This afternoon, the Washington Free Beacon published EXCLUSIVE photos, obtained by Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), that purportedly showed new Russian aggression in Ukraine and vindicated Inhofe's case for U.S. intervention. Apparently, neither Inhofe's staff nor the Beacon bothered with a Google reverse image search.
Coming from the Beacon, a conservative cool-kids' blog that tends to pass off as reporting the document dumps it's fed by friends on GOP congressmen's staffs, it was a typical Beltway "whoa if true" scoop:
It was immediately embraced as a BIG DEAL by the Beltway's most hawkish conservative publicists-cum-reporters:
And it certainly seemed big. The photographs, the Beacon said, "could help bolster the case on Capitol Hill for a new piece of legislation that would enable the United States to provide lethal military aid to the Ukrainians." That legislation, of course, is sponsored by Inhofe, whose staff provided the photos for publication:
The pictures were taken between Aug. 24 and Sept. 5 in the midst of a Russian-backed incursion into Eastern Ukraine. The fighting has only grown more bloody in the ensuing months, as hundreds more Russians enter the country, according to congressional sources briefed on the conflict.
Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee first viewed the graphic pictures in December. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R., Okla.) then obtained the photos and worked to independently verify and confirm the authenticity of the photos, before providing them exclusively to the Free Beacon.
It's not clear what Inhofe's independent verification process involved, but it didn't work. Several national security experts on Twitter immediately set about determining the provenance of the images and found that some of them were from as far back as 2008, and a few were traceable to the conflict in Georgia and Ossetia, rather than the current war in Ukraine.
For example, Inhofe and the Beacon reportedly used several images as evidence that "Russian troops can be seen entering Ukraine on T-72 tanks and Russian-made BMPs." Like this one:
But tweeter Graham Jenkins pointed out that the same image dated from at least 2012:
And Dan Trombly suggested a striking similarity between that tank column and this 2008 tank column in Ossetia:
A similar story surrounded this photo from Inhofe...
... Which actually appeared to have been taken in Russia in early August 2008 by the AP:
And tweeter @RBelleme pointed out that one of the other "exclusive" images of Russian incursions into Ukraine...
... Actually turned out to be an AFP file photo of alleged Russian separatists in the Luhansk region of Ukraine from last October, a movement that was both previously known and monitored by NATO, according to this Business Insider post:
The skepticism among readers was palpable:
And eventually, the Beacon was forced to append its story with a fascinating account of how the site—and one of the most powerful senators on the Hill—screwed up so royally:
UPDATE 3:11 P.M.: Following publication of this story, serious questions have been raised about the authenticity of some of the photographs provided by Sen. Jim Inhofe (R., Okla.). Several images of the Russian convoys appear to have been taken in 2008, during Russia's conflict with Georgia. Given the similarity's of these images to those provided by the senator's office, theWashington Free Beacon is investigating further and will update as necessary.
When asked about the discrepancies, Donelle Harder, Inhofe's communications director, said that the office is checking back with its sources.
"These were presented to the Armed Services Committee from a delegation from Ukraine in December," Harder said. "In December, we talked to them about publishing the photos and giving them the credit, and they were fine with that. We thoroughly checked our sources again prior to releasing the photos, and felt confident proceeding because the photos also match reporting. We are currently making calls to our sources."
None of this, of course, proves that Putin's army isn't committing grave violations in Ukraine and lying about it. A few photos may have been authentic, though that can't be verified yet. And even the discredited photos do show that Russia's military has regularly been aggressive and imperious in a variety of lands in its "near abroad."
But more than that, the images show how easily and routinely a credulous member of Congress and a well-funded PR machine posing as a news blog can be snowed by propagandists bearing "scoops."
[Photo credit: AP Images]