WASHINGTON — The FBI is investigating two Russian government-funded media organizations that operate in the United States after accusations that they were part of a massive Kremlin operation to help swing last year’s presidential election to Donald Trump.
Russia Today, Moscow’s flagship English-language television broadcaster, and Sputnik News, a radio and wire service funded by the Kremlin, claim to be legitimate news-gathering organizations, no different from the BBC.
But the FBI is exploring whether the two Russian organizations should be required to register as foreign agents, invoking a U.S. law originally passed before World War II to prevent the spread of Nazi propaganda.
A U.S. intelligence community report on Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential race concluded in January that Sputnik and RT, as Russia Today is known, were part of a multifaceted Russian intelligence operation aimed at discrediting democracy and helping Trump win in November.
Some former employees of the Russian media organizations, which operate from separate offices several blocks from the White House, agree.
Sputnik “is not a news agency. It’s meant to look like one, but it’s propaganda,” said Andrew Feinberg, a former White House correspondent for Sputnik. FBI agents interviewed him for two hours last month about the Russian government’s influence over the operation.
Feinberg said during his five months at Sputnik, his editors were interested almost exclusively in stories about political conspiracies, and made clear that the organization took orders from Moscow.
“They always wanted to make the U.S. government look stupid,” he said. “I was constantly told, ‘Moscow wanted this or Moscow wanted that.’”
The question of who dictated editorial decisions was of particular concern to the FBI agents who questioned him, Feinberg said.
“They wanted to know, ‘Did they get their direction from Moscow,’ and of course the answer was ‘Yes,’” he said.
Mindia Gavasheli, the Sputnik bureau chief in Washington, declined to comment.
The FBI investigation was first reported by Yahoo News. It wasn’t immediately clear if it was part of the broader investigation being led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller into whether Trump’s aides illegally cooperated with Russian authorities before or after last year’s election.
The Foreign Agents Registration Act, passed in 1938, requires anyone in the U.S. who acts “at the order, request, or under the direction or control” of a foreign government to register with the Justice Department and to disclose financial information.
The statute, known as FARA, provides an exception for “any news or press service” as long at its coverage is not directed by a foreign government.
The exception has long allowed news organizations funded by foreign governments, but free from their control over editorial decisions, to operate on U.S. soil without registering with the Justice Department.
FARA experts say that if RT and Sputnik refuse Justice Department requests to register, they could face civil or criminal prosecution under the law. The law carries penalties of up to five years in prison and fines up to $10,000.