All The Koch's Men: Anatomy of a right-wing media smear
Earlier this month, we learned that Fox News contributor Steven "Dickless" Crowder doctored a Fox News segment to supposedly show him being punched in the face unprovoked by a rampaging union protester at an anti-Right to Work rally in Michigan.
This alleged union thug looked to be way past his retirement age, but the video showed Crowder cowering in fear. Later, like a true wuss, Crowder explained that he would've used his deadly martial arts skills to incapacitate the attacker, but felt "that if I would have defended myself I would have been killed where I stood."
As fate would have it, Crowder's attempt to demonize unions was inadvertently thwarted by his own people at Fox News: Sean Hannity's producers accidentally aired an unedited clip of Crowder's altercation clearly showing that the unnamed union assailant had actually been shoved to the ground and violently provoked into the fight. Crowder himself later admitted that he'd earlier been involved in "pushing" union activists.
But by the time someone caught Hannity's slip-up, the damage had been done: a Fox News segment showing union thugs attacking a reporter had been beamed to every corner of the right-wing media world. Even Michigan police took the episode seriously, and have opened an investigation into the attack.
Stepping back from "Dickless" Crowder's rank publicity stunt, the question arises: Have you ever wondered how these right-wing media stunts get started? The more cynical among us have long assumed that they're planned out in advance, and that people like "Dickless" Crowder are just trained monkeys acting on orders from on high.
But who comes up with the ideas? Who generates these things? Who funds them? And what do the brainstorming sessions look like?
Finally, we have some answers.
For the first time we have concrete evidence showing exactly how these types of media stunts are created: a series of leaked emails showing how a right-wing mega-donor and a couple of high-ranking GOP strategists hatch a plan to "expose" union-organized voter registration fraud. In the space of one long email discussion, they hash out all the details of the operation before giving orders — and money — to the late, lamented Andrew Breitbart, and his employee James O'Keefe, to carry our their plan.
It's an amazing thread, laying bare the degree to which wealthy right-wing donors personally involve themselves in the nuts and bolts planning of these operations. The emails also show right-wing muckraker-heroes O'Keefe and Breitbart for what they really are (or were): paid lackeys and fetch boys for billionaires.
First the hard facts:
These emails were obtained by a very credible source who I know personally, but who would like to remain anonymous. Lets call him "Breitbart's Deep Throat." They show the planning of a video sting to expose voter fraud by the SEIU during the 2010 special U.S. Senate election in Massachusetts 2010, which was held to replace the seat vacated by death of Senator Ted Kennedy.
Some of these emails were first published by BuzzFeed in September 2012. But BuzzFeed being BuzzFeed, they fucked up their own scoop, failing to put the emails into proper context, failing even to arrange the leaked emails in chronological order to make sense of what's going on. That's what NSFWCORP is doing here now. We're also publishing exclusive material never before made public.
So let's begin...
The email triggering the SEIU operation came from John Fund, who at the time was a columnist for the Wall Street Journal and is now a senior editor at the American Spectator, as well as a Fox News contributor. Fund, who received his journalism training at the tobacco-funded National Journalism Center, was an early crusader for stricter voter ID laws designed to make it more difficult for minorities and poor people to vote—a sort of modern version of the old school Jim Crow poll taxes and literacy tests.
On the morning of Tuesday, January 12, 2010, John Fund wrote an email to another right-wing operative by the name of Michael Thielen.
Thielen serves as the executive director of the Republican National Lawyers Association (RNLA), a GOP organization set up in 1985 with the primary purpose of digging up fake instances of voter fraud and using the courts to restrict minority votes. During Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004, members of the RNLA cooked up a false racist scandal, accusing the NAACP of using crack cocaine to lure black voters to vote.
That's the kind of stuff Thielen's been involved in. In 2010, he helped John Fund and Fox News promote a fake scandal about "New Black Panthers" paramilitary units being deployed at polling stations during the 2008 presidential election to intimidate and threaten white voters—presumably on behalf of Barack Obama himself.
So in January 2010, Fund sent the following email to Thielen that was short and to the point. It concerned a “tip” from a "reliable" source that warned of a plot by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to round up “black or brown” folk in several regions of Massachusetts and to “rope” them into committing voter fraud on behalf of the Democratic party.
Note that the email came Fund’s Wall Street Journal company account. (Proprietor: Rupert Murdoch.)
Subject: FW: John Batchelor From: "Fund, John" Date: Tue, January 12, 2010 8:25 am To:'Michael Thielen' Tip from Boston source (normally reliable) Seiu contracting for buses on election day and heading to roxbury, mattapan, roslindale and jamaica plain. If you're black or brown they'll rope you in and take you to the polls, registration can be worked out. Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile
The email also arrived in the inbox of Heather Higgins, a well-connected figure in the world of right-wing policy, advocacy and media. She’s a former colleague of Fund’s at the Wall Street Journal and the CEO of Independent Women's Forum, an anti-feminist "free market" outfit that used to share office space with the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity. Among other things, Higgins’ group has opposed equal pay legislation for women, and argued that women are less likely to vote for politicians who support government healthcare.
Higgins has a direct line of communication to major right-wing moneymen, including the billionaire investor and Koch-aligned mega-donor Foster Friess. And that's exactly who she contacted about the stunt.
In her note to Friess, Higgins got right to point: she asked for money, and described the operation as a "non-glamorous but highly effective" push to get out the vote for the GOP and “a great opportunity to making trouble in the best sort of way.”
On Jan 12, 2010, at 12:46 PM, Heather Higgins wrote: Foster -- See below from John Fund re SEIU - Acorn is in MA as well. It would be hugely helpful if you would assist with our non-glamorous but highly effective GOTV effort. If you could possibly let me know today, that would be helpful to our planning. This is such a great opportunity for making trouble in the best sort of way - I hope you can help us really capitalize on it. Many thanks, Heather
Who is Foster Friess?
Friess is almost always pictured wearing a ten-gallon hat and likes to refer to himself as an "underdog billionaire.” He made his money in finance and is a major Republican donor. He’s also a hardcore born-again Christian and Islamophobe, who's blamed liberals for the Columbine shooting and suggested on TV that women get abortions by putting aspirin pills "between their knees." Friess backed Mitt Romney for president in 2008, funded Rick Santorum's presidential run in 2012 and considers the billionaire Koch brothers to be "a national treasure.”
But Friess doesn’t just fund political campaigns. Like the Kochs, he has a long term outlook and understands the power of ideas and the need to fund projects that change the way people think. Friess has also been deeply involved in the push to break unions and privatize public education.
Foster Friess didn't reply to Higgins directly, but his son Steven did.
Steve Friess helps run his dad’s political operations. He also serves on the board of Alliance for School Choice, one of the most powerful and successful charter school/teachers union-busting organizations in the country, and funded in large part by the Walton family.
Steve Friess answered Heather Higgins’s email less than 12 hours after she sent it. He loved the idea, and had suggestions about how it should be carried out, proposing that some "black /Latina conservatives" should be wired for video and that a couple of “private detective types" should be hired to do recon on the bus route. Steve asked his dad to get Breitbart on the job, and wistfully wondered if this operation was “too much to dream?”
On Wed, Jan 13, 2010 at 12:25 AM, Steve Friess wrote: Wouldn't it be great if a "ACORN sting video" could be produced about these busses? Dad - maybe bounce this off Breitbart? Some black /Latina conservatives could be wired for video, and get picked up on one of these busses, and show what goes on. My guess - they are offering cash, (which I am pretty sure is illegal), and I also would wager that at least some of these busses are making more than one stop with the same people - ie getting them to vote twice - though I don't know the mechanics of that. Perhaps some private detective types would be needed to help track down the busses, and a block or two ahead of them to drop our cameramen off... Too much to dream? Imagine pulling this off - legal / image problems for SEIU would be a good thing... think there's upside to this? Breitbart would know, and Fund would know - 'if we catch them doing X, it could mean Y' - I just don't know what the stakes are...
If you’ve ever wondered what billionaire heirs dream about, what excites them and keeps them going... Well, there’s your answer. They dream of crushing unions and robbing workers of their healthcare and pensions, and drool just thinking about slashing their meager wages.
The email also shows that active right-wing donors like the Friess family don't delegate this kind of work to hired media operatives, but personally involve themselves in the planning of media smear operations—and seem to relish every moment.
With such enthusiasm coming from the likes of billionaire aristo-brat Steve Friess, the SEIU operation was a go.
That same day, Heather Higgins introduced Friess' plan to Breitbart and O'Keefe. Higgins CC'ed the email to Foster Friess and again brought up the issue of funding, saying "you all should talk."
From: Heather Higgins Date: Wednesday, January 13, 2010 Subject: Re: brainstorm of sorts, here - far-fetched? Maybe not?... To: Steve Friess, [email protected] , [email protected] Cc: Foster Friess Andrew and James, I'm forwarding what could be a very clever idea from Steve Friess in response to the intel below from John Fund re SEIU's intentions in Tuesday's election in MA. Don't know what it would cost, but you all should talk. Warmest regards - Heather Higgins
The next portion of the email thread is missing, but, whatever happened next, the money and logistics must have been quickly hammered out and given priority status.
Later that same day—a mere 16 hours after Steven Friess ok’d the operation—James O'Keefe was already hard at work.
O'Keefe is best known for the video hit job he did on ACORN, an organization deeply hated by the Republican right because of its success registering black voters. The media whack job was carried out in 2009, with O'Keefe releasing a series of clips that were later heavily edited to show him dressed in a pimp costume, getting advice from an ACORN staffer on how to run a prostitution business. At first hailed by mainstream reporters as a legit right-wing journalist exposé, O'Keefe's ACORN videos turned out to be a total fraud: they were staged and edited, and that fraud has resulted in ongoing lawsuits. But the damage was done: ACORN lost federal funding and was effectively destroyed.
The right lionizes O'Keefe as a pseudo-muckraking hero and undercover video sting whiz. But despite his alleged talents, the emails reveal that O'Keefe was not brought in on the planning of this operation. He was not tapped for his input, nor did he attempt offer any. He simply carried out orders from above.
Here's O'Keefe contacting someone named Mike Roman, John Fund's "credible" source for the SEIU fraud tip:
From: "James E. O'Keefe III" Date: January 13, 2010 4:16:14 PM EST To: "mike roman" Subject: Re: ACORN videos / seiu / election Mike, Got your info from John Fund. I was the producer of the ACORN Videos Would like to know whereabouts of the busses in Boston SEIU, et al are using in order to bus people in to vote in the Tuesday special election. Thinking about sending some undercover folks up there. James 2016370564
O’Keefe must have worked all through the night carrying out Steve Friess’ orders, because by next morning the operation was already set to go. O’Keefe had already picked a black conservative activist named Nadia Naffe, who had been recruited earlier into O'Keefe's band of rightwing media grunts, to take part in the SEIU sting—just like Steve Friess ordered.
O’Keefe, it turns out, was just a smear-lackey, eagerly carrying out a race-baiting assignment on orders from a billionaire's son. But you would't know it by the way O'Keefe started strutting around like a Big Shot, trying to impress Naffe as if he was the man in charge.
Striking a mysterious and dangerous tone, O’Keefe wrote Naffe that he wouldn't be able to take part in this particular bust because he would be in "new orleans causing trouble" but that he might be "willing" to buy her a plane ticket and send her on the assignment, but only if she was "interested in making some more video history" and that he was "confident in her training."
From: "James E. O'Keefe III" Date: January 14, 2010 11:10:49 PM EST To: [email protected] Cc: Stan Dai Subject: Boston Nadia, We're willing to book you a plane ticket to Boston to get some footage from the SEIU busses. Joe will be joining you taking care of logistics/equipment--- but i'll be in new orleans causing trouble. im confident your training will take you far. Interested in making some more video history? James
For all that strutting around, James O'Keefe's "operation" in New Orleans turned out to be a massive fuck-up. Shortly after sending that email, he was arrested with three of his sidekicks as they tried to bug the offices of Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu—all of them dressed up like Village People's construction workers.
It was a serious federal crime—a felony that carried a 10-year term. Luckily, O'Keefe's lawyer was a connected Republican Party operative who had been involved in investigating both Watergate and the Clinton administration. He was able to get O'Keefe's felony reduced to a misdemeanor. O'Keefe didn't get any jail time -- just three years probation, a $1,500 fine and some community service.
Probation and a small fine? In California you'd get a harsher punishment for driving drunk.
Meanwhile, in Boston, the operation against the SEIU was only marginally more successful. Naffe and her team of Friess-funded operatives collected useless footage of the SEIU going about its lawful business. “There was no video to come out of Massachusetts because there was no voter fraud to be found,” Naffe told Breitbart's Deep Throat. "The SEIU workers told me that if I wanted to register to vote in Massachusetts I had already missed the deadline. And there was no bus, no SEIU busing anybody in anywhere.”
Yep, Fund’s intel was bunk.
Despite the money and the effort, Stevie Friess' billionaire aristobrat dreams went unfulfilled. But his daddy probably wasn't upset about having to dish out money on the operation. After all, he'd still be able to write the expense off his taxes as a charitable contribution. It's always win-win in daddy Friess' billionaire world.
Unsurprisingly, the SEIU operation wasn't the only time O'Keefe was acting on orders from on high.
"I figured out quickly after meeting James that he was not the brains behind this operation," says Naffe, a Harvard graduate student who worked with O'Keefe's Project Veritas during 2010 and 2011, and who recently sued O’Keefe for imprisonment against her will in his parents' barn.
"There were so many phone calls from so many different people giving him directions. Different voices would say ‘throw in the silliness factor,’ or [during O'Keefe's Maxine Waters project] ‘tell ‘em you’ve got a suitcase full of cash and you want to give it to her and you want the bank to facilitate the transfer so that it looks like she’s putting money down on the house when it’s actually you putting money down on the house.’ And so on. It was constant.”
Naffe says O’Keefe received specific orders from the Koch-funded Americans For Prosperity on how to edit a video. Americans for Prosperity is one of the main groups that orchestrated the Tea Party movement back in 2009. Naffe remembers seeing one email from AFP’s Texas office telling O'Keefe's to remove a clip from a video he was making that showed Governor Rick Perry declaring Medicare fraud was not a problem in Texas.
“When James was sending it out to a group of people to get their take on it and presumably to raise money, the AFP field director in Texas wrote to him, ‘You need to take Governor Perry out of this video,’” says Naffe. “It didn’t sound like it was advice to me, it sounded like a directive. It just confirmed what I had started to suspect, that he is just the Koch Brothers’ bitch.”
After his brief 2009 ACORN pimp victory, O’Keefe was portrayed in the news as an a independent right-wing muckraker, a scrappy kid who came out of nowhere and suddenly rose to fame and fortune by exposing corruption. It was a classic American up-by-his bootstraps kinda success story. The New York Times described O'Keefe as a "25-year-old video provocateur," a "gadfly" who "began his film making career with a more modest target: Lucky Charms."
But almost from the very beginning it was clear that O’Keefe was no independent operator.
If the New York Times had bothered to do even a tiny bit of reporting, it would have discovered that his ACORN videos were underwritten by Peter Thiel, an ultra-libertarian billionaire and a very active sponsor of free market and Republican Party causes. Thiel, who was an early investor in Facebook, isn’t just a far-right ideologue, he also co-founded Palantir, a lucrative business providing hi-tech espionage services to a long list of government and defense agencies, including the CIA, FBI, Department of Defense. More money for O'Keefe's videos came through Andrew Breitbart's operation (Breitbart promised O'Keefe $65,000 for “life rights” to the ACORN series). It's not clear where the pimp idea for taking down ACORN came from, but it wasn't from O'Keefe or Breitbart.
Unfortunately, my source could only get access to a small batch of O'Keefe/Breitbart emails. But even from that small sample, it's clear that orders flowed only in one direction: from the top down.
Even WSJ's op-ed lackey John Fund, who puts in regular appearances in discussions about rightwing media smear operations, enjoys a higher rank than Breitbart did and O'Keefe does. For example: Four days before John Fund's email triggered the failed SEIU operation, here's Fund suggesting an operation directly to Andrew Breitbart, who then forwarded the idea on to O’Keefe:
From: Andrew Breitbart
Date: Friday, January 8, 2010
Subject: Fwd: maybe Big Hollywood should send a spy
To: "James E. O'Keefe III"
Begin forwarded message:
From: "Fund, John"
Date: January 8, 2010 9:18:22 AM PSTTo: "'[email protected] '"
Subject: maybe Big Hollywood should send a spy [emphasis added by NSFWCORP]
From: Stephanie Schell [mailto:[email protected] ] On Behalf Of News from The Recording Academy
Sent: Friday, January 08, 2010 12:17 PM
Subject: SEN. BARBRA BOXER KEYNOTE SPEAKER AT GRAMMY FOUNDATION'S ELI
NEWS RELEASE SEN BARBARA BOXER TO DELIVER KEYNOTE ADDRESS AT GRAMMY FOUNDATION®'S 12TH ANNUAL ENTERTAINMENT LAW INITIATIVE® LUNCHEON & SCHOLARSHIP PRESENTATION
[TEXT OF PRESS RELEASE]
Sending a spy to a Grammy Foundation event? Man, John Fund's really scraping the barrel here. No wonder this idea never made it to Foster Friess.
But O'Keefe clearly bought into the whole "spy" business. A few months after he was arrested in New Orleans, O'Keefe sent an email to his team of disgraced media operatives on how they could improve their craft for future assignments. The email excerpted a Wired article describing of the tactics of Canadian master thief Gerald Blanchard (highlights are in the original):
From: "James E. O'Keefe III" Date: April 1, 2010 4:12:02 AM EDT To: Ben Wetmore, Joe Basel
, Jonathon Burns, [email protected], [email protected], [email protected] Subject: Fascinating: Gerald Blanchard Disguise Tactics - highlights in BOLD http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/03/ff_masterthief_blanchard "Blanchard also learned how to turn himself into someone else. Sometimes it was just a matter of donning a yellow hard hat from Home Depot. But it could also be more involved. Eventually, Blanchard used legitimate baptism and marriage certificates — filled out with his assumed names — to obtain real driver’s licenses. He would even take driving tests, apply for passports, or enroll in college classes under one of his many aliases: James Gehman, Daniel Wall, or Ron Aikins. With the help of makeup, glasses, or dyed hair, Blanchard gave James, Daniel, Ron, and the others each a different look. Over the years, Blanchard procured and stockpiled IDs and uniforms from various security companies and even law enforcement agencies Sometimes, just for fun and to see whether it would work, he pretended to be a reporter so he could hang out with celebrities. […] "As the bank was being built, Blanchard frequently sneaked inside — sometimes at night, sometimes in broad daylight, disguised as a delivery person or construction worker. There’s less security before the money shows up, and that allowed Blanchard to plant various surveillance devices in the ATM room. He knew when the cash machines were installed and what kind of locks they had. He ordered the same locks online and reverse engineered them at home. Later he returned to the Alberta Treasury to disassemble, disable, and remount the locks."
Who knows, maybe after another decade or so of Thiel-financed spycraft training, O'Keefe could become as good as Gerald Blanchard. But there's something that O'Keefe will never duplicate: Blanchard mostly stole from the powerful and rich —he robbed banks, milked ATMs and swiped priceless jewelry belonging to an Austrian Empress. "I felt guilty to a certain extent, but my reasoning behind it at the time was I'm not hurting individuals, I'm hurting corporations," Blanchard told Canadian TV.
O'Keefe is no master thief. He's a race-baiting fetch-boy who attacks minorities and the working poor on behalf of the degenerate rich.
NSFWCORP would like to thank Breitbart's Deep Throat for his guidance and wisdom. Without him this story would never have been possible. Additional kudos to BuzzFeed for their early, if buggy, reporting of the story.