On Provenance and Putin: That Sid Blumenthal Story

At a campaign appearance yesterday, Donald Trump quoted a judgment that Kurt Eichenwald made in an article last year on the Benghazi investigation.

One important point has been universally acknowledged by the nine previous reports about Benghazi: The attack was almost certainly preventable. Clinton was in charge of the State Department, and it failed to protect U.S. personnel at an American consulate in Libya. If the GOP wants to raise that as a talking point against her, it is legitimate.

The rest of the article was about how politicized the inquiry was. But right there in the middle of his article, Eichenwald included a namby pamby both-sides paragraph — one that could have better nuanced the conclusions of the many Benghazi reports — that said Benghazi was a legitimate issue to raise against Hillary.

Sucks to be Eichenwald, because Trump just used it on his campaign, to thrilled cries from his frothy supporters.

The quote came up on the campaign trail because Sid Blumenthal had forwarded the article — highlighting the description about the politicized questioning he himself had undergone, but ultimately quoting the entire article, including that namby pamby paragraph — to a bunch of undisclosed recipients, including John Podesta, under the subject line “The truth…” Blumenthal surely meant that Eichenwald’s larger point — that the whole investigation was politicized — was the truth, but he did forward the whole thing, including the namby pamby paragraph, under that heading.

The forwarded story got released by WikiLeaks as part of its Podesta leaks (emails which Hillary effectively confirmed during the debate by explaining one of the emails that had attracted the most attention).

Now, as it turns out, Sputnik published a story on the email, erroneously attributing the entire judgment, including that attacking Hillary for Benghazi was a legit talking point, to Blumenthal, not Eichenwald. They apparently realized their error and took it down. But not before Eichenwald started wondering how Trump came to be quoting his own namby pamby paragraph on the campaign trail.

In an article asserting that Trump got his talking point from the Sputnik story, Eichenwald has given up not only his namby pamby tone, but moderation. In it, having already suggested the misattribution to Blumenthal was due to “incompetence,” he then claims it was also deliberate disinformation. He then states as fact that Trump got this “falsehood” from the Kremlin.

This is not funny. It is terrifying. The Russians engage in a sloppy disinformation effort and, before the day is out, the Republican nominee for president is standing on a stage reciting the manufactured story as truth. How did this happen? Who in the Trump campaign was feeding him falsehoods straight from the Kremlin? (The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment).

The Russians have been obtaining American emails and now are presenting complete misrepresentations of them—falsifying them—in hopes of setting off a cascade of events that might change the outcome of the presidential election. The big question, of course, is why are the Russians working so hard to damage Clinton and, in the process, aid Donald Trump? That is a topic for another time.

Here’s an earlier version of the article, in which Eichenwald even more obviously asserts that the Sputnik article is both an error and a deliberate falsification.

Of course, this might be seen as just an opportunity to laugh at the incompetence of the Russian hackers and government press—once they realized their error, Sputnik took the article down. But this is not funny at all. The Russians have been obtaining American emails and now are presenting complete misrepresentations of them—falsifying them—in hopes of setting off a cascade of events that might change the outcome of the presidential election. The big question, of course, is why are the Russians working so hard to damage Clinton and, in the process, aid Donald Trump. That is a topic for another time.

There are two interesting details about Eichenwald’s story. Nowhere in the piece does he link the actual Wikileaks email, which makes it clear that Blumenthal had, in fact, forwarded that namby pamby paragraph along with everything else. It is clear that the email was just a forwarded Newsweek article, but given that the part Blumenthal highlighted at the top was his own testimony, it is perhaps understandable why someone might make the misattribution.

More interesting still, while Eichenwald links this YouTube of what he says is Trump repeating the Sputnik talking point, he only selectively quotes from it. But it appears (and I admit that this, as with all of Trump’s ramblings, is not entirely clear) that Trump introduces the quote this way:

So Blumenthal writes a quote — this just came out a little while ago, I have to tell you this. “One important point has been …

It’s certainly possible Trump meant, “So Blumenthal writes, I quote,” but at least to my ear, he said, “Blumenthal writes a quote.” If that’s right, then Trump couldn’t have been working from Sputnik (or he at least wasn’t replicating their error), because he would have been properly attributing this judgment as a quote (of Eichenwald). Trump does go on to say “this is Sidney Blumenthal, the only one he was talking to,” after insinuating that one reason Hillary set up her email server may have been to continue talking to “Sleazy Sidney” after Obama told her to stop, but nowhere in the clip do I see Trump IDing it as an email from Blumenthal. Perhaps Eichenwald bases this assertion — “He told the assembled crowd that it was an email from Blumenthal” — on some other part of the appearance.

Eichenwald also notes that Trump was “holding a document in his hand.” But the document appears to be a transcribed talking point; it’s almost certainly not the Sputnik article. So that doesn’t tell us anything about provenance.

In other words, it’s not actually clear where Trump got this from, or whether Trump’s staffers had at least corrected Sputnik’s error. It may well be! But Eichenwald hasn’t made that case.

Apparently this frothy Trump supporter tweeted out the claim, just as Trump stated it, though he has since deleted it. (h/t Emma Jones) The supporter, who joined Twitter in February 2016, could well be a Russian troll (but one that long precedes this particular leak campaign), but he certainly models as an Infowars loving Hillary hater who overreads anything implicating her, something America has in ready supply without Putin’s help.

There’s one other part of this that I find notable, aside from the claim that Sputnik made this error out of both incompetence and deliberate disinformation. A big part of this narrative is that Wikileaks is doing Russia’s bidding rather than — a more logical explanation — attacking Hillary, with whom Julian Assange has had a 6-year adversarial relationship.


Wikileaks may well be working with Russia and/or the effect of sharing a mutual interest in weakening Hillary may amount to the same.

But this is actually a case where Russia did not do what has been alleged they might. That is, Wikileaks released what is an email no one contests, a not very controversial one at all. While Wikileaks has made misleading claims about what it has released at times, this is not one of them.

One thing clearly did not happen though. Even assuming Russia is responsible for the Podesta email leak, Russia did not “falsify” the original email to say what Eichenwald is so convinced Russia wanted to claim, that Blumenthal himself had endorsed Eichenwald’s namby pamby judgment that Benghazi is a fair talking point to use against Hillary. That claim only came after Sputnik tried to make it a bigger issue (but then realized its error, according to Eichenwald).

If Russia were doing what Eichenwald claimed — and they might in the future!! — then they would have doctored the email on the front end, not when republishing it in a state outlet.

Update: Unsurprisingly, Glenn Greenwald rips this (especially Eichenwald’s inflammatory tweets about the story) apart. More interesting, WaPo also dings Eichenwald for overclaiming what this incident reveals.


Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

21 replies
  1. mla1396 says:

    Short: Yet another link in the growing chain of why we are too immature to have an adult conversation. Also further reinforcement of my comment yesterday on the “Brick and Mortars” piece that you must thoroughly understand a topic before you go running your mouth on the same.

    This may seem inane here but remember, most of the globe reacts and understands sound bites, not analysis, which makes it (in my dreams at least) an inherent responsibility of influencers to know what the fuck they are talking about.

    • emptywheel says:

      Yup. And far more people read Newsweek (even now) than read Sputnik. Eichenwald just created the propaganda he claims to oppose. If I were applying his standards of evidence to his article, I’d suggest it was just deliberate Hillary disinformation (which they’re quote good at). But it’s probably just really sloppy confirmation bias.

  2. JerryN says:

    I think Josh Marshall lays out the most likely case for how the Sputnik article came to be a talking point for Trump – the alt-right picks up the article and, either via tweets or reddit comments, spreads it through the fever swamps. Since we know that at least some of Trump’s team are denizens of those same swamps, they see it and latch on to it.

    • emptywheel says:

      Or maybe that guy tweeting the email himself led to Sputnik. There’s zero zero zero zero evidence (yet) Trump got this from Sputnik, and anyone saying there is is engaging in the same kind of fact-free propaganda Putin does.

      • JerryN says:

        Fair enough. I’d just add that even if you can tie it back to Sputnik being the original source for the talking point, there’s still nothing that implies some direct connection between Russian source and the Trump campaign.

        • emptywheel says:

          Yeah, Josh’s underlying point is absolutely right: We should be at least as worried that Trump is swimming in Nazi circles as he is in Putin propaganda.

  3. Stumpy says:

    This simply highlights the ongoing problem of corrupt attribution, amplified by the overripe self-proclaimed intelligentsia of bloggers who’ve met the threshold of followers to be recognized in the echo chamber of its respective masses. Yet another case of who said what 3 to 4 times removed from the actual source. A cyber spitball. There is nothing in this article that survives a chain-of-custody test, which is bad enough, but judging another equally authoritative author’s work to be namby pamby when the root issue is people dying from Cabinet-level incompetence is contemptible.

    • bmaz says:

      Hey there, when you utter the words “self proclaimed intelligentsia” you ought take a good hard look in the mirror. And, by the way, as someone who deals with real “chain of custody” concerns for a living, you babbling those words in this, a journalistic context, is simply asinine.

      • Evangelista says:

        bmaz (and others),

        chain of custody is chain of custody equally in every context, whether legal contexts, journalistic, scientific, whether the babysitter got paid, or what happened to the cookies we thought were in the cookie-jar.   Nobody has a lock on any ‘legitimate use’ of ‘chain of custody’

        In the current context the question is more of who picked up what from whom, which is a time-line question.  The matter of Sputnik “rewriting” is tangential side-issue without significance absent legitimated proof of deliberateness and intent to alter meaning of content.  Cf. to sic or not to sic, which is in a degree related:  As when a language is not native across a content spread spectrum sics in content are not correctly sics, or proper to sic, if meanings are recognizable, for continuity, since siccing is disruptive and perceive deprecating, ven when deprecation is not intended, so with misconstructions arising from missing of nuance, or misreading of phrasing in a foreign language.  The need would be to eliminate this potential for the Sputnik error to assign the error deliberate.

        I have not followed the time-lines all the way through, but doing a quick check and calculating zones on my fingers, my reading is that Sputnik got the story from Trump, who appears to have got it from someone sifting the Wikileak haystack for needles.

        I, personally, think Putin, Lavrov, the RT, Russia Insider and Sputnik journalists nd the average Russian all have way more pressing issues to occupy time with than dabbling in the most ridiculous election ever in a nation whose greatest fame is ridiculous elections, and whose genuine capacity to shock and awe is that the goddamn thing does, somehow, despite all, keep on at least sorta kinda functioning as a nation.

        • bmaz says:

          This is literally borderline insane. You may succeed at wasting electrons with rambling diatribe, but that does not make your comments cogent or of any value.

          Suggestion: Try for less words and more value. It is a tried and true template.

        • emptywheel says:

          The timeline suggests Trump got it from that Twitter commenter, either via or before it got to Sputnik.

          • Evangelista says:

            The natural usual in info-download searching is for ASAP downloading and immediate search for downloader-interest relevant content.  For this the presupposition would be that Sputnik and others would download at the same time and Sputnik would key search ‘Russia’, ‘Russian’, ‘Putin’, etc., while others would do like, but reflecting their primary interests.  Thus, the first-searchers for ‘Bengazi’ and ‘Blumenthal’ would be the Bengazi-fixated looking for Clinton relevant Bengazi repartee.

            In subject areas of secondary, or only news interest the ‘first-searchers’ tend to act, without intending to, as ‘filters’ and focusers for followers of their feeds.

            Note that The Donald almost certainly does not do his own net-combing, and so gets staff ‘prepped’, categorized, rated and angle-tabbed info subsequent to all that being done and copies being made, etc., which introduces lag in time.

            My guess (since I am not putting time in on this business) is that both Trump-group and Sputnik group got Bengazer-filtered info; Sputnik misread, then corrected (while K. got lost in his oak forest).

  4. Don Bacon says:

    The whole story is a giggle because there was no attack on a US consulate, but on a CIA cell involved in shipping arms to Turkey for use in Syria, with the deaths of an ambassador who was playing spook (as he had done before) and four CIA mercs, which Clinton then took the fall for because nobody rats on CIA and lives.

  5. GKJames says:

    What is Eichenwald’s objection? Someone cited his writing. Is he cheesed off because it was Trump (as opposed to Clinton)? The Russians? Is he trying to walk back what he wrote? If so, that wouldn’t be bad idea; to say that “[t]he attack was ALMOST CERTAINLY preventable” [my emphasis] is incoherence per se.

  6. Skilly says:

    The link in your update to the Greenwald article is 404 error. It appears that the guardian moved it.

  7. terry priest says:

    are you saying that trump just cleverly gave the impression to people in the hall that he was reading a sidney blumenthal email to hillary but he knew that he was reading a newsweek quote and then just one little white lie at the end, “he (blumenthal) is now admitting”. i watched the video and trump is clearly giving the impression he is reading a blumenthal email to hillary. he certainly does not mention the quote is from newsweek. i think it is stretching pretty far to say he got it right. eichenwalds point is still good with me, there may be zero evidence that trump wakes up and reads sputnik, but he seems to have carried their error in to his speech.

    • emptywheel says:

      Well, let’s see. I quoted that part of the transcript and Eichenwald did not. Eichenwald also said Trump had said something he didn’t. Let’s start there.

      Then let’s talk about the fact that IT DOESN’T matter whether Blumenthal was described as forwarding it or as quoting it (though as I said, I think Trump did say he quoted it). In some ways it BETTER serves Trump’s purposes if someone who is not a sleaze said it. Was Trump’s citation dishonest, in that he ascribed to Blumenthal a view he probably doesn’t hold? Yup! Did Blumenthal send that paragraph to Podesta? Yup!

      But all of that is about Trump. It has zero to do with Russia. That’s the point here. Eichenwald wants his namby pamby paragraph to be about Russia and it’s really that his paragraph was namby pamby and was easily misrepresented by Trump who’s a douchebag whether it involves Eichenwald namby pamby paragraphs or not to say something damaging to Hillary.

      That’s Trump’s MO. Has been for decades, long before any presumed effort to sway the election.


  8. Cathy Ann says:

    You’re missing this point: Trump is most certainly NOT just quoting the original Newsweek article (from ages ago) because that’s not news, it’s not leaked info, and he has no reason to be excited about it. He is quoting what he thinks is devastating news, which means he is indeed quoting the “leaked” email. Again, if he knew the correct attribution of that specific paragraph he wouldn’t be excited about it because it’s an old article, so clearly he thinks the paragraph was written by Blumenthal. Which means his source was Sputnik. The content of the email and its source is actually irrelevant to the Big Story here. The Big Story (as if we didn’t already know) is that Trump gets his (poorly attributed) news from Sputnik.

  9. rugger9 says:

    It does highlight the problem with the way Wikileaks is currently operating with an agenda to get HRC.  I’ve noted before that evidence can be planted as well as buried.

    Is there any indication about the timeline of accessing these emails via hackery (was this part of the earlier hack or an independent wave)?  The answer to that question could also prove to be useful to know.

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