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Since last November’s election, the former British politician Louise Mensch has transformed herself into the leader of a wide-ranging internet investigation into Russian espionage and influence in American politics, media, and business. Every day, Mensch and her network of online detectives unravel what they claim is a massive conspiracy linking the Kremlin, the Republican party, armies of internet trolls, and moneyed puppet-masters around the world.
Mensch, who sometimes tweets hundreds of times a day, has claimed or implied that targets ranging from top government officials to journalists to teenagers to anonymous twitter users are in thrall to Vladimir Putin.
Just since inauguration day, according to an extensive review of her tweets, the New York-based Mensch has accused at least 210 people and organizations of being under Russian government influence.
Mensch's campaign has played out largely on Twitter and, since January of this year, a blog called Patribotics. But she has also been validated at the highest levels of English-language media: She published an op-ed in the New York Times, appeared on MSNBC and Real Time with Bill Maher earlier this year, and was the subject of a flattering Guardian profile. And her relentless tweets and passionate following have made her a central figure in a new obsession with Russian influence that recalls Cold War era divisions over Communist infiltration. That “red scare” reached its paranoid height in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when substantive fears of (real) Soviet intelligence operations turned into a politicized hall of mirrors in which figures like Senator Joe McCarthy ruined the lives and careers of thousands of Americans with baseless allegations of working for Moscow. (The era also persuaded some on the “anti-anti-Communist” left that real Soviet spies were innocent victims of hysteria; their guilt was settled with the opening of the Soviet archives at the end of the Cold War.)
Mensch’s list includes 35 American politicians and government officials, 26 journalists, 26 organizations and corporations (among them think tanks, banks, media outlets, foreign intelligence agencies, and security firms), 18 Russians, 18 US citizens notable for political donations or affiliations, 80 low-profile Twitter accounts Mensch has characterized as “Putinbots” or similar (many of which appear to belong to Americans who support President Trump), and two British politicians. The list includes figures as disparate as Bernie Sanders and Sean Hannity.
Among the 210 named by Mensch are individuals and entities who do have obvious or reported ties to the Russian government and intelligence agencies, ranging from Wikileaks — which has denied that accusation — to the anonymous hacker Guccifer 2.0 to the Kremlin-owned news agency Sputnik. Mensch’s specific allegations draw on the reality of a large-scale and widely-documented Russian campaign to influence the U.S. election. But in many cases, she lacks strong, or any, evidence connecting her targets to that campaign.
In addition to the journalists, media personalities, and politicians, among those fingered are a Twitter comedian, a fake White House staff account, and a 15-year-old girl who Mensch suggested does not actually exist except as a Kremlin fabrication (BuzzFeed News interviewed the teenager via phone ).
Mensch’s criteria for accusing someone of being under Russian influence vary. Sometimes she cites her own and others’ reporting. In some cases, she points out suspicious geotags and catfishing attempts. In others, mangled English syntax appears to be enough to prove Russia ties. She has accused people of being affiliated with Russia simply for disagreeing with her or calling her theories far-fetched, but she has also called someone a Russian agent for being too enthusiastic about her own theories.
Many of the people Mensch has accused vociferously deny involvement with the Russian government. Many of those share the attribute that nobody other than Mensch has ever accused them of it.
“I am proud of my service to this country and to be a loyal first generation American, to suggest anything otherwise is both absolutely false and offensive to me, my family and first generation and naturalized citizens who continue to serve this great country,” Naveed Jamali, a former FBI double agent who Mensch has accused of being a Russian spy, wrote to BuzzFeed in an email.
The political strategist Evan Siegfried denied Mensch’s accusation that he is a “Kremlin troll.”
“In no way, shape or form am I or have I ever been a Kremlin operative, Russian agent or party to aiding Putin and/or Russia. Any and all accusations are not only false, but strain credulity. The closest I've come to Russia was the time I went to NYC's Russian Tea Room in 1993. I was ten,” he said in an email.
Reached for comment by Twitter direct message, Mensch said that, if anything, the number of Russian agents she identified was understated.
"No, I doubt that number is accurate. I am quite certain the number is going to be a lot larger than 210 people or organizations once the trials are finished. It takes a village to elect a President who is working hand in glove with the Kremlin both in terms of propaganda and hacking collusion - and that's before we even get to the money laundering."
Mensch went on to say that her criteria for determining whether or not someone was a Russian agent depended on "Intelligence, from sources; actions; words, such as tweets; and other primary source material."
Asked about her accusations against Jamali, Mensch referred BuzzFeed News to earlier tweets about a dispute between the two. She provided no evidence that Jamali is a Russian spy, and did not address a query about why she thinks Siegfried is a Russian agent.
Mensch had a colorful and storied career in British public life, which reached its peak when as a Tory member of Parliament, she grilled Rupert Murdoch over his role in the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. She moved to the US in 2012, at one point founded a social network intended to rival Twitter, and in April 2016 started a conservative news site for Murdoch’s company, News Corp. (She left the site, Heat Street, in January, and tweeted in March that she had left News Corp, which a company spokesman confirmed.)
An ally of intelligence services and a fierce critic of Edward Snowden and the press who published his leaked material, Mensch in 2016 established herself as a prominent voice on the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. Her following grew in November, when she published a blockbuster story alleging that the FBI had been granted a FISA warrant in order to examine connections between Trump and Russia. Other media outlets later reported that the U.S. government had indeed obtained a FISA warrant in connection with the Trump campaign, though the details of those reports have differed from hers. That story won her legitimacy among close followers of the Trump-Russia story (BuzzFeed News reporters, among others, spoke to her to see if she had information that could advance reporting on Russia), and she has continued to use it as a calling card. And Mensch told BuzzFeed News that her reporting on Trump connections to Russia are being borne out.
But recently – and particularly over the last month — Mensch has become increasingly outspoken in labeling accounts who disagree with her “Kremlin shills,” “Putinbots,” and “RIS,” Russian intelligence services.
Some of her targets say they are puzzled and alarmed by her attention.
“It’s been very frustrating to encounter people who assume I’m a Kremlin propagandist simply because one of my jobs has the word “Moscow” in it,” said Kevin Rothrock, the web editor of the Moscow Times, who Mensch referred to as “Vlad” — her oft-used shorthand for an agent of Vladimir Putin — after Rothrock chided Mensch for “tweeting the dumbest shit.” The Moscow Times, which is known as a training ground for foreign correspondents, has a reputation as a rare independent voice in Russian media. Mensch did not respond to a query about why she thinks Rothrock may be a Russian agent.
Mensch’s critics have accused her of fomenting an anti-Russia panic. In an article last month in Rolling Stone, journalist Matt Taibbi warned of a resurgent “case of mass hysteria” about Russia among politicians and journalists.
(Mensch has speculated that Taibbi, who once lived and worked in Russia, “might be a Russian agent.”
“I am not a Russian agent,” Taibbi said to BuzzFeed News. “I have never been engaged in any kind of espionage work.”
Mensch did not respond to a query about why she thinks Taibbi may be a Russian agent.)
Some have accused Mensch of going too far. Cassandra Fairbanks, an American social media personality and journalist filed a complaint with the FBI against Mensch, alleging a "months long campaign of cyber stalking and harassment." (Fairbanks works for the Russian-owned Sputnik.) Others, including Taibbi, suspect that going too far may be part of what has made Mensch such a popular figure.
“A lot of her success has come from some of the same instincts that have given Trump success,” Taibbi said. “The ability to generate headlines [is] a quality that is good to have if you are an attention seeking person in the internet age.”
And one way to generate headlines and amass a following in a bitterly divided political climate — as Donald Trump has demonstrated — is to find someone to blame. Indeed, if her tweets are to be believed, the number of people Louise Mensch believes to be agents of Russian influence may exceed 210 astronomically:
Update: This article has been clarified to note that Mensch's online campaign also includes a blog.
Steven Perlberg contributed reporting to this story.