Weighing Words.

The complainant, Gregory Duffell, thought a segment on The National dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s proposal to allow U.S. and Russian law enforcement access to each other’s citizens was flawed and misleading. He objected to different language used to refer to the Russians and the Americans. He thought it was not the same thing saying that Russians would have access to Americans compared to saying the Americans would hand over their people for questioning. As usual context matters, and there is not a significant difference.


On July 19th The National featured a report regarding the fallout from a proposal made by Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Helsinki summit with U.S. President Donald Trump. Mr. Putin proposed that Special Counsel Robert Mueller would be able to have access to 12 Russian citizens recently indicted, in exchange for a similar chance for Russian law enforcement officials to question U.S. citizens of interest to them. He named one in particular, Bill Browder, a U.S. born businessman. You thought the reports by Washington-based reporter Ellen Mauro and the introduction provided by The National host Andrew Chang were misleading. In her presentation Ms. Mauro stated that the Trump administration was backing away from the Russian proposal “to allow U.S. investigators access to Russians charged with election meddling in exchange for handing over U.S. officials to Russia for questioning.” You said this falsely framed the discussion:

Ms. Morrow's (sic) interpretation of what President Putin proposed is simply false. She also employed particular words that would project a meaning that did not represent Mr. Putin's suggestion of reciprocity in the proposal. For instance, Ms. Morrow stated that under the proposed deal U.S, officials would have "access" to Russians. However, she said there would be a "handing over to Russia" of U.S. officials. "Access" and "handing over" imply two completely different actions and outcomes.

Your concern was that “access” and “handing over” imply two different things. You thought this created an imbalance. You noted that nowhere in the transcript of the translation of Mr. Putin’s remarks in Helsinki was there a request to have Bill Browder, or any other U.S. citizen, brought to Russia for questioning, as Mr. Chang stated in his introduction. You said Andrew Chang compounded Ms. Mauro’s error and also left an entirely false impression and distorted the meaning of Mr. Putin’s proposal. You were concerned it left the appearance that the proposal was biased in favour of Russia:

By the CBC spokespersons making these false claims, everything that was included in the segment, including Mr. Browder's dire monologue, would take on a meaning much different than the facts should allow. The report could feed into the perception that what Mr. Putin was presenting, and what Mr. Trump initially reacted positively to, was a proposal that was unevenly biased to the interests of Russia.


Jonathan Whitten, Executive Director of CBC News, replied to your concerns. He did not agree with you that the terms “access” and “handing over” were entirely different. He explained his reasoning:

"Access to" would be, presumably, the basis of the proposed deal (not that anyone really knows the exact details of what was discussed). As a starting proposition, the term is fine, and conveys the correct meaning, but can really only apply to a situation which would involve, for example, access to files or hard drives etc. When it comes to human beings, and particularly the Americans in question, it is very hard to believe that they would happily agree to be "accessed." This is where the "turning over" would presumably happen, in the sense that these individuals would have to be compelled to take part in the proposed questioning. In the end it is presumably academic, but I am comfortable defending the term "handing over" in the context of what may have had to unfold if the deal was finalized.

He also addressed your concern with the statement that Americans would be questioned in Russia. He agreed that this was not part of the proposal Mr. Putin talked about at the news conference. Mr. Whitten added he would make sure the news team was aware of that fact.

While he agreed that more care should have been taken, he disagreed that the coverage characterized this proposed deal as more advantageous to Russia. He noted that a full reading of the news conference transcripts indicates Mr. Putin refers to an extradition treaty and that a conclusion could not be fully drawn without a trial - which points to a desire to have Americans brought to Russia.


The references to the proposal for reciprocal questioning was made in the context of a news report of the latest development in U.S-Russia relations - Mr. Trump announced he had invited Mr. Putin to Washington. This is what Ms. Mauro had to say:

And today more mixed messaging. Just before announcing the White House invite, the administration backed away from a Putin proposal to allow U.S. investigators access to Russians charged with election-meddling in exchange for handing over U.S. officials to Russia for questioning, including former ambassador Michael McFaul. Trump initially applauded the idea.

You believe that having “access” and “handing over” are not equivalent and shouldn’t have been used in this way because it denotes a power imbalance - that the Russians were getting more than the Americans. While I don’t agree with Mr. Whitten’s interpretation given what Ms. Mauro said - that “access to” means documents, not people - I also don’t believe that the phrasing makes a significant difference. While we will never know what was precisely discussed or proposed by the two leaders, the context of Mr. Putin’s remarks makes it pretty clear that there is a desire to question U.S. citizens in exchange for a similar opportunity for U.S. law enforcement to question 12 recently indicted Russian citizens. The proposal was to allow both Russian and U.S. justice officials to question the other’s nationals. In making suspects available, they would be “handed over.” There is nothing particularly misleading when you consider the full statement at the news conference:

Now, let’s get back to the issue of these 12 alleged intelligence officers of Russia. I don’t know the full extent of the situation. But President Trump mentioned this issue. I will look into it.

So far, I can say the following. Things that are off the top of my head. We have an existing agreement between the United States of America and the Russian Federation, an existing treaty that dates back to 1999. The mutual assistance on criminal cases. This treaty is in full effect. It works quite efficiently. On average, we initiate about 100, 150 criminal cases upon request from foreign states.

For instance, the last year, there was one extradition case upon the request sent by the United States. This treaty has specific legal procedures we can offer. The appropriate commission headed by Special Attorney Mueller, he can use this treaty as a solid foundation and send a formal, official request to us so that we could interrogate, hold questioning of these individuals who he believes are privy to some crimes. Our enforcement is perfectly able to do this questioning and send the appropriate materials to the United States. Moreover, we can meet you halfway. We can make another step. We can actually permit representatives of the United States, including the members of this very commission headed by Mr. Mueller, we can let them into the country. They can be present at questioning.

In this case, there’s another condition. This kind of effort should be mutual one. Then we would expect that the Americans would reciprocate. They would question officials, including the officers of law enforcement and intelligence services of the United States whom we believe have something to do with illegal actions on the territory of Russia. And we have to request the presence of our law enforcement.

For instance, we can bring up Mr. Browder in this particular case. Business associates of Mr. Browder have earned over $1.5 billion in Russia. They never paid any taxes. Neither in Russia nor in the United States. Yet, the money escapes the country. They were transferred to the United States. They sent huge amount of money, $400 million as a contribution to the campaign of Hillary Clinton. Well, that’s their personal case. It might have been legal, the contribution itself. But the way the money was earned was illegal. We have solid reason to believe that some intelligence officers, guided these transactions. So we have an interest of questioning them. That could be a first step. We can extend also it. Options abound. They all can be found in an appropriate legal framework.

It is clear that the goal is to enable one country’s officials to question citizens of the other. The more explicit statement came from Mr. Chang when he said: “Bill Browder was called out by name as someone Putin wants his agents to question in Russia.” It is true Mr. Putin did not specifically say he wanted Mr. Browder in Moscow, although his remarks are prefaced by referring to an extradition treaty. I note there actually have been attempts to extradite Mr. Browder. Based on an international warrant, he was briefly detained in Spain. In a literal interpretation, there is no suggestion of extradition. Once again, it is not a wild interpretation to infer so. Having said that, to inject it in this script without explanation is not clear enough. While reporters are able to synthesize facts and not act as scribes, it is important to explain how a conclusion was reached.

If this feels a bit like splitting hairs, it is because I believe it is. It is good you are asking for greater clarity and precision - I agree it could have been clearer in reference to Mr. Browder. Overall, though, there is no distortion of facts. I also do not hear anything that implied this was a proposal that was weighted in Russia’s favour. The context was the political backlash from the U.S. politicians of both parties against Mr. Trump’s apparent agreement to this arrangement and the subsequent backing away by the White House.


Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman