First it was Pizzagate. The completely bogus 2016 election conspiracy theory that almost resulted in tragedy at my neighborhood pizza joint, spurred by the ridiculous assertion that supporters of Hillary Clinton were running a child sex ring out of the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in a Washington, D.C. neighborhood.
A year later in December of 2017, the conspiracy theorists are back on my doorstep.
This time, instead of my family’s favorite pizza parlor, they’re after my long time hobby, convinced that a woman with ties to Fusion GPS got a ham radio license in order to hide communications to help a bid to undermine President Donald Trump’s campaign.
The focus is on a woman named Nellie Ohr, who is married to a top Justice Department official named Bruce Ohr. Why she was working with the group Fusion GPS – which was paying a former British intelligence agent to put together the Trump Dossier – is certainly something of note.
But the idea that Ohr was using ham radio for secret communications with Steele on the dossier, or items related to the Trump campaign – is somewhat laughable to me and many in the amateur radio community.
And just like with Pizzagate, there are no actual facts to back up claims like that one on Twitter about the ham radio link – but that hasn’t stopped it from making the quick jump from social media to talk radio.
“Now we find out that Robert Ohr’s wife applied for a ham radio license?” said Rush Limbaugh as he opened his show on December 14, not even three full days after it surfaced on Twitter.
“They were communicating by ham radio,” Limbaugh declared with authority, adding that it was an effort to get around monitoring efforts of the National Security Agency, evidently to facilitate contacts by Orr and former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele.
Let’s start with this question – could Nellie Orr use ham radio to be in contact with Steele in England, or others on the European continent?
Take it from me – a few weeks ago, I was furiously trying to make as many contacts as possible with European ham radio operators – it wouldn’t be easy for someone with a new license like hers.
And I could come up with a lot better choices.
“It would be one of the least efficient communication methods one could choose,” said David Isgur, the Communication Manager for the American Radio Relay League, the national association for ham radio in the U.S.
As Isgur pointed out to me in an email from ARRL HQ, not only would you need good antennas, and some good knowledge about when signals are the best between the United States and Europe, but Ohr’s license grade is a “Technician,” which is the lowest level license issued by the FCC.
Hams who are “Technicians” have the smallest amount of privileges on the various amateur radio frequencies. Most of her frequencies would support very local communication, not even out of state, let alone across the country, or across the ocean to Europe.
And with her license, class, the best way she could communicate with someone in Europe would be in Morse Code – and that’s not easy for a beginner (it isn’t part of the license requirement any longer in the United States).
But like Pizzagate, those kind of facts don’t matter to those who want to spread this story.
The ham radio angle seems to have originated with a Twitter user who goes by the handle @TruthinGov2016, who found that Nellie Ohr had applied for an amateur radio license, and been granted the call sign KM4UDZ.
That tweet on December 11, would quickly gain attention on social media, and end up on talk radio just a few days later.
Ham radio operators who have been in touch with me were trying not to laugh too much.
“If you wanted to have secret, encrypted communications, why would you even bother getting a ham radio license,” said one amateur radio operator on my Facebook page.
As for the idea that Ohr would be using ham radio to get around the National Security Agency, “this is 100% totally, completely, wrong,” said another ham, who noted that the NSA records the entire radio spectrum 24/7/365.
“That you think ham radio has anything to do with this is hysterical,” one ham wrote to @TruthinGov2016 about the supposed Chris Steele link. “Absolutely hysterical.”
But even with comments like that from people who know the limits of the hobby, it didn’t stop the conspiracy theory from spreading fast over the internet.
I got my ham radio license when I was a freshman in college back in 1981, so I’ve seen a few things in the hobby.
If Nellie Ohr were trying to get in touch with England or Russia via ham radio, it’s more difficult than normal, as we’re in a time period where radio signals aren’t bouncing around the globe as easily as they can – all of that is related to the low number of sunspots, and how it impacts radio signals here on Earth.
But just like when I told people that there weren’t sadistic paintings on the walls at Comet Ping Pong – and they accused me of protecting a child sex ring – people are going to believe conspiracy theories, because they want to believe conspiracy theories, not because there are facts behind them.
Amateur radio could always use a little good publicity. But not a conspiracy theory like this one.
Pizza and ham radio go together. Pizzagate and ham radio do not.