Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Seth Rich Case: A Conspiracy Theory Inside a Conspiracy Theory

by Nomad

Most of us have at least heard of the Seth Rich story even if we are not too familiar with the details. I never really looked into it too much.
There were too many other stories that served as examples about just how low Trump and the right-wing news outlets were prepared to go to slander Hillary Clinton.
Yet, in the wake of what we have learned in the last year, it is worth a second look.

Murder on the Street 

On Sunday, July 10, 2016, at 4:20 a.m., a young man named Seth Rich was shot in the back by two assailants. As he made his way back home from having a night out, Seth Conrad Rich was chatting with his girlfriend. He was nearly home when gunshots rang out.
He was found lying on the ground only a block from his apartment.

At the time of his murder, it was considered just another urban crime statistic. Over 100 people were killed in the nation's capital that year and 78 of those were victims of shootings. For the family, friends, and co-workers, it was a personal tragedy.

A short time later, things took an unusual twist when speculation began on the Internet that Rich's murder was connected to his work.
For two years, Rich had worked for the Democratic National Committee, as the Voter Expansion Data Director, which was working on ways to help voters, especially young, senior and minority citizens, find their nearest polling stations.

There was, perhaps unsurprisingly, some discussion that Rich's murder might have something to do with his work and leaks.
WikiLeaks had published the first batch of DNC emails on July 22, one day before the Democratic Convention and ten days after Rich had been murdered. Those 20,000 emails that embarrassed the DNC and forced the ouster of its chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

However, the DC police believed and still believe that Rich was shot and killed in a botched armed robbery, despite the fact that his watch and wallet were still with the body when police discovered it. 
Strange? Perhaps but had he not worked for the DNC, it is very likely the American public would never have heard Seth Rich's name. 

The Wikileaks Connection

Assistant Police Chief Peter Newsham told the press the police had no information suggesting a connection between Rich's death and data obtained by WikiLeaks.
That view has never changed.
One of Rich's co-workers stated that Rich was very upset when he heard hackers associated with Russian intelligence services had broken into the DNC computers and could be interfering with the election.

Actually, the real impetus for the speculation of a Wikileaks source came from none-other-than Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks. In August 2016, only a month after the murder, Assange announced on Twitter a $20,000 reward for information leading to a conviction in Rich’s killing. 

He insinuated on the Dutch television program, Nieuwsuur, that Rich was could have been a martyr for the Wikileaks mission of full disclosure. When asked directly whether Mr. Rich was a source of the DNC leaks, he refused to say. He only said that his organization was investigating what he called a “concerning situation.”

Notice how slippery Assange in this interview:
Interviewer: What are you suggesting?

Assange: I'm suggesting that our sources take risks and they become concerned to see things occurring like that.

Interviewer: Was he one of your sources, then?

Assange: We don't comment on here our sources

Interviewer: Then why make the suggestion about a young guy being shot in the streets of Washington?

Assange: Because we have to understand how high the stakes are in the United States and that our sources, as you know, face serious risks. That's why they come to us so we can protect their anonymity.
By the time, this interview was published on Youtube, Russian trolls and bots were rushing in to give it the necessary support. (If you doubt it, just check the comments from two years ago.) 

Did Assange know the true source of the DNC leaks? Presumably, he did. At least, he had a rough idea that the material was stolen and not delivered. 
One thing is certain: Assange's input created just enough doubt to ramp up the speculation of a connection between the leaks and the murder.

Of course, FBI has always believed that Kremlin-backed hacking groups, namely Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear, had gained access to the DNC servers. The recent indictments against 12 alleged Russian intelligence officials make it very clear that the DNC break-in was an operation devised and carried out by the GRU, a Russian military intelligence agency.

Trump's CIA Director Mike Pompeo has stated that he believes that Wikileaks is “a non-state hostile intelligence service, often abetted by state actors like Russia.” Pompeo should know.

According to an article in Forbes, not only did the Russians hack the DNC, not only did Wikileaks distribute the material, the GRU "tainted" the emails which, experts say, contained a mixture of real and fake information. 
It is not hard to view Assange's remarks on Seth Rich's murder as an attempt to provide a distraction from the actual source of the DNC leaks.

One last coincidence, worthy of a conspiracy theory. In an interview with the New American magazine, the infamous operative and Trump advisor Roger Stone said it was “abundantly clear” that Rich was murdered for having blown the whistle on the DNC by leaking explosive documents to WikiLeaks. 
Assange did nothing wrong by distributing the stolen documents Stone said. Julian was a journalist and a “truth teller,” not a criminal.

Yet, according to FBI indictment, around August 15 of 2016, Russian agents posing as Guccifer 2.0 reached out to Stone who is referred to as "a person who was in regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump. Stone admits meeting with a Russian in May 2016 who offered him "dirt" on Hillary Clinton in exchange for $2million.

Enter Fox News

As conspiracy theories go, it was, in fact, based on fairly flimsy evidence. However, on the Internet and social media, speculation has a tendency to thrive without much in the way of solid proof. That might be good enough for online discussions or for right-wing call-in radio shows. 

The conspiracy theory eventually saw the light of day through right-wing media personalities and outlets, including Breitbart News and the Drudge Report. 

At some point, a friend of Trump advisor Steve Bannon, Ed Butowsky approached the Rich family with an offer. The Dallas financier is a Fox Business Network commentator and writes articles for Breitbart News, TheBlaze.  Butowsky has given himself the title of "an internationally recognized expert in the wealth management industry" and a "leading voice on financial matters." He is also a staunch Donald Trump supporter.

Butowsky recommended an independent investigation of Seth's death by Fox News contributor and former homicide detective Rod Wheeler. 
Wheeler was a long-time Fox News contributor and is what passes as an expert there. 

Although the family gave Wheeler permission to Wheeler to investigate, they did not actually hire him. (Later Butowsky claimed no involvement then admitted that he had offered to pay Wheeler's fees.)

On 15 May 2017, news broke that Wheeler's investigation had found evidence that Rich had emailed WikiLeaks shortly before he was murdered. This news catapulted the fringe conspiracy theory into the spotlight. 
It worked something like: Rich was discovered leaking damaging information and, so the theory went, Hillary put out a hit on him. The truth was out there and the allegations could be proven with “tangible evidence on Rich's laptop.”

Fox News published Wheeler's allegations as fact. Then, somebody- probably on the advice of legal counsel- had serious second thoughts. On 23 May 2017, Fox retracted the story for not meeting “the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting.”  
Stop laughing already.

In typical Fox style, the retraction came with fuzzy packaging. It concluded with this sentence:
We will continue to investigate this story and will provide updates as warranted.
But Fox was not quite done speculating. Two days after the retraction, a Republican lobbyist, Jack Burkman, claimed that he had evidence that Rich was murdered by the Russians. Rich had stumbled upon the hacking and had been eliminated by Russian operatives.
His proof? An anonymous source was reportedly a former U.S. intelligence officer. (The actual phrase was "a guy who styles himself as a former U.S. intel officer.")

On the same day that Fox made its retraction, a spokesman for the Rich family said:
“As we’ve seen through the past year of unsubstantiated claims, we see no facts, we have seen no evidence, we have been approached with no emails and only learned about this when contacted by the press.”
The DC police made similar statements to counter Wheeler's claims. 

Hannity's Insanity

Although Fox News- rather wisely- washed its hands of that story, there was one person who did not retract the allegation against Rich. The person was Sean Hannity. He rigorously spread the conspiracy theory on his nightly Fox News show.

On his radio show, Hannity defiantly told his audience on 23 May 2017:
“I am not Fox.com or FoxNews.com. I retracted nothing.”
Hannity's position was pretty obvious. Accuse Seth Rich- a man unable to defend himself- of the crime of political sabotage and theft Paint Rich as a silenced "truth-teller." In doing this, Hannity and people like him, attempted to quash all question of Trump campaign collusion with the Russians.   
And there's another factor to add. We now know that Hannity- who seemed to take a personal interest in the Seth Rich case- was a client - one of three- of Trump's lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen.

The complete evolution of the conspiracy theory came at almost the same time as Hannity's statement. That's when the stalwart supporter of Trump, Newt Gingrich spoke about "this very strange story" on Fox and Friends.
“Nobody’s investigating that, and what does that tell you about what’s going on? Because it turns out, it wasn’t the Russians. It was this young guy who, I suspect, was disgusted by the corruption of the Democratic National Committee. He’s been killed, and apparently nothing serious has been done to investigative his murder. So I’d like to see how [Robert S.] Mueller [III] is going to define what his assignment is.”
With those irresponsible words, Gingrich took the fact-free conspiracy theory and made it legitimate.

The Wheeler Twist

Then came another twist in the story.
The Rich family had had enough and decided to sue Wheeler for making false claims against their son. On May 19, 2017, an attorney for the Rich family sent a cease and desist letter to Wheeler. They opened legal action against him in which they claimed:
“The services of the private investigator who spoke to press was offered to the Rich family and paid for by a third party, and contractually was barred from speaking to press or anyone outside of law enforcement or the family unless explicitly authorized by the family."
In August 2017, Wheeler, in turn, opened a lawsuit against Fox News for mental anguish and emotional distress. He asserted that two false quotes had been inserted in his report. Wheeler claimed that Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman fabricated the quotes with the "knowledge and support" of Ed Butowsky.
The two quotes are the key to the false claim.
“My investigation up to this point shows there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and Wikileaks...

My investigation shows someone within the DC government, Democratic National Committee or Clinton team is blocking the murder investigation from going forward… That is unfortunate. Seth Rich’s murder is unsolved as a result of that.”
According to the lawsuit, Wheeler did not make either statement.

The Full Attention of the White House

There's no question that Wheeler- given some of his Fox News remarks- has some credibility issues. Wheeler, in 2007, showed up on the O'Reilly show with a tale about “national underground network” of “violent lesbian gangs" ("pink pistol-toting") who were “forcibly indoctrinating children as young as 10” to become lesbians.
Nevertheless, the court documents he filed against Fox are pretty spectacular. For instance, in the lawsuit, Wheeler claims he was told by Trump supporter Butowsky that Trump was given a copy of the Fox News story before it was published and liked what he read.
Let me say that again. According to the Wheeler's lawsuit, Trump himself had reviewed drafts of the Fox News story on the murder of Seth Rich just before it went to air and was published. 
A text message for Butowsky reads:
“Not to add any more pressure but the president just read the article. He wants the article out immediately. It's now all up to you. But don't feel the pressure.”
And Wheeler had a voicemail of Butowsky making the statement.
“A couple minutes ago I got a note that we have the full, uh, attention of the White House, on this. And, tomorrow, let's close this deal, whatever we've got to do. But you can feel free to say that the White House is on to this now.
In his own defense, Butowsky later claimed this remark to Wheeler was merely a joke. Yet, an email to Fox News from Butowsky gives us a fairly good motive to push the Seth Rich story:
"One of the big conclusions we need to draw from this is that the Russians did not hack our computer systems and ste[a]l emails and there was no collusion (between) Trump and the Russians." He also instructed Wheeler that "[T]he narrative in the interviews you might use is that you and [Zimmerman's] work prove that the Russians didn't hack into the DNC and steal the emails and impact our elections (...) If you can, try to highlight this puts the Russian hacking story to rest."
The idea that the president gave his input in fake news stories is not quite as far-fetched as it once was. Lately, we have heard similar claims that Trump (or Michael Cohen) had approval rights to stories run by the National Enquirer.

Wheeler's complaint also names Sean Spicer as the White House liaison between Butowsky and indirectly, Fox News.
“Butowsky and Mr. Wheeler met with Mr. Spicer and provided him with a copy of Mr. Wheeler’s investigative notes. Mr. Spicer asked to be kept abreast of developments…”
At first, Spicer denied having any sort of connection, but then, issued a statement calling Ed "a longtime supporter of the president’s agenda" who had "asked for a 10-minute meeting."

Grief, Anguish and Disappointment

By 2018, Seth Rich's family had had quite enough. They filed a lawsuit in the Federal District Court in Manhattan against Fox News. Fox was accused of “extreme and outrageous” conduct in the way the news about Seth Rich's murder. 

As the New York Times reported:
Mr. Rich’s parents, Joel and Mary Rich, claim in the new lawsuit that Mr. Butowsky took advantage of their grief over their son’s death to ingratiate himself into their lives and manipulate them into hiring Mr. Wheeler to aid with their investigation.
The news organization, the court documents claim, intentionally fabricated slanderous statements against Seth. In a public statement, they said:
“The pain and anguish that comes from seeing your murdered son’s life and legacy treated as a mere political football is beyond comprehension.”
On 8 August, a federal judge, George Daniels, dismissed a lawsuit, finding that the suit did not meet the legal requirements to proceed. And it was not the only win for Fox News. 

The judge also dismissed Rod Wheeler's lawsuit against Fox News, Butowsky, and reporter Malia Zimmerman. Daniels ruled that the statements attributed Wheeler were not defamatory because they were not provably false. In addition, Wheeler had worked with Fox "to advance the Seth Rich conspiracy theory, and therefore cannot accuse Fox of defaming him."

In the end, the Seth Rich murder case is still unsolved. His parents, family, friends, and colleagues are no closer to learning who murdered Seth. Instead, they were forced to witness the destruction of a young man's posthumous reputation in the name of sordid politics.