BuzzFeed News summarized its defense against a federal lawsuit in a new court filing Monday, laying out in detail how it decided to publish the Russia dossier, a collection of unverified opposition research memos written by British former spy Christopher Steele.
The new court filings, because of their extensive redactions, still don’t resolve what happened in November and early December 2016 as the dossier made its way from the office of then-Sen. John McCain to top executive branch officials.
BuzzFeed made the filing in a federal lawsuit in Florida, where the Russian tech entrepreneur Aleksej Gubarev sued the news organization in 2017. Gubarev says BuzzFeed defamed him and his companies when it published pages of the dossier that wrongly accuse him of taking part in Russia’s hack of the Democratic National Committee. Following publication, BuzzFeed redacted mentions of Gubarev’s company in the copy of the dossier on its website.
Gubarev’s defamation case is “tantamount to asserting that the American public should, to this day, be ignorant about the text of a document that has been at the epicenter of government activity and public debate for almost two years,” the BuzzFeed lawyers wrote Monday. “It was not grossly irresponsible to publish the dossier.”
BuzzFeed’s lawyers made extensive redactions in their filing to what they know about what happened between November 2016, when Steele gave the dossier to a Justice Department official and McCain provided it to the FBI and other government agencies, and December 6, 2016, when then-President Barack Obama ordered an investigation into Russian interference in the election. The lawyers involved have deposed Steele and a close associate of the late McCain’s, David Kramer, but many details from those depositions appear to still be under seal in court. The lack of clarity around Steele’s work has facilitated conservative attacks on the dossier, including from President Donald Trump, to fester in Washington.
BuzzFeed’s top editor and others told the court Monday that they had several reasons to believe Steele’s information was credible, even though it was unconfirmed. And, the BuzzFeed journalists said, the memos were newsworthy because their contents were the subject of the FBI investigation and presidential briefings.
When BuzzFeed decided to publish the dossier on Jan. 10, 2017, it was because CNN had reported that day that intelligence officers had briefed Obama and President-elect Trump on its existence and the FBI’s investigation.
Before the CNN report, BuzzFeed had sought to confirm details in the dossier – even sending a reporter to Prague, Czech Republic, to look into a potential trip by Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen – but was unsuccessful, the court filing said.
After the CNN report, BuzzFeed’s top editors discussed what to do with the document they possessed.
“I had more concerns about publishing the dossier than did my colleagues in New York who were on the call,” BuzzFeed reporter Ken Bensinger, who had tried to confirm parts of the dossier, wrote in a sworn statement. “I was concerned that President-elect Trump, who was known to be extremely litigious, might sue us, including me personally.” He asked his editors for more time to inform his sources that BuzzFeed might publish the dossier. They did not allow him to do that, given how quickly the news about it was breaking.
“When they made that decision (to publish), none of the BuzzFeed journalists involved knew or had any degree of awareness – let alone a ‘high degree’ of awareness – that the allegations about (Gubarev and his companies) on the dossier’s last page were false, or harbored ‘serious doubts’ about that,” BuzzFeed’s lawyers wrote the court filing.
“I made the final decision to publish the Dossier because I believed that the information reported in the CNN story made the Dossier itself, rather than the allegations therein, an important story,” BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith wrote to the court.
BuzzFeed argues that under the law it will be difficult for a court to find that the news organization knowingly and intentionally defamed a publicly visible person like Gubarev, who had employed public relations firms to raise his and his companies’ name recognition and had contact with Russia in 2016.
Gubarev had spoken at an event in St. Petersburg and was in touch with Kremlin officials, for instance, and his public relations representatives told reporters he was a resource for stories about Russian technology.
Gubarev so far has argued that he’s barely known outside the tech community and should be considered a private person in court.