BuzzFeed sued over its publication of uncorroborated Trump dossier
Kevin Hall, David Goldstein, Greg Gordon, McClatchy, Feb 3 2017
A Russian-tied tech firm named in a controversial dossier containing uncorroborated allegations about Pres Trump and the hacking of DNC email accounts announced late Friday that it has filed defamation suits against the online news site BuzzFeed, its editor-in-chief and a former MI6 officer. The lawsuits were brought by XBT Holdings, a Cyprus-based company owned by Russian tech magnate Aleksei Gubarev. Lawyers for his firm filed complaints Friday in London against the former spy and his company, and against BuzzFeed and its editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, in Broward County Circuit Court in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where XBT’s subsidiary Webzilla is headquartered. A statement said:
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.
New York-based BuzzFeed Inc, which published the dossier in full on Jan 10, wasn’t alone. Former MI6 officer C 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 conducted opposition research on behalf of Trump’s political opponents from both parties. The dossier, which was shared privately with reporters, Congress critturs and FBI, exploded into the national debate after FBI director Comey presented it to Obama and Trump. Among other things, the document alleged without corroboration that the Trump campaign had worked with the Kremlin on penetrating DNC computers. The dossier alleges XBT’s involvement and names Gubarev, saying he cooperated with Russian spy agencies under duress. The company statement said:
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.
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 Democrat 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 Democrat 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 realtime 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 Pindo 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 says:
Gubarev, who is married with three young children, has found his personal and professional reputation in tatters.
His wife has been harassed online, and his family’s security has been “compromised.” Steele 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. 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. The agencies involved in the inquiry are the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, the DoJ, the Treasury Dept and the DNI. Among the items being looked at 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 Pindo boxtops had informed Trump of the dossier when they’d briefed him on the findings of a ‘Pindo intelligence community report’ (not an NIE – RB) that concluded 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 Pindo boxtops 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.” He said:
I think they’re going to suffer the consequences.
BuzzFeed also drew criticism from some media figures. WaPo
columnist (‘public editor’ or ‘ombudsman’ – RB) 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. He wrote:
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.