(CN) – In a new court filing, BuzzFeed not only explains how it plans to defend itself in an ongoing libel suit, but also explains in detail for the first time how it came to publish the so-called “Russia dossier” compuled by former British spy Christopher Steele.
BuzzFeed and its editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, face a libel lawsuit from a Russian tech executive accused in the dossier of being responsible for cyber-attacks on the Democratic Party during the 2016 election.
Aleksej Gubarev, owner of Luxembourg-based XBT Holding SA and Florida-based Webzilla Inc., sued BuzzFeed in January 2017, alleging the online news outlet was “reckless and irresponsible” for publishing the unsubstantiated document.
The dossier was compiled by former British M16 intelligence officer, Christopher Steele, for a private firm’s opposition research against then-candidate Donald Trump. The dossier contained several unsubstantiated claims about Russian cyber-attacks and salacious allegations about Trump’s sexual exploits.
In the heavily-redacted filings, spanning hundreds of pages, BuzzFeed’s attorneys outlined the steps the news organization took between learning about the document and publishing its contents.
In December 2016, BuzzFeed investigative reporter Ken Bensinger learned about the dossier and the news outlet gained access to it shortly thereafter. According to the court documents, six BuzzFeed journalists worked to verify claims in the dossier, including a trip to Prague to find out if former Trump attorney Michael Cohen met with anyone with links to the dossier.
After CNN reported the Federal Bureau of Investigation shared the dossier with then-President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump, BuzzFeed decided to publish the document in its entirety.
“When they made that decision, none of the BuzzFeed journalists involved knew or had any degree of awareness – let alone a ‘high degree’ of awareness – that the allegations about plaintiffs on the dossier’s last page were false, or harbored ‘serious doubts’ about that,” the filing states.
Considering Russian cyber-attacks on the Democratic Party was already public knowledge, BuzzFeed claims they “simply filled in a few details about the hacking operation.”
BuzzFeed argues the article falls under the “fair reporting privilege,” which shields journalists from liability for repeating potentially defamatory allegations if they stem from public records or a prominent, responsible organization.
To bolster their claims, BuzzFeed points to the dossier’s travel from the late Sen. John McCain’s office to the FBI and the executive branch. In statements to the court, Smith and Bensinger also point to Steele’s credibility.
“Although I was not familiar with ‘Gubarov’ or ‘XBT/Webzilla,’ I also thought the very fact that Mr. Steele had identified with that degree of specificity some of the alleged participants in the hacking scheme spoke to the credibility of those particular allegations,” Bensinger wrote in his statement.
Bensinger did have reservations about publishing the entire dossier, but his concerns were not about the veracity of the allegations.
“I was concerned that President-elect Trump, who was known to be extremely litigious, might sue us, including me personally,” he wrote. “I was also concerned, because I wanted to have a chance to inform my sources, including [redacted] that BuzzFeed News was going to publish the dossier.”
Last year, Judge John O’Sullivan ruled BuzzFeed did not have to name the source who gave reporters the dossier.
BuzzFeed also argues Gubarev and XBT are limited public figures.
Gubarev and XBT sent out numerous press releases to America media about cyber-security over the years and sought coverage of their activities, the filings show. He was also vocal supporter of a controversial data privacy law in Russia. Gubarev also commented about the 2016 election in a Bloomberg article about Trump’s ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Gubarev says he is unknown outside of the tech world. He is represented by Valentin Gurvits of Boston Law Group, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A few weeks after Gubarev’s lawsuit, BuzzFeed redacted his name from the dossier on its website and apologized, but stood by their decision to publish the document.
“I was and remain convinced that publishing the dossier was the right thing to do,” Smith, the editor, wrote in his statement filed Monday. “I believe it would be impossible to understand what has happened in our nation had the dossier not been published.”
BuzzFeed is represented by Katherine Bolger of New York-based Davis Wright Tremaine and Roy Black of Black, Srebnick, Kornspan & Stumpf in Miami.