“Oh, heavens no,” says John Kiriakou, host of Sputnik Radio’s Loud and Clear. I’ve just asked him whether he believes Russian-sponsored news outlets, like the one he works for, are trying to destabilize American democracy. “No, that’s ridiculous,” he says.
Back in 2013, when Kiriakou’s life was spinning out of control, a New Yorker profile described him as someone with “the exuberance of a Labrador retriever.” Five years later—after two spent in prison—the description still stands.
We had tentatively planned to meet at his employer’s offices, where I would shadow him and watch him tape a radio show. But the Sputnik legal team objected: The organization, they said, was being forced to register as a foreign agent by the Justice Department. They’d prefer not to allow a reporter in the building.
Instead, we wander across the street to a nearly empty coffee shop. I mention I’m trying to cut caffeine, and Kiriakou nods politely, saying that sounds like a good idea. He proceeds to drink a large decaf, slowly, over the course of the next hour and a half.
Russian propaganda efforts have reached a fever-pitch: The state-sponsored targeting of foreign readers, listeners, and viewers is at a level potentially not seen since the height of the Cold War, if ever. Building on success sowing division during the 2016 election, the strategy involves magnifying extreme voices in a way that destabilizes the republic. And sitting across from me, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, is a fifty-year-old ex-spy who’s found himself at the center of it.
Kiriakou worked for the Central Intelligence Agency for more than two decades, where he made his career recruiting potential spies. It’s a job that requires charm, salesmanship, and manipulation. (“You have to convince people that you love them, even if you don’t,” he told me.) Later, he worked on counter terrorism in Pakistan, where he tracked and then briefly guarded an imprisoned Al Qaeda leader by the name of Abu Zubaydah.
Kiriakou left the agency in 2004 and spent the next three years working in the private sector. In 2007, when rumors about “advanced interrogation techniques” began to circulate, he went on ABC News and confirmed, on live television, that Zubaydah was tortured by the CIA.
Kiriakou points to that moment as the beginning of the unraveling.
The Justice Department cleared him of any crimes associated with giving that interview. (Kiriakou said he didn’t realize he was misstepping.) But within five years, he was accused of another crime: disclosing a spy’s identity to a journalist. He was sentenced to thirty months in federal prison, becoming the first CIA officer convicted of passing classified information to a reporter.
Kiriakou felt unmoored after his release in 2015. He toured widely, giving talks on whistleblowing and torture. He briefly worked for a friend’s medical start-up, then for the Institute of Policy Studies, a progressive think tank in Washington. He wrote columns on the side but struggled to make ends meet. It was then—while earning about $400 a week, very little for a man with five kids and a house in the D.C area—that Mindia Gavasheli, the D.C. bureau chief of Sputnik News, called and offered him a job.
“Out of the blue,” Kiriakou said.
accepting the positional several months ago, Kiriakou tells me that his financial
situation has greatly improved. “I’m comfortable that if I needed to walk out
on principle, I could do it,” he says. “But I haven’t needed to.”
Kiriakou says that when he joined Sputnik, Gavasheli only asked for one favor: to steer clear of 9/11 “truthers.” An editor at sister-network Russia Today was recently fired for featuring too many of this particular brand of conspiracy theorists. Gavasheli apparently wanted to avoid the same fate.
“You know sometimes when you invite these fringe people, they’re going to say fringe things,” Kiriakou says. He leans forward over the table, shifting his coffee out of the way. “And so, what do you expect is going to happen?”
Five years ago, Russian president Vladimir Putin announced the merging of media outlets Radio Moscow and RIA Novosti under the new moniker, Rossiya Segodnya. Previously, Russian state journalism had employed reputable journalists from international wire services; after the merger, Putin appointed Dmitry Kiselyov—a TV host best-known internationally for his homophobic rants—to head the rebranded service. “Objectivity is a myth,” Kiselyov announced in his first address to the staff. “Russia needs our love.”
Rossiya Segodnya has since expanded across the globe, with offices in Cairo, Beijing, Paris, Berlin, London, Edinburgh, and Washington, D.C. In 2014, it launched Sputnik News, a website and podcast network. The outlet has been accused of spreading disinformation in Sweden, the Czech Republic, and the EU. It was banned from Emmanuel Macron’s campaign events for what a campaign spokesman described as lying “methodically and systematically.” And last year, it was ordered to register as a foreign agent by the U.S. Justice Department.
Nine of the eleven Sputnik radio hosts are Americans. They include an ex-CIA officer (Kiriakou), two leaders in the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), a former Breitbart reporter, and an ACLU board member.
Lee Stranahan, host of Sputnik’s morning show “Fault Lines,” worked as a reporter at Breitbart for the better part of a decade. He regularly listens to personalities like Howard Stern and Ira Glass, while crediting the first season of Serial for inspiring his nascent audio career. He joined Sputnik a year ago—his first job in radio. As a journalist, Stranahan says, he’s always insisted on editorial independence. His new role at Sputnik is no different.
“Nobody is pressuring me,” he says. In fact, he was thrilled to be asked to join the network. Finally, he thought. A news outlet independent of corporate interests. Even Breitbart had limits on journalistic freedom, he tells me.
Kiriakou’s co-host Brian Becker is on the opposite side of the political spectrum as Stranahan. Becker—Sputnik’s first American host who joined the station in late 2015—was previously known in activist circles as leader for both the PSL and ANSWER (an anti-war group). He regularly appeared on Russia Today (RT), a news organization under the same umbrella as Sputnik. He thinks that may have been how Gavasheli, the editor-in-chief of the DC bureau, found him.
Like Kiriakou and Stranahan, Becker was approached by Sputnik, not the other way around.
“Nobody’s ever told me, say this or don’t say that,” Becker says. “We don’t have the Sinclair must-run phenomenon,” referring to the recent controversy where TV hosts across the country on the conservative broadcasting group were shown reading the same pro-Trump script.
But for all the hosts’ claims about editorial independence, there are striking similarities across political lines.
Loud and Clear prides itself on exposing the alternative side of news stories. A typical episode show might look like the March 1 headline: “Afghanistan War—The People Speak: ‘One Million War Crimes’.”
The show also regularly covers Russia-related news. And for a show that prides itself on editorial independence, it appears awfully accepting of a distinctly Kremlin version of events. “Where will this anti-Russian fearmongering lead?” Kiriakou asked in a March 16 show. “I’m so confused,” he told his guest in another episode on the alleged poisoning of the Skripals using a Russian nerve agent. “It’s all about evidence. And my mind is open, believe me. If it’s the Russians, then shame on them. But we need to see some evidence.”
Stranahan is more emphatic. Putin wouldn’t choose to use a chemical so easily traced to Russia, he tells me. It would be crazy or stupid, he says, and Putin is neither.
Not a single radio host accepts that Assad was behind that the recent chemical weapon attacks in Syria, either. “This reeks of bullshit,” John Wight, who hosts Hard Facts, recently tweeted, linking to a Guardian report. Garland Nixon, Stranahan’s co-host for Fault Lines, called it a “false flag operation.” Stranahan posted on Twitter “Why PATRIOTS need to be very skeptical of chemical attacks in Syria, demand PROOF!” along with a twenty-minute video from his personal media company, Populist.TV. Kiriakou appeared on colleague Stranahan’s Fault Lines and, citing his experience as a CIA operative, denied Assad’s involvement. During our conversation, he also vocally supported Assad: “He is literally the only thing standing between the Syrian Christian community and a massacre of historic proportions.”
the accusations against Russia a “witch hunt.” He believes blame for Trump’s
election lies squarely on the shoulders of giants like CBS and CNN, who covered
him constantly. “Three billion dollars in free advertising,” he said.
All hosts have said that the narrative of Russian-meddling in the election is wrong. For proof, many of them pointed to the fact that Stranahan is the only on-air personality at Sputnik who identifies as pro-Trump. If they’re not shilling for Trump, how could Russia be?
Russian state media’s use of American hires to convey legitimacy hasn’t always paid off. Over the past five years, numerous high-profile claims of political encroachment on editorial independence have dogged the outlets. In 2014, RT anchor Liz Wahl made headlines in an on-air resignation, saying she could no longer work for “a network that whitewashes the actions of Putin.” Last year, former Sputnik reporter Adam Feinberg penned a lengthy first-person account for Politico Magazine of how Sputnik managers had attempted to guide his reporting. “I thought Sputnik wanted me for my skills as a journalist, but what they wanted was to use the veneer of journalism to push their own agenda,” he wrote.
But the Sputnik hosts I talk to feel differently—radically so. Not only are they uncensored at Sputnik, they tell me: It’s the only place where they’re uncensored. Sputnik, I am told over and over, is the lone network that allows the hosts freedom to cover whatever they want, whenever they want. “I can’t force CNN to put me on the air and talk about national security whistleblowing,” Kiriakou says. “I had to go where I was able to go.”
It’s true: Kiriakou and Becker frequently host Black Lives Matter activists, Palestinian journalists, labor organizers—groups that both abhor Trump and are not given large or consistent platforms in most media outlets.
But Sputnik also hosts unorthodox views.
Stranahan is a supporter of conspiracy theories, including the idea of a “deep state.” Becker, a self-described peace activist, supports the North Korean regime after being invited on multiple government-sponsored tours of Pyongyang. (He once called American treatment of North Korea “racist.”)
Kiriakou, who plays a relatively centrist role on his program, steers away from most inflammatory topics. He is, however, prone to hyperbole, especially about the CIA. In 2017, ProPublica ran a story based on information Kiriakou had published in a column for Reader Supported News, claiming that Gina Haspel oversaw and personally engaged in the torture of Abu Zubaydah. It later became clear that Haspel was not involved in Zubaydah’s treatment. ProPublica retracted its article.
It’s possible that in the cases of Kiriakou, Becker, and Stranahan, Russian authorities may not need to exercise direct editorial control to achieve their ends. In 2015, the German Council on Foreign Relations released a report on Russian non-military influence. By airing conspiracy theories and “defaming the West,” the Russian foreign media strategy, the report concluded, is to “create the impression that everyone is lying and that there are no unequivocal facts or truths.”
Alina Polyakova, a fellow at Brookings and a professor at Johns Hopkins specializing in Russian foreign policy relations, told me that hosts like Sputnik’s, “are already saying the kinds of things [Russian-sponsored media] would want.”
Sputnik takes extreme voices and amplifies them. Whatever the views, that alone can be destabilizing. And it’s working. Both Stranahan and Kiriakou were hired after the election. The Kremlin is pouring more resources into Sputnik. In July 2017, it leased a FM station through 2019 for $900,000. Reliable numbers for Russian foreign propaganda spending as a whole are hard to come by, but state-owned Rossiiskaya Gazeta in 2014 reported that the government was spending over $1.6 billion a year on its media efforts, both domestically and abroad. A representative from RT in 2017 claimed the Russian government budgeted $323 million for that predominantly foreign-targeted network alone—a nearly seven-fold increase from its $47 million budget when it was founded in 2005.
Mark Simakovsky, who served as the Europe/NATO chief of staff in the Office of the Secretary of Defense until 2015, thinks that, instead of bolstering Trump, Sputnik is trying to delegitimize Russian critics. Hosts who highlight what they see as American hypocrisy, regardless of where they fall on the left-right spectrum, work to Russia’s advantage. “They’re creating mirror images of some of the criticism heaped on the Kremlin, and throwing it back at the West,” he says.
Sputnik and its employees peddle false information that’s
grounded in concrete problems. Because these problems are based in reality
(even as the analyses of the problems are not), they become much more difficult
to dismiss. They’ve identified real, tangible issues about the U.S.:
controlling and biased media conglomerates, its inability to take care of the
poor, the way it treats people of color. By highlighting these
issues, by hyping them, the moral high ground from which Americans might object
to Russia’s own policies begins to erode.
To Russian media strategists, Simakovsky says, free press is “part of our vulnerability.”
Most days, Kiriakou arrives at the office by 10:30 in the morning. He meets with his co-host Brian Becker, their producers, and Gavasheli. Together, they workshop potential segment ideas. The producers are sent off to book guests. They record and tape the entire show by 4 p.m. (when it airs) and head home.
Kiriakou usually takes the Metro after work. But today, he meets me at 3:30, fresh off an interview about the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. The coffee shop is nearly empty when we enter. Customers filter in and out as the afternoon wears on.
“I spent much of my adult life at the CIA,” Kiriakou says. I wonder whether the young man sitting next to us, typing on a red laptop, is catching any of this. “I know what RT and Sputnik are.”
Kiriakou claims he wouldn’t have joined without the promise of full editorial control. He was so insistent on it, he says, that he had it written into his contract. When I respond with surprise, he says that he’d be happy to show it to me. But later, when I emailed him to follow up, he backs out. He tells me that he’s uncomfortable sending it to The New Republic.
For confirmation that the contract existed, I reached out to Mindia Gavasheli, the editor-in-chief of Sputnik’s U.S. bureau. He declined to be interviewed by anyone working with The New Republic until editors had responded to his questions about a conspiracy he believes the magazine was involved with in 2016: to bribe a young Sputnik writer with a political reporting job to keep him from suing Newsweek journalist Kurt Eichenwald. (Newsweek and the Sputnik writer did settle a suit out of court in 2017.)
When a New Republic editor emailed Gavasheli to say that Eichenwald never had any connection with the magazine, and that no one at the publication recalled any contact with either Eichenwald or the young Sputnik writer, Gavasheli cut off the exchange. “Mr Eichenwald already paid a price for his lies. With or without TNR’s help,” he wrote. “I would prefer in the future to avoid communicating with people even loosely associated with your publication.”
A friend of Kiriakou’s once asked what she should tell people who wondered what he was doing. Recalling the conversation is the only time he raises his voice. “You tell them that John doesn’t answer to them.” He’s jabbing a finger in the air, pointing. “Are they going to put food on my table? Are they going to put my kids through college? If they have a better idea, I’m all ears. But right now, the only organization that has come through for me in my time of need is Sputnik.”
As we near the end of our conversation, I ask Kiriakou if there is anything he wants to add. We’d spent an hour and a half at our table, more than the amount of time it takes to plan his show
He pauses, takes a sip of his coffee. “I understand the basis of these questions,” he tells me. “But like I said, I’m a patriot. And if I ever had any inkling that I was being used in any way, I would walk out the door.”