It’s been several months since the intelligence community concluded Russia tampered in the election, including stealing Democratic Party emails and giving them to WikiLeaks.
Yet an unfounded conspiracy theory persists: that WikiLeaks actually got the emails from a Democratic National Committee staffer who was shot and killed in July 2016.
Seth Rich, who worked on voter access projects for the DNC, was 27 when he was killed early in the morning near his Washington home. Ten months later, the case remains unsolved, though Washington police have said they believe it was likely a botched robbery.
WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of internal DNC emails several days after Rich died, leading conspiracy theorists to speculate that the two events were related. WikiLeaks offered a $20,000 reward for information about Rich’s murder.
The story is back in the news because on May 15, a private investigator looking into Rich’s case said he had evidence to prove the theorists right.
Even so, some right-wing pundits continue to peddle this conspiracy, most prominently on Fox News. Among them are host Sean Hannity and former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
"We have this very strange story now of this young man who worked for the Democratic National Committee, who apparently was assassinated at 4 in the morning, having given WikiLeaks something like 53,000 emails and 17,000 attachments," Gingrich said on Fox May 21. "Nobody’s investigating that, and what does that tell you about what was going on? Because it turns out, it wasn’t the Russians."
Contrary to Gingrich’s statement, the thin case that Rich was the DNC leaker is in no way substantial enough to outweigh ample evidence that Russia was the culprit. Two days after Gingrich made this claim, Fox News retracted its report promoting this conspiracy theory.
The latest iteration of this story started when Wheeler spoke to a reporter with Washington local news station WWTG-TV on May 15.
Wheeler worked for the Washington police in the 1990s and is an occasional Fox News contributor. Texas businessman Ed Butowsky, another Fox News contributor, is financing Wheeler’s investigation.
Wheeler told WWTG-TV he believes the local police and the FBI are engaged in a cover-up because of information found on Rich’s laptop and the relationship between the Washington mayor’s office and the DNC.
"But you have sources at the FBI saying there is information that could link Seth Rich to WikiLeaks?" asked the WTTG-TV reporter.
"Absolutely," Wheeler replied. "Yeah, and that’s confirmed."
The next day, a national Fox News report said an unnamed federal investigator corroborated Wheeler’s findings. And according to the federal investigator, an FBI analysis of Rich’s laptop found that Rich made contact with a WikiLeaks director and sent him 44,053 emails and 17,761 attachments from DNC leaders.
Here’s the problem: Hours after Fox published its report, Wheeler recanted. He told CNN that he hadn’t seen the evidence himself, and his knowledge of Rich’s alleged email contact with WikiLeaks came from the national Fox News reporter, not his own investigative work.
"Let me just really quickly say this," Wheeler said on Hannity’s show May 16. "I don't know for sure, I don't know as a matter of fact if the emails went out to the WikiLeaks or anybody else, but it sure appears that way."
Fox retracted its own May 16 article, saying "the article was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting."
So this allegation that Rich was the real DNC leaker — and related insinuation that Rich was murdered because of it — rests nearly entirely on claims from a single unnamed federal investigator with unspecified connections to the case.
The theory also doesn’t make much logical sense. No evidence has emerged that shows Rich was so disgruntled with the DNC that he felt the need to expose its leaders to WikiLeaks. Further, the leaked emails were overall rather mild. They were embarrassing and prompted Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz of Florida to step down from her role as DNC chair, but they didn’t expose any conspiracies or illegal activity.
All of this together makes for a pretty flimsy case, especially when compared to the broad consensus that Russian actors were the true culprit.
The technical methods behind the hack were similar to those used by two Russian intelligence groups, dubbed APT28 and APT29, also known as Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear. And experts have said that dumping large quantities of stolen political information is a signature move of Russian influence operations.
There’s also the fact that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and the Russian government have a well-documented relationship. Assange has hosted a television show on RT, a state-owned network, for example.
Various intelligence agencies reiterated Russia’s culpability in official reports in October, December and January. And intelligence community leaders and experts in Russia and cybersecurity have said they agreed with this conclusion in testimony before Congress in the months since.
"The final piece of Russia's modern Active Measures surfaced in the summer of 2016 as hacked materials were strategically leaked," said Clint Watts, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and former FBI special agent, in a March 30 Senate hearing. "The disclosures of WikiLeaks, Guccifer 2.0 and DC Leaks demonstrated how hacks would power the influence system Russia had built so successfully in the previous two years."
There’s evidence that Russia engaged in cyber operations against Republicans, too, though it wasn’t as robust as the DNC hack.
"The Russians used cyber operations against both political parties, including hacking into servers used by the Democratic National Committee and releasing stolen data to WikiLeaks and other media outlets," said former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in a May hearing. "Russia also collected on certain Republican Party-affiliated targets, but did not release any Republican-related data."
Gingrich said DNC staffer Seth Rich "apparently was assassinated at 4 in the morning, having given WikiLeaks something like 53,000 emails and 17,000 attachments. ... It turns out, it wasn’t the Russians."
There is no trustworthy evidence supporting the theory that Rich was WikiLeaks’ source for thousands of DNC emails. The police believe his death was the result of a botched robbery, not a political assassination.
The intelligence community and cybersecurity experts have reached a broad conclusion that all the available evidence points to Russia as the actual perpetrators — based on technical indicators and an understanding of how Russian influence operations work.
Gingrich and others are talking about an unfounded conspiracy theory as if it's a matter of fact. It is far from it. We rate his claim Pants on Fire.