It was only a couple of weeks ago that Tucker Carlson was fulminating loudly—along with his sidekick, Glenn Greenwald—that there were secret American “biolabs” in Ukraine engaged in creating “bioweapons,” which were more than enough to justify Russia’s invasion. Carlson discussed it in three episodes, one of them featuring Greenwald. Then it mutated into another variation on their favorite narrative blaming Hunter Biden for the world’s ills.
Now we know just how gullible they were: ADL investigators have ascertained that the original source of the theory—a since-deplatformed Twitter user under the nom de plume @WarClandestine—is in fact a fringe QAnon follower from rural Virginia who reveled in having his concocted claims amplified not just by Fox News, but even the Kremlin. The episode once again illustrates the three-way relationship between online far-right extremists, the mainstream right-wing media ecosystem, and the global authoritarian powermongers.
The ADL’s Center on Extremism identified Jacob Creech, a self-described former restaurant manager and Army National Guard veteran living in rural Virginia, as “Clandestine,” the originator of the biolab conspiracy theory. He has a long and colorful history of posting QAnon material dating back to 2018, and more recently posted tweets hoping for the lynchings of Ottawa police officers.
On Feb. 24, he published a thread claiming that “U.S. biolabs” in Ukraine were the real targets of Russian airstrikes.
“China and Russia indirectly (and correctly) blamed the US for the C19 [Covid-19] outbreak,” Creech tweeted. “And [they] are fearful that the US/allies have more viruses (bioweapons) to let out.” The invasion, he posited, was a smokescreen for Russia to destroy U.S. biolabs in Ukraine, thus preventing another global pandemic.
The theory caught on like wildfire when Alex Jones’ InfoWars program picked it up and ran with it. In almost no time at all, it was being aired on Fox News by Carlson. He invited Greenwald onto his program on March 10 to discuss it.
“It's clearly a case where the U.S. government has been lying, it has mounted a disinformation campaign, if you will, designed to cover up what it is doing and nobody in the press corps seems interested in finding out what's at the bottom of this. Why is that?” Carlson asked.
“When the government comes out and emphatically denies that they have biological weapons,” Greenwald said. “We know they’re not telling the truth.”
Carlson also ranted at length about it on his March 14 show, seemingly confused about the relatively simple and clear explanations for what these biolabs are all about. (The theories focused on labs associated with the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, created to decommission Soviet-era chemical and biological weapons. Gavin Wilde, a security consultant at the Krebs Stamos Group, told NBC News the program “has long provided fodder for Russian propaganda campaigns” that target Russian residents.)
Russian state TV has extensively replayed clips of Carlson’s rants. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov went out of his way to praise Carlson and Fox News while condemning mainstream Western media coverage of the invasion.
"We understood long ago that there is no such thing as an independent Western media. In the United States, only Fox News is trying to present some alternative point of view," he said.
Creech, as the ADL reports, reveled in all the attention:
As the biolab theory continued to gain traction, Creech repeatedly took credit for coming up with the conspiracy and celebrated its dissemination in mainstream spaces. “YOU GUYS TUCKER’S OPENING STATEMENT IS THE BIOLABS STORY. The story is on the most watched show in America,” Creech wrote on Telegram on March 9, shortly after Tucker Carlson’s broadcast began. “HOLY SHIT WE FUCKING DID IT.” In a follow up post, Creech wrote, “I am trying to get in contact with Tucker [Carlson], [Dan] Bongino, [Jesse] Watters, [Steve] Bannon, Alex Jones. If they wanna use my thread and they wanna send this mainstream, then I guess it’s time to go mainstream.”
Subsequently, Creech has become a minor QAnon celebrity, twice appearing on RedPill78, a popular QAnon show hosted by Zak Paine. “I'm the one who wrote the [Twitter] thread that kind of took the world by storm. If you're hearing about the bio labs it was me,” Creech said on Feb. 26. He also appeared on election fraud conspiracy theorist Seth Holehouse’s show Man in America, telling the audience that “they're trying to establish a narrative that Russia is going to be the one releasing these biological weapons after they said there were no biological weapons in Ukraine. So now they're in this mass cover-up phase.”
The emergence of the biolabs claims also brilliantly illuminates the key role that American disinformation centers—particularly right-wing conspiracy theorists and the right-wing media ecosystem that amplifies them—play in enabling authoritarian propaganda. Russia’s original propaganda pretext for invading Ukraine—namely, that Ukrainian government and military leadership was run by Nazis—was never made to appeal to right-wing extremists who might in fact relate to those Nazis. Instead, it was pumped up by faux leftists in the pro-Syrian/“anti-imperialist” sector whose shrinking reach never included the broad swaths of the right already inclined to support Putin.
“The ‘biolabs’ are serving as a false justification for why Russia invaded Ukraine. It’s defensive,” Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University, told NBC News. “They create a situation where they go to a populist audience, push out talking points, get the audience primed and make it true later.”
Gaslighting, of course, has become Carlson’s specialty. In reality, Carlson spent most of the month prior to the invasion praising Putin and echoing Russian propaganda: running down Ukraine, deriding it as a “State Department client state”—not a democracy, but “a tyranny”; and claiming that Russia just wants to keep its borders secure, everything the fault of Joe Biden. So much so that he became the hero of Russian state television, where his rants were translated and replayed and he was praised as an astute American.
Carlson mostly dropped discussion of the biolabs, however, since that March 14 episode, until 10 days later on March 24, when he spouted off at length parroting a Kremlin claim—promoted earlier that same day by the Russian Defense Ministry, complete with colorful graphs and charts—that Hunter Biden, the president’s son, was financially connected to these same labs. Even as he raised the claims, Carlson mocked anyone who might claim he was being a willing dupe for Russia.
The Kremlin continues to push the claims apace, claiming—with the assistance of China’s Xinhua news agency—that Ukraine intended to deploy the pathogens supposedly developed in these biolabs against the populations of Donbas and Russia, and recruiting friendly “experts” to demand an investigation of the labs. It has become a staple of their daily talking points about the war with Ukraine.
The ADL notes that the spread of these kinds of disinformation in the mainstream ecosystem poses a serious challenge for democracy itself:
As the war in Ukraine rages on, the biolab conspiracy has quickly emerged as the prevailing narrative among QAnon adherents to explain Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Not only does it “justify” the invasion in their eyes, it also validates their belief that Covid-19 is a U.S.-created bioweapon. This flood of disinformation could have far-reaching implications in the long term, sowing further distrust in democratic institutions and exacerbating political polarization.