Russian Peter Levashov would have fared better if his wife was a gangster’s moll, who knew when to keep her mouth shut. Instead, she’s a socialite in St. Petersburg, Russia, who told journalists her hacker hubby was busted for “creating a virus linked to Trump winning the election.”
Almost immediately The New York Times began walking the story back.
The Big Fix after The Big Hack?
When Russian Spam Lord Peter Levashov ankled off to jail in Barcelona two weeks ago, his wife was left alone—not home alone in St. Petersburg, where she and her husband live, but in a strange country, Spain. Approached by a Russian-speaking reporter, she perhaps understandably talked freely, volubly, and emotionally.
One day later, The New York Times did everything but accuse her of lying. As they say in scripts for bad TV comedy TV pilots, “Hilarity ensued.”
The immediate controversy was over whether Levashov was peddling dick pills, get-rich-quick schemes, counterfeit drugs, work-at-home scams and pump-and-dump penny stock scams.. . or was he instead using his powerful algorithmic bots to hack the U.S. election? Could he have been doing both at the same time? Opinion varied.
What doesn’t vary: the names of Levashov’s American partners. These so-far-unidentified names — when made public, as they undoubtedly soon will be— will prove useful to puzzling out the big question about the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion in the Russian hacking of the 2016 Presidential election.
Sifting the real from the fake news in coverage of Levashov’s arrest in Spain, was the immediate priority. Capturing elite Russian hacker Peter Levashov is a milestone in the quest to bust open the current public embarrassment, which appears —in one man’s opinion—capable of becoming the biggest American scandal since Watergate.
In the Russian election probe the question is whether—given the intrigue swirling around Levashov’s arrest — the fix may already be in.
Likes: Bob Marley, Melancholia, & Catcher in the Rye
Peter’s wife, Maria Levashova, is a socialite in St. Petersburg, where she and her husband live, one of the beautiful people, a sought-after high-end wedding planner.
She’s on Facebook, where she likes Bob Marley, the movie Melancholia, and the classic JD Salinger book “Catcher in the Rye.”
Hardly adequate preparation for a 3 a.m. raid by a dozen grim Spanish policemen wearing funny hats. When Russian Today found her and interviewed her, they headlined it “Wife of Russian programmer ‘suspected of cyber attacks on US’ shares details about his arrest.”
“The wife of detained Russian programmer Pyotr Levashov spoke to Russia Today (the official Russian TV channel) of her anguish at the prospect of never seeing her husband again “if he is extradited to the US” from Spain “on suspicion of cyber-attacks on US governmental sources,” reported RT.
“It was a nightmare,” stated Maria Levashova. “Our apartment was stormed by a large number of police officers in the middle of the night. They smashed through the door. We were forced to the floor, right in front of our four-year-old child.”
YOU MAKE THE CALL
Her husband told her in a phone call from jail, she stated, that he was arrested because he’d “been linked to Trump’s win.”
“When she spoke to her husband by phone later, he told her he had been shown “some papers in Spanish without a stamp, with a bad quality picture of him,” reported RT, “and heard the law enforcement mentioning “something about a virus” he had allegedly created, “linked to Trump winning the elections.”
Maria’s words confirm one thing I believe we can provisionally accept as fact: Unspecified law enforcement officials were present with her husband in Barcelona’s jail, and told him he’d been busted for alleged involvement in hacking the American election.
Otherwise she’s Natasha to Peter’s Boris.
Maria’s last declaration is telling in assessing her state of mind. Was she just a distraught young wife and mother? Or was she a cool professional delivering a rehearsed message?
“All electronic devices had been forcefully taken from the family. I don’t know what to do. One thing I clearly understand is that if my husband is extradited to the US, me and my son will never see him again. They will cook up anything, but will never let him go.”
Peter Levashov’s biggest immediate problem now was his wife. But by the time the realization sunk in that she’d given an interview on Russian TV in which she said he told her he was pinched for making Donald Trump President, the proverbial toothpaste had squirted out of the tube.
Before the New York Times kibosh
“An alleged Russian hacker has been detained in Spain at the request of American authorities, an arrest that set cybersecurity circles abuzz after a Russian broadcaster raised the possibility it was linked to the U.S. presidential election,” the AP reported.
Spain’s EFE wire service reported “The detainee’s wife, Maria Levashova, told RT that her husband was arrested on a warrant issued by the United States accusing the programmer of participation in cyber-espionage orchestrated by the Kremlin to favor the victory of Republican Donald Trump.”
From the BBC: “El Confidencial, a Spanish news website, has said that Mr. Levashov’s arrest warrant was issued by US authorities over suspected “hacking” that helped Donald Trump’s campaign. Mr. Levashov’s wife Maria also told Russian broadcaster RT that the arrest was made in connection with such allegations.”
Chinese news service Xinhua: “Maria Levashova told Russia Today her husband had been detained as the result of an arrest warrant issued by the United States accusing him of having taken part in an alleged hacking operation orchestrated by the Kremlin to facilitate Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election,”
Many world news outlets—among them Agence France-Presse (AFP) —reported an unnamed legal source told them Levashov is “suspected of participation in the hacking of the election in the U.S.”
“A Russian computer expert was remanded in custody in Spain on Monday on suspicion of involvement in alleged hacking of the US presidential election campaign, a legal source said. Levashov is “suspected of having participated in hacking the election campaign in the United States.”
Back-peddling as fast as they can
So it is beyond ironic that Russia Today—a Kremlin-financed media outlet—broke a story the Kremlin itself would call fake news.
Enter the New York Times, dog-peddling backwards as fast as it can.
“Despite Russian news media reports to the contrary, American officials said Mr. Levashov played no role in attempts by Russian government hackers to meddle in the 2016 presidential election and support the candidacy of Donald J. Trump,” reported Michael Schwirtz.
The New York Times, immediately throwing cold water on a story indicating substance to the claim that Russian hackers were involved in the U.S. election?
“However, a USDJ official defused speculation that the arrest was in connection with the election hacking, stating that the arrest was a criminal matter without an apparent national security connection.”
In a naked display of what Donald Trump likes to complain is fake news, the New York Times single-offhandedly walked back the story. Put the kibosh on it. And then made it stick.
“According to the US authorities, who do not mention anything related to meddling in US election campaigns, as was said at the outset, Levashov has been controlling the Kelihos network since 2016.”
“All is vanity, and a seeking after wind”
“Rumors had swirled over the weekend, sourced only to a vague report on the Russian propaganda network RT that Levashov had been involved in that country’s meddling with the 2016 US presidential election,” reported Wired Magazine.
“But there was no hint of that in Monday’s Justice Department complaint, which focused instead on Levashov’s role in developing and running one of the internet’s most pernicious and longest-running botnets.”
“This Russian ‘Cyber Kingpin’ Probably Didn’t Hack The US Election” was the bold headline in Forbes Magazine.
“There was a wholly unsubstantiated connection between Levashov and attacks on the U.S. election flying around the web this weekend. According to a report in Russian publication RT, Levashov’s wife claimed that when the accused was arrested while holidaying in Spain, law enforcement officials said his apprehension was in part due to his involvement in the attacks on the election, which included the notorious breach of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).”
“The Justice Department official said, however, that the Kelihos case was not connected to election hacking, and the indictment makes no mention of it.”
“But those allegations have not been confirmed by the U.S. government. The Kremlin is portraying all this as nothing more or less than a witch hunt for Russians.”
The Importance of Being Earnest
I wanted to know what made the New York Times reporter dismiss Maria Levashova’s detailed and seemingly non-political account based on the word of an unnamed U.S. official. So I asked him in an email.
“Can you reveal a little about the prominence—as well as the provenance—of this paragraph from your story:
“Despite Russian media reports to the contrary, U.S. officials said Levashov played no role in attempts by Russian government hackers to meddle in the 2016 presidential election and, according to U.S. intelligence agencies, support the candidacy of Donald Trump.”
Say hey there Michael Schwirtz! How does your paragraph square with the specificity of Levashov’s wife’s comments after her husband’s arrest?
“As if that were even an option”
“Why would Russian media want to implicate Russian hackers any further in controversy over Russians hacking the U.S. election? Yet, paradoxically, isn’t that what they (Russia Today) just did?”
Lastly, I thanked him—prematurely as it turned out—for any light he could shed.
The New York Times appears to have engaged in a textbook example of ‘fake news.’ Why? Ask them. But the real news is–clearly–the story the New York Times left out. Understanding how this happened is the first step towards ensuring it never happens again.
As if that were even an option.
Last question. In the Russian election probe, is the fix really in? Really? Already?