Russian secret-spilling site ‘Dossier’ steps into spotlight
LONDON — Over the past three months, a handful of highly placed Russians have discovered their secrets seeping onto the web.
It happened to a Russian Interior Ministry official whose emails were published online in April. It happened again this month, when details about a former Kremlin chief of staff’s American energy investment were exposed by Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
Last week, Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer who met with U.S. President Donald Trump’s son during the 2016 presidential campaign, saw her ties to senior Russian government officials laid bare in an Associated Press investigation.
And the man behind the disclosures told the AP that more are coming.
A key source for the recent stories has been Russian opposition figure Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s new project, dubbed the Dossier Center. Launched in November, the center is billed as an investigative unit. Its website features a sprawling, interactive diagram of interconnected Russian officials described as the “main beneficiaries” of Russian corruption.
“We have no shortage of material we’re currently evaluating,” Khodorkovsky said in a television interview last week from his office in central London.
The exiled former energy executive is funding the Dossier Center himself and said it was born out of frustration with the inability of journalistic investigations to lead to real change in a Russia dominated by his foe, President Vladimir Putin. He wanted the project to produce more than occasional stories and to gather enough actionable information on the Kremlin’s leadership to bring its members, eventually, to court.
“We understand it’s a long-term ambition,” Khodorkovsky said with a smile.
By his telling, the center gets its data from a series of anonymous digital drop boxes. The leaks carry evidence not only of high-level corruption in Moscow, but of the Kremlin’s “illegal attempts to influence Western public opinion and Western politicians,” he said.
Although the Dossier Center has remained relatively low-profile — the group barely had more than 100 followers on Twitter as of early Tuesday — the recent stories it helped feed have attracted attention, and reporters have begun making their way to the center’s door.
If Khodorkovsky’s business model — to receive leaked data anonymously and share it with journalists — sounds a bit like the early days of WikiLeaks, Dossier Center staff members bristle at any comparison.
The Dossier Center says it rejects the indiscriminate information dumps that made WikiLeaks notorious. Its five full-time employees cross-reference incoming data to verify it and sift through files with an eye toward what might help build a legal case or feed a news story.
In any case, Khodorkovsky said his group has a fundamentally different mission than WikiLeaks’.
“Our ambition is not simply to expose information in general, but to use material relating to Putin’s circle and his allies so that they can be put on trial in Russia,” he said.
Khodorkovsky was Russia’s richest man before he was imprisoned in 2005 for tax evasion in what was largely seen as the Kremlin’s payback for his political ambitions. Putin pardoned him a few weeks before the 2014 Winter Olympics got underway in Sochi, but the feud lives on. From exile, Khodorkovsky supports an array of civil society groups in Russia, where authorities continue to investigate him on a variety of charges.
The Russian Embassy in London said in response to a question about Khodorkovsky’s project that rooting out corruption was one of Moscow’s top priorities. In an email, it invited anyone “who has data on corruption” to contact Russian authorities.
Khodorkovsky said the Dossier Center’s laser focus on changing Russia meant his group would avoid taking sides in American or European politics, even if it came across evidence of Russian government interference.
“If we receive information about Kremlin meddling, then we’ll provide that information regardless of the side it took,” he said. “The question is: ‘Was it lawful or unlawful?’ and that’s it.”
The provenance of the Dossier Center’s data remains a mystery. Khodorkovsky said some of his sources — the ones that asked for money — identified themselves, but many others didn’t. At least one of the Russians exposed by the center’s work, Veselnitskaya, has alleged the emails Khodorkovsky’s group relied on had been hacked.
The murkiness of the material’s origin does not in and of itself disqualify the center as a source, said Frederik Obermaier, a senior investigative reporter with the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung who shared a Pulitzer Prize last year for his role in the Panama Papers tax haven revelations .
“If I came to the conclusion that it’s authentic and it’s in the public interest, I would — with a certain and important portion of caution — try to work with the material,” he said in a telephone interview.
At the same time, Obermaier said he would give his readers “all the facts that I have about the origin of the data — all the facts that I can put out in public without putting the sources at risk.”
Transparency about where leaked data comes from has shot up the media’s agenda following the 2016 U.S. election hacks. Some argue that American journalists were manipulated into publishing stories based on hacked material and did not pay enough attention to the motives of the people releasing it. An anguished debate on the propriety of relying on material that mysteriously appears in the public domain has ensued.
The question is a fraught one for Khodorkovsky, too.
Data obtained by the AP last year from the cybersecurity firm Secureworks show he and his entourage were repeatedly targeted by the same group — allegedly Russian military intelligence officers — that humbled U.S. Democrats in 2016. Several batches of emails from people within Khodorkovsky’s orbit were subsequently published to a now-defunct Russian-language leak site in an apparent bid to sully their reputations.
But even having been hit by hackers doesn’t mean Khodorkovsky rules out accepting documents from them.
He told the AP he would weigh such material on its merits, suggesting that the brutal environment of Russian politics, where opponents of the government can be gunned down and poisoned, didn’t leave much room for squeamishness.
“I’ll say this to you, weighing it up in my own moral balance. If I think that this information might prevent such things from happening then I don’t give a damn how it was obtained,” he said.