The Origins Of The Seth Rich Conspiracy Theory
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Some new evidence identifies Russia as one of the promoters of a conspiracy theory that was prevalent in the 2016 election and beyond. Russian participation in the election is well known by now, but this detail is somewhat new. And it comes from reporter Michael Isikoff in a Yahoo News podcast called "Skullduggery." Isikoff reports that Russia promoted fake news that ended up on Fox News about the death of a Democratic Party operative named Seth Rich.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Seth Rich was a 27-year-old man from Omaha who was working at the Democratic National Committee in 2016. He was out on the evening of July 9, early morning July 10, at his favorite hangout in Washington, D.C. He had a bit to drink that night and decided to walk home when two men accosted him. There was a scuffle. He resisted, and he was shot and killed.
INSKEEP: Now, before we get to the conspiracy theory, what is it that the police have said about this murder?
ISIKOFF: There had been a series of armed robberies in that very same neighborhood in the weeks before Seth Rich's death - seven in the six weeks prior. So given the circumstances of where and when Seth Rich died, the police were pretty convinced early on that this was a another one of those robberies in which, when Seth Rich resisted, his assailants panicked and shot him.
INSKEEP: But there was this alternative conspiracy theory that was promoted that somehow Hillary Clinton was behind the murder, and people began talking of evidence. What did you find that evidence was and where did it come from?
ISIKOFF: Well, there were questions about the circumstances of Seth Rich's death that some people raised early on - the fact that nothing was taken from his body, his wallet, his credit cards, his personal effects. And when you talk to experts, they will tell you that this is not that uncommon when somebody like Seth Rich resisted as he did. But what we found was that, within three days of that murder, a conspiracy theory pops up on an obscure website called whatdoesitmean.com alleging that Rich was on his way to talk to the FBI about corruption by the Clintons when he was gunned down by a squad of assassins working for Hillary Clinton.
It turns out that that very same day that that report popped up on this obscure website, the Russian SVR - that's its version of the CIA - circulated a intelligence bulletin making those exact same claims about Seth Rich. So in short, it was the SVR, the Russian intelligence agency, that planted the conspiracy theory about Seth Rich from the get-go.
INSKEEP: But you just said it came from Russian intelligence. What evidence do you have of that? Who was it that found that out?
ISIKOFF: We talked to Deborah Sines, who was the federal prosecutor in charge of the investigation into Seth Rich's death. She was an assistant U.S. attorney in the U.S. attorney's office in the District of Columbia, which prosecutes local murders. And she would see these conspiracy theories about her case circulating on the Web. She was - she wanted to find out where they were coming from.
And so she used her security clearance to tap the U.S. intelligence community to help her to figure that puzzle out, and they provided her with two of these SVR reports that started the whole thing because, you know, as she put it, a foreign intelligence agency was injecting itself into her case, and she found that quite alarming. She wrote a memo about this to the National Security Division of the Justice Department and later briefed Robert Mueller's prosecutors about it.
INSKEEP: Does the prosecutor see this as part of the larger Russian effort during 2016 to influence the election in that year, to damage Hillary Clinton and elect Donald Trump?
ISIKOFF: It was certainly part of the Russian disinformation operation during the 2016 election. And I should point out, it wasn't just those bulletins from the SVR; what we found is that RT and Sputnik, the Russian government-owned TV stations and radio stations, ramped up the story, broadcast multiple stories about Seth Rich. And most importantly, the Internet Research Agency - that's that shadowy outfit, the troll farm in St. Petersburg that was actively involved in the manipulation of social media during the 2016 campaign - they were tweeting and retweeting about Seth Rich relentlessly, more than 2,000 times by our count.
INSKEEP: How huge was this fake story during 2016 on conservative media?
ISIKOFF: It was big in 2016; it even got bigger in 2017 because, as the Russia story was heating up with the firing of Comey and the appointment of Mueller, the Seth Rich conspiracy claims grew louder and more persistent. This was an alternative narrative to the Russian meddling in the election. It wasn't the Russians who interfered in our election; it was this guy over here, Seth Rich, who was killed in Washington in July of 2016.
INSKEEP: Did this Russian disinformation get onto Fox News, the most powerful of all the conservative outlets?
ISIKOFF: It ultimately ends up on Fox News in May of 2017. There's a website article that gets published, making the claim that the FBI had done a forensic analysis of Seth Rich's computer and found communications with WikiLeaks. There was absolutely no evidence for this whatsoever. It was - it has been completely debunked.
INSKEEP: And when you say it's completely debunked, is it correct that even Fox News now acknowledges it's got no evidence of that story?
ISIKOFF: Yes, Fox News retracted the story within eight days. The Washington police department denied it. The FBI denied it. Deborah Sines, the prosecutor in charge of this case, says it was a complete fabrication. But Joel and Mary Rich, the parents of Seth Rich, told us that, you know, the story did not go away. The pain and anguish for them did not go away. The story continued to circulate. People continued to pump it out in "alt-right" websites. And as Mary Rich told us, this was like losing my son all over again.
INSKEEP: Michael Isikoff, thanks so much.
ISIKOFF: Sure enough.
INSKEEP: Michael Isikoff is chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News.
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