The citizen journalism website that unmasked the alleged Skripal poisoners
Posted October 10, 2018 5:42 a.m. EDT
Updated October 10, 2018 8:04 a.m. EDT
(CNN) — The true identities of the men accused of poisoning a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom have reportedly been revealed, but not by sleuthing journalists from The Guardian or The New York Times.
The investigative website Bellingcat this week published what it said was the identity of one of the Russian agents allegedly involved in the nerve agent poisonings in March that left Sergei Skripal and his daughter hospitalized for weeks. Last month, the website unmasked what it said was the identity of the other suspect.
This isn't the website's first rodeo with highly sensitive and secretive reporting, much of which involves combing though publicly available data, or databases that can be purchased or have been leaked.
Eliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat, told CNN Business that the site was not planning to report on the Skripal poisonings but decided to investigate when UK authorities released what they said were the fake identities of the two suspects. Higgins thought he could draw on previous investigations into how the Russian intelligence agency GRU creates fake identities.
"The people we had working on it had looked into previous GRU operations," Higgins said. "In 2013, there was a Montenegro coup attempt and a GRU asset was arrested and his identity published online. We knew from that that his fake identity used elements of his real identity."
Higgins and his 10-person staff then teamed up with the Russian website The Insider in an effort to unmask the suspected Russian agents.
The accused men claimed in an interview with Russian state-funded television network RT that they were private citizens on vacation in the United Kingdom. But Bellingcat identified them as high-ranking intelligence officers who had been given the prestigious Hero of the Russian Federation award by President Vladimir Putin.
The Russian government has denied that the men were involved.
The websites used public records and leaked databases in their reporting, but they also deployed more traditional methods of journalism including cold calling people who may know the suspects and going to their hometowns.
"We covered the open source side of it and [The Insider] is doing the on the ground reporting," Higgins said. "I'm a great believer in combining what we do with open source journalists and the traditional journalism."
Higgins first began blogging under the pseudonym Brown Moses in 2012. When he was laid off from his non-profit job, Higgins immersed himself in the blog.
He became known for identifying munitions used in the conflict in Syria by reviewing videos and photos that locals posted online, scanning hundreds of YouTube videos a day. He identified bombs and rockets by the scraps left over, relying on his social media network and publicly available information for help.
Within months he was considered a munitions expert, cited by outlets like NPR and the New York Times.
Shortly before the 2014 downing of Malaysian Airline flight 17 in Ukraine, Higgins launched Bellingcat, a citizen investigative network that pools its resources, while creating guides to teach others to do the same. Soon Higgins had crowdsourced enough funding to focus on the site full time.
"Bellingcat is basically trying to find information that already exists out there on the internet in one way or another, but is either surrounded by so much irrelevant information that we often don't use it. They both find the information, but more importantly they verify it," said Centre for the Analysis of Social Media research director Carl Miller, who profiled Higgins in his book, "The Death of the Gods: The New Global Power Grab."
Bellingcat's investigation into the Malaysian Airlines flight determined that the plane was likely shot down by a Russian missile launcher. Investigators from a Dutch-led team later said the missile was fired from a launcher belonging to Russia's 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade. Russia has repeatedly denied involvement in the incident.
The website's name comes from the fable "Belling the Cat," in which a group of mice decide to wrap a bell around a cat as a warning system. But one of the mice asks who will risk their life to place the bell on the cat.
The site has just hired its first editor and is seeking to add to its staff of 10. Roughly half of its funding comes from foundations, and the rest via individual donations. Higgins said that donations have spiked following the Skripal investigations.
One of the website's prominent backers is George Soros' Open Society Foundation. Support from the liberal billionaire, who is frequently the subject of conspiracy theories, plus Higgins' work on Syria and Russia, has led to accusations that he's more than just an independent blogger, a claim he has long denied.
Higgins has become used to the attacks, but he said people should trust the site because "we share our sources. We explain step by step our analysis. We're as transparent as we possibly can be."
Miller said Bellingcat's work is valuable because it is so time consuming.
"Hundreds of hours of work, combing through almost an asphyxiating amount of open source content to get the information they're after," Miller said. "They pursue stories literally for years."
Nearly every major news outlet has credited Bellingcat and the Insider for identifying the alleged Novichok poisoning culprits. The BBC noted that "officials are not disputing Bellingcat's identification of the men."
CNN has not independently verified Bellingcat's findings.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called the first Bellingcat report "bogus." CNN has contacted her and Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov for comment on the new article.
Higgins said he "couldn't be more certain" that the identifications are correct, and that the investigations are the most important his site has published.
"Even compared to MH 17 ... this was very big, this dwarfs it in size," he said.