After Facebook revealed a Russian company with connections to the Kremlin purchased $100,000 dollars worth of ads during the 2016 presidential election, it is very clear that Russian propaganda is getting in front of Americans. The FBI thinks it might be close to uncovering another way as well. On Monday the Bureau opened an investigation into Sputnik, a Russian-owned news agency, to determine “whether it is acting as an undeclared propaganda arm of the Kremlin in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).”
The investigation appears to center on whether Sputnik should be covered by the foreign agents registration law, a 1938 act passed by Congress to combat Nazi propaganda. The law mandates that foreign entities seeking to influence American public opinion and engage in lobbying must file detailed reports with the Justice Department on their funding and operations. If the Justice Department concludes that Sputnik is covered by the law, its executives in the U.S. could face criminal charges and fines, while the news agency’s reports would have to be explicitly labeled as foreign propaganda rather than presented as news.
As part of its investigation, the FBI has interviewed Andrew Feinberg, a former Sputnik White House correspondent who was fired in May. He turned over a thumb drive containing relevant emails and documents that may connect the news agency to what U.S. officials believe is an ongoing “influence campaign” by Russia. In the, FBI and other Justice Department officials tried to discern how Sputnik operated, where its funding came from, and whether editorial coverage choices where determined by the Kremlin.
Sputnik is owned by a Russian government media operation directed by Dmitri Kiselyov, “a belligerent television broadcaster who is known as Putin’s ‘personal propagandist.'” However, Sputnik’s U.S. editor in chief, Mindia Gavasheli — who was unaware of the FBI’s investigation — denied they were anything other than a news organization and said calls for Sputnik to register under FARA were “hysteria.”