The conspiracy theory that DNC staffer Seth Rich was killed for political reasons in the summer of 2016 originated with a Russian intelligence service, according to Yahoo News, and was spread through alt-right media outlets and promoted by Roger Stone, Steve Bannon and Julian Assange, much to the dismay of prosecutors and Rich’s family.
“To me, having a foreign intelligence agency set up one of my decedents with lies and planting false stories, to me that’s pretty outrageous,” said Deborah Sines, the former assistant U.S. attorney in charge of the Rich case until her retirement last year. “Maybe other people don’t think it’s that outrageous. I did … once it became clear to me that this was coming from the SVR, then that triggers a lot of very serious [questions about] ‘What do I do with this?’”
Sines says police never uncovered any evidence that Rich’s death was anything but a botched robbery.
Sines says that she obtained classified information that showed Russia’s foreign intelligence service, known as the SVR, first circulated a phony “bulletin” — disguised to read as a real intelligence report —about the alleged murder of the former DNC staffer on July 13, 2016. That was just three days after Rich, 27, was killed while walking home to his group house in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Washington, D.C..
[Russia has three intelligence services The SVR is the foreign intelligence agency, the equivalent of the CIA. The GRU is the military intelligence agency, the equivalent of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. The FSB is the domestic security agency, the equivalent of the FBI. ]
For two years after Rich’s death Russian government-owned media organizations, RT and Sputnik repeatedly played up stories alleging that Rich, a relatively junior-level staffer, was the source of Democratic Party emails that had been leaked to WikiLeaks. It was an idea first floated by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who on Aug. 9, 2016, announced a $20,000 reward for information about Rich’s murder, saying — somewhat cryptically — that “our sources take risks.”
The Internet Research Agency, the St. Petersburg company owned by Yegeny Prigozhing, a confidante of Russian president Vladmir Putin, boosted the Rich conspiracy theories. IRA accounted tweeted and retweeted more than 2,000 times about Rich, helping to keep the bogus claims about his death in the social media bloodstream, according to an analysis of a database of Russia troll accounts by Yahoo News.
Steve Bannon promoted the Seth rich conspiracy theory to one of his media contacts.
“Huge story … he was a Bernie guy … it was a contract kill, obviously,” then-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon texted to a CBS “60 Minutes” producer about Rich on March 17, 2017, according to some of Bannon’s text messages that were reviewed by Yahoo News. (Bannon did not respond to requests for comment.)
Fox News hyped the claim in a much publicized story, which it then retracted.
Deborah Sines told Yahoo News that Russia used the story to obscure its responsibility for hacking the DNC and leaking the emails to Wikileaks.
“It appeared to me that it was a very clear campaign to deflect an ongoing federal criminal investigation,” Sines said. “So then you have to look at why is Russia doing this? … It’s not rocket science before you add it up and you go, ‘Oh, if Seth is the leaker to WikiLeaks — it doesn’t have anything to do with the Russians. So of course Russia’s interest in doing this is incredibly transparent.” The Russian strategy, Sines said, was diabolically simple: “Let’s blame it on Seth Rich. He’s a very convenient target.”
Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, whom Sines briefed about the Rich case, concluded there was nothing to the conspiracy theories.
In his recent report, Mueller briefly addressed the questions about Rich, writing that Assange had “implied falsely” that the DNC staffer was the source of the party emails leaked to WikiLeaks. His comments about Rich, Mueller wrote, “were apparently designed to obscure” how WikiLeaks really got them: from Guccifer 2.0, an online persona created by Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, who sent the group an encrypted file of DNC material on July 14, 2016, four days after Rich’s death.
Assange denies that Russia was the source of the DNC hack. Mueller did not interview Assange.