A fired White House correspondent gave the FBI a thumb drive of internal communications and sat for a two-hour interview this month related to whether the Sputnik news outlet is illegally spreading propaganda without disclosure under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Some press freedom advocates say Americans should be concerned regardless of whether the meeting between journalist Andrew Feinberg, an FBI agent and a Justice Department attorney turns out to be related to special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into Russia's role in the 2016 election.
George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, responding to Yahoo News' Monday reporting on the inquiry, said "the investigation into Sputnik crosses a long-observed red line for media."
"Countries around the world have long accused media of being tools of foreign governments as a pretense for investigations and arrests," he said. "The line between government direction and pro-government bias is a subtle one [and] many media moguls have a bias and close ties to governments."
Turley said "the taking of computer records and communications raise serious free press questions" and that "ironically, since it is part of the Russian influence investigation, many of those normally supportive of the free press are silent."
Gabe Rottman, Washington director of PEN America, a group that advocates for free expression, said the investigation could have global ramifications.
"Say what you will about Sputnik or RT, the biggest concern with the FBI focusing on a foreign-owned media organization as a suspected foreign agent is retaliation against U.S.-supported outlets such as Voice of America or public broadcasters like the BBC," he said.
Rottman said it's reasonable to be concerned about foreign influence in elections, but that "it's very hard to distinguish between state propaganda and 'bona fide' news, which is explicitly carved out by FARA."
Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, said "no matter one's feelings on Russia or Sputnik, I think it's concerning anytime the FBI gets involved in defining who is and isn't a journalist."
"Narrowing the media exception under FARA could not only have implications for all sorts of other foreign news outlets operating in the U.S., but also for Voice of America or independent journalists operating overseas if Russia chooses to retaliate," he said.
One former Sputnik employee, meanwhile, told the Washington Examiner the outlet had few Trump supporters and that — contrary to apparent public perception — a leading editor was an enthusiastic backer of Hillary Clinton.
Journalist Cassandra Fairbanks said she voluntarily left Sputnik in May because "being the only Trump supporter there made things extremely tense and awkward." She said the outlet had a policy of refusing to accept leaks during the election due to legal concerns.
"I think this whole witch hunt is very misguided. My editor was the most pro-Clinton person I knew," said Fairbanks, who worked about two years at Sputnik, largely aggregating stories from outside sources. She said she had not been interviewed by the FBI.
Fairbanks' former editor, Chris Pyburn, Sputnik's deputy editor-in-chief, declined to comment on whether he supported Clinton's candidacy.
"It was basically a story mill to be honest. I hated working there because we didn't have time to write original stuff," Fairbanks said. "It was really not as exciting as people seem to think."
Sputnik has services in several languages, including English, and has an office and many employees in Washington. It has received more attention — along with the RT television channel — amid fallout from the release of Democratic Party emails last year.
A U.S. intelligence community report released in January said Sputnik and RT were part of Russia's "state-run propaganda machine" and "consistently cast President-elect Trump as the target of unfair coverage from traditional U.S. media outlets that they claimed were subservient to a corrupt political establishment."
Feinberg told Yahoo News that his meeting with authorities covered Sputnik's "internal structure, editorial processes and funding." He said he gave authorities thousands of emails and other documents downloaded before he was fired in May. He claims he was terminated for failing to ask specific questions at White House press briefings, which the outlet denies.
"They wanted to know where did my orders come from and if I ever got any direction from Moscow," he told Yahoo News. "They were interested in examples of how I was steered towards covering certain issues." He said supervisors often "would say, ‘Moscow wants this or Moscow wants that.'"
Fairbanks, who now works at the pro-Trump startup Big League Politics, said she also would hear people discuss Moscow, but that it generally was because the Moscow bureau handled overnight breaking news for the website. She worked in an aggregation-focused unit, she said, whereas Feinberg worked in a wire service division.
Fairbanks said she's particularly annoyed that the Yahoo News report that revealed the investigation cites Joseph Fionda, who briefly worked at a Sputnik-associated company in 2015. Fionda wrote to the Justice Department that Sputnik's Editor-in-Chief Mindia Gavasheli told him to obtain then-CIA Director John Brennan's emails from a hacker who had posted highlights on Twitter.
"I refused because I believed this was a solicitation to espionage," Fionda reportedly wrote, claiming he was fired for that reason.
Fairbanks agrees with Gavasheli's contention that Fionda was fired for lying about taking off work to attend to a sick father, shortly after starting work there.
"We were not allowed to accept leaks," Fairbanks added. She said that the hacker Guccifer 2.0 offered to provide her hacked emails before Hillary Clinton officially won the Democratic nomination, but that she was told not to accept. Fairbanks was supporting Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' candidacy at the time.
"Guccifer offered me documents early on and my boss said ‘no' because we didn't have a legal department," she said, referring to the anonymous online person or entity that disseminated Democratic emails during the election.
The FBI declined to comment on whether it is investigating Sputnik.
Sputnik said in a statement it is trying to contact the FBI and the Justice Department regarding the reported investigation.
"We are more than happy to answer any questions the DOJ or the FBI might have," the outlet said. "Sputnik is a news organization dedicated to accurate news reporting. Our journalists have won multiple media awards throughout the world. Any assertion that Sputnik is anything but a credible news outlet is false."
FARA is a 1938 law passed in the run-up to World War II, requiring entities working on behalf of foreign governments to make disclosures about their operations. News outlets are exempt and media outlets rarely register, though tourism boards and PR agencies often do.
Attorney Joshua Rosenstein, an expert on FARA, said it's too soon to tell where the probe will go, and that governance and control of news outlets are significant factors in determining if it must register.
"All of this is a fact-specific inquiry. You have to look at the ownership structure, the control, the amount of discretion reporters have on the ground — whether they are serving a legitimate news-gathering function or they are just propagandists for a foreign government," he said.
Criminal charges are possible for FARA violators, Rosenstein said, but once an organization is registered "FARA does not generally prohibit you from doing this work, it just requires that it be disclosed," likening it to required disclosure of campaign donations allowable under the First Amendment.
"Whether they have enough to bring Sputnik up on individual charges remains to be seen," Rosenstein said. "I would imagine they would have to do a significant amount of fact gathering and actually have the goods before they go after a news agency."