NBC News assigned two investigative reporters to cover the Hunter Biden laptop story. What they discovered was worthy of a James Bond movie (farewell to Sean Connery, the best of the Bonds).

NBC investigators Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny pursued the origins of a document that was widely circulated on rightwing media.

One month before a purported leak of files from Hunter Biden’s laptop, a fake “intelligence” document about him went viral on the right-wing internet, asserting an elaborate conspiracy theory involving former Vice President Joe Biden’s son and business in China.

The document, a 64-page composition that was later disseminated by close associates of President Donald Trump, appears to be the work of a fake “intelligence firm” called Typhoon Investigations, according to researchers and public documents.

The author of the document, a self-identified Swiss security analyst named Martin Aspen, is a fabricated identity, according to analysis by disinformation researchers, who also concluded that Aspen’s profile picture was created with an artificial intelligence face generator. The intelligence firm that Aspen lists as his previous employer said that no one by that name had ever worked for the company and that no one by that name lives in Switzerland, according to public records and social media searches.

One of the original posters of the document, a blogger and professor named Christopher Balding, took credit for writing parts of it when asked about it and said Aspen does not exist.

Despite the document’s questionable authorship and anonymous sourcing, its claims that Hunter Biden has a problematic connection to the Communist Party of China have been used by people who oppose the Chinese government, as well as by far-right influencers, to baselessly accuse candidate Joe Biden of being beholden to the Chinese government.

The document and its spread have become part of a wider effort to smear Hunter Biden and weaken Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, which moved from the fringes of the internet to more mainstream conservative news outlets.

An unverified leak of documents — including salacious pictures from what President Donald Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and a Delaware Apple repair store owner claimed to be Hunter Biden’s hard drive — were published in the New York Post on Oct. 14. Associates close to Trump, including Giuliani and former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, have promised more blockbuster leaks and secrets, which have yet to materialize.

The fake intelligence document, however, preceded the leak by months, and it helped lay the groundwork among right-wing media for what would become a failed October surprise: a viral pile-on of conspiracy theories about Hunter Biden.

The story about Hunter Biden’s laptop first appeared in Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post in mid-October. The gist of the story is that Hunter Biden allegedly dropped off computers at a repair shop in Delaware in 2019, telling the shop owner that they had suffered water damage and needed to be fixed. He never returned to pick them up.

The shop owner decided to examine the contents of the hard drive and discovered emails that showed that Hunter had introduced his father to officials in Ukraine, that he had persuaded his father to get involved in a business deal in China in 2017 (when Joe Biden was a private citizen), and salacious videos of Hunter Biden. The shop owner says he turned over the hard drive to Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, and to the FBI. Giuliani then distributed the contents of the hard drive to the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal.

The story was supposed to be the Trump campaign’s October surprise, an expose that would destroy Biden. But the mainstream media was wary and treated the story skeptically. The reporter for the New York Post who wrote it refused to put his name on it. Some wondered why Hunter Biden, who lives in Los Angeles, would fly to Philadelphia and take a train to Wilmington to have his computer repaired, then forget to retrieve it.

As soon as the New York Post published the expose about Hunter’s emails, Devin Coldewey of TechCrunch wrote that the provenance of the laptop was extremely fishy. Some suspected that Russian disinformation was involved. Coldewey wrote, “But even supposing no global influence effort existed, the provenance of this so-called leak would be difficult to swallow. So much so that major news organizations have held off coverage, and Facebook and Twitter have both limited the distribution of the NY Post article.” As a techie, he finds the whole story not credible. He gives several reasons why it defies common sense. He writes:

It is beyond the worst operational security in the world to give an unencrypted device with confidential data on it to a third party. It is, however, very much a valid way for someone to make a device appear to be from a person or organization without providing any verification that it is so...

The repair shop supposedly could not identify Hunter Biden, who lives in Los Angeles, as the customer. But the invoice (for $85 — remarkably cheap for diagnosis, recovery, and backup of three damaged Macs) has “Hunter Biden” written right on it, with a phone number and one of the email addresses he reportedly used. It seems unlikely that Hunter Biden’s personal laptop — again, loaded with personal and confidential information, and possibly communications with the VP — would be given to a small repair shop (rather than an Apple Store or vetted dealer) and that shop would be given his personal details for contact...

The idea that Biden or his assistant or whoever would not return to pick up the laptop or pay for the services is extremely suspicious. Again, these are supposedly the personal devices of someone who communicated regularly with the VP, and whose work had come under intense scrutiny long before they were dropped off. They would not be treated lightly or forgotten. On the other hand, someone who wanted this data to be inspected would do exactly this…

That the laptops themselves were open and unencrypted is ridiculous. The serial number of the laptop suggests it was a 2017 MacBook Pro, probably running Mojave. Every Mac running Lion or later has easily enabled built-in encryption. It would be unusual for anyone to provide a laptop for repair that had no password or protection whatsoever on its files, let alone a person like Hunter Biden — again, years into efforts to uncover personal data relating to his work in Ukraine. ..

That this information would be inspected by the repair shop at all is very suspect indeed. Recovery of an ostensibly damaged Mac would likely take the form of cloning the drive and checking its integrity against the original. There is no reason the files or apps themselves would need to be looked at in the course of the work in the first place. Some shops have software that checks file hashes, if they can see them, against a database of known child sex abuse material. And there have been notable breaches of trust where repair staff illicitly accessed the contents of a laptop to get personal data. But there’s really no legitimate reason for this business to inspect the contents of the devices they are working on, let alone share that information with anyone, let alone a partisan operative. The owner, an avid Trump supporter, gave an interview this morning giving inconsistent information on what had happened and suggested he investigated the laptops of his own volition and retained copies for personal protection.

The data itself is not convincing. The Post has published screenshots of emails instead of the full text with metadata — something you would want to do if you wanted to show they were authentic. For stories with potential political implications, it’s wise to verify.

Since Trump can’t explain his inability or unwillingness to control the pandemic, since he refuses to admit that his administration is trying to have the Affordable Care Act thrown out by the Supreme Court, since he can’t produce the health insurance plan that he claims will be better than the Affordable Care Act, since he has no policies that he can defend, all he has left is throwing mud at Joe Biden. Let’s hope the American people are not fooled.