“Through his purchase of influence over the daily flow of information to American media consumers, a dizzying array of connections to the national security state, and a media empire that shields him from critical scrutiny, Pierre Omidyar has become one of the world’s most politically sophisticated data monarchs.”
By Alexander Rubinstein and Max Blumenthal
Published on Mint Press News, Feb 18, 2019
A select group of national news “stakeholders” gathered at an undisclosed location for what was described as a “semi-secret” workshop somewhere in Canada on January 26. The meeting had been convened to determine how and to whom a “news industry bailout” of $645 million in Canadian government subsidies to private and supposedly independent media outlets would be disbursed. It was a striking event that signaled both the crisis of legitimacy faced by mainstream media and the desperate measures that are being proposed to answer it.
Jesse Brown, a Canadian journalist who participated in the meeting, complained that the first thing he noticed about it “was that one major public ‘stakeholder’ wasn’t represented: the public.” Inside what amounted to a smoke filled room that was off limits to most Canadian citizens, Ben Scott — a former Obama administration official who also served in Hillary Clinton’s State Department — presided over the discussions. Today, as the director of policy and advocacy for the Omidyar Network, Scott works for one of the most quietly influential billionaires in helping to shape the media landscape and define the craft of journalism itself.
His boss is Pierre Omidyar, the ebay founder best known for his sponsorship of The Intercept, a flashy progressive publication that possesses the classified documents exfiltrated by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Unlike rival Silicon Valley billionaires Peter Thiel, Jeff Bezos, and Eric Schmidt, Omidyar has mostly managed to keep his influential role in media below the radar. And while he directs his fortune into many of the same politically strategic NGOs and media outlets that George Soros does in hotspots around the globe, he has never been subjected to the public scrutiny and often ugly attacks that dog Soros. And yet Samantha Power, the former U.S. ambassador to the UN and liberal interventionist guru, has explicitly praised Omidyar as someone who is following in the footsteps of Soros.
The almost total absence of critical coverage that Omidyar enjoys is partly the product of his aversion to publicity. Unlike Soros, who seems to yearn for the media limelight, Omidyar is an eccentric figure who owns a “safe house” in the wilds of the American West; he interacts with business partners in virtual-reality simulations he funds, and has been magnetized by New Age gurus. But the free pass Omidyar has received from the media is also a testament to how much money he has channeled into it – as well into the organizations that ostensibly exist to keep it honest.
While backing media outlets around the world that produce news and commentary, Omidyar supports a global cartel of self-styled fact-checking groups that determine which outlets are legitimate and which are “fake.” He has also thrown his money behind murky initiatives like the non-profit backing New Knowledge, the data firm that waged one of the most devious disinformation campaigns in any recent American election campaign; and he is a key backer of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism (ICIJ), the outfit that holds the Panama Papers and oversees the strategic dissemination of that leaked trove of financial files to hand-picked journalists.
At the base of this vast media empire is a nepotistic culture that has seen the beneficiaries of Omidyar’s funding come in for gushing praise from the same fact-checking organizations he supports, while the journalists nurtured by his donations reap high-profile awards from the Omidyar-sponsored Committee to Protect Journalists. Last November, Omidyar backed the release of a documentary hyping up the journalists that helped expose the Panama Papers, and he is also involved in a feature film starring Meryl Streep about the leaked documents and the heroic reporters covering them. The conflicts of interests created under the billionaire’s watch are many but, as with his own political activities, they have been scrutinized by only a handful of journalists.
Behind the image he has cultivated of himself as a “progressive philanthropreneur,” Omidyar has wielded his media empire to advance the Washington consensus in strategic hotspots around the globe. His fortune helped found an outlet to propel a destabilizing coup in Ukraine; he’s helped establish a network of oppositional youth activists and bloggers in Zimbabwe; and in the Philippines he has invested in an oppositional news site that is honing corporate surveillance techniques like a “mood meter…to capture non-rational reactions.” Meanwhile, he has partnered closely with the leading arms of U.S. soft power, from the U.S. Agency for International Aid and Development (USAID) to the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) — acting as a conduit for information warfare-style projects in countries around the world.
Omidyar’s political agenda came into sharper focus last May when he began funding the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a pet project of neoconservative operative Bill Kristol that has stoked public fear of Russian infiltration of social media. This December, it appears that Omidyar’s donations helped Kristol launch a new online magazine called The Bulwark — rebranding the defunct Weekly Standard, which had served as the banner publication of the neocon movement and a central organ for promoting America’s wars. As usual, the billionaire’s activities were ignored in progressive media, leaving the critical coverage to a few right-wing outlets frustrated with Kristol’s anti-Trump crusading.
Omidyar’s support for the same neocon guru who oversaw the publication of an article branding NSA spying whistleblower Edward Snowden as a “traitor” should place the ebay founder’s acquisition of the Snowden files in a disturbing light. By establishing The Intercept and recruiting the journalists who possessed Snowden’s leaks, the billionaire effectively privatized the files. Not only did this delay their release, it denied the public access to the information in order to supply his stable of hired reporters with exclusive scoops that continue to appear years after they were leaked. To this day, only a minuscule percentage of the Snowden files have been made public and, for whatever reason, none of those that have been released relate to ebay or its assorted business interests.
While hoarding this valuable trove, Omidyar has forged relationships with the very same private military contractor that Snowden fought to expose. Two years after founding The Intercept, Omidyar welcomed a man named Robert Lietzke to the Omidyar Fellows program. Lietzke is no small character — he happened to have been Snowden’s former boss, reportedly one of “three principals [running] day to day operations” at the Hawaii branch of the Booz Allen Hamilton defense firm where Snowden toiled as an NSA contractor.
The Omidyar Group did not respond to requests for comment on Omidyar’s involvement with the publication of the Snowden documents. Additionally, The Intercept did not respond to questions about the extent of control Omidyar’s First Look Media enjoys over the Snowden archive.
Through his purchase of influence over the daily flow of information to American media consumers, a dizzying array of connections to the national security state, and a media empire that shields him from critical scrutiny, Omidyar has become one of the world’s most politically sophisticated data monarchs.
Yasha Levine, the author of Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet, told MintPress:
In today’s backlash over Silicon Valley’s contracts with American military and intelligence agencies, people are focused on Facebook, Google and Amazon — while Pierre Omidyar’s eBay has been entirely ignored. But Omidyar has been at the forefront of building out Silicon Valley’s global private-public surveillance apparatus.
For the past decade Omidyar has quietly worked to expand eBay’s privatized surveillance-state model beyond online sales and into elections, media, transportation, education, finance, as well as government administration. His vehicle for that: the Omidyar Group, an investment vehicle that bankrolls hundreds of startups, business and non-profits around the world.”
Omidyar’s political empire consists of a web of organizations overseen by its center of administration: the Omidyar Group. Each outfit appears to be an independent entity with its own staff and directors. Taken together, however, these organizations pursue a mission that reflects the vision of the billionaire behind it. Below are the seven initiatives spun out of the Omidyar Group:
Ulupono Initiative: This group seems to be focused on supporting mundane activities, mostly centered in Omidyar’s home state of Hawaii. However, a look under the hood reveals national security-state connections. For example, Ulupono sponsors a Defense Department gala for contractors like Snowden’s former employer, Booz Allen Hamilton. What’s more, a former VP at Booz Allen, Kyle Datta, is also a general partner of Ulupono.
Humanity United: This NGO was founded after the largest human trafficking scandal in U.S. history (detailed later in this investigation) was exposed on the Maui Pineapple farm in which Omidyar had invested. Ostensibly formed to combat slavery, Humanity United has also been used to fund The Guardian, a liberal British newspaper that has provided positive coverage to and collaborated with numerous Omidyar-backed initiatives.
Hopelab: An initiative that focuses on encouraging a “behavioral change” and “mindshift” in teen and young-adult cancer survivors through “positive psychology skills” like “practicing gratitude,” “mindfulness,” and “random acts of kindness.” The group’s mission reflects the New Age sensibility of Omidyar and his wife, Pam, as well as the billionaire’s interest in potentially profitable data-gathering ventures. (Medical data is at the center of an ongoing debate about the use of artificial intelligence in various industries.)
Luminate: Luminate has doled out $314 million to 236 organizations around the world. As outlined earlier, this organization is run by Ben Scott, a former Obama administration official who also served in Hillary Clinton’s state department. Scott led the previously noted “semi-secret” January 26 workshop where Canadian news “stakeholders” discussed the government’s plan for a “news industry bailout” of $645 million in subsidies. A day earlier, the Bureau of Investigative Journalistsannounced a $1 million contribution from Luminate over the next two years. Luminate is Omidyar’s central hub for funding a cartel of fact-checking outlets around the globe. It continues to fund the pro-Israel Anti-Defamation League after the Omidyar Network provided seed money for the group’s Silicon Valley internet monitoring center.
Omidyar Network: With offices in Washington, Silicon Valley, and six foreign countries, the Omidyar Network propagates the neoliberal ideology of its billionaire namesake through “impact investing” and a “property rights” initiative. Outside the U.S., the Omidyar Network funds an array of foreign media outlets, like Ukraine’s Hromadske and the Philippines-based Rappler, that have participated in pro-Western information warfare-style campaigns against rogue governments. In Zimbabwe, where the Omidyar Network supports a series of oppositional youth organizing initiatives through the Magambe Network, an Omidyar employee was arrested, accused of attempting to stir up a revolt through online organizing, and ultimately released (the incident is detailed later in this article). This February 12, Rappler editor-in-chief Maria Ressa was arrested as well, accused of “cyber-libel” by the Filipino government for a 2012 article. The Omidyar Network and the Omidyar-funded Committee to Protect Journalists have set up a $500,000 legal defense fund for Ressa.
First Look Media: This organization is the main arm for supporting the cutting-edge media projects produced under Omidyar’s watch. Besides The Intercept, First Look funds a documentary division called Field of Vision that has overseen films about high profile journalists. Past productions include Risk, a negative portrayal of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange that prompted Wikileaks lawyers to accuse its director, Laura Poitras, of “undermin[ing] WikiLeaks just as the Trump administration has announced that it intends to prosecute its journalists, editors and associates.” A Field of Vision documentary on the Panama Papers functioned as a PR vehicle for the Omidyar-funded International Consortium of Investigative Journalism that holds the documents, and features journalist Luke Harding in its trailer. Harding is the Russia-obsessed Guardian correspondent who recently fabricated a report on meetings between Assange and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. First Look also sponsors the for-profit studio Topic, which is producing another film on the Panama Papers, The Laundromat, starring Meryl Streep and Antonio Banderas.
Democracy Fund: The main arm of Omidyar-backed activist media initiatives, this group funds a collection of groups like the Center for Public Integrity that advocate transparency in politics. At the same time, the Democracy Fund backs Bill Kristol’s neoconservative mini-empire Defending Democracy Together, and provides support to his new Cold War vehicle, the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a project of the German Marshall Fund think tank. Omidyar’s Democracy Fund has donated to German Marshall Fund’s Defending Digital Democracy project, as well the German Marshall Fund itself.
Below is an infographic detailing Pierre Omidyar’s network of ties to civil society organizations, media outlets, film and cultural ventures and the wider U.S. soft-power network he partners with and supports. Omidyar’s fortune emanates from the Omidyar Group, quietly propelling leading organizations at the forefront of information warfare and data gathering through satellite fronts such as Luminate and Democracy Fund.
This investigation will peel back the image Omidyar has cultivated as an altruistic innovator advancing public accountability and media integrity, revealing the unsettling reality of a corporate machine fueled by his free-market ideology and raw imperial might. It all begins with a curious story about his wife’s Pez dispensers.
The genesis of a private marketplace and surveillance apparatus
“The origin story of eBay is fairly well known,” according to a 1999 Time Magazineprofile spinning out the company’s “small scale origins.”
Painting Omidyar as a high-tech Horatio Alger, Time wrote that “other tech giants have their garages, eBay has its Pez dispenser. Or, rather, founder Pierre Omidyar’s then-fiancée didn’t have a Pez dispenser.”
As the story goes, Omidyar created eBay for his then-fiancée Pam as an online marketplace for her to improve her collection of Pez candy dispensers. According to the Time profile, “eBay started out free, but it quickly attracted so much traffic that Omidyar‘s Internet service upped his monthly bill to $250. Now that it was costing him real money, Omidyar decided to start charging.”
In a more candid interview with journalist Sarah Lacy in 2010, who opened by informing her audience that Omidyar “does actually exist,” the billionaire came clean about his company’s cute genesis story. According to the billionaire, he and his colleagues “may have embellished it a little bit on the story in those early days.” But it was not his doing, he insisted: “I think we can blame that on PR people.”
According to journalist Yasha Levine, who researched eBay’s formation for his book Surveillance Valley, the company began assembling an internal police and intelligence agency comprised of former FBI agents in 1999 to spy on eBay users and track down fraud. Levine told MintPress:
By the mid-2000s, when Google was still a small company and Facebook barely existed, eBay had built this global private division into a behemoth: 2,000 employees and more than a thousand private investigators, who worked closely with intelligence and law enforcement agencies in every country where it operated — including the United States, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Malaysia, India, Russia, Czech Republic and Poland. EBay was proud of its close relationship with law enforcement, touting efforts to arrest 1,000 people a year and boasting that it had handed over user data to the NSA and FBI without requiring subpoenas or court orders.”
By 2015, eBay was a corporate behemoth worth nearly $69 billion. Omidyar leveraged his wealth and reputation as one of Silicon Valley’s premier innovators to forge close ties with President Barack Obama, visiting him more times in the White House than did tech-giant rivals like Google CEO Eric Schmidt.
Even as he forged ties with the captains of America’s national security apparatus, Omidyar held on to an image as a business renegade and radical disruptor. “There’s something about entrepreneur that is somewhat sort of anti-establishment,” he toldThe Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
But this May, news arrived that Omidyar had begun directing his money into the political apparatus of a Republican Party operative known as one one of the most prominent enforcers of America’s permanent war lobby.
Reviving the neoconservative movement’s banner publication
In November 2018, news arrived that Omidyar had invested no less than $600,000through his Democracy Fund into neoconservative granddaddy Bill Kristol’s Defending Democracy Together. The seemingly strange alliance of the funder of an outlet known for its exposés of national security state abuses with one of the national security state’s most hardline enforcers was covered almost exclusively by right-wing media, with near-total radar silence from the world of progressive online media.
Omidyar’s support for Kristol’s ventures dated back to at least 2017, when his Democracy Fund quietly funneled $300,000 into the Alliance for Securing Democracy. Overseen by the neoconservative Kristol protege, Jamie Fly, this initiative hyped the phantom threat of Russian bots through its Hamilton 68 dashboard. The dubious Omidyar-backed tool claimed to track Russian active measures on social media, but actually did no such thing and refused to even name the supposed bot accounts it was purportedly tracking. The Alliance for Securing Democracy nonetheless played a pivotal role in driving public fear and loathing of Russia by generating reams of articles and statements by prominent lawmakers about the role of Kremlin-controlled Twitter bots.
Kristol was best known for publishing the Weekly Standard, the neoconservative movement’s banner publication. He was also co-author of the initial letter of the notorious Project for a New American Century (PNAC). This post-Cold War umbrella group united neoconservatives and liberal interventionists into a coalition that laid the political groundwork for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. In 2008, Kristol was panned for his role in shopping Sarah Palin to John McCain as the Republican Vice Presidential nominee, setting up a fiasco that helped elect Barack Obama as president. That same year, he rebranded PNAC as the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), hoping to summon what he called a “war weary” post-Iraq American public with a pro-war “rallying.”
Since the election of Trump, Kristol has engaged in a personal rebranding campaign, organizing the “Never Trump” movement of neocons and establishment Republicans into an alliance of convenience with angry Democrats. Kristol has found a perfect vehicle for the rehabilitation of his image at MSNBC, where he has appeared several times a week, and most recently in contrived buddy comedy-style segments with Fat Joe, the washed-up rapper, and “The Beat” host Ari Melber. The three were recently filmed bobbing their heads to hip-hop and bantering in a limo as they rolled through Manhattan. Reflecting on the experience, a visibly enthralled Melber hailed the unreformed militarist as “Woke Bill Kristol.”
Having been koshered in the eyes of anti-Trump liberals, Kristol had all the political space he needed to launch his new magazine, The Bulwark, which he listed as a “project of the Defending Democracy Together Institute.” And thanks to Omidyar, Kristol also had a solid base of funding for the new project.
To oversee the day-to-day operations of The Bulwark, Kristol turned to a veteran conservative pundit and operative, Charlie Sykes, hiring him as the magazine’s editor-in-chief. Kristol will serve as editor-at-large at the new venture, and at least half a dozen retreads from The Weekly Standard are slated to join the project.
The Bulwark fundraised about $1 million for its revamping, according to CNN. It isn’t clear who that money came from, but a statement from Sykes hints that appeals were made to anti-Trump mega-donors such as Omidyar. “As far as I’m concerned, we are not going to get any Russian or Saudi money, so we are going to have to hope to get support from donors across the country and political spectrum who are willing to put country over party,” he said.
“The Bulwark was an aggregator,” Sykes told CNN in a recent interview. “We are going to turn it into a full-fledged opinion news website, with really the core digital staff of The Weekly Standard.”
Sykes was a longtime operative of the right-wing Bradley Foundation, a major pipeline of conservative movement funding that once awarded Charles Murray $250,000. Murray co-authored the book The Bell Curve, which relied on bunk race science to claim that whites and Asians are genetically superior to people of African and Latin-American descent. Bradley Foundation President and CEO Michael Grebe said that the money was awarded to Murray in order to “recognize distinguished conservatives that we feel have made outstanding achievements that are consistent with our mission.”
Based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the Bradley Foundation propelled the union-busting efforts of the state’s former Republican governor, Scott Walker. After Walker gutted collective bargaining laws, Sykes worked to export the Bradley Foundation model, recruiting “pro-freedom” cadres to run for local elections and ram through privatization schemes across Wisconsin. The right-wing push focused heavily on academia, planting conservative pundits in public universities to present “alternative views and findings,” then spinning their work out to the public as credentialed research.
Currently, Sykes sits on the advisory board of the “Committee to Investigate Russia” alongside a de facto spook retirement community comprised of former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, former Acting Director of the CIA Michael Morell, and ex-CIA Directors Leon Panetta and Michael Hayden.
Actor Rob Reiner and neocon pundit David Frum have functioned as the public faces of the organization, pumping up a new Cold War on cable news and in online media.
A grand total of zero Russia experts have been involved with the Committee to Investigate Russia. Instead, the group has relied on cranks like Molly McKew, a former foreign lobbyist who has made the rounds in mainstream media with inflammatory and demonstrably false charges, such as that Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is compromised by the Russians and that Russia has a policy to nuke its own population. The faux committee is best known for an unhinged public-service announcement featuring Morgan Freeman — the actor who assumed the role of God in the film, Bruce Almighty — soberly warning Americans that we “are at war” with Russia.
Kristol’s Defending Democracy Together has supplemented these propaganda efforts to cultivate Cold War fever among the public, leveraging Omidyar’s money into online initiatives like The Russia Tweets and Republicans Against Putin.
While Omidyar helps revitalize the neocons, he has invested in a Democratic operative who sought to weaponize what he called “Russian-style” tactics of disinformation against American citizens.
Backing a disinformation warrior
This January, a Democratic Party-tied cybersecurity firm called New Knowledge was exposed for its plot to swing Alabama’s 2017 Senate race in favor of the Democrat, Doug Jones, by falsely painting his opponent, Roy Moore, as a useful idiot of the Kremlin.
The firm was co-directed by Jonathon Morgan, a former Obama special advisor who helped create the Omidyar-backed Hamilton 68 Russian bot tracker. His partner in the initiative was Ryan Fox, a veteran of the NSA. Their firm’s non-profit arm, Data for Democracy, received $411,300 from the Omidyar Network in 2018 for an initiative to create a code of ethics for data scientists. The Omidyar Group has not responded to MintPress News’ request for comment on this matter.
The story of how this duo orchestrated a black ops project to swing the Alabama special Senate election in 2017 first appeared in the New York Times. It described a “false flag” disinformation campaign that featured the mass purchase of Cyrillic-speaking bots to follow Moore’s Twitter account, then a tidal wave of stories planted in media from MSNBC to Mother Jones alleging that the Kremlin was throwing its full weight behind Moore’s candidacy.
There is no evidence Omidyar had any personal knowledge of the operation.
This February, The Intercept co-founder Glenn Greenwald published a blistering attackon New Knowledge after the group was cited as an expert voice in a defamatory NBC News article suggesting that the Kremlin was backing Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI). Greenwald may have had no idea about the relationship between Omidyar and the New Knowledge team. But the article’s publication in an Omidyar-funded outlet highlighted the tangled web of the billionaire’s political empire.
Omidyar’s interest in the weaponization of news and data extends to a murky international initiative operating on the frontiers of a rapidly escalating information war.
Another Integrity Initiative?
Omidyar’s Democracy Fund has also helped to finance the “News Integrity Initiative,” a name that evokes the U.K.’s notorious Integrity Initiative. The latter group claimed to be an independent charity battling foreign disinformation until it was exposed by hackers as a propaganda mill run by military officers and covertly funded by the British Foreign Office to cultivate public opinion in support of heightened conflict with Russia. Leaked communications revealed how the Integrity Initiative mobilized clusters of journalists, self-styled disinformation experts, academics and political figures throughout the West to advocate for a long-term war footing against the Russian menace.
For its part, the News Integrity Initiative is a murky $14 million operation intended to “combat media manipulation” through a network of “journalists, technologists, academic institutions, non-profits, and other organizations.” The set-up is eerily evocative of the influence clusters developed by the British Integrity Initiative. Few specifics are provided, however, on what the group actually does.
A hint about the agenda of the News Integrity Initiative lies in a grant of $1 million it made to an outlet called Internews in 2017. The bulk of Internews’ money — some 80 percent of it — comes from the U.S. government. It has also received backing from liberal financier George Soros and USAID, which provided the group with seed money for a Russian-language television network, helped drive the pro-NATO color revolution in the Republic of Georgia, and published footage of Russian casualties in Chechnya to erode Russian public support for the war.
In countries that are considered official and semi-official enemies of the United States, Internews has organized de facto boot camps for opposition journalists. “In the Middle East,” says Internews founder David Hoffman, “training sessions often begin with discussion of whether Internews is really U.S. propaganda or the CIA.” However Hoffman answers the question, it is abundantly clear that his outlet has advanced Washington’s priorities abroad behind the guise of independent journalism.
In November 2017, the News Integrity Initiative hosted a workshop alongside Internews and the Omidyar-backed First Draft News in Kiev, Ukraine, according to the initiative’s managing director, Molly de Aguiar. Kiev is today a nexus for intelligence-connected media crusaders and a launch pad for projects ostensibly aimed at countering Russia’s “information warfare.” But, what exactly the News Integrity Initiative was doing there was left unsaid
While Omidyar ploughs his fortune into organizations that claim to be countering “disinformation,” especially of the Russian variety, he has established a culture factory to publicize the supposed feats of the journalists often hyped up by the cartel of media transparency groups and fact-checking sites he funds. In Part Two of this investigation, we will explore how Omidyar’s interest in generating culture blends with the information war his grantees are waging on Western adversaries.
*Note on the Infographic: Omidyar’s many grants to university journalism programs through Luminate are not included, nor is the Open Society Foundation. This infographic should be understood as an attempt to partially map Pierre Omidyar’s philanthropic dealings and their web of interconnections, but not as a complete picture.