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Exclusive: Russia-linked smear campaign against Hunter Biden began earlier than previously thought

Mattathias Schwartz   

Exclusive: Russia-linked smear campaign against Hunter Biden began earlier than previously thought
  • A former KGB agent gave disinformation about Hunter Biden to an aide for Mike Pompeo in May 2019.
  • The agent also presented the same disinformation to Justice Department officials in January 2019.

A thumb drive handed by a foreign national to an aide traveling with then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2019 suggests efforts by Russia-linked actors to influence the 2020 US presidential election with Hunter Biden disinformation began earlier and were broader in scope than has previously been reported.

According to two sources with direct knowledge of the incident, a thumb drive containing poorly sourced allegations about Hunter Biden and his work for Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, was thrust into the hands of one of Pompeo's aides at the conservative Claremont Institute's 40th-anniversary gala in Beverly Hills on May 11, 2019. The man pushing the thumb drive was a citizen of an Eastern European country and a guest of Claremont. He was also, for a time, an FBI confidential informant with the code name "Rollie." His true name is known to Business Insider, which is identifying him only as Rollie in order to protect sources who provided information for this story.

Rollie, on the other hand, seemed unconcerned about potential exposure. At first, he denied knowing anything about Pompeo when contacted by BI. But when BI sent him a photo of him at the gala with Pompeo, he admitted he had been there. "You can publish," he wrote. "It's advertising for me."

Rollie told associates and confirmed to Business Insider he had once served in the KGB, the Soviet secret police and intelligence agency, before swearing loyalty to the country where he now resides. The thumb drive that Rollie gave Pompeo's aide contained some of the same material that Rollie had presented weeks earlier, in January 2019, in a briefing to Justice Department officials in Los Angeles.

"I'm not interested in the past," Rollie said when asked over WhatsApp about the briefing. He denied that he gave anyone a thumb drive at the Claremont Institute event.

Business Insider has obtained a copy of slides that accompanied Rollie's January 2019 presentation. They accuse Hunter Biden and his business associates of engaging in money laundering, tax evasion, and fraud. Rollie's slides offer a labyrinthine wire chart, clippings from old news articles, and a potpourri of links, including to various Ukrainian and Russian websites. President Joe Biden's first name is repeatedly misspelled as "Josef." They contain no evidence of criminal activity.

Nevertheless, according to a disclosure prepared by the FBI whistleblower Johnathan Buma, Rollie's handler, the material was taken seriously enough to be passed on to FBI agents in Delaware who were investigating Hunter Biden. Also included were some Ukrainian-language backup materials that BI hasn't reviewed. Rollie confirmed to Business Insider he had prior contact with the FBI.

The Rollie presentation sheds new light on the timeline of efforts by Russia and by operatives for Donald Trump to seed allegations about Joe Biden's relationship to Burisma with the media and government authorities. While questions about the propriety of Hunter Biden's lucrative Burisma work in Ukraine were raised by The New York Times as early as 2015 and explored in a 2018 book by the conservative author Peter Schweizer, they didn't explode into the forefront of the political conversation until March 2019. It was during that month that Rudy Giuliani gave Pompeo a folder of Hunter Biden material that he obtained from Ukraine, and the right-wing investigative reporter John Solomon began publishing a series of columns about Hunter Biden and Burisma in The Hill. One month later, in April 2019, Hunter abandoned his laptop at a Delaware repair shop, eventually leading to a wave of revelations in October 2020 that included information about his business dealings in Ukraine.

The Hunter-Burisma material that was presented in January 2019, and again on the thumb drive given to Pompeo's aide in May 2019, appears to be the earliest known case of Burisma-related disinformation of foreign origin being ingested and apparently taken seriously by members of the US intelligence community. It also suggests a third channel of 2020 disinformation moving from East to West, one that's separate from the previously known efforts that went through Giuliani and Alexander Smirnov, another FBI informant with ties to Russia and Eastern Europe. Smirnov was indicted last week over accusations of lying to the FBI about Hunter Biden. Prosecutors have said in court filings that Smirnov has extensive ties to Russian intelligence.

It's easy to see why Hunter Biden's critics have focused on Burisma. The energy company paid Biden about $600,000 a year during a period that overlapped with his father's vice presidency. It's unclear what the company got for its money beyond the ability to brag about an indirect line into the White House. But almost five years after his departure from the board, Hunter Biden was never charged with any wrongdoing for his Burisma service. Instead, the special counsel David Weiss has charged Hunter Biden with tax evasion and lying on a form to purchase a firearm.

The revelation about Rollie's thumb drive comes shortly after Smirnov's indictment, in which he's charged with making false statements about Hunter Biden in June 2020. Like Smirnov, Rollie's materials accuse Hunter Biden of involving his father in Burisma's business and committing vast off-the-books fraud. Smirnov's claims included that Burisma officials paid a $5 million bribe to Joe Biden and were memorialized in an FBI 1023 form, which records raw reporting from confidential sources, that was circulated by the Republican senator Charles Grassley. The thumb-drive incident raises further questions about the ease with which foreign actors can obtain access to the highest levels of the US government and then pass off rubbish as legitimate intelligence.

A spokesperson for Pompeo didn't respond to repeated requests for comment. There's no evidence to suggest Pompeo or his aide did anything with the material on the thumb drive after receiving it.

A former State Department official who served under Pompeo told BI that it wasn't unusual for officials to receive random material from people they met at social events and that there was a process in place for handing such materials off to in-house experts for evaluation.

BI reached out to the Claremont Institute, which was responsible for vetting the gala guest list, on Thursday and didn't immediately receive a reply. After 2016, the Claremont Institute drifted from traditional conservative politics into more extreme territory. It granted a fellowship to the MAGA troublemaker Jack Posobiec, who has used his online platform to spread conspiracy theories, and served as an organizing hub for the backlash to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in higher education.

A spokesperson for the FBI declined to comment. The Justice Department and a lawyer representing Buma didn't immediately return requests for comment sent after hours.

With reporting by Anastasiia Carrier.

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