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DNC Subpoenaed in ‘Dossier’ Lawsuit

Media organization being sued by Russian billionaire tries a new tactic.

The logo of news website BuzzFeed is seen on a computer screen in Washington on March 25, 2014. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM
The logo of news website BuzzFeed is seen on a computer screen in Washington on March 25, 2014. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM

BuzzFeed has subpoenaed the Democratic National Committee for information related to the Democratic hack — its latest salvo in the media company’s efforts to defend itself against an ongoing libel suit connected to its publication of the infamous Steele dossier. The subpoena, a copy of which was reviewed by Foreign Policy, was served on the DNC Friday.

Aleksej Gubarev, a Russian technology executive, has sued BuzzFeed for libel for its decision to publish a series of memos authored by the former British spy Christopher Steele. Those memos — part of a so-called “dossier” of information about President Donald Trump’s alleged ties to Russia, include claims strongly denied by Gubarev that his companies were recruited by the Kremlin’s security organs to break into Democratic Party computer systems ahead of the 2016 election.

BuzzFeed is trying to figure out if the allegations relating to its libel suit are true as part of its defense strategy that could end up revealing details of the dossier and the DNC hack that have not been made public.

“One prong of our strategy is to prove that the dossier was being acted on and circulated by officials at the highest levels of government; but we would be remiss if we didn’t use every tool to determine the truth of what actually happened — and whether, as the dossier claims, Mr. Gubarev’s servers were behind the DNC hack,” Matt Mittenthal, a spokesperson for BuzzFeed News, told FP.

Gubarev denies that he or his companies that were named in the Steele dossier — XBT Holdings and Webzilla — played any role in the digital attack on the Democratic Party.

“BuzzFeed’s subpoena doesn’t amount to much,” said Evan Fray-Witzer, a lawyer for Gubarev. “It seeks irrelevant information because it’s not asking the question that actually matters: Was Gubarev, XBT, or Webzilla responsible for the hack? The answer to that question is ‘No.’”

According to a copy of the subpoena reviewed by FP, BuzzFeed is seeking “technical information and data obtained during the investigation into the Democratic Hack, including all host-based and network-based artifacts.” It is also seeking “non-public” analysis and reports into the DNC hack, and copies of the malware that was allegedly used in the attack.

The DNC did not immediately respond to FP’s questions about if it would comply or fight the subpoena. 

BuzzFeed published the dossier in full without verifying its details, and as part of its efforts to defend itself in the lawsuit the company is attempting to uncover details about the dossier compiled by Steele and Fusion GPS and verify aspects of its allegations.

This subpoena is the latest filed by BuzzFeed in connection to its federal lawsuit in Florida.

In addition to the DNC, Buzzfeed has also subpoenaed the cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike, which investigated the breach at Democratic Party headquarters, for technical information related to Russian hacking attempts. FP reviewed a copy of the subpoena.

A spokesperson for the company did not immediately respond to questions about whether the company would comply with the request.

As part of its efforts to stave off the lawsuit, BuzzFeed has served subpoenas to several federal agencies attempting to depose officials at the CIA, FBI, and other agencies believed to be tied to the commissioning or review of the now-infamous dossier.

Jana Winter is an investigative reporter based in Washington, DC. She worked previously as a national security reporter at The Intercept and breaking news/investigative reporter for FoxNews.com.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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