At the urging of President Donald Trump, CIA director Mike Pompeo met with former NSA official and Russian email hack skeptic William Binney in October, according to a report published Tuesday by Intercept. In addition to pushing a sketchy theory at odds with the consensus conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community, Binney “mentioned the case of Seth Rich to Pompeo during their meeting,” the Intercept reported.
Trump told Pompeo that if he “want[ed] to know the facts,” he should talk to Binney, Binney told The Intercept. A senior intelligence source confirmed the meeting to the publication.
The pressure from Trump appears to publicly undermine the American intelligence community’s own assessment of the DNC hack and subsequent phishing and disinformation campaigns, a move that is unlikely to endear Trump to the CIA or NSA, which already regard him with deep suspicion.
Binney’s group, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), appears to be fomenting an especially odious conspiracy theory that runs contrary to its name. Briefly, the group’s assertions play to a fringe of the far right who allege without evidence that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails were released by DNC staffer Seth Rich, and then retroactively doctored to look like the work of Russians. Rich was murdered, almost certainly in a botched robbery, July 10 before the 2016 elections; conspiracists believe Rich was killed in retaliation.
There is no proof whatsoever to support claims that anyone but Russian military intelligence breached the DNC, and a separate group at VIPS has derided a memo co-signed by Binney that supports the theory as “contingent on a fallacy.” Authors of the original memo, which asserts that the stolen emails must have been downloaded to a local device rather than over the internet, have also expressed skepticism about the certainty of its conclusions since its distribution.
Both the Binney memo and the broader Seth Rich conspiracy contradict more knowledgeable independent authorities. But the convictions of Seth Rich true believers have proven depressingly resilient, in part because the conspiracy theory has been given voice by right-wing news outlets including Fox News, which recently interviewed Binney in addition to promoting the theory that the DNC had Rich murdered, and—in a story that now carries a long editor’s note—venerable newsweekly The Nation.
Binney’s apparent endorsement of a far-right conspiracy may be damning for the credibility of his group, but it is a coup for the conspiracists: Binney was an early NSA whistleblower and was persecuted for speaking out. In 2001, he left the NSA amid acrimony when he learned that a program he had developed, ThinThread, was being used to spy on American citizens. Four years later, when the New York Times published an article with inside information about the NSA, the FBI raided his house on the mistaken assumption that he was the article’s source.
The memo Binney co-signed called the DNC hack “an inside job” based on analysis of metadata provided by Guccifer 2, the hacker widely believed by active intelligence community officials and independent threat assessors to be a Russian cutout. Another group at VIPS, led by Thomas Drake, who joined Binney in his objections to the use of ThinThread in 2001, lambasted Binney’s memo for its “law-of-physics conclusions” in a follow-up at The Nation.
Rich’s parents have begged the theory’s proponents to stop, but to no avail.