Last Thursday, NBC News reported that a document credited to a fake intelligence firm was being used to spread accusations about Democratic Party presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son and his business dealings in China.
The 64-page report credited to Typhoon Investigations is separate from the more well-known controversy surrounding a cache of emails attributed to Hunter Biden and reported on by the New York Post. This latest development, however, raises more questions about potential efforts at large-scale disinformation in the final days before the 2020 US presidential election.
Where did the report come from and do we know who wrote it?
An early version of the report was first published on September 3 on a blog named Intelligence Quarterly. At the time of publishing, the man behind the blog, Albert Marko, tweeted that he had “no idea” whether Typhoon Investigations was trustworthy, saying that he had passed the report on from a source.
Marko later told NBC News that he had received the report from a former Fulbright University Vietnam professor named Christopher Balding.
It was seven weeks later that Dr Balding first associated himself with the report, writing on October 22 that he had been given the document about two months earlier from “an individual I had known for the better half of a decade.” Dr Balding added that he would not disclose the identity of the report’s author, saying that “they have very valid reasons to fear for both their personal safety and professional risks.”
At this stage, Dr Balding insisted that he did not write the report and was not responsible for it. “I have gone over the report with a fine tooth comb and can find nothing factually wrong with the report,” Dr Balding added.
What did NBC News uncover about the author of the report?
Even before NBC published its report on October 29, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Elise Thomas, posted a Twitter thread detailing evidence showing that Martin Aspen, the man linked to the Typhoon Investigations firm, was a fabricated persona with a computer-generated profile picture.
Dr Balding would later confirm to NBC News that Aspen was “an entirely fictional individual created solely for the purpose of releasing this report.” Dr Balding also said that he “authored small parts of the report and was involved in report preparation and review.”
The admissions prompted questions about the credibility of Dr Balding’s account, since he had earlier stated he was not involved in writing the report. Dr Balding’s recent employer, Fulbright University Vietnam, released a statement clarifying that Dr Balding’s employment with the university ended on September 10.
“The Fulbright community expects its members to hold the highest standards of integrity and excellence,” the university said. “We do not support any action to create untruthful information.”
What was Apple Daily’s involvement?
Dr Balding also told NBC News that the report was commissioned by Apple Daily, the Hong Kong tabloid newspaper fiercely critical of the Chinese government. NBC attempted to corroborate this claim, reporting that “a spokesperson for Apple Daily confirmed it had worked with Balding on the document.”
This attempt at corroboration was contested by Apple Daily shortly after the report was published. The newspaper said in a statement that it had not commissioned Dr Balding or anyone else to write the Typhoon Investigations dossier, nor had it received any enquiries from NBC News prior to the report’s publication.
A likely explanation for the discrepancy came shorty afterwards, when Apple Daily’s publishing company, Next Digital, released a statement saying that “there are certain public misconceptions or speculations that Mr. Mark Simon is related to Apple Daily and/or the [Next Digital] Group.” The company clarified that Mark Simon is not currently an employee of Next Digital and any “views, actions or speeches” made by Mark Simon do not represent those of Next Digital. Jimmy Lai, founder of Next Digital, then tweeted that Mark Simon was his assistant.
“My assistant Mark Simon now informed us that he worked with the project, although had not commissioned it,” Lai tweeted. “Mark used my private company’s money to reimburse for the research he requested. It’s only US$10,000 so he didn’t have to have my approval.”
Lai reiterated however, that neither he nor Apple Daily had anything to do with the report.
Mark Simon later apologised and announced he was resigning from his position, saying that he had “allowed damage to Jimmy on a matter he was completely in the dark on.”
So we don’t know who wrote the report. But is it really important who wrote it?
Dr Balding, for his part, has continued to insist that he stands by the content of the report “because I went over it with a fine tooth comb.” He further challenged his critics to find a factual error in the report instead of focusing on its author, adding that journalists frequently offer their sources anonymity for reasons of professional and/or personal protection.
Elise Thomas from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute stated however, that the report did not include classified material, and Dr Balding himself has stated that the report’s information is “almost exclusively taken from public sources and documentation.” Ms Thomas said that it was “hard to see why its authors would need to be kept secret,” adding that she believes “transparency is really important around a report like this in the final weeks before an election campaign.”
In a response to AFP, Simon also stood by the dossier’s content: “I think Chris made a mistake in going cloak and dagger… But our Taiwan stories that used the data remain solid.”
Among the public figures who shared the report publicly in the week before NBC News’ report were former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of the Republican Party, who has 2.3 million Twitter followers.
Despite a lack of clarity over the report’s origins, it is likely that a significant number of Americans may well have been exposed to it with just days of the presidential polls.