was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting. Upon appropriate review, the article was found not to meet those standards and has since been removed.” But Fox didn’t apologize for Hannity’s hyperventilating.
Meanwhile, though, both right- and left-wing conspiracy-mongering about the Russian hack-and-leak attack continues apace. (The Nation’s own Patrick Lawrence even tweeted on August 9 in support of the ongoing Seth Rich conspiracy talk.) Most disturbing, however, is Sy Hersh’s profanity-laced declaration to Butowsky, in that recorded call, that the whole Russiagate thing is “a Brennan operation,” meaning former CIA director John Brennan, aided and abetted by Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency. Said Hersh: “I have a narrative of how that whole fucking thing began, it’s a Brennan operation, it was an American disinformation and fucking the fucking president, at one point when they, they even started telling the press, they were back briefing the press, the head of the NSA was going and telling the press, fucking cock-sucker Rogers, was telling the press that we even know who in the GRU, the Russian Military Intelligence Service, who leaked it. I mean all bullshit.”
But Robert Mueller, the Justice Department special counsel, and the House and Senate intelligence committees are busily at work, seeking to reaffirm the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment and to examine whether or not Trump or any of his allies colluded with Moscow. We should find out soon enough whether it’s “bullshit” or not.