Last March 29, Russian officials arrested Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich and charged him with espionage. Prior to his arrest, Gershkovich had been writing a series of critical articles regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that the Journal had been publishing. He has been incarcerated ever since and is awaiting trial.
From the very start, the Wall Street Journal, along with U.S. officials, has steadfastly maintained Geshkovich’s innocence, claiming that he isn’t really a spy.
However, it strikes me as unusual that the Journal has still not published Gershkovich’s side of the story. Gershkovich has Russian lawyers representing him, and they have met with him. It is normal procedure for an accused to tell his lawyer his side of the story. Otherwise, if the accused remains silent with his lawyer, it becomes extremely difficult for the lawyer to represent his client capably.
Therefore, it is a virtual certainty that Gershkovich has told his side of the story to his lawyers. With Gershkovich’s consent, his lawyers can disclose what he has told them to Wall Street Journal officials.
Has that happened? We don’t know because the Journal is keeping mum on the matter. The Journal hasn’t even disclosed whether or not it has received Gershkovich’s side of the story.
But the question is: If the Journal has received Gershkovich’s side of the story, why keep silent about it? Wouldn’t it be better to publicize the empty nature of the espionage charges against Gershkovich rather than simply deny indignantly that he is a spy?
Of course, I don’t know what happened, but I am going to engage in some reasonable speculation as to what I think is going on here, specifically what I think happened to cause Gershkovich to get arrested and also why I think the Wall Street Journal is choosing to remain silent about his side of the story.
Here in the United States, we all know the importance of secret documents relating to “national security.” We know that those documents belong to the national-security establishment — specifically the military, the CIA, and the NSA. We also know the critical importance — from the standpoint of the national-security establishment — of keeping those documents secret. If those secret documents were to fail into the wrong hands, national-security state officials tell us, “national security” would be endangered.
Thus, woe to the person who is caught illegally possessing secret U.S. national-security state documents or, even worse, disclosing the documents or their contents to someone else. As we all know, U.S. officials will go after him with a vengeance with arrest, prosecution, conviction, and incarceration.
Moreover, the malefactor who is caught with secret national-security documents or with sharing them will inevitably be charged with spying under the old 1917 Espionage Act. It doesn’t really matter whether the malefactor has, in fact, served as a formal spy for some foreign power. It is automatically assumed under the Espionage Act that he is, in fact, a spy. Why else would he be illegally possessing or sharing secret documents whose contents involve “national security.”
My hunch is that this is what happened to Evan Gershkovich. My hunch — and it’s just my speculation — is that he was approached by a trusted source who offered him, on a confidential basis, important information about the Russian military situation in Ukraine. My hunch is that Gershkovich naively accepted documents containing Russian national-security state secrets. At that point, I think, Russian officials swooped in and charged him with illegally possessing national-security state secrets. If such was the case, it would have followed that they would have charged him with espionage under some Russian espionage law that is similar to the old 1917 Espionage Act of the United States.
If I’m right, it would not be surprising if Russian officials orchestrated this as a sting operation. That’s because they would be copying the sting operation that U.S. officials used to trap, arrest, prosecute, convict, and incarcerate Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. (See my article “Time to Revisit the Viktor Bout Case.”)
How would Gershkovich defend himself — by claiming that he didn’t know that the documents he was receiving contained national-security state secrets? What Russian judge is going to believe that? For that matter, what American judge would believe it?
Assuming my hypothesis, why would the Wall Street Journal be reticent about publicizing Gershkovich’s side of the story? Because it would put the Journal in the awkward position of scoffing at and pooh-poohing Russia’s preoccupation with protecting its national-security state secrets while, at the same time, emphasizing the critical importance of preserving America’s national-security state secrets. How does one criticize the Russian prosecution of Gershkovich for illegally possessing national-security state secrets while, at the same time, praising the U.S. government for prosecuting people for illegally possessing national-security state secrets? How does one criticize Russia for applying its espionage law to the illegal possession of national-security state secrets while praising the application of America’s old 1917 Espionage Law to the illegal possession of national-security state secrets here at home?
If my speculation is correct, obviously, it would be much easier for everyone involved to simply secure a trade of Gershkovich for some Russian being held by the U.S. national-security state. Then the Journal would be relieved of having to explain why it’s wrong for Russia to protect its “national-security” secrets in the same way that the United States protects its “national-security” secrets.