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Hacks and libel - Digital Threat Digest

PGI’s Digital Investigations Team brings you the Digital Threat Digest, SOCMINT and OSINT insights into disinformation, influence operations, and online harms.

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On 26 September, Semafor published a lengthy article written by Jay Solomon claiming that a series of Iranian-American analysts and advisors to the Biden administration had been compromised as part of a long-running Iranian influence operation. This sounds fairly juicy, but there are a few red flags which make it somewhat inexplicable that this article made it to print.

Firstly – the investigation is based on a tranche of leaked Iranian government emails. Leaks are high risk high reward when it comes to influence, because they are by nature not possible to demonstrate as false. Which means they are equally not possible to demonstrate as true. Moreover, a source from within Semafor has alleged that the media room were not actually shown the original emails nor told of their provenance. So there’s some fair doubt over the source.

Secondly – the investigation is a joint piece of work between Semafor and Iran International. Iran International is an interesting outlet – it is effectively opposition media, dedicated to countering the Iranian regime – which is fine as long as you bear in mind the bias in the reporting. However, Iran International is owned by a UK-based entity called Volant Media UK Ltd, which was historically and currently owned by two Saudi nationals according to corporate records. There’s a bit more bias to bear in mind there.

Thirdly – the Semafor piece is authored by one Jay Solomon, the former chief foreign correspondent of the Wall Street Journal. Solomon was fired from his role in 2017 for ethics violations after forming a business relationship with one of his sources, Farhad Azima, an Iranian born former weapons shipper. The relationship included being hosted on Azima’s yacht and being asked to courier documents to an Emirati diplomat.

Finally – the emails were allegedly being shopped around by a former aide to Mike Pompeo while he was Secretary of State under the Trump administration for almost a month before Semafor and Iran International decided to run the story. That aide subsequently conveniently released a very comprehensive statement backing the allegations and attacking the Biden administration immediately after the Semafor piece was published. A piece which smears the Iranian-Americans who succeeded the Republican’s people in the US government.

So now we’re 48 hours after publication of the piece, and it’s devolved into he said, she-said. Everyone involved has accused everyone else of lying, of libel, and of having a lack of evidence. It sure looks a lot like this is a story seeded by the GOP, but as is the beauty of leaks, both sides have plausible deniability. We’re still a year out from the US 2024 election, but the current reputational mudslinging shows us we’re in for a murky cycle.

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