The FBI is investigating two Russian government-funded media organizations that operate in the United States following accusations that they were part of a massive Kremlin operation to help swing last year’s presidential election to Donald Trump.
Russia Today, Moscow’s flagship English language television broadcaster, and Sputnik News, a radio and wire service funded by the Kremlin, claim to be legitimate news gathering organizations, no different from the BBC.
But the FBI is exploring whether the two Russian organizations should be required to register as foreign agents, invoking a U.S. law originally passed before World War II to prevent the spread of Nazi propaganda.
A U.S. intelligence community report on Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential race concluded in January that Sputnik and RT, as Russia Today is known, were part of a multi-faceted Russian intelligence operation aimed at discrediting democracy and helping Trump win in November.
Some former employees of the Russian media organizations, which operate from separate offices several blocks from the White House, agree with that assessment.
Sputnik “is not a news agency. It’s meant to look like one, but it’s propaganda,” said Andrew Feinberg, a former White House correspondent for Sputnik. He said FBI agents interviewed him for two hours last month about the Russian government’s influence over the operation.
Feinberg said that during his five months at Sputnik, his editors were interested almost exclusively in stories about political conspiracies, and made clear that the organization took orders from Moscow.
“They always wanted to make the U.S. government look stupid,” he said. “I was constantly told, ‘Moscow wanted this or Moscow wanted that.’”
The question of who dictated editorial decisions was of particular concern to the FBI agents who questioned him, Feinberg said.
“They wanted to know, ‘Did they get their direction from Moscow,’ and of course the answer was ‘Yes,’” he said. He said he gave the FBI thousands of emails to and from editors from his time at Sputnik.
Mindia Gavasheli, the Sputnik bureau chief in Washington, declined to comment Wednesday.
RT said on its website Tuesday that it had received a letter from the Department of Justice requesting it register as a foreign agent. The company did not say if it would comply.
“The war the U.S. establishment wages with our journalists is dedicated to all the starry-eyed idealists who still believe in freedom of speech,” RT Editor in Chief Margarita Simonyan said. “Those who invented it have buried it.”
The FBI investigation was first reported by Yahoo News. It wasn’t immediately clear if it was part of the much broader investigation being led by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III into whether Trump’s aides illegally cooperated with Russian authorities before or after last year’s election. Trump and Russia’s government have denied improper dealings.
The Foreign Agents Registration Act, passed in 1938, requires anyone in the U.S. who acts "at the order, request, or under the direction or control" of a foreign government to register with the Justice Department and to disclose financial information.
The statute, known as FARA, provides an exception for “any news or press service” as long at its coverage is not directed by a foreign government.
The exception has long allowed news organizations funded by foreign governments but free from their control over editorial decisions — like the British Broadcasting Corp. or Germany’s Deutsche Welle — to operate on U.S. soil without registering with the Justice Department.
FARA experts say that if RT and Sputnik refuse Justice Department requests to register, they could face civil or criminal prosecution under the law. The law carries penalties of up to five years in prison and fines up to $10,000.
“If it’s the case that they are directed by the Russian government, then it raises a strong question as to why they are not registered under FARA because they would not be covered by the media exception,” said Joe Sandler, a Washington attorney who is expert on what FARA covers.
Other foreign media under more direct government control have been registered for years. They include China Daily, a Beijing news outlet; NHK Cosmomedia, a Japanese TV news operation; and KBS Korean Broadcasting System, a South Korean company, records show.
RT and Sputnik differ from most foreign media based in Washington in that they produce English-language articles and programming intended for American audiences.
Their reporters show up routinely at White House and State Department briefings. Their broadcasts, news stories and opinion pieces frequently conform to Kremlin views on issues such as the war in Syria, Russia’s seizure of Crimea and U.S. sanctions on Moscow.
The U.S. intelligence report on Russian interference in the 2016 election describes RT and Sputnik as part of “Russia’s state-run propaganda machine.” It said they “made increasingly favorable comments about” Trump as the campaign progressed “while consistently offering negative coverage” of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee.
Sputnik has expanded its U.S. operations since the election. In June, it announced that it had subleased a radio station in Reston, Va., and began broadcasting on July 1 into Washington and its suburbs in northern Virginia.
Using a signal that formerly broadcast bluegrass music, Sputnik shifted the programming to a 24-hour talk format that consistently criticizes U.S. government policy and parrots Kremlin themes.
“Why the myth of Russian interference in U.S. election is destroying American democracy,” was the subject of one recent Sputnik podcast.
Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), House sponsor of a bill to strengthen Justice Department enforcement of FARA, said RT "serves as a propaganda arm for the Russian government to spread often false, always biased, information to benefit whatever whims of the Russian government and Vladimir Putin are the topic of the day."
But Alexandra Ellerbeck, North America program director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said registering Russian media as foreign agents could have "serious repercussions," especially in Russia.
The Russian government already requires foreigners working for nongovernmental organizations, such as human rights monitors and legal aid groups, to register. In an era of increasingly tense relations, and tit for tat diplomatic expulsions, Russia may now require any foreign media operating in Russia to register as well, she warned.
In a separate move Wednesday, the Homeland Security Department ordered federal agencies to stop using anti-virus software and other computer products from AO Kaspersky Lab, a privately owned Russian company, warning that Russian authorities might exploit the software to penetrate or disrupt sensitive U.S. digital systems.
The order, issued by Homeland Security’s acting secretary, Elaine Duke, gave federal civilian agencies 30 days to inventory all Kaspersky software products on their systems and 90 days to stop using it.
“The department is concerned about the ties between certain Kaspersky officials and Russian intelligence and other government agencies,” Homeland Security said in a statement.
“The risk that the Russian government, whether acting on its own or in collaboration with Kaspersky, could capitalize on access provided by Kaspersky products to compromise federal information and information systems directly implicates U.S. national security,” it added.
In a statement, Kaspersky denied “inappropriate ties with any government” and said it was “disappointed” by the order, which it called “completely unfounded.”
“No credible information has been presented publicly by anyone or any organization as the accusations are based on false allegations and inaccurate assumptions,” the company said.