The collapse of the WaPo "Russians hacking the power grid" story wasn't just an accident

When I first wrote about the dubious nature of the Washington Post’s coverage of the story about Russians “penetrating the nation’s power grid” in Vermont, I honestly had no idea how bad the reporting on it actually was. That story, as I initially surmised, quickly began to fall apart as we learned that the compromised laptop attacked by the Russians wasn’t even connected to Burlington Electric’s systems. To their credit (or so I thought at the time), the WaPo issued some quick corrections. The story collapsed even further this week however, when we discovered that the malware detected on the laptop may not have even come from the Russians at all, or at least not the ones connected to Grizzly Steppe. Once again, the Washington Post pushed out additional corrections.

As federal officials investigate suspicious Internet activity found last week on a Vermont utility computer, they are finding evidence that the incident is not linked to any Russian government effort to target or hack the utility, according to experts and officials close to the investigation.

An employee at Burlington Electric Department was checking his Yahoo email account Friday and triggered an alert indicating that his computer had connected to a suspicious IP address associated by authorities with the Russian hacking operation that infiltrated the Democratic Party. Officials told the company that traffic with this particular address is found elsewhere in the country and is not unique to Burlington Electric, suggesting the company wasn’t being targeted by the Russians. Indeed, officials say it is possible that the traffic is benign, since this particular IP address is not always connected to malicious activity.

So, as some of us initially speculated, this is looking more and more like somebody with a company laptop who happened to click on the, er… wrong sort of link. (Something which TPM’s Josh Marshall probably knows a thing or two about and can commiserate with.) The WaPo’s Ellen Nakashima, in the article linked and quoted above, was quick to once again note that, “The Post initially reported incorrectly…” and that, “the Post immediately corrected its article.”

So that’s good, right? I mean, mistakes do happen at the best of publications (I’ve heard unverified rumors that even I got one of my facts wrong in 2013) and when the editors take responsibility, own up and make corrections we should salute them. But did the Washington Post actually set the record straight on this highly hyperbolic headline and subsequently shifting tale, particularly in terms of how they handled it? According to Kalev Leetaru at Forbes, it wasn’t even close. In fact, using cached versions of the paper’s original story and subsequent revisions, he was able to construct a timeline of events which show that rather than taking full responsibility, the WaPo continued to mislead their readers about their culpability in the borked coverage and who knew what when. Let’s start with why the paper didn’t include a comment from Burlington Electric in their first release when the company could have cleared up the misunderstanding immediately. Leetaru contacted Kris Coratti of the WaPo to ask about that and was assured that they, “had contacted the state’s two major power suppliers, as these sentences from the first version of the story attest.” But a bit of digging revealed a different story.

If this statement was present in the very first version of the story published at 7:55PM, that would mean that the Post had reached out to the companies for comment prior to publication and received no response.

However, as the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine shows, this is actually false. Archived snapshots of the story at 8:16PM and 8:46PM make no claims about having contacted either utility and state instead only that “While it is unclear which utility reported the incident, there are just two major utilities in Vermont, Green Mountain Power and Burlington Electric.” No claim is made anywhere in the article about the Post having contacted the utilities for comment.

To compound matters further, Leetaru then called the folks at Burlington and was informed that rather than their having failed to respond to a request for comment from the WaPo author, nobody from the Post had called them until ten minutes after the story had gone live and people began pushing back on the sketchy details. This wasn’t just a failure to check with a primary source before running a story… it was an orchestrated coverup after the fact to try to defend their performance rather than acknowledging how badly the wheels had come off the wagon.

With that sort of track record on display, what are we supposed to make of this tale? The only obvious answer is that the Washington Post was eager to push any and all stories about Russian hackers crashing the gates of the United States because it plays into the White House theme which currently seems to be seeking a way to undermine the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s presidency. Do we have proof of that? Nope. But given how the Post handled the aftermath of this debacle I’m not sure how much credence we should give their denials.