Free to Roam? Russia Media Push for Passes to Wander U.S. Capitol

A press pass issued by the U.S. Congress is a highly coveted credential that enables journalists to wander the Capitol from early in the morning until late at night, giving them endless opportunities to talk with lawmakers and their aides.

Many Washington organizations have tried—and failed—to get those press credentials, however, finding themselves rejected due to rules that prohibit passes for firms that also lobby Congress. Now Russian-funded media organizations are pushing to be admitted to the House and Senate galleries and in the process gain unfettered access to members and staff.

That includes Sputnik International, the Russian state-owned website that’s being accused of being an arm of the Kremlin’s international propaganda operation. Sputnik also is seeking White House press credentials.

Vladimir Putin

Sputnik’s application for congressional press credentials landed at the very same time the Senate Intelligence Committee began hearings on Russia’s role in influencing the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

Intelligence Committee ranking member Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) singled out Sputnik and RT—the former Russia Today international television network funded by the Russian government—as key players in what he also said is a “propaganda on steroids” effort by President Vladimir Putin to “poison the national conversation in America.”

“Russia continually sought to diminish and undermine our trust in the American media by blurring our faith in what is true and what is not,” Warner said at a March 30 hearing. “Russian propaganda outfits like RT and Sputnik successfully produced and peddled disinformation to American audiences in pursuit of Moscow’s preferred outcome.”

Warner said the Russians employed thousands of internet trolls and botnets to push out fake news, focusing the material on Twitter and Facebook feeds and flooding social media with misinformation. This, in turn, was hyped by the “American media echo chamber” and U.S. social media networks to reach millions of U.S. citizens.

In an article published by Sputnik after the hearing, RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan pushed back against calls to revoke the broadcaster’s license.

“Senators even said that RT and Sputnik together undermine U.S. nationals’ faith in their own media. I do not know what is more surprising —senators’ faith in our unlimited opportunities or their lack of faith in a conscious choice of their people,” Simonyan said.