Online news site BuzzFeed is being sued for publishing fake news in the form of a Russian dossier about Donald Trump and the hacking of the US election.
Tech firm XBT Holdings, owned by Russian tech magnate Aleksej Gubarev, is suing Buzzfeed, its editor in chief, Ben Smith, and a former British intelligence agent for defamation in a court in Florida.
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“The dossier included libelous, unverified and untrue allegations regarding XBT, Webzilla and Gubarev. The lawsuits seek yet undetermined compensation for the damages suffered by XBT, Webzilla and Gubarev as the result of the publication of the dossier,” a statement said.
New York-based BuzzFeed Inc., which published the dossier in full on Jan. 10, wasn’t alone. Former spy Christopher Steele and his company Orbis Business Intelligence in London were named as defendants in the London suit.
In a statement to McClatchy, BuzzFeed spokesman Matt Mittenthal said Friday night, “We have redacted Mr. Gubarev’s name from the published dossier, and apologize for including it.”
Steele is a former British intelligence agent who conducted opposition research on behalf of Trump’s political opponents from both major U.S. parties. The dossier, which was shared privately with reporters, lawmakers and law enforcement, exploded into the national debate after FBI director James Comey presented it to President Barack Obama and then President-elect Donald Trump.
Among other things, the document alleged, without corroboration, that the Trump campaign had worked with the Kremlin on penetrating Democratic National Committee computers. The dossier alleges XBT’s involvement and names Gubarev, saying he cooperated with Russian spy agencies under duress.
“We were shocked to see our good name wrongly included and published in this unsubstantiated report. We are confident that the courts will review the evidence of our non-involvement and provide fair and reasonable compensation from the perpetrators of this outrageous allegation,” the company statement said.
Shortly after the dossier became public, McClatchy interviewed Gubarev, a venture capitalist whose many companies include web-hosting services, network solutions and data storage. He denied any involvement and surmised that a competitor might have sought to embarrass him.
The dossier said XBT and affiliates “had been using botnets and porn traffic to transmit viruses, plant bugs, steal data and conduct ‘altering operations’ against the Democratic Party leadership.”
The British lawsuit against Steele and Orbis Business Intelligence Limited charges that they “deliberately and without consent” claimed that the plaintiffs had hacked into the emails of the Democratic Party, “and had used such unlawful access to transmit viruses, plant bugs, steal data and alter files and programs.”
Gubarev operates at least 40,000 servers across the globe and said he would have received real-time information if there had been hacking or illicit activity tied to his businesses. There is no evidence of that, he said, adding that neither the FBI nor any other U.S. authority has contacted him.
The dossier suggested that several Trump campaign aides were aware of the Russian hacking scheme, allegations that Trump dismissed as “garbage.”
The Florida lawsuit says that neither defendant – BuzzFeed or Ben Smith – had contacted the plaintiffs to determine whether the allegations had “any basis in fact.” Nor have they since, it alleges.
Moreover, the suit claims that even as BuzzFeed and Smith published the information, which they acknowledged at the time contained unverified information, “they knew, without a doubt, that at least certain portions of the dossier were untrue.”
It quotes from the BuzzFeed story, which said the dossier “is not just unconfirmed: It includes some clear errors.”
The suit says the story has been viewed more than 5.9 million times.
It also says that Gubarev, “who is married with three young children” and is not a public figure, “has found his personal and professional reputation in tatters,” his wife has been harassed online and his family’s security has been “compromised.”
Steele, a well-regarded former British spy with strong knowledge of Russia, reportedly went into hiding after the dossier’s contents became public. Investigators and the global media have since pursued details in the dossier, which included salacious allegations involving Trump’s activities in Russia that the dossier suggested had been recorded by Russian authorities.
Adding to the mystery surrounding the document, some European reports suggest that a possible source of information in the dossier, Oleg Erovinkin, a former top officer of the Soviet KGB and its Russian successor, the FSB, was mysteriously found dead in his car in Moscow on Dec. 26.
McClatchy reported late last month that the FBI and five other law enforcement and intelligence agencies have collaborated for months in an investigation into Russian attempts to influence the November election. That collective probe includes whether money from the Kremlin covertly aided Trump, two people familiar with the matter said.
The agencies involved in the inquiry are the FBI, the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Justice Department, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network and representatives of the director of national intelligence, the sources said.
Among the items being looked at, said the people familiar with the probe, is how money may have moved from the Kremlin to covertly help Trump win election.
At least nine news organizations, including McClatchy, possessed copies of the dossier, electing not to publish its contents until their reporters could check the validity of its allegations.
But on Jan. 10, CNN disclosed that U.S. intelligence officials had informed Trump of the dossier when they’d briefed him on the findings of a U.S. intelligence community report that concluded Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered the hacks in an effort to help Trump’s campaign.
A short time later, BuzzFeed posted the entire 35-page document, redacting the name of one individual and saying it did not know whether the statements attributed to Steele’s intelligence sources were accurate.
At a news conference the next day, Trump suggested that U.S. officials might have released the dossier and thanked news organizations that had not published it. He assailed CNN and called BuzzFeed “a failing pile of garbage.”
“I think they’re going to suffer the consequences,” he said.
BuzzFeed also drew criticism from some media figures. Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote: “It’s a bad idea, and always has been, to publish unverified smears.”
BuzzFeed editor Smith defended the publication in a column, saying CNN’s news story on the document made it too newsworthy to not publish.
“That halfway position ran contrary to how we think of our compact with our audience: You trust us to give you the full story; we trust you to reckon with a messy, sometimes uncertain reality,” he wrote.