Guilty As Charged

Tuesday’s rejection of the latest appeal by [Wall Street Journal reporter Evam] Gershkovich’s lawyers means he is set to remain behind bars until at least March 30, which would mark more than a year since he was taken into custody on an allegation of espionage that the Journal and the U.S. government vehemently deny.

~Wall Street Journal/February 21, 2024

Gershkovich has become a cause célèbre within the journalistic community.  But let us be honest.  How was Bob Woodward meeting with FBI deputy director Mark Felt in the garage of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts any different than Aldrich Ames or Jonathan Pollard’s rendezvous with their respective foreign sponsors? Or journalists embedded with U.S. troops in Vietnam or during the second Iraq war.  The Defense Department granted permission for these “moles” to accompany military units in hopes they would built support for American engagement in these conflicts.  But were less than pleased when they exposed atrocities such as My Lai and Abu Ghraib.

Effective investigative journalists are as proficient in the “dark arts” of espionage as any intelligence operative.  They communicate in code using burner phones.  They conduct clandestine business in remote locations.  When they are skeptical of the information they obtain, they seek corroboration from additional sources or tangible evidence.

Dr. ESP, surely you are not suggesting that Russia is justified in detaining Gershkovich.  And if not, what is the difference between what he was doing, reporting on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and say, the February 15 arrest of FBI informant Alexander Smirnov? 

Thank you for that softball question.  It puts Tucker Carlson’s interview with Vladimir Putin to shame.

The simple response is, like any profession, there are honest practitioners and dishonest ones in both journalism and intelligence.  An honest player in either field seeks accurate and truthful information whether it supports or refutes an initial hypothesis.  Consider Gershkovich’s last report before his arrest on March 30, 2003.  The March 28 article “Russia’s Economy Is Starting to Come Undone,” co-authored by colleague Georgi Kantchev is bolstered by readily available statistical data and interviews with named sources.  If their goal had been to suggest a financial crisis–weakened ruble, loss of European oil customers, etc.–signaled an imminent end to Russian aggression in Ukraine, they would not have included the following paragraphs.

The government can still borrow domestically, and the sovereign-wealth fund still has $147 billion, even after shrinking by $28 billion since before the invasion. Russia has found ways to sell its oil to China and India. China has stepped in to provide many parts Russia used to get from the West.

Russian officials have acknowledged the difficulties but say the economy has been quick to adapt. Mr. Putin has said his government has been effective in countering the threats to the economy.

They even quoted Putin’s state of the nation address where he claimed Russia did not face a choice between the prosecution of the war and the domestic economy.

You know, there is a maxim, guns versus butter. Of course, national defense is the top priority, but in resolving strategic tasks in this area, we should not repeat the mistakes of the past and should not destroy our own economy.

Which makes Gershkovich’s arrest all the more puzzling.  Would an American-sponsored spy tasked with helping to bring down Putin’s government suggest that global sanctions have not deterred Russian military goals?  Arresting Gershkovich says more about Putin and the Russian economy than anything he wrote for the Wall Street Journal.  It even suggests Putin knows Gershkovich gave him the benefit of the doubt, which perhaps he also knows he did not deserve.

Compare this to the sad tale of New York Times reporter Judith Miller whose was responsible for accounts of the false “weapons of mass destruction” justification for the 2003 Iraq invasion.  She relied solely on sources within the Bush administration, most notably Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Jr., and then invoked the First Amendment in an attempt to avoid exposing Libby’s criminal use of the same false information he fed to her.

Which brings us back to Smirnov whose “spying” more resembles Miller than Gershkovich.  Perhaps, even worse.  Miller could he classified as what is now commonly referred to as “a useful idiot,” someone who caters to the powerful to garner their favor.  Smirnov must have known Putin favored Trump’s reelection in 2020, and therefore, should have questioned information from Russian intelligence agents that would hurt Joe Biden’s candidacy. However, he shared Putin’s goal of keeping Trump in the Oval Office and assumed he would be rewarded for helping make that happen.

I can only wonder what Donald Trump, who surely welcomed efforts to impeach Biden by the confederacy of useful idiots in the House GOP conference, especially Jim Comer and Jim Jordan, must have felt following Smirnov’s arrest.  He must be thinking, “Smirnov is no hero.  I like spies who aren’t captured, okay?  I hate to tell you.”

When I look at Evan Gershkovich’s body of work, I believe he is “guilty as charged.”  Not as a spy, but as an exceptional purveyor of “journalistic espionage,” otherwise known as investigative reporting.  And for this he is more deserving of a Pulitzer prize than detention in a Russian prison.

For what it’s worth.