WikiLeaks immediately issued a vehement denial, declaring the story to be completely "fabricated" and noting the paper had given them virtually no time to respond prior to publication. Within hours, the organization had set up a legal fund seeking donations in order to sue The Guardian for libel, and were calling for the resignation of Editor Katherine Viner.
The paper responded by softening the report's wording significantly, making clear it was based entirely on unverifiable allegations from anonymous sources, rather than anything even approaching actual evidence.
While WikiLeaks' impassioned denunciations and the paper's embarrassing, instantaneous climbdown didn't stop the lurid allegations being regurgitated uncritically by mainstream news outlets the world over, more sober voices urged caution, noting there was no photographic or video documentation supporting the claims — and the notion Manafort repeatedly entered the Embassy without leaving a paper trail of any kind stretched believability to absolute breaking point.
BREAKING: @WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange has instructed his lawyers to sue the Guardian for libel over fabricated Manafort story and launched a legal fund to boost the action https://t.co/VaoMESN5RO— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) November 27, 2018
In less than a day, what Harding and Viner had evidently hoped would be the journalistic scoop of the year was fast shaping up to be the biggest disaster in news reporting since Germany's Stern magazine published ‘The Hitler Diaries' in 1983, a fiasco that could severely — and enduringly — damage the reputation of The Guardian and land the paper in significant legal hot water.
CIA to the Rescue!
The question of how it was The Guardian could've published such ludicrous fiction was one that surely baffled many of the organization's supporters, but on November 28, a potential answer would emerge from the shadows — it was provided by former CIA officer ‘Alex Finley' (a pseudonym), in Politico magazine.
1/ Why do attacks on the US media — calling it "Fake News" — resonate so widely? Because of utterly fabricated and reckless articles like this one from @politico, by a former *CIA officer allowed to write under a "pen name"*. The whole thing is a fraud: https://t.co/kGRsiOXHHN— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) November 28, 2018
Finley rightly states the story "[calls] into question all of Harding's past reporting" and could be invoked "whenever someone mentions his reporting as evidence of wrongdoing", raising the eternal question of "how can anything he writes be trusted?" and leading to "any mention of Harding going forward" including the caveat "according to a reporter who was once duped".
However, all rationality immediately flies out the window — for the ex-spy suggests the article is in fact part of a "disinformation campaign", a story planted to make Harding "look bad" — this they feel is the "most logical explanation" for The Guardian's critical error. Who or what could be behind this dastardly ploy? Well, according to Finley, Russian intelligence. Of course.
In support of the utterly bizarre and baseless conspiracy theory, Finley notes that "interestingly", Sputnik News "called the story into question", in articles quoting WikiLeaks and Glenn Greenwald (who "worked with WikiLeaks", the former officer erroneously claims), among others.
4/ POLITICO also allowed this ex-CIA agent's to falsely claim that the only people raising doubts about the Guardian's story are people who are part of "Russia’s disinformation network." In fact, as @Emptywheel noted, a wide range of people raised doubts about the story. Compare: pic.twitter.com/kuIUMYQ5L3— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) November 28, 2018
In doing so however, Sputnik was by no means unique, as several prominent journalists issued social media postings, blog posts and even articles to much the same effect, raising the question of whether they too are pawns in the sinister, alleged Russian campaign to spread doubt and division — or conversely, if Finley is desperately clutching at straws.
Who's Discrediting Who?
In any event, why would the Kremlin want to target Harding? Well, Finley postulates, the serial plagiarist has published a slew of "Russia-is-up-to-no-good stories", including "a book about the Trump campaign's ties to Russia [Collusion]" and articles relating to "the Steele Dossier" and "Russia's plans to help rescue Assange from London and spirit him away to Moscow".
The ex-spy's invocation of the latter article is ironic, for it provoked significant controversy upon publication in September, foreshadowing the furore surrounding Harding's piece on Manafort's likely fictional meetings with Assange.
Terrifying: There are already 100,000 shares of yet another Guardian hit-piece on Assange relying on anonymous sources – which ex-ambassador Craig Murray convincingly argues is based on provable lies intended to fit Assange up on espionage charges in US https://t.co/bhucJfi6u1— Jonathan Cook (@Jonathan_K_Cook) November 27, 2018
In the story — which was entirely based on the testimony of anonymous sources, the identity of which Harding didn't even hint at — he claimed Russian diplomats held secret talks in London with associates of Assange in 2017, in an attempt to assist in his escape from the UK. The covert action would've allegedly seen Assange smuggled out of the Ecuadorian embassy in Knightsbridge under cover of Christmas Eve in a diplomatic vehicle and transported to Moscow.
In response, Craig Murray, former UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan, called the piece a "quite extraordinary set of deliberate lies" and "entirely black propaganda" published by an "MI6 tool".
"I was closely involved with Fidel Narvaez of the Ecuadorean Embassy at the end of last year in discussing possible future destinations for Julian. It's not only the case Russia did not figure in those plans, it's a fact Julian directly ruled out the possibility as undesirable. The entire story is a complete and utter fabrication. It's very serious indeed when a newspaper like the Guardian prints a tissue of deliberate lies in order to spread fake news on behalf of the security services. I cannot find words eloquent enough to express the depth of my contempt for Harding and Katherine Viner, who have betrayed completely the values of journalism," Murray wrote.
Similarly, while it climbed to the top of the New York Times' Bestseller List, Collusion is perhaps not the best advert for Harding's allegedly palpable Kremlin-bothering capabilities. In it, he spends 300 pages extensively probing the prospect of a long-running Trump/Russia relationship, and turning up nothing of any substance whatsoever.
For instance, in the book Harding suggests Trump once borrowing money from Deutsche Bank, and Deutsche Bank later being bailed out by Russian bank VTB, could imply a "connection" of some kind — although he's eventually forced to concede "no trail to Moscow" has been discovered subsequently by employees of the bank, financial analysts or US federal investigators.
Likewise, that Carter Page, a businessman who briefly had a highly marginal role in Trump's electoral campaign, appeared on RT once or twice is to Harding's mind a suspicious linkage indeed — despite he himself acknowledging all Page's "attempts to meet Trump individually failed". At one point, Harding is literally reduced to claiming Konstantin Kilimnik's use of a smiley face to sign off a snarky email is proof he — and his boss Manafort — were secretly working for Russian intelligence.
Moreover, when challenged to provide any evidence at all for his book's assertions in an interview with Aaron Mate of The Real News, Harding was left mumbling and stuttering, merely appealing to the authority of Christopher Steele — the ex-MI6 operative who authored the eponymous ‘dodgy dossier' — and terminated the interview prematurely.
Balls from Steele
Harding's veneration of Steele and his dossier raises serious questions about his credibility, and regard for basic journalistic standards. After all, the dossier convinced few with knowledge of Russia upon publication, and has been made to look increasingly ludicrous over time. For instance, former British Ambassador to Russia Tony Brenton said the dossier "look[ed] pretty shaky," and expressed doubts over Steele's ability to penetrate the Kremlin and Russian security agencies. Likewise, former acting CIA Director Michael Morell raised concerns due to Steele's intelligence gathering approach — he gave money to intermediaries, who in turn paid sources for the information.
"Unless you know the sources, and unless you know how a particular source acquired a particular piece of information, you can't judge the information — you just can't," Morell said.
"That initial handoff of evidence included Clinton trying to hide her connection to the Steele dossier by laundering the money through Perkins Coie, as well as the first batch of the now infamous Peter Strzok–Lisa Page text messages."— Bill Mitchell (@mitchellvii) November 26, 2018
Craig Murray went even further in his criticism, calling Steele a "charlatan" who "knocked up a series of allegations that are either wildly improbable, or would need a high level source access he could not possibly get in today's Russia, or both."
"He told the Democrats what they wish to hear and his audience — who had and still have no motivation to look at it critically — paid him highly for it," Murray wrote in March 2018.
Despite these obvious shortcomings, Steele and Harding have repeatedly stood by the various bizarre assertions in the document, and they remain in frequent contact. This relationship may have contributed to another major blunder on Harding's part April.
In the immediate wake of the apparent poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, UK, the UK government issued a D(SMA) notice, blocking mention of Pablo Miller — Skripal's MI6 recruiter — in the media. Individuals who conducted internet searches for Miller afterwards quickly found his LinkedIn profile, which identified him as a 'Senior Analyst' at Orbis Intelligence — Steele's corporate espionage company.-
Miller's page was quickly deleted, and Harding took to Twitter to issue repeated denials of a connection between Miller and the firm, going so far as to suggest "someone" was using search engine optimization techniques to dishonestly associate Miller and Orbis.
This 2017 forum thread here, which links to Pablo Miller's LinkedIn profile, states Orbis is listed on Miller's CV — https://t.co/Fx0vu1qorJ …. His profile was deleted between March 6th and today. Stop regurgitating anonymous claims by your spook pals and do some research, Luke— Kit Klarenberg (@KitKlarenberg) March 12, 2018
However, more inquisitive individuals using online search engines easily found an online forum thread from 2017 clearly identifying Miller as an Orbis employee and linking to Miller's (now-defunct) LinkedIn page as corroboration. Harding has been repeatedly presented with this information, among other documentation supporting the fact of Miller's Orbis employment, but remains steadfast in his conviction it isn't the case.
Politico publishes article by CIA officer using pen name. Carl Bernstein wrote about CIA using US media in 1977:— J Pierpont Morgan (@pierpont_morgan) November 29, 2018
"…400 US journalists who in the past 25 yrs have secretly carried out assignments for the CIA."
"…full-time CIA employees masquerading as journalists abroad." pic.twitter.com/MLJnTkihj5
Given this embarrassing litany, the "most logical explanation" for why Harding unskeptically transmitted anonymous allegations about phantom meetings between Assange and Manafort without any corroborating evidence whatsoever is perhaps that he — like many other mainstream journalists — has deep, cohering and unquestioning affinity and trust for the British state, and relationships with key individuals therein, and as a result has for many years been intensely relaxed about acting as a credulous conduit for whatever information they throw his way. The only difference is that this time, he may have finally gone too far.