For her public act of protest against Russia Today’s coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukrainian territory and supposedly advancing the agenda of Vladimir Putin in Washington, D.C., previously unknown news anchor Liz Wahl has suddenly become one of the most famous unemployed people in America.
After her on-air resignation from the cable news channel, Wahl appeared on the three major American cable news outlets — CNN, Fox News, MSNBC — to denounce the heavy-handed editorial line she claims her bosses imposed on her and other staffers.
“What’s clear is what’s happening right now amid this crisis is that RT is not about the truth,” she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “It’s about promoting a Putinist agenda. And I can tell you firsthand, it’s also about bashing America.”
Wahl’s act of defiance eventually earned her invitations from “The View” and “The Colbert Report,” offering her the opportunity to introduce millions of Americans to a Russian government-funded network whose Nielsen ratings have been too low to measure, but which commands a massive following on YouTube.
Wahl was the toast of Washington, winning plaudits from a variety of prime-time pundits, from MSNBC’s Chris Hayes (“remarkably badass”) to the conservative Amanda Carpenter (“Liz Wahl is proud to be an American and in the last five minutes I think she made everyone else proud to be one, too.”)
The celebration of Wahl fed directly into a BuzzFeed expose on “How The Truth Is Made at Russia Today,” with writer Rosie Gray painting a portrait of an “atmosphere of censorship and pressure” on American staffers toiling in RT’s D.C. offices.
RT had long been the subject of criticism and ridicule for its promotion of Zeitgeist-style trutherism and libertarian paranoia, but Wahl now placed RT under unprecedented scrutiny, with mainstream U.S. media sounding the alarm about a bulwark of soft Russian power situated just blocks from the White House.
Behind the coverage of Wahl’s dramatic protest, a cadre of neoconservatives was celebrating a public relations coup. Desperate to revive the Cold War, head off further cuts to the defense budget and restore the legitimacy they lost in the ruins of Iraq, the tightknit group of neoconservative writers and stewards had opened up a new PR front through Wahl’s resignation.
And they succeeded with no shortage of help from an ossified media establishment struggling to maintain credibility in an increasingly anarchic online news environment.
With isolated skeptics branded as useful idiots for Putin, the scene has been kept clean of neoconservative fingerprints, obscuring their interest in Wahl’s resignation and the broader push to deepen tensions with Russia.
Through interviews with six current RT employees — all Americans with no particular affection for Russian President Vladimir Putin or his policies — and an investigation into the political forces managing the spectacle, a story has emerged that stands in stark contrast to the one advanced by Wahl, her supporters and the mainstream American press.
It is the story, according to former colleagues, of an apolitical, deeply disgruntled employee seeking an exit strategy from a job where, sources say, she was disciplined for unprofessional behavior and had been demoted. Wahl did not return several voice and text messages sent to her cellphone.
At the center of the intrigue is a young neoconservative writer and activist who helped craft Wahl’s strategy and exploit her resignation to propel the agenda of a powerful pro-war lobby in Washington.
The story began at 5:07 p.m. Eastern time on March 5.
PR from PNAC 2.0
It was a full 19 minutes before Wahl resigned. Inside the offices of the Foreign Policy Initiative, a neoconservative think tank in Washington D.C., a staffer logged on to the group’s Twitter account to announce the following: “#WordOnTheStreet says that something big might happen on RT in about 20-25 minutes.”
The tweets from FPI suggested a direct level of coordination between Wahl and the neoconservative think tank. Several calls to FPI for this story were not answered.
Just over an hour later, an exclusive interview with Wahl appeared at The Daily Beast. It was authored by James Kirchick, a 31-year-old writer whose work has appeared in publications from the neoconservative Commentary to the liberal Israeli paper Haaretz.
Kirchick acknowledged having been in contact with Wahl since August, but cast himself as a passive bystander to the spectacle, claiming that they merely “stayed in touch periodically over the past 6 months, and I always encouraged her to follow her conscience in making a decision about her professional future.”
Kirchick wrote that by quitting, Wahl paid “the price real reporters—not Russian-government funded propagandists—have to pay if they are concerned with quaint notions like objectivity and the truth.”
On March 7, Kirchick and a camera person stationed themselves outside the office building on D.C.’s G Street housing RT America’s headquarters. On a self-proclaimed mission “to find out more about RT,” he badgered dozens of random passers-by with questions like the following: “What is a more appropriate punishment for the women of Pussy Riot: two years in a Siberian labor camp or public whipping by Cossacks?”
Kirchick says RT staffers called the D.C. police department to remove him from the premises. However, several RT staffers told us that a security guard notified the police because Kirchick had mistaken employees at two adjacent law firms for employees of RT — “the wannabe thugs at 1325 G St,” he called them — and began harassing them. (An update inserted at the bottom of The Daily Beast summary of the incident noted that it was building security and not RT staffers who called the D.C. police.)
So who was Kirchick, and what sort of commitment did he maintain to “objectivity and the truth?”
In fact, Kirchick was a senior fellow at FPI, the neoconservative think tank that had hyped up Wahl’s resignation minutes before she quit.
Launched by Weekly Standard founder William Kristol and two former foreign policy aides to Mitt Romney, Dan Senor and Robert Kagan (the husband of Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland), FPI grew directly out of the Project for a New American Century that led the public pressure campaign for a unilateral U.S. invasion of Iraq after the Bin Laden-orchestrated 9/11 attacks.
In 2010, when FPI rose from the ashes of PNAC, whose name had become synonymous with warmongering, mendacity and strategic blundering, it pivoted away from Iraq toward “rising resurgent powers, including China and Russia,” according to its mission statement.
Through a series of letters and manifestos urging President Barack Obama to take a more confrontational stance toward Russia, FPI has assiduously sought to establish the groundwork for a new Cold War.
On March 14, in The Weekly Standard, Kristol laid out FPI’s goals, writing that recent geopolitical crises could be exploited to reverse America’s “war-weary” post-Iraq attitude and prevent further cuts to defense spending.
“All that’s needed is the rallying,” he insisted. “And the turnaround can be fast.”
The echo chamber
James Kirchick worked for part of 2011 out of Prague for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a media network funded by Congress (formerly backed by the CIA) that functions like the American answer to RT in Russian-aligned Eastern European countries.
In November 2011, Kirchik accepted a fellowship at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, an FPI-allied neoconservative think tank at the forefront of the campaign for U.S. military strikes and a draconian regime of sanctions against Iran. FDD has received at least $1.5 million from Sheldon Adelson, the pro-Israel casino baron and Republican mega-donor who suggested that the U.S. drop an “atomic weapon” on the Iranian desert.
While Kirchick has occasionally trained his fire on critics of Israel, where Adelson promotes the political fortunes of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and various Likud-linked organizations, Kirchick generally focuses on Russia and Eastern Europe, revising the militaristic positions established during the early days of neoconservatism.
“Neoconservatives have long had Russia as one of their main targets,” explained Jim Lobe, the Washington bureau chief of Inter Press Service and a leading expert on the neoconservative movement. “Since the end of the Cold War, they’ve been somewhat nostalgic for the Manichean framework in which enemies could be described as evil and allies could be described as on the right side no matter how authoritarian they were.”
“That antipathy has been driven by the rise of Putin and the FPI has followed a consistently anti-Russian position, urging the U.S. to take hawkish positions vis-a-vis Russia over any number of issues, from the 2008 Russian-Georgian war to the Magnitsky Act to the current situation in Ukraine,” Lobe added.
Located in an office in Washington D.C.’s Dupont Circle, FPI exists at the physical heart of the neoconservative movement. Its office is, in fact, the same space listed as the home of the Emergency Committee for Israel, a Likud-oriented public relations group that wields Israel as a political wedge issue, routinely attacking Obama for being insufficiently supportive of Netanyahu’s policies and baselessly trashing Occupy Wall Street as a haven for anti-Semites.
Among ECI’s advisers is Michael Goldfarb, the 33-year-old founder of The Washington Free Beacon, a neoconservative online journal that churns out a relentlessly pro-Israel narrative, advocating war on Iran while vigorously defending Adelson against his detractors.
At the same time, Goldfarb has worked as a lobbyist for D.C.-based Orion Strategies. And it was through that lobbying firm that he cultivated Kirchick and a cadre of neoconservative writers to generate commentary promoting the aims of the Republic of Georgia, a foreign client under the control at the time of the U.S.-oriented government of Mikheil Saakashvili.
With direct coaching and promotion from neoconservatives in Washington, Saakashvili adopted a confrontational stance toward Putin. In 2008, his American-trained military briefly intervened in the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, then retreated after a crushing defeat at the hands of the Russian military.
Back in Washington, where Saakashvili’s government had pumped more than $1 million into the coffers of Orion Strategies since 2004, Goldfarb wined and dined his neoconservative pals on the Georgian government’s dime. As a result, a steady stream of columns and reports hyping the Russian menace appeared in targeted media outlets.
“Orion seeks to create a media echo chamber on Georgia and Russia,” journalist Ken Silverstein wrote in 2011. “Orion is friendly to and works with government officials and politicians who its reporter friends regularly cite. … Orion also works very closely with experts and organizations cited by these reporters, like the Foreign Policy Initiative. …”
According to Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) documents filed by Orion with the Department of Justice, Goldfarb fed Georgian PR to Eli Lake, now a national security correspondent at The Daily Beast; Matthew Continetti, the Weekly Standard editor whom Goldfarb would hire to edit the Free Beacon; Jen Rubin, currently a Washington Post columnist who went on to take an ECI-sponsored trip to Israel; and Rosie Gray, the BuzzFeed reporter who produced the recent expose on RT.
Ben Smith, who hired Gray to work at BuzzFeed, and who worked alongside Lake at the neoconservative New York Sun, was also named as a frequent Orion contact on Georgia. (BuzzFeed Foreign Editor Miriam Elder moderated a State Department-sponsored town hall featuring Secretary of State John Kerry on March 18.)
Lake’s reporting on Georgia, documented in detail by Silverstein, offered a perfect prism into how the neocon echo chamber operated: Orion arranged seven interviews and numerous meetings with Georgian officials for him. In return, Lake ran a series of thinly sourced reports alleging dastardly deeds by Putin’s inner circle, including a bombing near the U.S. embassy in Tbilisi.
In an interview with Lake, Saakashvili told him that “the bombings … were ordered at the most senior levels of the Russian government.” Days later, a U.S. intelligence assessment concluded that even if a Russian official was behind the bombings, he was not targeting U.S. interests and may have been acting in a rogue capacity.
As with Lake, Orion peddled interviews with Georgian officials to Kirchick and hosted him at multiple lavish, Georgian-funded dinners in D.C. where he kibitzed with members of the Georgian government.
In May 2010, Kirchick traveled to Tbilisi on a trip sponsored by the government of Georgia, returning with a dispatch for Radio Free Europe describing the country as “a small, embattled democracy in a tough neighborhood” — a descriptor traditionally applied to the state of Israel by its hard-core supporters.
Kirchick’s zealous participation in a public relations campaign sponsored by a foreign government did not deter him from publishing a piece attacking U.S. lobbying firms ginning up PR on behalf of Russia. Any sense of irony was superseded by the single-minded determination to bring simmering tensions between Washington and Moscow to a boiling point. Thanks to the growing authoritarian tendencies of Putin, that goal appeared more achievable by the day.
On June 30, 2013, Putin signed into law a bill unanimously passed in the Russian Duma that banned the distribution of “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors.” By equating homosexuality with criminal pedophilia, the law was the culmination of an ongoing assault on the rights of Russia’s LGBT community.
Crafted in deliberately ambiguous language, the legislation authorized fines for Russians found guilty of the new crime and mandated the deportation of foreigners accused of violations.
Exactly one month later, Kirchick published a thunderous condemnation in the New York Daily News — though not of Putin’s anti-gay law. His target was U.S. Army whistle-blower Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning. Accusing Manning of treason, Kirchick argued that Manning should have been executed, and that her supporters were consumed by “a vengeful, anti-state dogma directed mostly at one state: the United States.”
Later that year, in a breathless, 10,674-word essay for right-wing Commentary magazine, Kirchick branded NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden a traitor and suggested the label might apply to journalists Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill as well — “far more than a drop of treason runs through their veins,” he wrote.
On Aug. 21, Kirchick accepted an invitation to appear on RT to discuss his op-ed calling for Manning’s execution. But as soon as he appeared on air, the openly gay Kirchick slapped on a pair of rainbow-colored suspenders and delivered a tirade against Russia’s new anti-gay legislation.
“Being here on a Kremlin-funded propaganda network, I’m going to wear my gay pride suspenders and I’m going to speak out against the horrific anti-gay legislation that Vladimir Putin has signed into law,” he declared.
When the RT host asked Kirchick whether he had anything to say about Manning, he replied, “I’m not really interested in talking about Bradley Manning. I’m interested in talking about the horrific environment of homophobia in Russia right now.”
He proceeded to filibuster the panel, berating his host about media repression in Russia. “You have 24 hours a day to lie about what’s happening in the United States and to ignore what’s happening in Russia,” he exclaimed. “You have 24 hours to do that; I’m gonna take my two minutes and tell the truth.”
Rather than cut Kirchick off, an RT panelist attempted to engage him on Manning, then allowed him to hold forth for 20 seconds more.
Recorded off-air moments later, Kirchick removed his mic and remarked, “I only go on that station to fuck with the Russians.”
In an op-ed he wrote a day later for The Washington Post, Kirchick marveled that RT “allowed me to go on like this [about Russia’s anti-gay law] for more than two minutes.” Nevertheless, Goldfarb’s Free Beacon framed Kirchick’s RT appearance in a bold headline published exactly one hour after his on-air protest: “Gay Reporter Kicked Off Kremlin Network After Protesting Anti-Gay Law.”
The narrative held firm in mainstream coverage of the incident, with CBS claiming Kirchick was “kicked off the air of a network funded by the Russian government. …”
Wahl watched with intense interest as Washington’s pundit class erupted in praise for Kirchick. The impudent young writer had become an overnight sensation while she had just been suspended from the anchor desk. In short order, according to RT sources, she and Kirchick began to plan her exit strategy.
Off the Wahl
Six current employees of RT were interviewed for this investigation. All are Americans who made no secret of their qualms with the network’s coverage of Russia-related issues. Some said they bristled at an increasingly suffocating atmosphere rife with heavy-handed editorial imposition, while others in different positions at the network said they still enjoyed a modicum of independence.
All insisted on speaking anonymously for fear of repercussions. Four of the sources were personally acquainted with Wahl and worked or interacted with her on a regular basis.
Each of those who knew her described her as apolitical.
“She’s never had a political bone in her body,” said one RT employee.
“Liz has always been apolitical and without any clear principles,” said another. “She didn’t talk about any politics outside of work.”
An RT employee who worked closely with Wahl added that Wahl rarely voiced objections about the network’s news coverage. “We do have editorial meetings in the morning to bring up questions comments or concerns, an opportunity Liz rarely took,” said the employee.
Before joining RT, Wahl interned for the right-wing Sean Hannity on Fox News.
Last spring, according to four former co-workers, Wahl was suspended for two weeks without pay and then demoted from anchor to correspondent after a series of outbursts in the office.
She had become disgruntled about her salary, the sources said, then began complaining that she was receiving insufficient assistance from producers in writing her monologues.
“Liz wasn’t disgruntled about anything editorially. It was entirely about payment,” one ex-colleague remarked. “She learned that another correspondent who has since left had made more money than her. But that’s because this correspondent had had six more years more experience than her.”
Wahl expressed her outrage at co-workers, often berating them, according to her former colleagues, and by “screaming” at management. She was ultimately suspended without pay for her unprofessional behavior, they told us, and demoted from anchor to correspondent until her duties were restored this past January.
A review of RT America’s YouTube page shows that Wahl did not appear at the anchor desk during the latter half of 2013.
After Kirchick’s on-air performance on Aug. 21, RT employees said Wahl gushed about his actions — one of the few times they could remember her expressing a political opinion. As Kirchick revealed in his Daily Beast exclusive, it was around this time that he and Wahl became friends.
According to her former co-workers, Wahl traveled to New York City to interview for a position at the newly founded Al-Jazeera America. In December, she confided in a friend at RT that she was “super bummed” — she had been rejected for the job.
She became despondent, according to a former colleague, bemoaning that she had not appeared at the anchor desk for a full six months because of her demotion.
At the time, the former colleague said Wahl told the same employee that she had been approached by an unnamed person who wanted her to help undermine RT.
“Liz said to me, ‘I’m working with someone right now who wants to take down RT and wants me to write this hit piece,’ ” the employee told us. “She asked me what I thought and I told her it would be really messed up and not to do it. She said, ‘You’re right.’ ”
The employee added, “[Kirchick’s] obviously been trying to charm her into doing this for a while.”
The overthrow of Ukraine’s Russian-oriented government on Feb. 22 and the Russian invasion of Crimea five days later sent shockwaves through RT’s Washington bureau.
Abby Martin, a host of the RT program “Breaking the Set,” who was known for her trenchant critiques of mainstream U.S. media and denunciations of American militarism, was among the staffers who bristled at Putin’s actions.
In the final segment of a March 3 broadcast of her show, Martin lashed out at the invasion: “I can’t stress how strongly I am against any state intervention in any sovereign nation’s affairs. What Russia did is wrong. … I will not sit here and defend military aggression.”
She continued: “My heart goes out to the Ukrainian people who are wedged as pawns in a global power chess game. They’re the real losers here. All we can do is hope for a peaceful resolution and prevent another Cold War between multiple superpowers.”
But Martin did not resign. Instead, she appeared in the coming days on American cable news networks chiding mainstream hosts for their own self-censorship around U.S. military interventionism and blasted the six corporations that control 90 percent of the U.S. media.
“You guys are beholden to advertisers that you cannot criticize,” she told CNN’s Piers Morgan. “And that’s why I work for a station I can criticize.”
Martin would not be a useful tool for American interventionists, nor would she accept RT’s offer to travel to Crimea.
Martin’s minute-long commentary put Wahl on the spot. Two days later, Wahl decided it was time to pull the string on her parachute and hope for a safe landing. She cited RT’s alleged censorship of an interview she conducted with former Republican Rep. Ron Paul as her final straw, however Paul insisted that “what [RT] reported was exactly what I said.”
When Wahl made the media rounds in the days after she quit, she struck an uncharacteristic tone that echoed the cold warrior themes familiar to neoconservatives like Kirchick.
“I have been thinking about it for a while especially in the wake of the anti-gay laws that were happening there [in Russia]; been thinking about it and decided that now is the time as we are approaching possibly another Cold War,” she explained to MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell on March 5.
A day later, Wahl told Fox News host Neil Cavuto, “Right now as we’re approaching a possible Cold War … this war of words is part of [Putin’s] strategy.”
As Wahl’s 15 minutes neared its expiration, Kirchick gave an interview to Channel News Asia, a satellite channel funded by the autocratic government of Singapore. Asked about Russian machinations in Crimea, Kirchick called for “troop deployments in neighboring NATO states … just [as] a way to show the Russians that we mean business.”
“The rallying,” as FPI’s Kristol put it, had only begun.