The strange saga of Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald and former Sputnik editor Bill Moran is long and complex, and to better understand the twists and turns of this story, we strongly recommend that you read Wednesday’s story examining whether Eichenwald had used threats and bribery in an attempt to secure Moran’s silence.
Our conclusion was that yes, the evidence from several emails and one phone call showed that Eichenwald employed tactics of intimidation and coercion in a failed effort to prevent Moran from publishing a post on Sputnik enumerating exactly what had transpired between the two.
Following the publication of our story, Eichenwald’s behavior grew erratic. He tweeted at Moran more than 70 times in the course of 45 minutes on Thursday morning, then proceeded to send him a splenetic email with 14 questions separated into sections (example header: “Further lies”). The questions were personal in nature, frequently combative, and, in some cases, seemingly buoyed by deeper conspiracy theories (Question no. 7: “7. What money are you now surviving on?”).
Their purpose, ostensibly, was in the service of a follow-up piece Eichenwald was writing, which was published Thursday evening with the title: “How I got Slimed by Russian Propagandist Site Sputnik.”
In this latest salvo—which contains precious new information but even more conjecture than his first effort—Eichenwald maintains his melodramatic, hyperbolic tone, and continues to stubbornly insist upon a set of conclusions for which there is no evidence, all while making vague allusions to national security secrets that back up his story, but which he (of course) can’t reveal. It’s a portrait of a man whose ego has been pricked, and who has been caught producing hysterical, deceptive journalism, but who, when cornered, doubles down and refuses to admit the truth—he has seen shadows where none exist.
The entire narrative to this point—and here again, we recommend reading the full backstory from a journalistic error Moran made while at Sputnik, wrongly attributing words Eichenwald had written in 2015 for Newsweek to Clinton confidant Sidney Blumenthal, who had pasted the excerpt in an email to John Podesta, which was later made public by Wikileaks. Moran, like others, mistakenly characterized the Blumenthal email as a “smoking gun” implicating Clinton in Benghazi, when in fact it was nothing of the sort. He realized his mistake and took the post down after 20 minutes. Meanwhile, the alt-right spread the false story, and Donald Trump gleefully referenced it at a rally a few hours later, but he almost certainly got the information from the original widespread tweets, and not from Sputnik. Nevertheless, Eichenwald quickly wrote a rebuttal, in which he made several irresponsible claims and implications, such as:
1. Trump could only have received the story from Russian intelligence sources.
2. Sputnik and/or the original twitter accounts had “altered” the document, referring to it as both “manipulated” and a “false story,” and quoting intelligence officials, at length, on Russian techniques to disseminate fake documents.
3. Moran, a 29-year-old Georgetown Law graduate and lifelong Democrat, was implicated in a massive Russian propaganda campaign
4. No such article could have been published without “high-level review,” when in fact Moran had sole responsibility for blogging and publishing over Columbus Day weekend, and was the only staffer in the office when the story went up. Eichenwald made this claim with no knowledge of the inner workings of Sputnik’s D.C. bureau, and it should go without question that he never asked.
5. Moran’s story could not be true, since a government official told him that Sputnik would never base a story on a Twitter account it wasn’t connected with—which a cursory glance at the website proves false.
There’s a lot to unravel here. Many writers, like Philip Bump at the Washington Post, pointed out that Eichenwald’s timeline was “misleading,” and the link between Trump and Russia was worse than tenuous. Still, the story caught fire, and in the frenzied aftermath, Moran was fired from Sputnik.
So how did Eichenwald manage to push his convoluted, spurious narrative, and how does he continue to do so? The best way to expose his use of deceptive language to promote unproven theories—while engaging in fruitless, combative dialogue with anyone who disagrees—might be to focus on one of the individual claims. Let’s take a closer look at no .2:
Sputnik and/or the original twitter accounts had “altered” the document, referring to it as both “manipulated” and a “false story,” and quoting intelligence officials, at length, on Russian techniques to disseminate fake documents.
Remember, that came in his first story. In his follow-up on Thursday evening, he continued to advance the claim (emphasis ours):
There was some important information about that document I could not explicitly state in my article, because I needed to protect a government source. That source has now given me permission to say more. What I have not revealed until now is that American intelligence determined that the false document—10,000 words that had been snipped down to two sentences and then sent out as an image on Twitter—was originally altered by a Russian operative and fed onto the internet through Reddit. From there, it was picked up and tweeted as part of a coordinated Russian campaign. Eventually, it was picked up some people who believed the tweeted image was real, leading it to be spread further. It then appeared in Sputnik, the site identified by the U.S. government as a participant in Russian disinformation campaigns. The original, undoctored Blumenthal email was released last week by Wikileaks, which played no role in it being altered.
Ignore the Eichenwaldian affectation of evoking the sinister underworld of intelligence without saying anything concrete, and focus instead on the language referring to the “document” on which Moran based his story. He uses words like “doctored,” and “false,” and “altered,” which can only mean, in this context, that the text was manipulated in some way.
Here’s the truth: The text in the tweet, and the Sputnik story, was exactly the same as it appeared in the email. It read as follows:
“One important point has been universally acknowledged by the nine previous reports about Benghazi: The attack was almost certainly preventable. Clinton was in charge of the State Department, and it failed to protect U.S. personnel at an American consulate in Libya. If the GOP wants to raise that was a talking point against her, it is legitimate.”
This is not an “alteration.” This is called an “excerpt.” There is a major difference.
Now, let’s be fair—at the very best, this excerpt was misleading, mistakenly putting Eichenwald’s words in Blumenthal’s mouth in an attempt to hurt Clinton by virtue of sloppy reading and the desire to see a smoking gun where it didn’t exist. At worst, it was deliberately cut that way in order to deceive readers.
Still, it wasn’t “doctored,” or “altered,” or “manipulated” in the sense that those words are used in cases like these. And though it may seem like a small thing, Eichenwald’s continued insistence on using this terminology is a perfect microcosm of the mistruths he’s spun from the start, and his inability to own up to a mistake. It’s a subtle modus operandi, and it’s used on purpose, in our opinion, to hint at dark actions for which there is no proof. A 29-year-old journalist making a stupid mistake in his haste is very different from the image of seedy Russian operatives hunched over laptops, changing words and meaning in a smoky back room before loosing their creation on an unsuspecting American public. Eichenwald wants us to believe in the latter, when the truth is that we only have proof of the former.
We reached out to him on this topic, and had yet another of our frustrating back-and-forths. Originally, he told us that his story on Newsweek would be his only comment, but when we asked him a follow-up, it led to the following exchange, beginning with our email:
I must be missing something, because I don’t understand how the document on Sputnik was “altered.” Are you using the term “altered” to mean “shortened,” as in, they took a longer email and tweeted out a shorter excerpt, thereby altering it to make it shorter? Or was the actual text altered, as in “changed”?
Because as I’m looking at it, the text from the tweet that the story used is exactly the same as the text from the Blumenthal email. So I’m wondering where and how this alteration took place.
(Note please that I’m not referring to the mistake Moran and others made about wrongly attributing the words to Blumenthal.)
In response, Eichenwald explained his verbiage:
So the altering was in cutting the two or so sentences out of the entire email and then presenting them as coming from Blumenthal. If they hadn’t cut it right where they did, it would have been obvious that the story Blumenthal emailed was an attack on the Benghazi committee and the politicization of Benghazi. And they also would have had “Newsweek” appear in the text, so they couldn’t claim it was Blumenthal.
Okay. For what it’s worth, calling this an “alteration” or a “false document” strikes me as very misleading language. It’s an excerpt—it was either a misattributed excerpt or a misleading excerpt (depending on how intentional the error was), but it was neither “altered” in the sense that people usually use that word, nor is it a “false document.” I’d like to give you a chance to comment on this—why are you using that language?
That’s is the formal name for this kind of thing. It has a specific meaning, like a dead drop or a useful idiot, when used in intelligence situations; I prefer to use intelligence terminology than inaccurate descriptions based on casual conversation. When a document is taken, sliced, and the change is used to misrepresent it, it is called an altered document. Calling it “misrepresented” or “changed” is not accurate. The alteration is not just the cutting — it is the use of that cut to lie about its meaning. It is the totality of the record as put out, not just the piece.
We’ve tried to find any reference to the word “alteration” being used in the specific intelligence capacity Eichenwald suggests, to little avail. Even if he wants to argue the point that a short excerpt is an “alteration,” of sorts, there’s no explanation for words like “doctored” or “manipulated,” or claims that we’re dealing with a “false document.” That language can only be seen as deliberately muddying the truth to paint a more dramatic picture than the one that exists in reality. He’s trying to make us believe that somebody tampered with the document, changing its essential nature, when in fact this is not the case.
This strange adherence to a disproven claim is not Eichenwald’s greatest offense, by any means, but it’s perfectly illustrative of his broader tactics. Ironically, trying to get him to admit his deception is like fighting a land war with Russia. And we weren’t done.
This is when our interaction became truly strange. We thought the conversation on “alteration” was over, but Eichenwald apparently wasn’t comfortable with how things had gone.
“If you think the language should have been different,” he wrote, “speak to the editor in chief who edited it. I’m sure he would be willing to discuss your questions as to the wording selections and edit.”
He proceeded to give us the contact information for his editors, while we—in this case, the exchange came from Shane Ryan’s email, hence the use of the first person—tried to bring the matter to a close:
Kurt, you have used the words “altered” and “manipulated” and “doctored” on enough occasions, as well as having referred to the so-called “fake document,” that we feel comfortable moving forward without further comment, although of course any comment from you or your editors is always welcome.
He fired back—he can’t seem to resist:
No…Contact my editor or print that you are refusing to do so.
His editor was already copied on the email, turning the situation into an absurd exercise, but we obliged, writing, “Okay, I am now officially in contact with your editors. Dear editors, please provide a comment on the exchange below.” We then pasted the conversation we had just finished.
“Why are you going through such a to-do about the fact that we didn’t choose the words you think we should have, particularly since they are correct?” Eichenwald wondered. Before we had the chance to reply, he emailed again:
This is my comment, please use in full.
“The dictionary definition of altered is ‘to change or cause to change in character or composition, typically in a comparatively small but significant way.’ There is no disputing that the character of the document was changed in a small but significant way, and I find it perplexing that you seem to be writing an article about the choice by Newsweek to use this word as it’s defined in the dictionary, particularly given that it is also the correct term for such a change in the intelligence world.”
And moments later, he wrote again: “I’ve just spoken to Jim [Impoco, his editor]. He agrees my comment sums up the situation and if you have any further questions, he invites you to call him…”
Trying to bring matters to a more decisive end, we sent what we hoped would be one last email:
As I said before, we’re satisfied with the responses we have, and think that further discussion on this topic will only have us talking in circles. If Jim or any other editor feels the need to add more detail, I can be reached at [number redacted]. Failing that, I consider this conversation concluded.
But of course, there was no escaping this conversation.
“I assume you will be using my comment as I presented it you, yes?” he fired back.
“We’re still editing the text,” was the reply, “and I haven’t chosen which of the five comments on the topic I’ll be using. I may use them all, and if I don’t, it will be because we can’t spend the entire post on the finer points of the word “alteration.”
What followed next was “not to be quoted,” but featured Eichenwald in his natural element, threatening various kinds of action if we didn’t include the one statement he wanted. We finally brought the matter to a conclusion by promising that we would include it. And we have—it’s up there, somewhere.
If you’re like us, you might feel the need for a deep, exasperated sigh.
Back to matters of substance. Again, the false claim that something was “altered,” tricky as it was, is not even the most critical of Eichenwald’s mistakes. But it perfectly encapsulates his broader disinformation strategy. And to really examine the full scope of his reaction, we have to delve into his psyche, and unpack an element of his worldview that can only be described with the word “melodrama.”
In Eichenwald’s emails to Moran, much of the language reads like espionage genre fiction, with the author at its center—these are the fantastical projections of a man who envisions himself at the center of a John LeCarre novel, but with worse writing. A few choice excerpts:
“You have been playing in a sandbox surrounded by very large, and mostly unseen, players, engaged in games you don’t recognize.”
“You need to ask yourself—how does someone like me who is deeply wired into the intelligence community know so fast that you had posted this?
“...recently there was a photo of Polish schoolchildren meeting with a Ukrainian officials. That’s all. Sounds harmless right? Except now it has been used to drive a wedge between Poland and Ukraine…US intel operatives just revealed it. Spy craft is not what you see in a James Bond movie
“All of the folks in the ‘I don’t know reporting or intelligence’ world are playing Scoobie-Doo mystery connect the dots.
There are some things I know but I can’t tell you, but what I will say is that, as far as American intelligence agencies are concerned, the event involving this manipulated document is far from over.”
And that’s just from one email! Later, in a telephone call, we asked him why he mentioned the name of Bill Moran, if he was so interested in protecting him, and Eichenwald responded that he didn’t want to give a professional liar “the cloak of anonymity.”
This language raises a few interesting questions, all of them unanswerable. Such as: If Eichenwald is so “deeply wired” into the intelligence community, should he be bragging about it, or revealing the extent of his knowledge? Or, if Eichenwald believes that Moran is either a Russian spy or a Russian patsy, as he implies several times in his articles, why does he offer to get him a job at The New Republic? Is that publication so low in his esteem that it’s a good place to foist off suspected foreign agents?
Speculation aside, this kind of language seems to serve two purposes. First, it plays into Eichenwald’s conception of himself as an Important Man, connected and wise, privvy to all sorts of dark information the average civilian couldn’t handle. Second, as illustrated in our previous piece, it served to paint a dark atmosphere in Moran’s mind, and hint at the dire consequences of going public, before Eichenwald could play the role of savior and offer him a way out. The first purpose is just vaguely sad, while the second is downright nasty.
It should come as no surprise, then, that on Thursday, rebuffed by Moran and likely embarrassed by the ensuing publicity, Eichenwald went on a rant encompassing more than 70 tweets (!!), all directed at Moran, in which he alternately seemed to lecture, taunt, and threaten the young writer.
Here’s what kind of mega-rant looks like, in one image (click to enlarge in a new window):
Eichenwald undoubtedly thought he sounded tough, when the reality was his tweets looked a portrait of a man coming unglued. He has deleted these tweets since, but here are a few examples (start at bottom):
Whether this is bullying, or self-sabotage, or hysteria, it’s certainly not the behavior of a stable, professional journalist.
Nor did it speak well when he sent off a series of 14 aggressive questions to Moran ahead of Thursday night’s article. Many of these focused on Moran’s personal circumstances:
1. Why did you tell other reporters that you made no attempt to play on my sympathies when you said, both in our phone call and in writing, that your having lost your job was hurting your marriage and was going to stop you from buying a new house?
2. Are you actually buying a new house? If so, what is the address so I can check the records.
While others seemed to hint that perhaps Moran was now being bankrolled by Putin himself:
6. Why, after proclaiming how damaged you were financially by supposedly being fired, why did you refuse to take your job back when you were supposedly offered a chance to return?
7. What money are you now surviving on?
Eichenwald’s odd attacks seem doubly strange when you consider that he is the award-winning writer, and he’s addressing someone who is 29 and has just been fired from Sputnik.
Speaking of which…
None of this, for the record, should be read as a defense of Bill Moran or Sputnik. The latter is funded by the Russian government, and though Moran claimed that he hadn’t been influenced to write coverage that benefited Russia, that money and power obviously comes with strings attached.
In fact, considering how the original tweet was formulated—with a block of text picked out from a 72-page email, cherry-picked to seem as though it came from Blumenthal’s mouth—does seem as though it was an intentional attempt to spread disinformation. If we are to believe Eichenwald’s source in the intelligence community—and if you trust Newsweek’s editorial process, they wouldn’t run the story if that source weren’t credible—there’s good evidence that the original tweet may have come from Russia.
Furthermore, Moran’s error with the Blumenthal/Eichenwald article was bad, and he’s admitted that all along. Understandable—especially for someone working alone in a fast-paced environment, encouraged to write eye-catching headlines and to find stories that generate traffic—but still bad. While his claim is likely true that his firing only came about because of the backlash engineered by Eichenwald’s response, it’s hard to argue that his original mistake, having made its way into the hands of Donald Trump, was not itself a fireable offense.
In another story gleefully referenced by Eichenwald—one of more than 800 that Moran wrote for Sputnik—Moran wrote a fairly substantive piece based off a declassified defense intelligence report about how Obama and Hillary Clinton originally turned a blind eye to the Syrian rebels opposing Assad, some of whom would come to establish the ISIS caliphate. The headline, though—which Moran also wrote—was an example of clickbait at its worst:
Secret File Confirms Trump Claim: Obama, Hillary ‘Founded ISIS’ to Oust Assad
This led to a Twitter feud with former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, who made his own assumptions that were not always accurate, and on the whole it was not Moran’s finest hour.
In short, Moran seems to have been caught on the wrong side of Internet journalism culture on two occasions, and though saying his mistakes were made “in good faith” might be too generous, it’s still odd to see someone like Eichenwald engage in a war of words that culminated with his piece on Thursday night, where he essentially attempted to destroy the life and career of someone whose status was much lower than his own—and who had already suffered for his mistake. Eichenwald became someone who punched down, which, considering his hero worship of all things intelligence, shouldn’t come as a surprise—if someone repeatedly tries to portray himself as belonging to a club that none of us can join, we should hardly expect him to speak truth to power, or to pull punches when his target is someone as easily struck as Bill Moran.
Eichenwald, of course, couldn’t know about Moran’s life—how his father, a disabled Navy veteran, was in and out of the hospital for most of Moran’s childhood, or how he worked his way through community colleges on his path to Georgetown Law, or how he was accepted into the MBA program at Oxford, but had to come home when his mother, a former U.S. postal worker who routinely put in 60 hours per week to support her family, fell ill with pulmonary fibrosis, or how easing the financial burden on his family, in fact, was no small part of why he took the job at Sputnik.
It’s not Eichenwald’s job to know this, surely. But then again, these are the kinds of lives you stand to harm when you’re lost in a cloud of conspiracy.
There are many more half-truths from Eichenwald’s article that bear exploration, such as the fact that he continues to imply that Moran is connected to a Russian propaganda machine, despite telling Paste that he didn’t believe Moran was a spy, or the way he left out that he continued to encourage Moran to apply for The New Republic job after he had said he was “no longer willing to help him,” or how he altered his own story of adding a paragraph to the original article tying Moran in with the Russians, portraying it as an act of reluctance on his part, rather than a threat he promised to carry out if Moran went public.
Then there’s the issue of why he bothered to email Moran repeatedly in the first place. On that matter, it’s hard not to conclude that by going public with a story of simple human error—an explanation many had already posited after Eichenwald’s first article, including us would undermine his entire piece and make him look foolish.
But perhaps the most disappointing twist of the entire affair was the fact that Newsweek, after reviewing the evidence and witnessing Eichenwald’s embarrassing Twitter rant, allowed him to publish this rebuttal. Jim Impoco, the magazine’s award-winning editor-in-chief, even issued the following statement:
Bill Moran has engaged in a campaign of deceptions to falsely accuse Kurt of bribing him. He has lied to Newsweek, he has lied to other publications, and he has lied online. We now know that Moran has played similar games with the former American ambassador to Russia.
In the email exchange that followed, he called the allegations against Mr. Eichenwald “ridiculous.” This is after acknowledgement from all parties that the emails, which lay out all the evidence anyone would ever need, were legitimate.—none of the actual content from the exchange is in dispute.
On the other hand, what does feel ridiculous is the assertion that Moran engaged in a “disinformation campaign.” It should be pointed out that Eichenwald, with his theory about Moran’s actions, purports to know about the daily operations of Sputnik’s D.C. bureau without ever having gone to their offices, or even asked anyone.
He and Newsweek ignored Moran’s firsthand account, along with his flat denial of the charge that his branch was part of a coordinated effort to undermine the 2016 presidential election. Eichenwald—and now Newsweek—have hitched their wagons to what is little more than a poorly researched conspiracy theory—an accusation of disloyalty and potential treason by a young American journalist whose only crime was taking a job at Sputnik in the worst job market in generations. Had Moran worked for an American outlet like Breitbart, he would never have caught the eye of Eichenwald. He would still have a job, and Eichenwald would not have compromised his integrity.
As we approach the end of this exhausting, dispiriting affair, and it becomes clear that Eichenwald will take no responsibility for his actions, we’d like to conclude with a few parting questions for Newsweek. First, what did Moran have to gain by coming forward and potentially destroying his own career? Does this really look like the act of an enemy agent, taking the fall to protect a network of spies? Or is it possible that he made a stupid mistake, but did the courageous thing by telling his story—warts and all—after being bullied by a prominent journalist who pulled out every stop in a blatant attempt at suppression? Second, how long do you plan to prosecute a case based on shadowy conjecture, sacrificing your own reputation in the process?
And, finally: Do you truly believe, as this saga comes to a close, that Kurt Eichenwald is the one who will walk away with his reputation intact?
Follow Walker Bragman and Shane Ryan on Twitter.