The Justice Department has rejected BuzzFeed’s argument in a pending libel lawsuit that its posting of the discredited Trump-Russia dossier and an accompanying story is protected speech.
In a filing in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., three Justice Department attorneys rebutted the news website’s stance it enjoys “fair reporting privilege” because the dossier was part of an FBI investigation.
The Justice Department’s declaration says that BuzzFeed’s Jan. 10 posting never cited any such probe and the dossier itself is not a government document.
BuzzFeed faces a separate, dossier-linked libel suit in Florida. The D.C. case involves BuzzFeed’s request for a judge to compel testimony from the FBI and possibly the national intelligence directorate on how they handled the dossier and what was told to President Trump.
The website’s aim is to prove that its dossier posting was part of accepted journalism practices when reporting on government investigations.
BuzzFeed, a mix of politics and pop culture edited by Ben Smith, is defending itself against a libel suit brought by Russian-born entrepreneur Aleksej Gubarev, chief of XBT Holdings and its popular internet hosting network Webzilla.
The dossier accuses Mr. Gubarev of hacking Democratic Party computers with spyware and porn under orders from Russia’s counter-intelligence agency, FSB. Mr. Gubarev, who denies the charge, also is suing the dossier writer, British ex-spy Christopher Steele, in a London court.
The dossier is filled with criminal charges against Mr. Trump and his associates, and was funded by the Democratic Party and the Hillary Clinton campaign. The money moved from them to a D.C. law firm, then to the opposition research firm Fusion GPS, which hired Mr. Steele. He used the money to pay his Russian sources.
The Justice Department filing accuses BuzzFeed of a “gross mischaracterization” of its own dossier story.
“Although the Article states that BuzzFeed decided to publish the so-called Dossier to provide readers an opportunity to ‘make up their own mind’ about its explosive but unverified allegations, BuzzFeed now contends in its motion to compel that the Article is nothing more than a report on official government proceedings,” the Justice lawyers wrote.
“Even a cursory review of the Article — which consists of less than 500 words of text and an embedded 35-page document — reveals that it does not actually ‘report’ that the Dossier has been the subject of official government activity,” the Justice lawyers added.
Mr. Steele briefed the FBI on his evolving dossier in July, about the same time the bureau opened a criminal investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. CNN reported the FBI used the dossier to obtain surveillance warrants.
Republicans have demanded an investigation into how an unverified document came to hold such importance inside the FBI.
Four days before BuzzFeed posted the file, then-FBI director James B. Comey personally briefed President-elect Trump on its contents, including salacious allegations about him and prostitutes at the Moscow Ritz-Carlton in 2013.
Mr. Trump repeatedly has denied the encounter ever happened. None of the dossier’s central collusion charges, including the one against Mr. Gubarev, has been publicly confirmed after months of congressional investigations.
Val Gurvits, a Gubarev attorney at the Boston Law Group, said the next step is for a judge to rule on BuzzFeed’s subpoenas.
“I feel somewhat vindicated,” he told The Washington Times. “We’re not the only ones that see that BuzzFeed’s attempts to defend its actions after the fact are really nothing more an afterthought to try to limit their liability.”
Mr. Gurvits spelled out his argument: “This document was written by a foreign national acting in his commercial capacity and not because the government wrote it or not because the government hired him to do it. Their position seems to be, if the government happens to read something as part of doing its job, all of a sudden that becomes a government document that you can now publish it, which is an asinine position because if that was true, all I would have to do to ruin my neighbor’s reputation is [write] a letter to the FBI accusing my neighbor of orchestrating 9/11, sending a copy to BuzzFeed, and then BuzzFeed would have the unfettered right to publish that false letter.”
Meanwhile, the libel case in Florida is in the discovery stage. Mr. Gubarev’s attorneys have asked a judge to compel BuzzFeed to reveal its dossier source. Mr. Steele has been ordered by a court in London to provide a deposition which he is resisting.
“They intentionally published a document simply for the salacious value,” Mr. Gurvits said. “Simply for the shock value to get traffic to their website.”