A stunning report published Tuesday by Yahoo News identifies a Russian intelligence service as the origin of a conspiracy theory connecting the unsolved murder of former Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich to the leak of thousands of DNC emails in the summer of 2016. The report, authored by Yahoo’s chief investigative correspondent, Michael Isikoff, traces the root of the theory back to a phony intelligence “bulletin” reportedly circulated online by the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service.
Rich, a 27-year-old DNC data specialist, was murdered on July 10, 2016, in what police concluded was a botched robbery. In the following weeks, WikiLeaks began disclosing some 20,000 internal DNC emails online, triggering theories that Rich may have been the anti-secrecy organization’s source. A slew of right-wing personalities, including notorious GOP trickster Roger Stone, helped spread the theory far and wide in an apparent attempt to aid President Trump, whose campaign was at the time under investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Not long after Rich’s murder, which police maintain was a robbery attempt turned deadly, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange helped further fuel speculation that the slain DNC staffer was a WikiLeaks source, first with unprompted remarks during an interview on a Dutch TV program. To further boost belief in the claim, WikiLeaks offered a $20,000 reward for any information about Rich’s murder. Several pro-Trump media personalities, including Mike Cernovich and Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson, would also pounce on the theory and use it to push accusations that the Clintons had ordered Rich’s murder.
The Mueller report, released publicly in April, found that Assange made use of the conspiracy in apparent efforts to “obscure the source of the materials WikiLeaks was releasing.”
According to Yahoo News, however, the theory first debuted on an obscure website (whatdoesitmean.com) described by Isikoff as “a frequent vehicle for Russian propaganda.” For years after, it was later heavily promoted by Russian government-owned media outlets RT and Sputnik. Meanwhile, a notorious Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency spread it further via Twitter; more than 2,000 times, Isikoff reports, citing Yahoo News’ own analysis.
The Yahoo News report also includes a corroborating statement by Deborah Sines, the former assistant U.S. attorney in charge of the Rich case. “To me, having a foreign intelligence agency set up one of my decedents with lies and planting false stories, to me that’s pretty outrageous,” she’s quoted saying.
Even by mid-2017, the theory was, for the most part, promoted only by a handful of popular, yet widely discredited far-right sources. That changed, however, after Fox News began publicly promoting an uncorroborated and later retracted story authored by Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman.
On May 16, 2017, Fox News ran Zimmerman’s story on the front page of its website under the headline, “Slain DNC staffer had contact with WikiLeaks, investigator says.” (The headline would later change as Fox News scrambled to rewrite the story before inevitably retracting it.)
On the day of publication, the investigator referenced by the initial headline, a Fox News contributor named Rod Wheeler, would claim during a CNN interview that he had seen “no evidence to suggest Rich had contacted Wikileaks before his death.” A private investigator and former detective, Wheeler, it was later revealed, had been working on the investigation on behalf of businessman and Trump supporter Ed Butowsky, whom the Rich family had at one point permitted to investigate Rich’s death.
Prior to the outlet retracting the story, the conspiracy pushed by Fox News was promoted enthusiastically by several of its hosts or hosts of sister networks, none of whom have since corrected themselves on air.
Laura Ingraham, for instance, suggested on her show that Rich was “shot in the back” for leaking the DNC files to WikiLeaks. Disregarding the statements made by Zimmerman that afternoon, Fox Business host Lou Dobbs labeled the story on the evening after it dropped a “bombshell.” Sean Hannity, a close friend of President Trump, suggested that the “massive breaking news story” effectively debunked the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia was behind the DNC breach.
By then aware that the story was falling apart, Fox News quietly began rewriting the article online. The following day, Rich’s name was not mentioned by any of the network’s hosts. On May 23, Fox News retracted the story, seven days after it went live. Hannity, however, would continue promoting it, telling listeners of his radio show that day that he was “retracted nothing”; this, even as Rich’s brother Aaron publicly begged Hannity to stop smearing his brother’s name. However, on his Fox News show that night, without mentioning the retracted article, Hannity said of the conspiracy theory, “Out of respect for the family’s wishes, for now, I am not discussing this matter at this time.”
In August 2017, Jay Wallace, a Fox News executive, publicly disputed that Zimmerman’s story was published in an effort to help President Trump; a claim made by Wheeler, who was by that time no longer a contributor at the network, but suing Fox News while claiming that Zimmerman had fabricated quotes attributed to him.
Wallace also stated that an internal investigation was underway at the company to identify the missteps in its reporting process. Zimmerman, however, continued spreading conspiracies about Rich on Twitter while still reportedly working for the company. Fox News would never again mention the internal investigation. It remains unclear whether Wallace lied about conducting one.
Fox News did not respond to a request for comment.
In March 2018, Joel and Mary Rich, the slain DNC staffer’s parents, filed a lawsuit against Fox News, Butowsky, and others accused of not only smearing Rich’s name, but openly attacking his family’s reputation. (All of the defendants have denied the claims.) As Isikoff reports, Fox News has claimed in court that its erroneous report that blackened Rich’s reputation is merely a “classic case” of journalism protected by the First Amendment.
Hear more about Isikoff’s investigation on the Yahoo News podcast Conspiracyland.