Former U.S. representative and current Army Reserve officer Tulsi Gabbard, known for controversial positions that have often been supportive of Russian interests, was accused Sunday of pushing a "treasonous lie" by Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, after her latest social media video promoted a debunked theory about biolabs in Ukraine.
In the video, which was posted to Gabbard's TikTok and other social media accounts, the former congresswoman mischaracterized U.S. support for several dozen former Soviet biolabs in Ukraine, falsely implying that the labs work with diseases like COVID-19 and that the Biden administration had been "trying to cover this up."
The claim is a variation on a Russian disinformation allegation about U.S. support for the labs that dates back to at least 2014, according to EUvsDisinfo, a watchdog group that advises the European Union and its members on disinformation.
The unproven allegations that the U.S. is assisting Ukraine in the creation of new bioweapons were denied by various members of the federal government from the White House and the Pentagon last week. Two key points that the Pentagon noted in a fact sheet released Friday were that "after Russia launched its unlawful invasion of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Ministry of Health responsibly ordered the safe and secure disposal of samples."
Defense officials have observed that the claim may be a pretext for Russian leader Vladimir Putin to increase attacks on civilian populations in Ukraine, even potentially unleashing his own biological or chemical weapons.
In the Pentagon fact sheet, the agency said that Ukraine's efforts to destroy samples at the Soviet-era facilities help "limit the danger of an accidental release of pathogens should Russia's military attack laboratories."
The fact sheet also made it clear that "unlike Russia, the United States and Ukraine are not developing biological weapons and are in full compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention." This denial was echoed by White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on March 9.
Romney, in a tweet Sunday afternoon, said the video was "parroting Russian propaganda" and that Gabbard's "treasonous lies may well cost lives."
Two of Gabbard's recent social media posts with political themes have been shot with her wearing her Army uniform. In one, made in December 2021, she noted she was "wrapping up my reserve duty here at Fort Bragg in North Carolina."
Gabbard is a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, serving as a civil affairs officer currently assigned to 1st Special Forces Command. That unit oversees all of the Army's Special Forces -- commonly known as the Green Berets, as well as units that conduct psychological operations, civil affairs and supporting roles.
Maj. Dan Lessard, a unit spokesman, said that "Tulsi Gabbard's comments made in her civilian capacity represent her views and not those of 1st Special Forces Command" in an email to Military.com on Monday -- the same statement he issued last week. He noted that the statement has not been changed by the release of Sunday's video.
"Our command has previously addressed the video Lt. Col. Gabbard made in uniform on Dec. 8, 2021," he added.
The Army's position on these remarks -- at least those Gabbard made in uniform -- is surprisingly soft given examples of other officers using video of themselves in uniform for political ends.
Amid the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Marine Lt. Col. Stu Scheller made a series of videos in which he berated senior military leaders for the results of the war and called out a culture that, he felt, was incapable of holding itself to account.
Scheller was stripped of command after his first video, sent to the brig, and court-martialed before being discharged.
Former Army officer Harold Earls, who served for just under six years, was investigated for possibly abusing his position after his political ads in a race for Georgia's 6th Congressional District featured video he made on active duty. Task and Purpose reported on another serving Army Reserve officer, who was investigated after making an appearance on the far-right TV network OANN amid a campaign.
Other politicians in the military have gotten warnings for appearing in political messages in uniform.
Sunday's video is not the first time Gabbard, a former congressional representative for Hawaii and a onetime presidential candidate, has been accused of trafficking in Russian talking points.
Gabbard famously met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2017 amid a brutal and bloody civil war and shortly after the Battle of Aleppo -- a fight that had many allegations of war crimes, including the use of chemical weapons by Syrian and Russian forces.
At the time, she told CNN that "whatever you think about President Assad, the fact is that he is the president of Syria" and that he was vital to securing peace in the country. She also said she was skeptical of claims he had used chemical weapons, despite findings from a U.N. group commissioned by the Security Council. Gabbard would go on to stand by that meeting and her comments for years, at one point arguing that "Assad is not the enemy of the United States because Syria does not pose a direct threat to the United States" on MSNBC in 2019.
Assad recently announced he is supporting President Putin and Russia in their invasion of Ukraine.
Although she later walked back some of her support for Assad amid a bid for president in the 2020 campaign on the Democratic ticket, her use of Russian talking points led to a major attack against her by fellow candidate Hillary Clinton. Several American media outlets also noted that Gabbard's campaign and debate performance were being elevated by Russian-aligned media and social media users.
More recently, Gabbard has made frequent appearances on Tucker Carlson's show -- itself accused of being cozy with Kremlin talking points, according to Mother Jones -- to say that Putin's buildup of troops near Ukraine was justified because of the country's pursuit of NATO membership. "It is a legitimate security concern for Russia," Gabbard said in one appearance posted to her TikTok account before accusing the Biden administration of "smearing" those who disagree with the U.S. government position as "traitors."
Gabbard also posted a video in which she claimed that "Ukraine isn't actually a democracy" and accused Ukrainian President Vladmir Zelenskyy of silencing political opponents.
Gabbard's repeating of talking points favorable to Russia is easy to spot, but many, including experts in the field of disinformation, are quick to note that proving a relationship is much harder.
Raphael Cohen, a senior political scientist with the Rand think tank, noted when he spoke with Military.com last week that "you can't always point to a direct quid pro quo."
"It gets very murky very quickly," he added.
Cohen did note that politicians on both sides of the aisle -- especially those looking to paint themselves as outsiders -- are often drawn to different aspects of the Russian talking points out of "a misplaced idea that you can be a maverick politician."
"There's a thin line between being a maverick, and just being a tool of an evil regime," Cohen cautioned.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.