Masha Gessen is an award-winning writer for The New Yorker magazine. The Moscow-born native Russian emigrated to the United States in 2013 after she was dismissed as the chief editor of Vokrug Sveta, a popular-science journal, in September 2012 for refusing to cover an event involving Russian President Vladimir Putin. She then went on to work as the Russian director for Radio Liberty, a US government-funded agency operating out of the Czech capitol of Prague. Within weeks of her appointment, the Russian government removed Radio Liberty’s broadcasting license.
Gessen and her wife, Darya Oreshkina, were both active members of the Russian LGTBQ community (Gessen identifies as trans), and fled Russia out of fears that the Russian authorities would take away their adopted son.
In 2012 Gessen published a book, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin which, unsurprisingly, is harshly critical of the Russian president.
To say that Gessen, a stringent pro-LGTBQ activist, is a stringent opponent of Vladimir Putin would be to commit to the most absurd understatement possible.
Scott Ritter will discuss this article and answer audience questions on Episode 60 of Ask the Inspector, streaming live this week on Wednesday instead of Tuesday.
This must be kept in mind whenever reading anything Gessen writes, especially her latest anti-Putin diatribe, “How Putin Criminalized Journalism in Russia,” published on April 7 in The New Yorker. Gessen’s article discusses the case of Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter arrested by Russian authorities on charges of espionage, and postulates it as the most recent example of Vladimir Putin’s so-called “war on journalism.”
Gessen spends some time parsing the media coverage in Russia surrounding the arrest of Gershkovich, insinuating that what she postulates as state-controlled media was using aspects of Gershkovich’s biography to hype up the possibility of his being an employee of the CIA. “Ordinary journalistic activity—indeed, the ordinary details of a young American man’s life—are recast as evidence of espionage,” Gessen writes.
First and foremost, Gessen should familiarize herself with the genre she is covering. The notion that Russian media is alone in prying into the pasts of individuals accused of spying or other illicit activities is absurd—one only need look at the case of how the US media treated Marina Butina and Viktor Bout to see that the American press has itself perfected the art.
Masha Gessen likewise fails to discuss the fact that since 1996 the CIA has, in what they described as “extremely rare” cases, used journalistic or media cover for intelligence activities overseas where the nature of the target required CIA case officers to work outside US embassies under “nonofficial” cover.
One would think the fact that the CIA does, in fact, use journalistic cover to help its officers gain access to information deemed to be of critical importance, might occur to a journalist writing about the arrest of an American journalist caught in the act of receiving classified information about sensitive Russian defense production. Gessen ignores completely important details, such as the fact that Gershkovich was arrested in the central Russian city of Yekaterinburg, where he was investigating the work of the Novator design bureau, which is responsible for the production of the shipborne Kalibr-NK and the submarine-launched Kalibr-PL cruise missiles, both of which have factored greatly in Russia’s ongoing military operations in Ukraine.
One would imagine that intelligence about the production rates of the Kalibr cruise missile might factor high on the list of essential elements of information designated as priority collection requirements.
One would also suspect that a “journalist” with as much experience as Evan Gershkovich would know better than to seek to receive classified documents about Russian defense industry inside Russia…unless, of course, he was a spy.
Gessen tries to confuse the reader by accusing her perpetual bogeyman, Vladimir Putin, of manipulating Russian law by broadening “the definition of espionage so that reporting and other professional activities could be interpreted as spying,” noting that “Contrary to popular perception and common sense, in Russia, ‘espionage’ does not need to mean working for a foreign intelligence service or even a foreign government,” but rather that “espionage can include gathering information for any foreign organization the Russian government sees as threatening the security of the country.”
Two things about Gessen’s analysis. First, if Gershkovich was a CIA officer working under journalistic cover, then her entire argument is moot—a spy is a spy.
Second, Gessen again paints a picture which makes it appear that Russian law—Putin’s law—stands alone in the world as an example of the suppression of free speech or, as Gessen tells it, the criminalization of journalism.
Gessen again would do well to conduct a modicum of research before writing on a subject she clearly knows nothing about. An examination, for example, of the superseding indictment published by the US Department of Justice against Julian Assange, the Australian founder and publisher of Wikileaks, declares that Assange conspired to unlawfully obtain and disclose classified documents “related to the national defense,” adding that Assange sought to “received and attempted to receive classified information having reason to believe that such materials would be obtained, taken, made, and disposed of by a person contrary to law.”
If one simply removes Assange’s name, and replaces it with Gershkovich’s, it becomes clear that there is virtually no daylight between US and Russian law when it comes to espionage.
Of course, there is the important detail that Julian Assange is a legitimate journalist who did nothing different than other journalists at the New York Times and Washington Post when it came to receiving and publishing classified information. No evidence has been put forward that Assange worked for or conspired with the foreign intelligence services of any nation.
The jury is—literally—still out on Gershkovich’s journalistic status. The CIA, it turns out, does use journalistic cover while spying on sensitive hard-to-collect targets. If Gershkovich is a non-official cover CIA officer, he is a spy. And if not, as the former president of the Society of Professional Journalists, G. Kelly Hawes, declared back in 1996, the CIA practice of using journalistic cover “places true journalists’ lives and security in…danger.”
Gessen’s analysis is tortured by her prejudice against all things Russia, especially when it concerns Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin. But this is her style. As John Ehrman, a senior analyst in the CIA’s Directorate of Analysis, noted in his review of Gessen’s 2017 book, “The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” Gessen has a record of distracting her audience by making broad claims which she then attempts to prove by citing information that has no direct relevance to the argument she is making. This “slight of hand” approach to writing, Ehrman argues, fails upon closer scrutiny of the topic.
Gessen’s “sleight of hand” style fails in her current article as well. Her anti-Putin posture permeates every aspect of her analysis, distorting facts through acts of commission and omission. One would think a magazine like The New Yorker would put into check this kind of distortion, but David Remnick, the long-time editor of The New Yorker, sold out the credibility and integrity of the magazine a long time ago, when he stopped publishing Seymour Hersh. Remnick’s fan-boy approach to handling Masha Gessen, when combined with his own virulent hatred of all things Putin, has blinded him to the failings of Gessen as a writer and journalist. But then again, this has been par for the course when it comes to writing about Putin’s Russia for some time.
Gessen’s tortured essay misses the most critical aspect of Evan Gershkovich’s story—sometimes a spy is just a spy.
It is sickening how inaccurate and manipulated almost everything published by United States media is, especially given its posture in the case of Julian Assange. Its hypocrisy knows no bounds and we need to always keep that in mind. It's favorites (the Clintons, the Obamas, the Bidens) receive free passes while its enemies are regularly calumnied, as this article from a well-respected source, Scott Ritter, makes clear.
Thanks for addressing the outrageous hypocrisy of the corporate propaganda outlets for getting on their high horses about a journalist who may be working in the shadows while at the same time standing on Julian Assange's neck. Some people here seem to be more interested in what people do with their gonads.