WASHINGTON — The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Tuesday released its most comprehensive report yet on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, revealing new details about Russia’s attempts to disrupt the campaign and help elect Donald Trump.
The new report goes the furthest of any U.S. government document in debunking the viral conspiracy theory that a murdered Democratic National Committee staffer named Seth Rich played a part in the 2016 hacking and leaking of internal DNC documents later published by WikiLeaks. This baseless theory about Rich was stoked by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange during several interviews he gave in 2016. But the Senate intelligence committee’s new report found no evidence for this theory, describing Assange’s comments related to Rich as “disinformation” and a “conspiracy theory.”
The nearly thousand-page report is the result of years of work by a bipartisan team of Intelligence Committee staffers. Every Democratic and Republican senator who sits on the GOP-led committee — with the exception of Jim Risch, Republican of Idaho — endorsed the report, according to a spokeswoman for the committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). (Risch explained his “no” vote but also concurred that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his underlings “conducted a calculated and despicable campaign to undermine the 2016 election for nefarious purposes.”)
As Rolling Stone recently reported, the baseless theories about Seth Rich became a global phenomenon thanks in large part to Fox News, which published an explosive story in May 2017 that claimed Rich — not Russia — hacked the DNC and passed the stolen goods to WikiLeaks. Fox’s claims were repeatedly amplified by Sean Hannity, one of the most watched and influential cable news hosts in America, who said that if a “disgruntled” Democrat had leaked the DNC emails, it “could completely shatter the narrative that, in fact, WikiLeaks was working with the Russians,” and could also mean that Rich was murdered “under very suspicious circumstances.”
The Rich theories were also hyped on popular shows like Fox & Friends and by Fox talking heads such as former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who said on-air — without citing evidence — that Rich “apparently was assassinated at four in the morning, having given WikiLeaks something like 23,000 — I’m sorry — 53,000 emails and 17,000 attachments.”
But the veracity of Fox’s bombshell story immediately came into question, and a week later Fox News retracted it, saying the story “not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all of our reporting.” Subsequent findings by the Trump-era Justice Department and congressional investigations led by Democrats and Republicans reaffirmed the conclusion that Russia carried out the DNC hack-and-leak operation. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s final report said WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange had made statements “designed to obscure” the source of the DNC leaks and of having “implied falsely” that Rich was his source.
The new Senate intelligence committee report — the fifth and final installment in the committee’s investigation into Russian interference — goes the furthest in debunking the unfounded theory that Rich had anything to do with the DNC hack-and-leak operation carried out, according to the U.S. government, by members of the GRU Russian intelligence agency.
In a section titled “WikiLeaks Promotes Alternative, False Theories About the Source of the GRU Materials,” the bipartisan Senate report notes that Assange alluded to Rich during an August 2016 interview in a way that suggested Rich might’ve been a source for WikiLeaks. But Assange did this, the report claims, to “obscure the source of the stolen emails.” The report continues, “Assange’s use of such disinformation suggests Assange possibly knew of and sought to hide Russian involvement.”
That disinformation, the report says, included Seth Rich:
One narrative from Assange involved a conspiracy theory that Seth Rich, a DNC staffer killed in a botched robbery, was the source of the DNC email leak and had been murdered in response. On August 9, Assange gave an interview on Dutch television implying that Rich was the source of the DNC emails, and that day WikiLeaks announced that it would be issuing a reward for information about Rich’s murder. In a subsequent interview, Assange commented about the WikiLeaks interest in the Rich case as concerning “someone who’s potentially connected to our publication.”
The bipartisan Senate report was unequivocal about the factual basis for this theory: “The Committee found that no credible evidence supports this narrative.”
As part of ongoing litigation involving Seth Rich’s family, Fox News, and other individuals who promoted the Rich theories, two federal judges have approved requests to seek testimony from Assange. If forced to testify, Assange, who is currently imprisoned in the United Kingdom, could finally be forced to explain why he invoked Seth Rich’s name.