Taibbi: The Luke Harding Experiment
Eight days ago, on July 15th, The Guardian published an apparent bombshell by reporting curiosity Luke Harding and two other writers, entitled, “Kremlin papers appear to show Putin’s plot to put Trump in White House.”
The paper claimed to have gotten hold of “leaked Kremlin documents” from January 2016, showing a secret plot by Russia to use “all possible force” to help elect “the most promising candidate,” Donald Trump, in order to bring about the “destabilization of the US’s sociopolitical system.”
The article featured a snippet of the alleged document that purported to show Russian officials copping to the entire Russiagate narrative in a single sentence, even adding what the Guardian called “apparent confirmation” that the Kremlin possessed compromising knowledge about “certain events” involving Trump on Russian territory:
It’s almost impossible to describe how low you have to have sunk for the American media to walk away from a story like this, in a still-vibrant environment of Trump-Russia mania. It’s like being unable to give away video game credits at Chuck E Cheese. Yet the explosive report was picked up by exactly zero American news agencies. The silence was so deafening, the rival Daily Mail wrote an article gloating about it.
A week after the expose’s publication, the Washington Post — maybe the most enthusiastic print trafficker of McCarthyite paranoia in recent years and home to many of the biggest actual intelligence leaks through the Trump-Russia affair — finally addressed the “leaked Kremlin documents.” The piece by Phillip Bump tried to take the Harding revelations seriously, but couldn’t, saying the article “reads like one of those viral Twitter threads from a guy with 4.4 million followers whose bio describes him as ‘resister-in-chief.’”
Ouch. Why so harsh? The Post mentions the reason: the Guardian author, Harding, also wrote one of the most infamous uncorroborated “bombshells” of this era, a November 27, 2018 report alleging Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort met with Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy.
This would-be smoking gun proof of collusion took the news world by storm for days, as the Trump-mad press went blind with eagerness, like high school boys seeing their first boobs. Poor Ari Melber of MSNBC would probably like this broadcast back, where he gushed that the Guardian report might be the “key to collusion,” noting:
Sources tell the Guardian the key meeting lasted 40 minutes, and they have details, like that [Manafort] was dressed in chinos, cardigan, and a light shirt… Now, tonight, Paul Manafort is denying this story. I can report that. I can also report that Paul Manafort is a serial liar.
This wasn’t just a bombshell, it was a bombshell with details. Who could make up chinos? “If it looks like collusion, meets like collusion, and acts like collusion, it probably is collusion,” agreed congresswoman Jackie Speier.
Slowly, however, the minor issue of there being no record of any meeting between Manafort and the most surveilled person on earth began to raise concerns among America’s press wizards that the story might be on something less than solid ground. The Washington Post’s polite formulation was that Harding’s story was a bomb that “still hasn’t detonated.”
The Guardian compounded the comedy. In the face of intense public criticism over the absence of evidence for such a major assertion, the paper essentially made one change. The headline, “Manafort held secret talks with Assange in Ecuadorian embassy” became “Manafort held secret talks with Assange in Ecuadorian embassy, sources say.”
Needless to say, the qualifier didn’t exactly address concerns. This time around, the Guardian did their touching-up in advance, applying in bulk phrases like “what are assessed to be leaked Kremlin documents,” “the papers suggest,” “appearing to bear Putin’s signature,” “seem to represent,” “appear to be genuine,” “apparent confirmation,” etc. Despite these fine efforts, the silence over the new piece shows unchanged judgment on the Manafort-Assange affair, with editors essentially announcing an unwillingness to be hoaxed a second time.
In response, Harding a few days ago tweeted a link to a YouTube interview with former KGB agent and co-author of American Kompromat, Yuri Shvets:
Former #KGB officer Yuri Shvets says the #Kremlin papers published by @guardian and describing Donald Trump as “impulsive” and “mentally unstable” are real [in Russian]. Shvets collaborated with @craigunger on American Kompromat and worked as a spy in D.C. https://t.co/M6mvSEWyOn
— Luke Harding (@lukeharding1968) July 21, 2021
Harding has some unique talents when it comes to public defense of his work. At the peak of the Trump-Russia delirium, he wrote a book called Collusion, but walked out of an interview with Aaron Mate when asked where the evidence for the collusion was. “Looks like Luke has logged off,” Aaron commented, as his audience was left staring at an SMPTE color bar.
That incident became Internet legend. This latest kerfuffle isn’t quite that bad, but still head-scratching. Harding has presented as additional backup for his new story this Russian-language interview with Shvets, a handy source for nearly every English-language reporter who’s cycled through Moscow since 1991 (he was a popular quote with pals of mine from the Moscow Times back in the day).
In this YouTube monologue, the former KGB man does vouch for the Guardian story, opining, “This is a compilation of real documents located in the possession of the government of the United States.”
Shvets shrugs off criticism of Harding’s story from Russian writer Leonid Mlechin, who accused the Guardian of being duped, noting “mistakes” in the language and the form of the report. This was in contrast to Harding, who said he’d showed the documents to “independent experts” who claimed the “incidental details come across as accurate,” and the “overall tone and thrust is said to be consistent with Kremlin security thinking.”
Shvets actually concurred with Mlechin on many points here, wincing at the rambling language of the published excerpts. He conceded “there could not be such a document in the time of the Soviet Union,” when a KGB pro would never have “one sentence [go on] for almost a half-page,” because “qualified professionals don’t write like that.”
However, he disagreed with Mlechin that these quality issues were conclusive, saying only that they spoke to the “general degradation of the government apparatus under Putin.” In between, he dropped his assessment that this collection of documents was realniy.
Shvets may or may not be right. What’s funny, though, is Harding neglecting to mention Shvets was one of the harshest early critics of another story he boosted over and over, the dossier of British ex-spy Christopher Steele. Harding worked with Steele on Collusion, which continues to be marketed as “an explosive exposé that lays out the story behind the Steele Dossier.”
As Barry Meier noted in Spooked, the excellent book about (among other things) the Steele affair, internet sleuths at one point believed Shvets was the source for Steele. But when the dossier came out, Shvets gave an interview in Russian that shat with force on the idea. His assessment of the dossier, in fact, sounded quite a lot like Mlechin’s assessment of this new Harding story.
“There are experts in painting who can confidently tell you if you’re looking at a genuine Rembrandt or a fake, and their opinion will be accepted in court, even if they didn’t stand next to Rembrandt himself,” he said. “It’s the same with intelligence documents… The credibility of this ‘dossier’ from a professional perspective is zero.” Asked flat out if the Steele dossier was fake, Shvets replied, “Absolutely.”
Was Shvets authoritative then, or now? Who knows, possibly both times. But Harding in tweeting this week probably could have mentioned that this person’s prior credentials included dismissing the entire basis of Collusion as a fake.
Harding’s gig at the Guardian is curious. When you run a major expose and nobody picks it up, it’s a serious black eye editorially, one that impacts other writers on the staff. The Guardian (which did not respond to queries) must have known what the reaction to this latest anonymously sourced “expose” would be. So why run it? Either it’s one of the great all-time double-downs, or the paper has committed to being an ongoing experiment in publishing transparent trial balloons for the intelligence community.
Just as there’s a fine line for rock stars between stupid and clever, there’s a thin line in journalism between being plugged in, and a dope — and the Guardian is jumping all the way over it, God knows why.
Fri, 07/23/2021 – 21:00