Shills and Scandals: The misleading #DNCLeaks, tweet by tweet

Three days before the DNC is scheduled to begin, Wikileaks dropped a bombshell on the public. Their leak purportedly contains 20,000 emails concerning people within the DNC, as well as their interactions with donors, media, and others. The leak was announced with a series of tweets—some containing screenshots of text from emails—and links to said emails on their website. Several of these tweets are framed in a compromising way against the DNC and those involved, but examination of their source shows Wikileaks is being a little bit misleading with the public; some tweets make assumptions regarding the information of the emails that don’t really hold up under scrutiny, while others seem to omit important information at odds with Wikileaks’ presentation.

We’ll be looking at ten tweets from #DNCLeaks, comparing the information to the framing used by Wikileaks.

(Editor's note: This article originally contained a section on the ambiguity of claims involving the DNC and Bernie Sanders' religion. The DNC has since publicly apologized for bringing his faith into question, and that section has been removed due to no longer being relevant.)

As it turns out, Wikileaks has never heard of live-tweeting something. See, that’s this thing where people watch something on television and tweet comments about it as it happens. A lot of people did it while witnessing God’s punishment for cheese by-products: the 2016 RNC.

Shouldn’t be surprising that campaigns would do this, though with less hashtags, less comedic insights, and via email rather than twitter. It allows a campaign to keep up on what’s being said through the media so they can respond quickly and keep with the pulse of national conversation.

But Wikileaks is very surprised:


I can’t WAIT to feel the bern on Hillary’s conniving tactics here! What’ve we got, Wikileaks?

Oh! That’s an email in the DNC saying a SuperPAC is paying for online shills! And a bunch of stuff about Hillary being vulnerable, and questions asked of someone but answered by the person asking, and…wait a minute.

The subject line says FNS 4-24-16. The top of the last email says “Panel on Dems path forward”. These emails were sent on a Sunday. What’s going on here?

Yeah, that’s the first email in the chain. A sensible person can tell from the information in the email that this is a DNC member, Jeremy Brinster, taking notes of a television interview. Considering these emails are on a Sunday and the subject contains FNS, you can pretty rightfully assume these are notes of various discussions happening on Fox News Sunday. Paul Manafort? That’s a chairman of Donald Trump’s campaign.

Another panel is mentioned:

Another interview, this time with DWS, the acronym for Debbie Wasserman-Schultz:

And then we’re back to the first email where the “SuperPAC pays for shills” line comes from.

If you’re following along at home, you’ll realize Wikileaks just published a tweet that very much tried to imply proof of DNC paying online commenters—based off of notes a DNC staffer was taking of what someone on a republican news network’s panel said.

Yeah. Draw your own conclusions there.

This next one is a doozy; Wikileaks tweeted that the DNC leaked a letter from Sanders to the Wall Street Journal:

This seems true, going by the email chain linked to in the tweet:

However, several questions are left wide open by the contents of the email. First, I’d like to note the timestamps on the emails. The WSJ journalist reached out to the DNC at 11:23 AM but we have no idea what time zone the sender or recipient were in. The DNC contact is shown to have replied at 13:25 (1:25 PM). Now, if both parties were in the same time zone, that means the response from the DNC was two hours later. If the parties are in different timezones, the reply could’ve been sent anywhere from two minutes to several hours later. For example, if one party was in a time zone two hours behind another, then the timestamps could represent their respective timezones; this means that the WSJ sent their email at 11:23 AM, which was 1:23 PM where the DNC contact resided, and they responded within two minutes at 1:25 PM—the timestamp seen on the response email.

Second, we should note where the DNC contact says, “They didn’t send it to us before planting the story.” They could refer to Sanders, which opens the question of what story they’re referring to being planted. When a Google search is done for any news items referencing Sanders and the DNC on May 6th, 2016 (the date these emails were sent), several items come up from various outlets:

Laura Meckler, the WSJ writer who contacted the DNC, didn’t publish her article until 1:11 PM Eastern. It quotes Luis Miranda, who we can assume is the DNC contact due to their email being in the leak. An article from CNN shows it was updated at 2:32 PM Eastern, but doesn’t show a publish date. It does, however, mention Sanders’ letter as being “obtained by CNN” without mentioning how it was obtained. Russia Today’s article doesn’t provide a timezone, only that it was published at 20:15 (8:15 PM), and references an article by Politico. That article was published at 11:57 AM Eastern, and include Sanders’ letter as an upload to Politco’s content delivery system, whereas other articles simply use the direct link to the letter on Sanders’ website.

Politico’s article also quotes a statement released by the DNC regarding Sanders’ letter. Performing a Google search for verbatim results of that statement leads to another email chain hosted on Wikileaks:

The earliest email in that chain was sent at 11:12 AM, with a link to the Charlotte Observer; the next, at 11:15 AM, is two links to tweets from an AP reporter. Both of the twitter links are breaking news about Sanders’ letter, with a screenshot of the letter showing as being posted 10:11 AM Central:

There are a few spots we want to focus on in this chain. First, the Charlotte Observer link returns a 404 when entered. Googling the URL just returns multiple links to the same email chain in Wikileaks’ archive. Further up in the chain, at 11:50 AM, we see a reply linking to an article from the San Diego Union-Tribune. This article is an AP newswire written by the same Ken Thomas in the twitter screenshot above:

This article was published at 8:39 AM. As this is a San Diego outlet, the first assumption is that the timezone is Pacific. I had a friend in another timezone open the article and they were given the same timestamp, so it seems most likely that this article was published 8:39 AM Pacific.

Let’s build a timeline from this information:

The tweets from Ken Thomas are marked 10:11 AM when twitter adjusts timestamps to my Central timezone. If we adjust to Pacific, the tweets would’ve been sent at 8:11 AM—18 minutes before the article was published in the Union-Tribune.

The email linking to the tweets is stamped as 11:15 AM. Making the assumption that the DNC is very quick at picking up information from social media, it seems appropriate that we assume the sender was in the Eastern timezone and sent the email four minutes after the tweets were published. This would mean they sent them at 8:15 AM Pacific, four minutes after they were published.

Think back to what started this adventure, with the WSJ writer reaching out to Luis Miranda asking for a copy of the Sanders letter. That email was stamped at 11:23 AM. If the WSJ writer was in the Pacific timezone, that means they contacted the DNC three hours after Ken Thomas posted the letter to Twitter.

If the WSJ writer was in the Eastern timezone, they sent the email at 8:23 AM Pacific—12 minutes after Ken Thomas’ tweet, and 16 minutes before the Union-Tribune published the article.

And Miranda’s reply was stamped 13:25. This gives us a range from 1:25 PM Pacific—just under 5 hours after the AP published the letter—to 10:25 Pacific, still two hours after the letter was already posted to twitter.

We can also see in this email chain that Miranda replied to an email containing a link to The Hill’s coverage of the letter, asking for the writer’s email. The Hill’s coverage was published at 12:32 PM, with no timezone known. Regardless, it would’ve been published at some point after Ken Thomas had already posted Sanders’ letter to twitter.

Finally, the WSJ’s article was published at 1:11 PM Eastern. That’s 10:11 AM Pacific.

In short, the claim that the DNC leaked Sanders’ letter to the WSJ is preposterous. The WSJ published their article almost two hours after the Associated Press had already broken the news; the letter was already out there, and had been covered by other outlets before WSJ.

What seems clear at this point is that the “damning” email tweeted out by Wikileaks accusing the DNC of their own leak was misinterpreted—willfully or ignorantly—by the same people who had access to the information I’ve published in this article so far.

Most likely, Miranda wasn’t referring to the link to Sanders’ letter when they said, “Off the record,” but was referring to this statement in the email: “They didn’t send it to us before planting the story. We’re operating in good faith.”

In other words, Sanders’ campaign or someone outside the DNC tipped the letter off to other journalists—such as Ken Thomas—before the letter was delivered to the DNC.

Unless Wikileaks has some evidence that another member of the DNC leaked the letter to Ken Thomas or someone else, and the evidence shows that this occurred before Ken Thomas’ tweets, there’s no story here beyond Luis Miranda telling Laura Meckler to keep a statement off the record that could’ve hurt Sanders’ campaign.

The next fun bit is a leak that literally hinges on the words “on background”:

The claim here is…well…I’m not really sure. Partially, it’s that Miranda “secretly briefed” the Wall Street Journal. This actually takes place after the Sanders letter debacle we talked about earlier; Miranda shows up in these emails, forwarding a January press release to Meckler on May 11th. This was provided as background to the fight over committee placements between Sanders and the DNC, with a quick summary from Miranda:

It’s here where Miranda says “for background”, and somewhat signifies that Wikileaks didn’t read the full email chain before tweeting out a screenshot. It’s pretty obvious Miranda’s saying “for background” as in, “Here’s some information to help you understand what lead to this thing.” It’s also pretty ridiculous that this would need to be explained, but they use the word “background” again later in the email, which is what Wikileaks uses to claim something devious happened:

Miranda says “on background” just as Wikileaks said in their tweet. However, it’s painfully clear that it’s referring to the background they mentioned in the previous email. They’re saying (and again, I can’t believe this needs to be explained), “To further clarify the information about the committee placements that were done in January, which we announced in the press release I just forwarded you, here is further information.”

Whatever sinister thing Wikileaks has imagined from this exchange seems related to this part of the email: Sanders’ campaign is mentioned in an off the record comment by Miranda, explaining that Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, the head of the DNC, had reached out in a manner of inclusivity to the Sanders campaign before the May 6th letter. Meckler replies by asking if Miranda can call her.

So, the entirety of this slight is that a member of the DNC mentioned that the DNC had tried to work with Bernie before Bernie’s letter got released, then was asked to talk on the phone. And this exchange happened while sharing publicly available and previously published information in the form of a January press release from the DNC.

What Wikileaks has done here is effectively made the concept of emails and phone calls become a scary form of secrecy, and angled this exchange as being against Sanders due to a short comment about the DNC trying to work with Sanders. It’s not a false leak, but it’s an incredibly boring one being hyped up as proof of a shadowy conspiracy. In fact, Meckler’s article that brings up the background information provided doesn’t even mention the DNC reaching out to Sanders. That article is the only one written by Laura Meckler about the DNC when searching for articles with her name from May 11th (the date on the emails) to May 17th. The sinister information exchanged in a super secret phone call apparently wasn’t groundbreaking enough for the WSJ to consider publishing in the hopes of ruining Sanders.

If you haven’t heard about the Victory Fund, I’d suggest reading NPR’s write-up about the circus surrounding it. In short, it’s a fund used by Clinton, the DNC, and down-ballot candidates to raise money for democrats. Sanders’ campaign claimed it was engaged in money-laundering, but didn’t take it to the FEC, and then never mentioned it again.

Wikileaks believes they’ve found a huge scoop to revive the non-existent scandal:

Yes, we again witness spooky scary language implying a big conspiracy. But where does the link go? Well, it goes to an email chain between Naomi Aberly and Robert Glovsky:

Naomi contacts Robert about making a donation to the DNC rather than the Victory Fund, stating that donating to the DNC can offer a better package for attending the convention. Robert replies that he’d be more likely to donate to the Victory Fund as he feels a Hillary win in the general is more important than getting the best package by donating to the DNC. Naomi tells Robert that donating to the DNC will give him access to the convention, while donating to the Victory Fund would only give access to a smaller, post-convention event. They then discuss a good time to talk on the phone before the dastardly email that Wikileaks’ tweet is based on:

This email is a forward from Naomi to someone at the DNC. The forwarded email is Robert asking what specifically he’d get in terms of access by donating to the Victory Fund, either from Hillary’s campaign or the DNC. He also asks how that compares to being a Hillraiser (ugh that pun). A quick Google search shows that a Hillraiser is what Hillary’s campaign called their biggest donors in 2008, now referred to as Hillblazers. It’s also apparently the name of a brewing company who produces a beer called Hillryser, and I felt you should know that even if it’s not relevant.

Naomi’s comment in the forwarded email shows joy that she didn’t have to meet with Robert for lunch, and asks the recipient for advice on what she can tell Robert he would get for his donation.

What’s baffling is why Wikileaks felt this was something they needed to shine a light on. Nothing really compromising is found in this email chain, nor anything that would point towards the Victory Fund being used illegally. The only possibility I can think of, based on Wikileaks’ tweet about this email, is that they consider it a scandal that a woman didn’t particularly want to have lunch with a man.

Doing a verbatim search for the email returns a response from the DNC member Naomi forwarded the message to:

The response simply states that what Naomi told Robert regarding the difference in donations is correct, and that he’d get a better package by donating to the DNC. Naomi says the advice is great, and that’s that.

This next one is a little hard to parse.

Wikileaks says that the Washington Post held a joint fundraiser with the DNC and that a party was “unlisted”:

The screenshot in their tweet is properly formatted, but when you click the link, you’re presented with the pure code display of the email exchange:

It is possible to sift through everything and find the text that’s visible in the screenshot, but there’s nothing else to explain the context on all of this other than the email’s subject being “WaPo Party”. This may actually be the first tweet they released that is potentially damning of something, but the lack of context regarding this party does no good. Doing a verbatim search for the text from the email returns a single result: the same link Wikileaks tweeted out.

If we analyze the text, we can determine that the DNC is trying to raise funds, and WaPo is hosting a party of some sort. WaPo has told the DNC that any package the DNC sells cannot list the WaPo party as included, and they won’t be giving the DNC information on how much a ticket to the party costs. The DNC member does say, however, that they can let WaPo know of any donors who will be in town to attend a debate going on at that time, and those donors can be added to the list of attendees for the party.

I can’t really comment on any legality here, only that the lack of further information makes this hard to get upset about. The email doesn’t state if the attendees will still have to pay for their ticket to the party; at best, we can assume being on the list doesn’t guarantee access unless you also pay for a ticket, while the worst outcome is that people who were already attending the debate in that area and were donors to the DNC would get into WaPo’s party for free.

The misleading part comes from the lack of information, as Wikileaks declares this to be a joint, unlisted fundraising party but the email doesn’t really provide proof that WaPo was raising funds for the DNC.

Now for something really juicy:

A campaign staffer trying to shut down a story about misusing campaign funds? That’s some heavy stuff, and the evidence must be outstanding! Let’s dive into the seedy underbelly of the Clinton campaign:

Speaking with an editor, eh? Shady stuff! That’s Josh Schwerin and he might just be trying to shut down the free speech of the media.

Except, there’s some more emails in that chain. What do they say? Well:

That’s the first email in the chain. It’s a press release from Sanders’ campaign about the alleged money-laundering scheme inherent to the Victory Fund. The press release states that Politico has exposed the scheme and proven that Clinton exploited rules to get more money than legally allowed.

Remember, this is the same scheme that Sanders’ campaign didn’t run to the FEC with, and seemingly forgot about shortly after.

The next email is a reply from DNC member Jeremy Brinster summarizing the release as Sanders’ Campaign Manager Jeff Weaver calling a Joint Fundraising Committee a money-laundering scheme. Jeremy gets replied to by Zac Petkanas of the Hillary campaign, forwarding an email from Luis Miranda (hi again!) containing talking points about the press release:

Basically, they state that Sanders has the same kind of fund as Hillary but hasn’t used it, that these funds were used in the last two presidential elections as well, and how important these funds are for down-ballot candidates. Further up, you see an exchange between Miranda and Schwerin:

Schwerin asks if Miranda has heard from Politifact, and Miranda says they spent half an hour explaining the DNC’s case with someone named Gene, who asked for a copy of the agreement state parties sign for a joint fund. Miranda also says they’ve referred Gene to the Hillary campaign for any questions on how the Victory Fund gets administered. Politifact references these conversations in this article which was updated after the date on the emails, and is actually pretty critical of the responses the DNC and Hillary campaign gave.

As for the squashing of a Politico article? Well, first, you’ll notice that article is included in the Politifact article. So depending on what Wikileaks meant by the vague term ‘squashed’, it either wasn’t or must’ve been heavily censored. Except, if you read the article, you’ll find it still has all the points brought up in Sanders’ press release, and in fact mentions that Politico reviewed FEC records for the story. Meaning the FEC was already aware of any transactions taking place. You’ll also find that Politico quotes the contact they had with the DNC and Hillary campaign, and doesn’t give them any praise.

What squashing happened? Nothing, as far as I can tell. And Wikileaks claiming Clinton tried to squash the story simply through contacting Politico’s editor to respond to the story is easily the most fear-mongering non-scandal since playing records backwards. A proper journalist will reach out to people involved in a story and get a response if possible. This is literally Journalism 101 (at least, I assume; wasn't exactly all there that semester). Either Wikileaks doesn’t believe anyone has the right to reply (unbelievable, considering their support for Milo Yiannopoulos), or they think the voting public is just the right amount of scared about the world that saying a campaign spokesman talked to an editor of a news outlet will sound corrupt enough to disengage common sense.

Considering how many outlets have already ran with this non-story, seems their bet on the latter paid off.


Another non-scandal doesn’t take much, because the scandal is more that Wikileaks doesn’t like people being allowed to make donations to political parties if that person is a CEO:

Not really a scandal, except that Wikileaks put ‘maxed’ in scare quotes to make people…I don’t know, fear the 90s? The email they link:

So yeah, a head at Google has donated the max money he can to campaign committees for both senate republicans and senate democrats, and the DNC wants to ask him to donate to them as well.

This is one of those things where anyone who is surprised or outraged is only pretending for the theatrics. What should be scandalous is that the email is dated as being from almost 50 years ago, and that Wikileaks screwed up in obtaining the email so we have no listed sender address.

Wikileaks might’ve uncovered one actual scandal, though not in the way they think:

This would actually be a pretty big deal, the head of the DNC telling the head of a major news network to keep his employees from talking sympathetically about a candidate.

Except, that’s not what happened. Let’s look at the emails:

Chain starts with someone emailing DWS a newsletter mentioning a co-host of Morning Joe saying DWS should step down as DNC chair. DWS forwards the email to Miranda, saying Phil Griffin should be contacted and the co-host should apologize—Phil being the head of MSNBC.

Miranda responds, saying they’ll wait to hear back from someone named Chuck. DWS says she’s been talking to Phil about this since “our” breakfast (whether that refers to Miranda or Phil is unknown) and that both Phil and Chuck should be spoken to:

A verbatim search shows no further emails from this chain. While this is definitely something, the misleading part is that DWS wanted to stop the co-host from being sympathetic; her response makes it pretty clear she’s upset about someone calling for her to step down, and Sanders isn’t mentioned by DWS or Miranda.

A potential scandal, for sure, just not in the way Wikileaks framed it.

Our final tweet has to do with Israel. It’s been saved for last because anything about Israel and associated conflicts is a messy ordeal I prefer to stay out of. And luckily, we’ll mostly be able to!

Wikileaks tweets out a screenshot of a classified message about Isreal that Clinton’s recently-announced Vice President, Tim Kaine, was asked to deliver to President Obama:

Two things:

  1. Notice how the tweet says “on Israel”.
  2. Notice how the screenshot in the tweet says “Israeli and Palestinian”.

So here’s how this scandal goes:

The screenshot is of a cable about a message given to Kaine from Ahmed Chami. Ahmed Chami was born and raised in Morocco, and is currently the Minister of Industry, Commerce, and New Technologies. The entire cable, along with an associated comment by an unknown individual, can be seen here:

Chami’s message was that the fighting between Israel and Palestine has gone on for too long, leading to a lot of bloodshed and terrorist groups. Chami’s message doesn’t make a case of supporting either side in the conflict, only to find a way to bring peace. The comment on the message mentions that Morocco is concerned with terrorism in the Sahel, instability in the region due to narcotics trafficking, and bringing peace to the Middle East. There’s also mention of “the FTA” and “the Millennium Challenge Account Compact” with regards to economic cooperation.

The fact that Wikileaks released their screenshot and link to this cable with a focus on Israel tells me they were hoping to incite some outrage from potentially several different groups. The cable isn’t pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, but pro-peace. And the guy involved is a politician representing the Socialist Union of Popular Forces in a country far, far away from the conflicts.

There’s nothing here but Wikileaks’ desperate grab for attention from people who hate Israel, and trying to insinuate that Clinton’s VP was scheming.

Out of nine tweets, we’ve found a potential scandal in two of them, and misleading information in all of them. Wikileaks should serve as a shining example of why simply being a “leak” does not make something scandalous. They should also serve as a shining example of why anonymous hackers aren’t always the brave vigilantes we imagine them to be, and can sometimes be pretty terrible people.

Of course, if none of this convinces you, maybe the fact that this leak has resulted in donors’ credit cards and social security numbers being published will:

We've also learned that just because an outlet claims to be outside of the mainstream like The Intercept, doesn't mean they're a shining beacon of integrity. Wikileaks has already had to put out a PSA that anyone claiming to be their source on the leaks is lying, which didn't stop Sam Biddle from confirming that a twitter user named Guccifer was the elite hacker behind the leaks.

Wikileaks clearly intended to accomplish a big shakedown to put the DNC on edge. They’ve probably been successful, too; outlets ranging from Breitbart to Huffington Post have picked up on these tweets and published a flurry of headlines. The Intercept has several of their own, with some based solely off of the tweets themselves while doing diddly for verification.

A positive note from all this is that we've been treated to a little bit of what it's like behind the scenes at one of the two largest political forces in the United States. Had it not been for the bravery of Wikileaks, we would've never known somewhere, out there, a woman didn't want to have lunch with a man to get a political donation.

However, the biggest accomplishment they’ve gained here will surely be months worth of people on twitter barging into your mentions with a highlighted phrase from an out-of-context screenshot, terribly designed memes spreading like wildfire on Facebook, and more conspiracy theories for Trump to tweet when he's not busy retweeting white supremacists.

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