Notes on lecture ‘From Russia with Love? Reporting on Spies in the Age of Trump’

Monday evening, my university’s media and journalism initiative hosted investigative journalists Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo, who gave a lecture about their coverage of international espionage in the “Trump era”. Once again, yours truly managed to get off her lazy (or is it overworked?) arse and check it out.

From event flyers:

How do 21st century journalists report on spies? What were the FBI, CIA and others really up to during the election? And what’s really going on now with the investigations into Russian hacking, conflicts of interest, and the Trump campaign? Fresh from their latest investigations, Goldman and Apuzzo will share their insider perspectives on digging into world’s biggest story with immense political stakes.

You might also recall Goldman and Apuzzo from their award-winning 2011 reporting that spotlighted the New York Police Department’s clandestine spying program that monitored daily life in Muslim communities–a series that prompted national debate on civil liberties and the role of domestic intelligence gathering.

World’s biggest story, hm? We’ll see about that.


An early warning: this will read differently than my previous set of lecture notes – specifically, I have more of a presence here. I didn’t stay for the Q&A this time; by the hour mark I’d heard enough. It had been raining relentlessly all day, but at that moment the downpour had let up slightly, and I longed to return to the dorm to shed my waterlogged shoes, make a warm cup of tea, finish tomorrow’s assignments, and of course draft this post.

While reading this, keep in mind that I missed out on the last 30 minutes of this lecture. If you’re a kvu student who stayed for the Q&A, feel free to inform me of what I missed by leaving a comment below!


My overall impression of ‘From Russia with Love’ is that it was low on substance, high on fluff. Especially when measured against its Trenin predecessor, which diagnosed the situation, made policy recommendations, laid predictions for the future, and addressed audience questions, all within a neat hour and a half. After an hour, I’d learned quite a bit about the two speakers, but had received only vague information about their big story, spies, espionage reporting, or the lecture’s main selling point: “Trump-Russia collusion”. Was this done to protect Sources and Methods™? Perhaps. But why hold the lecture at all, then?

Anyway, here is what I recorded.

Who are Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo?

Sufficed to say, I’d never heard of these two fellows until this lecture.

Goldman has written for the Associated Press and the New York Times and has been a reporter for the national security team at the Washington Post since 2013. He has received several journalism awards, including the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, the George Polk Award for Investigative Reporting, the Edgar A. Poe Award from the White House Correspondents Association, and the 2014 Shadid Award. Goldman specializes in the FBI and national security.

Apuzzo has written for The Standard-Times, the Associated Press and The New York Times. He has covered law enforcement and security issues for decades and has been working for the New York Times since 2013.

As previously mentioned, Goldman and Apuzzo won the Pullitzer Prize in 2012 for their investigation of an NYPD intelligence program monitoring Muslim communities. According to the two, they learned about what was happening via CIA contacts, who bragged about programs being implemented in New York City which involved:

  • counting Qurans
  • Infiltrating Muslim communities and businesses
  • Tracking who watched AlJazeera in cafes, and
  • Planting informants in Muslim student associations at schools and universities, among other things.

This had apparently been happening since 2011, but the MSM hadn’t reported on it yet. After Apuzzo and Goldman brought the story to light, they received much pushback from other journalists not willing to “jump in”, as they put it. But when they discovered a similar program being implemented in Newark, NJ, the NJ press was willing to pick up the story. The revelations sparked furious debate on domestic surveillance. The NYPD, under intense scrutiny, released a statement promising to reinstate civilian oversight within its intelligence division. However, Goldman and Apuzzo say there wasn’t a clean ending – some believed the two journalists had made New York City less safe by reporting the story.

Goldman and Apuzzo began reporting on spies and counterspies after they both moved to Washington, D.C. Apuzzo already dealt with national security issues; Goldman possessed institutional knowledge of the CIA and had done CIA-related reporting on the side prior to moving. In their eyes, before 9-11, national security reporting revolved around espionage. After 9-11, if you were covering national security, you were covering counterterrorism. The spy world is deeply secretive (no surprise there) and the media dips into it only occasionally.

Apuzzo and Goldman remark that the most difficult task in espionage reporting is determining knowledge. How much confirmation is confirmation? If the Americans are listening in on a Russian intelligence operative telling his boss that he’s recruited an American, how can they verify that he’s telling the truth? Who’s to say that the operative isn’t intentionally lying? That’s how the game is played, after all.

(It was at this moment in the lecture that shy and conscientious J.T. looked up from her laptop, silently wondering whether “spy games” only existed between the U.S. and Russia, not between the U.S. and any other Big Country. For that was the impression given by the two journalists. O naive J.T., read more espionage novels and you will know the truth!)

So, about this “Trump-Russia collusion” thing

-According to Goldman and Apuzzo, the situation has definitely slowed down since the events of late October 2016 (this is their vantage point – Comey’s letter about the Clinton emails).

Eleven days before the election, the FBI director notifies congress and they reopen an investigation into the frontrunner for president – what’s a bigger news story than that?

-Goldman and Apuzzo say they knew that the chances of finding anything in the emails that would change the outcome of the election would be close to zero. Yet the shadow of the federal investigation hung over Hillary.

-They also had an inkling about shady dealings and the Trump campaign, but it wasn’t being covered extensively at the time. There was a rumor going around that a secret computer channel existed between Trump Tower and the FSB in Moscow. Apuzzo and Goldman tried to run it down and found absolutely nothing. Hold on to that point for a moment.

-They argue the Clinton Foundation investigation only mattered because Trump wasn’t the frontrunner at the time and he wasn’t going to win. This seems simplified in my opinion.

-Apuzzo and Goldman say that a certain amount of information in the Trump dossier is certifiably true and some is fuzzy. There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Corroborating is difficult. One of the journalists (I didn’t record which) mentioned that the FBI offered him $50,000 to corroborate claims in the dossier. However, the two didn’t give examples of such “certifiably true” information in their lecture, nor did they direct curious students to the sources “proving” those things were true. They say the Russians tried to recruit Carter Page in 2013, but don’t say where they got that factoid – whether from the dossier, another news agency, or their own research.

-More theorizing and opinion. Back to Comey and the FBI investigation – they say the FBI was very attuned o Washington politics and was afraid of losing credibility if they did nothing about the new emails and Hillary won. / Did the New York Times think Hillary was going to win? Yes. But both Goldman and Apuzzo say the campaigns were nauseating to watch and didn’t affect their coverage. Accountability journalism on Trump by the Times and the Washington Post wasn’t done to take down Trump, in the same way the Clinton email stories weren’t done to take down Hillary. Candidates always face scrutiny during elections.

-Apuzzo and Goldman say “the Russians leaked Podesta’s email”. This seems pretty bald to me, as there are some within the expert community still unsure of that claim’s validity.

-Obligatory mention of the “Russian influence campaign” in the U.S. and Europe. But no definition or contextualization of said “campaign” for unfamiliar or skeptical audience members. Unsurprising, really – like “Russian aggression”, “Russian influence campaign” has been repeated so many times at this point that many simply accept it as fact.

-Apuzzo and Goldman do not agree with how Buzzfeed published the entire dossier at once. Now Buzzfeed is being sued (by one of the people mentioned in the dossier, I believe). The two say they would’ve tried to verify parts of the dossier first, then publish it piecemeal.

Thus concluded the lecture – the part I stayed for, anyways.

As I left the school of public policy, laptop clutched tight in one arm and umbrella lifted in the other, I couldn’t help but feel perplexed. Barely anything substantial or new had been said about the “Trump-Russia collusion” or even how espionage is reported in the modern era. Yet these two journalists were utterly convinced that they are covering the biggest bombshell of a story ever:

We’ll be talking about this twenty, maybe thirty years from now.

While everyone around me – from plugged-in Resistance types to journalism faculty – nodded, laughed, knew the full contents of the dossier, accepted Russian influence, and seemingly took every word as near-truth.

Either I’m farther out of the loop than I thought, or something is being kept from me.

And that, my friends, is a known unknown.

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4 comments

  1. Other pertinent information:

    In 2015, a NYT front-page story by Mr. Apuzzo and Michael S Schmidt about the Clinton email controversy drew criticism for inaccuracies. They’d reported that inspectors general had filed a criminal referral to the Justice Department on Clinton over her handling of classified information. In a piece for Mother Jones, columnist Kevin Drum wrote, “virtually everything about the story turned out to be wrong.” Later, it turned out that while the referral was a “security referral” the FBI had in fact opened an investigation.

    Later that year, in December, Apuzzo and Schmidt once again came under fire with a NYT story saying that the shooters in the San Bernadino attack had “talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad”. The director of the FBI dismissed the reporting as “garble” and it was later revealed that the woman had mentioned jihad in private communications. The New York Times’s public editor called for “systemic changes” after these two erroneous articles by Apuzzo and his coauthors which both relied on anonymous government sources. Margaret Sullivan described these problems as a “red alert” highlighting the need for more dilligent and skeptical reporting/editing.

    Just an aside, y’know?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. J.T., hello!
    This will sound strange, but I’ll write it anyway. I’m not very interested on the topic, and even not well informed. But I think this is really important that you have the access and opportunity to visit these lectures and listen to one some very interesting people. Hey, they won the Pullitzer Prize! This counts for something.
    I also think it’s important that you write your notes and impressions afterwards. I know it helps to analyze your thoughts after the lecture. Keep up the good work!
    (Even though this topic isn’t in my sphere of interests, I read your post and your comment. What can I say, at least your journalists can express their thoughts and opinions without the fear of being shot or beaten afterwards — and the crime would never be solved…)

    Liked by 1 person

    • “What can I say, at least your journalists can express their thoughts and opinions without the fear of being shot or beaten afterwards — and the crime would never be solved…”

      You are absolutely right, Olga! Because in This Country ™ all honest, Free and Independent, Living-Not-By-A-Lie, sufferig for Yours and Ours Freedom Journalists, are routinely beaten, shot at, murdered, desmembered and fed to the bears (so there are no bodies!) in the cavernous basements of Lyubanka’s tourture chamber. All of these, naturally, happens by direct orders of the Dark Overlord of Mordor himself.

      Everybody Knows That ™ – and there is no proof needed. In fact – there is never any proof needed when you got to claim that some Nasty Stuff is happening in This Country.

      How handshakable!

      Like

  3. And because Olga raised such important topic, that is of great interest to the members of intelligentzia (i.e. all there present) – let’s talk about the state of Russian journalism and its most handshakable and investigative aspect. Which, you might be surprised, might not be the same thing. At all.

    Exhibit A.

    Ekho Moskvy – a bastion of conscientious reporting and highest standards of honest journalism, with the impeccable tract record when it comes to fight for hearts and minds of the liberal intelligentsia, and whose editorial board consists slightly less than entirely of the People With Good Faces, and who invites for their interviews and op-eds equally Good Faced people – not some vatniks, that’s for sure.

    But then – this happened:

    “The editor-in-chief of the radio station Ekho Moskvy, Alexei Venediktov, announced that the radio station is stopping its cooperation with the writer Mikhail Weller until he apologizes to the radio-host Olga Bychkova for his hysterics on Thursday, April 27, during the “Special Opinion” program

    […]

    The conflict began on the 10th minute of the program, when Weller said: “If you did not read the programs of her party, if you did not read the programs of Macron, if you are not familiar with the ongoing processes, then you are a moron and a chaff-head. And your chaff-head had already being uploaded with ready thoughts “.

    Bychkova clarified that maybe the person who asked this question had already read the candidates’ programs, but Weller reprimanded her: “Do not interrupt me, it makes me nervous, annoying and disturbing. Are you a host or someone stumbling, stopping and interfering? You are not helping, only getting into way.” Bychkova listened to the claim with a smile and replied: “We are in a dialogue, I’m listening further.”

    […]

    After that, Weller grabbed the microphone on the table, hurled it aside, then with both hands grabbed a cup of water and poured it into the direction of the radio-host, and as it turned out later, splashed her glasses. Throwing the cup aside, across the table to the floor, he left the studio with the words: “The dumb cow! I do not want to know you anymore”.”

    Unreachable heights of the superior upbringing – an object of the universal envy for the stupid vata!

    Exhibit B

    Ilya Ponomaryov – daahrling of the Western Free and Democratic media, who is often invited to such outlets of Objectivity as VOA, RFE/RL, CNN and a plethora of the Ukrian TV channels. His obligatory titles, mentioned in virtually every publication that mention him, call Ponomaryov a “dissident Duma deputy”, “an exile”, and hails his high moral standards for voting against the re-unification of Crimea with the rest of Russia. The fact that he was pocketing money from Skolovo for which he is currently searched by the Investigative Committee of Russia is OBVIOUSLY a politically motivated persecution – handshakable people a priori can’t be corruptioners. Even when they are and its proven by non Russian sources, e.g. Gary Kasparov’s corruption scandal. If the Western MSM does not report it – it didn’t happen.

    And Ilya Ponomaryov has quite a following of faithful fans

    Translation: “First TV Channel got such a name, so that during the hustle of the coup d’état you’d understand clearly, whom among the sell-out journalists to hang up first”

    Goo thing that despite the atmosphere of the general Terror and Repressions (#New1937IsUponUs) there are still valiant people who do their job and deliver journalist investigation. Like in this instance, when we learn who is the author of this cute and liberal twitt, what are his political sympathies and how is he connected with the liberal hero Ponomaryov.

    Freedom of speech is considered to be a universal value protected by the law. Freedom after the speech – less so, see anti-extremist legislation in the so-called Civilized world and anti-hate speech laws. Our potential “a hero” and Ponomayov’s fan Voloshin already wrote enough to get himself persecuted for incitement of the racial hatred, plus the incitement of hatred based on the social and political status of the people (Federal law #114-FZ).

    Surely, the fact that a group and judiciously conscious citizens plan to file an official inquiry to the Prosecution Office is absolutely positive sign, demonstrating how Russia is building its Civil Society, overcomes Legislative Nihilism and improves the Rule of Law. All so-called Russian liberals must furiously handshake these efforts and voicefully condemn Ponomaryov and his minion!

    Exhibit C

    It’s rare thing indeed, when the journalists in This Country “can express their thoughts and opinions without the fear of being shot or beaten afterwards — and the crime would never be solved…” (c). Because that’s exactly what might threaten them, should they dare to touch a living artifact of the Rough 90s – M.B. Khodorkovsky, twice convicted criminal with blood on his hands.

    Nevertheless, brave journalists did their jobs, and brought to light his financial schemes and roundabout ways of financing so-called “non-systemic opposition” on Russia, for which he already spent 200 mlns of rubles (c. 3 mlns of euros), 40 mlns of which went to (officially unemployed twice convicted crook) Navalny’s FBK.

    Now – how can you claim, that Russian journo-sphere is “dead”? Oh, no – there is so much cooking in it!

    Like

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