Buzzfeed is seeking to force testimony by top U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials about their knowledge of an unproven dossier on President Donald Trump’s purported activities involving Russia and allegations of Russian interference during last year’s election.
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Lawyers for the online media outlet say in a motion filed Wednesday in Miami federal court that they need testimony by current and former officials, including former FBI Director James Comey, to defend themselves in a defamation lawsuit brought against the news outlet by a Cyprus businessman.
The businessman, Aleksej Gubarev, claims he and his companies were falsely linked in the dossier to the Russia-backed computer hacking of Democratic Party figures. Gubarev is seeking unspecified damages from Buzzfeed and its top editor, Ben Smith, for the lawsuit’s libel and slander claims.
The Buzzfeed motion asks a federal judge to compel the testimony under oath of officials with the Justice Department and FBI, Comey, and possibly the Office of the Director of National Security and its former director, James Clapper.
In August, all of the government agencies and individuals subpoenaed by Buzzfeed refused to comply with the requests for testimony or documents. A variety of reasons were given, including possible national security implications and law enforcement investigation concerns.
The document signed by Buzzfeed attorney Nathan Siegel said under the “fair report” privilege of defamation law, a news organization cannot be found liable for publishing documents that become the subject of official government conduct. The motion lays out numerous ways in which the dossier had been discussed among top-level officials of both the outgoing and incoming presidential administrations, citing a statement by Trump himself that he had been briefed about it two weeks before his inauguration.
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“In large part, this motion merely seeks to compel the government parties to provide this information by providing very limited testimony under oath about the matters they have already publicly discussed,” Siegel wrote.
The original subpoenas have been narrowed to seek much more limited information, simply to confirm that the dossier was being officially investigated before Buzzfeed published it.
“All this motion seeks is an order compelling the government parties to produce a witness, or if necessary two, to appear for a deposition limited to the specific topics,” Siegel wrote.
The 35-page dossier, compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele, had been circulating among multiple news outlets during the 2016 campaign. It contains unproven allegations of coordination between Trump’s advisers and Russians on hacking the emails of prominent Democrats and makes unverified claims about sexual activities.
On Jan. 10, Buzzfeed published the dossier in full, noting at the time that much of its content had not been verified. The Associated Press had not authenticated its claims. Trump himself has described the lurid dossier as “phony allegations” concocted by his political opponents.
In one paragraph, the dossier claims that Gubarev and his companies, XBT Holdings and Webzilla Inc., “had been using botnets and porn traffic to transmit viruses, plant bugs, steal data and conduct ‘altering operations’ against the Democratic Party leadership” at the behest of Russian entities, according to court documents filed by Gubarev’s lawyers.
“Not a single portion of this statement, as it applies to Mr. Gubarev, XBT, or Webzilla, has any basis in fact whatsoever,” his attorneys wrote.
XBT operates 37,000 computer servers around the world, about 40 percent of them in Dallas, according to the lawsuit. Gubarev is described as a “venture capitalist and tech expert” who moved from his native Russia to Cyprus in 2002. Gubarev is not involved in politics and has no connections with the Russian government, the document says.
The case, originally filed in February, is pending before Miami U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro. She could issue a ruling on the motion to compel government testimony at any time.