Last summer, I tried to get the pee tape. The special counsel’s office had indicted 12 Russians in July on charges of hacking the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. I figured that if anyone had the possibly apocryphal recording of Donald Trump hiring hookers to perform a “‘golden showers’ (urination) show,” it would be Russian intelligence, and if they were ever willing to give it up, it would be after the Trump administration indicted them.
These specific Russian intelligence agents, or someone working for them, had leaked me sensitive documents before, so it couldn’t hurt to try, other than that I was practically inviting the American and Russian governments into my inbox. That July indictment and another one in October confirmed what had long been assumed: the group going by “Fancy Bear” that successfully hacked the DNC and a million other organizations was just the Russian military.
I had previously corresponded with firstname.lastname@example.org, which belongs to a person or entity representing “Fancy Bears’ Hack Team,” a sports-focused offshoot of Fancy Bear. In 2017, several major American and European newspapers reported that Fancy Bear had hacked the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, so I wrote to the Hack Team and asked if they would send me what they had obtained from USADA.
They sent it to me on May 22, and I published it the next day. I have yet to hear back about the pee tape.
In January 2017, the American spy apparatus concluded that the Russians had hacked the Clinton campaign in retaliation for “the Panama Papers disclosure and the Olympic doping scandal as US-directed efforts to defame Russia.” At the time, I wrote a slightly tongue-in-cheek post for Deadspin saying that sports’ moronic drug war was actually responsible for electing Trump. Lance Armstrong liked the tweet, and I like to imagine him thinking that we could have avoided the current national mess if he was just allowed to dope in peace.
My theory that the election hacking was rooted in sports grievances is shaky at best, but it’s much more certain that that revenge for Olympic doping punishments was the driving impulse behind the Russians hacking the USADA and lots of other drug-testing bodies and international federations.
They wanted to make it seem like the Russian state-sponsored doping of athletes was no big deal.
They wanted to make it seem like the Russian state-sponsored doping of athletes was no big deal. After the vast scope of Russia’s national doping program became clear, track and field’s global governing body took a hard line against Russian athletes, banning scores of them from the 2016 Olympics in Rio. The subsequent hacks on drug-testing authorities were engineered to show that everyone else was doping too, and what’s more, their doping was being covered up.
The press covered the information from these hacks breathlessly–particularly the Western European press, which is shamelessly smarmy about doping when it serves its purposes–though the information contained in them rarely accomplished its goal. Serena Williams is taking asthma medication? Simone Biles takes Ritalin? Still peanuts compared to, say, doping unknowing hockey players by putting steroids in their scotch during the Winter Olympics, then swapping out their dirty piss for clean through a hole in the wall at the drug-testing site.
Still, some of the hacked materials seemed promising. Among them were documents dealing with the Nike Oregon Project, a training group that might be the best funded one in the world, and which consequently includes some of the fastest runners alive. Under the leadership of former professional marathoner Alberto Salazar, the NOP had achieved global success, but Salazar had been long rumored and reported to push anti-doping rules to their limits.
Unlike other, wiser sports that keep anti-doping enforcement on their periphery, the track bureaucracy keeps it front and center. Violations are erratically caught, then severely punished, so that dozens of its top-level athletes of the last four decades or so have been caught up in one drug scare or another, at one time or another. This makes it all the more jarring when there’s a visible subset of dopers still actively competing. This was the case at the 2012 London Olympics. (Track’s own governing body was both aware of this and actively accepting bribes–and in some cases extorting athletes–to cover it up.)
In London, Russians won 19 medals in track, second only to the United States, and at least nine of those medals have been retroactively stripped for positive tests, with two more medalists getting their results voided just this morning. The women’s 1500 meters alone may have displaced the 1988 men’s 100 final as the dirtiest race ever. In the actual race as it was run, Asli Cakir Alptekin, Gamze Bulut, Natallia Kareiva, and Yekaterina Kostetskaya finished first, second, seventh, and ninth; they were all later stripped of those results for failing doping tests. As the results currently stand, Tatyana Tomashova and Abeba Aregawi are the silver and bronze medalists, though Tomashova was suspended for doping from 2008 to 2010 and Aregawi tested positive in 2016.
With the Russians kept out of the top of the standings in 2016, NOP athletes won three Olympic gold medals and a bronze, making the group an obvious target for Russian resentment and chicanery.
Four years later in Rio, the Russian ban from track and field was an opportunity for the rest of the world, including the Oregon Project, to thrive. With the Russians kept out of the top of the standings in 2016, NOP athletes won three Olympic gold medals and a bronze, making the group an obvious target for Russian resentment and chicanery.
In early 2017–about six months after the Rio Olympics–the Sunday Times of London published its findings from a document that Fancy Bears had obtained by hacking USADA. This has become the normal news cycle for track and field: outstanding Olympic results followed, a short while later, by reporting that explains why those results shouldn’t really have counted. Salazar’s athletes had even already been through a version of it in 2012.
The highlight of the Times report, which centered around an internal USADA document investigating the Oregon Project, was an email from Salazar to Lance Armstrong about the supplement L-carnitine: “Lance call me asap! We have tested it and it’s amazing.” The document had concluded that L-carnitine was certainly effective, but that the way that NOP athletes were taking it was illegal.
But the London Times had missed a chance to expand on its own exclusive. Three months later the New York Times, armed with the exact same document, broke the news that runner Dathan Ritzenhein had emailed Salazar asking, “Is this legal? This doesn’t sound legal” before concluding that not taking the infusions Salazar insisted on would get him fired. The New York Times made it clear that the USADA report made it clear that this was a pattern among Salazar’s athletes:
[Tara] Welling’s medical records showed a nearly 11,000 percent increase in her muscle L-carnitine levels after the infusion. For the antidoping officials, this was evidence of illicit performance enhancement. When pressed about the infusion during her interview with the agency, Welling began crying. “I don’t know if Alberto did something to me,” she said.
I dreamed of being the BuzzFeed to the Timeses. So after the New York Times ran its story on May 19, I went to the now-seized domain of fancybear.net and looked up how to contact the hackers.
Was there any more meat left on the bone? I was determined to find out, and as the editor of a website that covered track and field, I was incredibly annoyed that this report was 1) tantalizingly out there but unpublished and 2) in the possession of reporters other than me. BuzzFeed had run the Steele dossier a few months before, and I was firmly in the camp that CNN’s delicate allusions to the dossier and BuzzFeed’s indelicate publication of it complemented each other. I dreamed of being the BuzzFeed to the Timeses. So after the New York Times ran its story on May 19, I went to the now-seized domain of fancybear.net and looked up how to contact the hackers. I messaged them on a few secure services and social media accounts; they emailed a ZIP file to my work account a few days later.
I emailed Matt Hart, who had written the New York Times story, asking him if this was the same document that he was working off of; he confirmed it was. I gave USADA a full 24 hours to respond to my queries about the documents before publishing; they waited until five minutes after I ran my first story to talk to me. All their flack would give me on the record was that he couldn’t comment on the status of any anti-doping investigations, but I was taken aback by how relaxed he was in a series of phone calls. We ran two more stories based on the report that day.
Somehow, the Timeses hadn’t squeezed the report totally dry. The actual report, which we published in full four days after the New York Times story, contained a few interesting and previously unreported details. Galen Rupp, the two-time Olympic medalist, kept taking a nasal spray after a report that the spray was linked to increased cancer risk had led an assistant to declare that NOP athletes would stop taking it. Salazar “refused to state that his first use of testosterone came after” a late-career ultramarathon victory. L-carnitine, which was legal in small doses but not in the amount that the document alleged NOP athletes were using it, was apparently so effective that one infusion of it could make a mediocre athlete able to hang with three of the best distance runners in the world in a workout. I had a career-making scoop.
Even without the rape investigation and the curdling into alt-right politics, Julian Assange and Wikileaks have mostly outlived their usefulness. When they burst onto the scene at the beginning of the decade, they provided a desperately needed look at the seamy underbelly of the American war machine. There is basically no reason to do anything in secret any more; what was once seamy underbelly is now official policy. And when half of everything you see online is fake, pure documents are not going to cut it. As Max Read wrote in December:
Such a loss of any anchoring “reality” only makes us pine for it more. Our politics have been inverted along with everything else, suffused with a Gnostic sense that we’re being scammed and defrauded and lied to but that a “real truth” still lurks somewhere.
The promise of Wikileaks was that it was that “real truth” lurking. By 2016, though, it was just a laundering service for the Russian government. Two years later, New York Times reporter Amy Chozick wrote that she and her colleagues were a “de facto instrument of Russian intelligence” for reporting on the Podesta emails that had been posted to Wikileaks. I don’t think that my editors and I were, as Chozick put it, “puppets of Vladimir Putin’s master plan.” But she was onto something–the coverage of the Podesta emails, and of the Russian hacks in general, was mishandled.
Western media treated the facts within as the most newsworthy component, rather than considering the news implications of the hacking itself.
Journalists, myself included, like to pretend that information is neutral. Information warfare campaigns like the ones the Russians waged in politics and sports lay bare that it is not. Early, boring hacks like the Podesta risotto recipe and Simone Biles’s ADHD medication served to lure writers into thinking that Wikileaks and Fancy Bears were purely relaying facts. When the later, more bombshell revelations were published, Western media treated the facts within as the most newsworthy component, rather than considering the news implications of the hacking itself.
I don’t think my lack of attention to the hackers’ agenda did the hackers themselves much good. Unlike the election, doping enforcement in track isn’t a zero-sum contest. Fancy Bears could promote news about doping allegations against the Oregon Project and Britain’s Tour de France champions, but they couldn’t make the Russians look less guilty for their own doping. The documentary Icarus, which skillfully makes the case that what the Russians did was of a different scope than the normal here-and-there doping, won an Oscar last year.
I do have two regrets about the stories, however. My coverage may not have been too sympathetic to the goals of the Russians, but it ended up instead serving the goals of the organization they hacked. Typically, organizations respond to the exposure of their private communications with umbrage. When the New York Times story came out, though, USADA didn’t cry fake news or warn readers about the possibility of the stolen documents being altered. It praised “the courage” of the athletes in the documents for “speaking truthfully.”
In retrospect, USADA was so calm with me the day I ran the report because it wanted the story out there. The last thing that I would want to do is give an anti-doping agency support for its work. I believe that performance-enhancing drugs, like all drugs, should be legal and regulated; I thought that the Oregon Project story was worth doing not because it would expose the athletes for using drugs, but because it showed Alberto Salazar being an unsafe coach.
The story I should have run was not that Oregon Project athletes were apparently taking infusions of L-carnitine that exceeded WADA-permitted levels. It was that the global and national anti-doping frameworks were causing coaches and shoe companies to pursue alternatives that, legal or not, were clearly dangerous.
I should have simply written that I had obtained the documents as part of a Russian disinformation campaign, and made my case that they were newsworthy anyway.
My second regret is that like the New York Times—but unlike the Sunday Times, to its credit—I was too proud to say that the Russians were my source. I didn’t deny it, and aggregators correctly assumed that the documents came from Fancy Bears. But I should have simply written that I had obtained the documents as part of a Russian disinformation campaign, and made my case that they were newsworthy anyway.
In her post-campaign exegesis, Chozick wrote that she wishes she treated the Podesta emails the same way she treated a phone she found in a bathroom that belonged to a Podesta assistant: as radioactive because of their source. But when it comes to documents of ethically fraught origin, the choice shouldn’t be between context-free reposts and ignoring them altogether. Our job is to tell the readers what we know, as completely as we can. That includes telling them how and why we know it.