Feds Fight Back Against Publication For Trying to Obtain Key Info on Trump.
Federal agencies are fighting BuzzFeed's demand for information about how officials investigated a controversial dossier of claims about President Donald Trump's alleged connections to Russia.
BuzzFeed published the dossier in January along with a warning that the media outlet's reporters had been unable to verify many of the assertions in the compilation, including salacious allegations about Trump. In February, BuzzFeed was hit with a libel suit from Russian internet entrepreneur Aleksej Gubarev, who was mentioned in the document as having ties to hacking directed at Democratic Party leaders.
To bolster its defense in the suit, BuzzFeed is asking a federal judge in Washington to order the FBI and perhaps others to provide details that would officially confirm the dossier circulated at the highest levels of the U.S. government and triggered some effort by American authorities to verify its contents.
Justice Department lawyers moved Monday to block that effort, telling U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta that forcing officials to answer a series of questions about their handling of the dossier could trigger "a wave" of similar requests, distract government employees involved in important intelligence work and expose sensitive details about what government attorneys referred to in vague terms as "an ongoing investigation."
"Compelling the Government Respondents to respond to Buzzfeed’s questions clearly would interfere with and possibly cause grave harm to an ongoing investigation," Justice Department attorney Anjali Motgi and other lawyers wrote. "The compelled testimony could...give targets and others intent on interfering with the investigation information necessary to conceal evidence or implement countermeasures; reveal potential witnesses or sources in a manner that risks compromising or influencing relevant testimony; and/or suggest a map of possible investigative activity yet to be taken by revealing the current focus and scope of the investigation, allowing persons of interest to plan for such activity."
While the government's public court filing did not say precisely what investigation could be harmed, Justice Department lawyers submitted a secret FBI declaration providing the judge with further detail on the point.
The government also leveled what amounts to a direct attack on BuzzFeed's key defenses in the libel suit, flatly rejecting the site's claim that its publication of the dossier on Jan. 10 shed light on official government action.
"Buzzfeed’s characterization of the Article as a report on official government activity is at best a post-hoc rationalization proffered to avoid liability in private litigation," Motgi wrote. "Because the Article’s intention was to share 'explosive—but unverified—allegations' with the public, not to report on official government proceedings, Buzzfeed cannot invoke the fair report privilege to justify its publication of allegedly defamatory statements (nor commandeer the resources of the Federal Government in furtherance of that effort)."