After the Guardian sent the punditry into a frenzy on Tuesday by publishing a bombshell report alleging that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort secretly met with WikiLeaks founder and editor Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy in London during the 2016 presidential race, journalists and critics were quick to warn against blindly accepting the claims made in the piece due to the story's scant material evidence, anonymous sources, and explosive political implications.
As independent national security journalist Marcy Wheeler wrote on Twitter, "skepticism" about the Guardian's reporting—which was quickly picked up by corporate outlets—"couldn't be more broad-based" as it brought together journalists and legal experts from an array of political persuasions and opposing views.
Folks the skepticism to that Guardian report couldn't be more broad-based:@ggreenwald @aaronjmate @auerfeld @pwnallthethings @benjaminwittes @NatSecGeek and me rarely ALL agree. But we do all think that this is sketchy.
— emptywheel (@emptywheel) November 27, 2018
While some commentators simply withheld judgment on the report's veracity in the absence of further corroboration, others argued that there are plenty of reasons to doubt that the story's central claims are accurate—such as its heavy reliance on anonymous Ecuadorian intelligence officials who may have political motives and an unverified internal document written by Ecuador's National Intelligence Secretariat (SENAIN), which claims "Paul Manaford [sic]" and "Russians" were well-known guests of the embassy.
As whistleblower advocate Naomi Colvin and others pointed out, official Ecuadorian embassy visitor logs make no mention of any Manafort appearances, let alone the three separate appearances reported by the Guardian.
Instead of citing official logs, the Guardian's latest reporting relies heavily on SENAIN's document, which critics argued is questionable at best given that SENAIN may have political motivations to discredit WikiLeaks for publishing secret agency documents in the past.
Some reason for scepticism about this report. a. Full visitor logs have already been published. b. It's based on an unverified doc from Ecuador's Senain, who were *very * unhappy with WL republication of the Hacking Team files a few years back https://t.co/aD5zOmrC8U
— Naomi Colvin (@auerfeld) November 27, 2018
In general, @guardian might do well to explain to their readers that this is an extremely politicised situation within Ecuador, as well as everywhere else. Hard to see partisan anon sourcing for an equivalent UK story being treated in a similarly uncritical way.
— Naomi Colvin (@auerfeld) November 27, 2018
"There are genuine grounds to be cautious about the report," argued The New Republic's Jeet Heer. "It is based on anonymous sources, some of whom are connected with Ecuadorian intelligence. The logs of the embassy show no such meetings. The information about the most newsworthy meeting (in the spring of 2016) is vaguely worded, suggesting a lack of certitude."
"There are so many weird aspects to the Guardian story beyond the fact that it doesn't describe its sources or show any evidence. But nobody cares. People will claim it's true or not based solely on whether they want it to be."
—Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept
As the Guardian reports, "It is unclear why Manafort would have wanted to see Assange and what was discussed." The only specific details offered are related to the length of the alleged 2016 meeting—"about 40 minutes"—and Manafort's alleged attire—"sandy-colored chinos, a cardigan, and a light-colored shirt."
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For its part, WikiLeaks strongly denied the explosive report on Twitter and said it is "willing to bet the Guardian a million dollars and its editor's head that Manafort never met Assange."
The publication also announced on Tuesday that it has launched a "legal fund to sue the Guardian for publishing [an] entirely fabricated story."
Remember this day when the Guardian permitted a serial fabricator to totally destroy the paper's reputation. @WikiLeaks is willing to bet the Guardian a million dollars and its editor's head that Manafort never met Assange. https://t.co/R2Qn6rLQjn
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) November 27, 2018
If true, the Guardian's report could have major implications for Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe, a fact that may explain some of the reactive acceptance of the story by a segment of high-profile analysts, including cable news regulars like Malcolm Nance, who treated the thinly-reported story as a smoking gun:
— Malcolm Nance (@MalcolmNance) November 27, 2018
The alleged 2016 meeting between Manafort and Assange, the Guardian notes, may "come under scrutiny and could interest Robert Mueller... A well-placed source has told the Guardian that Manafort went to see Assange around March 2016. Months later WikiLeaks released a stash of Democratic emails stolen by Russian intelligence officers."
But the vagueness of the sourcing left many journalists extremely wary of running with such a politically charged story without corroboration beyond an unnamed but supposedly "well-placed" source, an unverified intelligence document, and other anonymous officials.
"There are so many weird aspects to the Guardian story beyond the fact that it doesn't describe its sources or show any evidence. But nobody cares. People will claim it's true or not based solely on whether they want it to be," wrote The Intercept's Glenn Greenwald on Twitter.
There are a lot more reasons than the valid ones here to be "cautious" about the Guardian story. I'm writing about them now. For now, I'll say: the Guardian & Luke Harding better hope this story pans out - and it might - because that's a huge, huge thing to print w/o being sure https://t.co/BQLA9KBW2i
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) November 27, 2018
"Which is true? The Guardian's anonymous claims or WikiLeaks' vehement denials?" Greenwald asked. "You can pick which to believe based on which one most advances your political narrative, or refrain from forming judgments until evidence is available. I'm going to opt for the latter course."