WASHINGTON -- The FBI recently questioned a former White House correspondent for the Russian state-funded Sputnik news agency about the organization's editorial operations in what appears to be part of its probe into an alleged Russian campaign to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Andrew Feinberg, who was fired from Sputnik in May, told RFE/RL on September 11 that he met with a lawyer from the Justice Department and an FBI agent for more than two hours on September 1. During that meeting, he said he turned over a thumb drive containing thousands of internal e-mails from his five months at Sputnik.
He described the interview, which took place at the bureau's Washington field office, as voluntary and said the questions concerned Sputnik's internal operations.
News of Feinberg's questioning and of the possible probe into whether Sputnik violated U.S. laws on foreign agents was first reported by Yahoo News.
The Justice Department refused to comment on the interview or to confirm whether there was an investigation into Sputnik's operations.
Set up in 2014 as part of a restructuring of Russian-government-funded news operations in the Rossiya Segodnya news group, Sputnik runs radio broadcasts and news websites in 30 languages.
Feinberg told RFE/RL that, during his FBI interview, he was asked about how editorial decisions were made at Sputnik. He was also asked about U.S. operations at RIA Novosti, another Russian-funded news agency that was subsumed by Rossiya Segodnya during its 2014 restructuring.
Foreign Agents Legislation
Feinberg, who wrote a detailed, first-person account of his tenure at Sputnik for Politico in August, said he supported the calls for Sputnik to be registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) because the law, he said, had exemptions for bona-fide foreign-owned news organizations. He included Al Jazeera, BBC, and Agence France Presse as examples.
"This is a case where the reasons are clear cut, and the differences between RT and Sputnik and legitimate foreign-owned news agencies are readily identifiable. I think it's totally reasonable to act," he said.
"If the internal process of Sputnik resembled anything like a legitimate news agency, I would be out there defending them," he said. "This is not your usual foreign government owned news agency. One of these things is not like the other."
Mindia Gavasheli, editor in chief of Sputnik's U.S. operations, said he first learned of the FBI probe when contacted by Yahoo News. He said he had contacted the Justice Department to get more information, but hadn't heard anything yet.
Asked whether Sputnik should be registered under FARA, he said that was "absolutely unreasonable."
"Any assertion that we are anything but a news organization is false," he told RFE/RL.
In Moscow, Margarita Simonyan, who is a top executive both at Rossiya Segodnya and the satellite television channel RT, suggested there would be some sort of retaliation in Russia against U.S. media representatives in particular.
"There is no doubt that Russia will answer the FBI investigation similarly, and the work of American journalists in Moscow will be checked," Simonyan was quoted as saying by RIA-Novosti. "All of this is more than disgusting. Freedom of speech is being returned to the coffin. Those who conceived of it are now killing it."
The probe comes at a time of heightened law-enforcement and congressional scrutiny of entities and individuals in the United States who may have had formal or informal ties to the Russian government, as well as questions about Russia's alleged meddling in last year's presidential election.
At least three congressional committees are conducting interviews and gathering documents related to a U.S. intelligence community conclusion in January that Moscow orchestrated a hacking-and-propaganda campaign to influence the campaign to benefit the eventual winner of the election, Donald Trump.
Russian officials have repeatedly denied the accusations.
The FBI has had a parallel criminal investigation ongoing since July. That effort was taken over by an independent special counsel after FBI Director James Comey was fired by President Trump in May.
Some aspects of that probe are believed to focus on whether certain individuals should have registered under a 79-year-old FARA law.
FARA requires people working in the United States for a foreign government in a "political or quasi-political capacity" to register with the Justice Department. It was set up specifically to counter fears of Nazi propaganda and misinformation being spread in the U.S.
Both Sputnik and Russia Today "contributed to the influence campaign by serving as a platform for Kremlin messaging to Russian and international audiences," said the report issued by the director of national intelligence.
"RT and Sputnik…consistently cast President-elect Trump as the target of unfair coverage from traditional U.S. media outlets that they claimed were subservient to a corrupt political establishment," the report said.
Since that report, there have been growing calls for Sputnik, RT, and related Russian-government-funded news operations to be required to register under FARA.
"RT…serves as a propaganda arm for the Russian government to spread often false, always biased information to benefit whatever whims of the Russian government and [Russian President] Vladimir Putin are the topic of the day," Representative David Cicilline, a Democrat on the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs and Judiciary committees, told a discussion at the Atlantic Council on September 8.
Earlier this summer, Sputnik signed an agreement to broadcast on an FM frequency in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.
John Garziglia, a Washington-based lawyer who is part owner of the company that leased the frequency to Sputnik, declined to comment on whether he had been contacted by U.S. law enforcement about Sputnik.