We’ve all spent months watching the FBI indict and arrest several Roger Stone and Alex Jones associates on charges of conspiracy to attack the U.S. Capitol on January 6th. Some of the arrestees were even Stone’s personal hired help on that day. It’s fairly obvious that these types are being squeezed to flip on bigger fish, so conspiracy charges can be brought against those bigger fish.
Yet today we all woke up to “exclusive” reporting from Reuters, claiming that the FBI has found little to no evidence that the Capitol attack was in any way coordinated, and implying that the likes of Stone and Jones are simply off the hook. When an “inside sourced” article like this seems to be at odds with everything else we know about a story, and something seems, well, wrong, it usually means there is something wrong. So let’s dive in and see if we can figure out what’s wrong here.
For starters, the Reuters article is sourced to “four current and former law enforcement officials.” Well there’s a red flag. How many of these law enforcement officials are current, and how many of them are former? This phrasing suggests that all but one of them are former.
And why cite any former officials at all? They’re not involved in the probe, and therefore don’t officially know anything. The only way former officials could have inside knowledge of this case would be if a current official improperly gave them details of the case, which they then improperly gave to Reuters.
In other words, it feels like the “sourcing” here is just one current law enforcement official, and the only reason Reuters included the former officials is so that it could avoid presenting this article as a single-sourced story. So it’s not off to a great start. But this alone doesn’t prove that the article is illegitimate.
Of course the real problem is this. It’s not uncommon for investigators or prosecutors to strategically leak details to the media about how ugly the evidence is, or about how indictments are coming, to try to scare the suspect into cooperating. But there’s no strategic reason for officials to leak that an investigation isn’t going anywhere, or that the targets are off the hook. This kind of leak only makes the FBI’s job harder.
In fact the only reason for an FBI official to leak that an investigation is dying on the vine, is in order to help the suspects – and if you’re doing that, then you’re a rogue official, which means you can’t be trusted as a source.
Why would this kind of leak help the likes of Stone or Jones? They’re surely already copy-pasting this Reuters article into their fundraising materials, so they can paint themselves as being innocent and persecuted; it wouldn’t be surprising if Stone and Jones manage to use this Reuters article to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal defense funds from their supporters. And if they do end up getting indicted, then this article may have managed to taint the jury pool a bit in the process.
While the sourcing here is almost by definition illegitimate, it’s the article itself that causes the real credibility problems. Take, for instance, this Reuters paragraph:
But one source said there has been little, if any, recent discussion by senior Justice Department officials of filing charges such as “seditious conspiracy” to accuse defendants of trying to overthrow the government. They have also opted not to bring racketeering charges, often used against organized criminal gangs.
This conveniently omits the fact that conspiracy charges have been brought against multiple Proud Boys members for the Capitol attack. Some of them have even pleaded guilty to those conspiracy charges. It’s right there on the DOJ website. But if you didn’t already know this, the above paragraph would lead you to believe that no conspiracy charges of any kind have been brought or will be brought. Maybe it would cause you to stop reading in disgust, before you got to the part where several paragraphs later Reuters finally admits conspiracy charges have in fact been brought – before naturally downplaying them.
Then there’s this bizarrely out of context sentence: “Senior lawmakers have been briefed in detail on the results of the FBI’s investigation so far and find them credible, a Democratic congressional source said.” This one-sentence paragraph, which has little to do with anything that comes before or after it in the article, aims to give the impression that the Democrats agree that the FBI hasn’t found anything. Of course in reality, the article does not establish that what the Democrats have been briefed on has any correlation to the claim by former law enforcement officials that the FBI hasn’t found anything.
So how does a lengthy article like this, with faulty sourcing, misleading construction, and no actual information, even get published? In short, someone wanted it published. You can start with the rogue individual in law enforcement who wanted to make sure the public is under the impression that Roger Stone and Alex Jones are off the hook. You can then look at how other similarly nonsensical and false stories have managed to get planted in the mainstream media.
For instance, once Donald Trump and his lawyers learned that the Manhattan DA was about to indict the Trump Organization and Allen Weisselberg, Trump’s lawyers managed to get Politico to run with a false headline claiming that prosecutors had decided not to indict Trump at all. The “sourcing” was that Trump’s lawyers told Politico that prosecutors had told them as much. In other words, “take our word for it.” This false headline caused the public to mistakenly believe that the initial indictments were somehow the only indictments coming.
Back in February of 2021, the Associated Press ran an article whose headline and first seventeen paragraphs attempted to take the lack of a confirmed SDNY federal criminal probe into Donald Trump, and spin it into a narrative about Trump being off the hook in New York. Not until the eighteenth paragraph did the article finally acknowledge, and naturally downplay, the fact that the New York criminal probe into Trump was instead being handled by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.
And of course during the 2016 election cycle, the New York Times famously ran an article falsely claiming that the FBI had found no connection between the Trump campaign and Russia, which we now know came at a time when the FBI had in fact already uncovered multiple such connections. In hindsight that article was planted by a rogue FBI official who wanted to falsely give the public the impression that the Trump-Russia scandal didn’t exist. And now today we appear to have a rogue FBI official planting a false story about Roger Stone and Alex Jones being off the hook.
Why does this kind of thing keep happening? Because no one involved pays a price for it. Reuters will get a ton of very profitable page views from today’s article, both from people who believe it, and from people who are posting it in order to dispute it (we’re not going to link to it out of principle; you can google it if you like). There is certainly backlash against Reuters today across social media, but that will be forgotten. If Stone and Jones do end up indicted, the mainstream public will be too relieved to recall that Reuters may have tricked them with bad sourcing. And on the scant chance that anyone does call Reuters out later on, Reuters can simply point to the fact that its article used the disclaimer “so far” four times, and that the evidence must have somehow emerged after the article came out.
In addition, what is the FBI going to do in response to this Reuters article, call a press conference and announce the evidence against Stone and Jones? Many among the public would enjoy such a spectacle, but putting those kinds of cards on the table is a good way to screw up an ongoing criminal case. These kinds of overwhelmingly suspect “inside sourced” articles nearly always rely on the fact that the adults in the room aren’t in a position to publicly push back.
In any case, we’ve likely learned nothing today about whether Roger Stone or Alex Jones will end up indicted and arrested. All we did learn is that someone out there decided that it was necessary right now to give the public the impression that they’re off the hook. The real question here is why.
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report