The NY Times national security reporter held news of a massive voter manipulation campaign while pumping up the political operatives behind it as ace Russian disinformation detectives.
By Dan Cohen
In September 2018, New York Times national security reporter Scott Shane attended an off-the-record event in Washington, DC held by American Engagement Technologies, a data firm run by Obama administration veteran Mikey Dickerson. Shane was not there simply as an observer – he was invited to speak on his supposed subject of expertise: “Soviet and Russian disinformation.”
It was at that meeting where Shane learned of “Project Birmingham,” an online disinformation campaign waged against voters in the 2017 Alabama senate race between Republican Roy Moore and its eventual winner, Democrat Doug Jones.
The plot involved voter suppression tactics, including what its architects called an “elaborate false flag operation” that aimed to convince voters that the Kremlin was supporting Moore through thousands of fake Russian bots. The campaign also involved a phony Facebook page that encouraged Alabamians to vote for an obscure write-in Republican candidate, arranged interviews for him in major newspapers and even sought to arrange SuperPAC funding for his campaign.
But as Shane learned, this deception wasn’t the work of the Kremlin or financed by Russian oligarchs. It was a mass manipulation carried out by a private cyber intelligence firm run by Democratic operatives called New Knowledge. And it was run in conjunction with AET – the firm that had invited him to its secret meeting.
‘No special relationship, nothing to disclose’
For more than two months, Shane concealed the shocking truth about the disinformation campaign that targeted unsuspecting voters in the 2017 Alabama special senate race. During that period, he published an article pumping up a half-baked report commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee that purported to prove that a privately-owned Russian troll farm called the Internet Research Agency used social media platforms like Instagram and Pokemon Go to elect Donald Trump and keep him in power.
Shane’s article on the Senate report omitted any mention of the manipulation plot that its authors had just waged in Alabama — a revelation that would have demolished their credibility. Instead, the reporter breathlessly trumpeted the Senate Intelligence Report authored by those same operatives, claiming it provided “new details to the portrait that has emerged over the last two years of the energy and imagination of the Russian effort to sway American opinion and divide the country.”
It was not until December 19th, with the congressional midterm elections safely in the rearview mirror, that Shane finally revealed the existence of the Alabama disinformation campaign to the public. His report described a heavily sanitized version of events and seemed to justify the campaign under the pretext of imitating Russian tactics for research purposes.
Shane’s article quoted New Knowledge CEO Jonathon Morgan downplaying the impact of the propaganda operation he had enacted. “The research project was intended to help us understand how these kind of campaigns operated… We thought it was useful to work in the context of a real election but design it to have almost no impact,” Morgan assured readers.
Days later, Buzzfeed News reporter Craig Silverman revealed that Shane had signed a non-disclosure agreement with AET. When journalist Yasha Levine confronted Shane about not revealing the NDA he signed with AET, Shane dismissed the concerns and assured him that such arrangements as “totally routine in journalism.” Shane claimed that the Alabama disinformation story was outside of the scope of the non-disclosure and equated the it to an off-the-record agreement – a common practice among journalists whose sources wish to remain anonymous.
“I have no special relationship with folks at the meeting. Nothing to disclose,” Shane insisted.
As for disclosure: NDA is essentially a written version of off-the-record. @CraigSilverman quite properly did not give us the details on who gave him the agenda from the meeting where I spoke. I have no special relationship with folks at the meeting. Nothing to disclose.
— Scott Shane (@ScottShaneNYT) December 28, 2018
Shane had never acknowledged having signed a non-disclosure agreement until it was revealed in Buzzfeed. So the question lingered: What else does the reporter know that the NDA bars him from publicizing? If there was more that Shane knew but was legally forbidden from reporting, his coverage of the Alabama operation was a classic case of what intelligence professionals like to refer to as a limited hangout.
“The man just simply can’t be trusted”
John Kiriakou, the whistleblower who spent 23 months in prison for revealing details of the secret CIA torture program, pointed to Shane’s omission as a clear breach of journalistic ethics.
“Scott Shane may be a great reporter,” Kiriakou told me. “He may be a Pulitzer prize winner, but the man just simply can’t be trusted.”
According to Kiriakou, Shane had violated an agreement he made just weeks before he began his prison sentence began in 2013.
Kiriakou says he allowed Shane to shadow him for a profile piece, but on one condition: to avoid angering the judge with unwanted publicity, Shane had to wait to publish his story until after Kiriakou’s formal sentencing.
Shane agreed to the condition, Kiriakou recalled. Yet when the reporter learned that The New Yorker was readying its own profile of Kiriakou, Shane’s competitive instincts kicked in. According to Kiriakou, the reporter broke the agreement and published the story on January 5th, nearly three weeks ahead of Kiriakou’s sentencing date.
The judge was livid at the high-profile case being back in the public spotlight, Kiriakou recalled, and lamented that she could not punish him with the heaviest sentence possible.
‘Moved enough votes to ensure a Doug Jones victory’
Since Shane’s December 19th report, new documents have come to light revealing that the covert psychological operation may have proven decisive in Senator Doug Jones’ come-from-behind victory. The content of the documents stood in stark contrast to public statements by New Knowledge operatives and coverage by Shane that downplayed the impact of the disinformation campaign.
On December 27th, a partial version of a report entitled “Project Birmingham Debrief” was made public by blogger Jeff Gisea. The New York Times and Washington Post have since obtained the full 12-page internal document, however, they have refused to release it to the public.
According to the document, Alabama operation targeted 650,000 voters – nearly 20% of the estimated 3.3 million registered voters in the state – and aimed to “move 50,000 votes.”
To accomplish this goal, New Knowledge crafted an “aggressive campaign” that was carried out over a five-month period beginning in August 2018 that sought to “influence the outcome of the AL [Alabama] senate race.”
The firm developed a three-part strategy of “micro-targeting specific districts to radicalize Democrats, suppress unpersuadable Republicans, (‘hard Rs’) and faction moderate Republicans by advocating for write-in candidate.” This was implemented through a “combination of persona accounts, astroturfing, automated social media amplification, and targeted advertising.”
The report claimed that New Knowledge’s black operations campaign was wildly successful, achieving a “30, [redacted] Democratic turnout and a corresponding drop in R [Republican] turnout” that “moved enough votes to ensure a Doug Jones victory”
Considering that Jones won the race by just 21,311 of more than 1.3 million votes, New Knowledge’s influence operation may indeed have proven decisive. If it reached even half of its goal, then the cyber-meddling firm could plausibly credit for the election of Doug Jones.
Then again, there is the possibility that these ethically challenged Democratic consultants were hyping their achievements in Alabama to rustle up new contracts for future campaigns of voter manipulation.
Boasts of secrecy, deception and successful subversion
New Knowledge acknowledged its attempt to split the Republican vote by establishing a special relationship with a patio supply salesman-turned Republican write-in candidate named Mac Watson. The data firm covertly operated a Facebook page to generate support for Watson and arranged interviews for him in the Montgomery Advertiser and even the Washington Post. The day after the campaign was over, the Facebook page disappeared. “It was a group that, like, honest to God, next day was gone,” Watson told the NYT’s Shane.
The Project Birmingham document revealing details of the disinformation campaign also boasted that its authors were able to manipulate media outlets while maintaining a total veil of secrecy. “In spite of our impact in the press and in voting outcomes, not a single story about our activities appeared in any press outlet,” they declared.
In a section entitled, “For discussion and improvement”, the report suggested the influence campaign provided useful lessons for future psy-op campaigns and could help “position ourselves to intercept future attempts to control the narrative by the adversary.”
That subheading also emphasized the usefulness of secret Super PAC backing for write-in candidates who can play a spoiler role in hotly contested elections.
The tactic that damaged Moore the most entailed the mass purchase of Cyrillic-speaking bots to follow his Twitter account and create the impression that the Kremlin was boosting his candidacy. It is unclear still who orchestrated the purchase. But the Project Birmingham report touted the deception as a signal achievement and singled out the Twitter influencers who boosted it.
The top influencers singled out in the account were self-styled “authoritarianism expert” and former Freedom House staffer Sarah Kendzior, Bloomberg News reporter Steven Dennis and New York Post’s Jao Tacopino. It is unclear if they were aware of the nature of the campaign they participated in — if they were, in the words of former Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook, “unwitting accomplices.”
New Knowledge’s Jonathon Morgan has attempted to escape scrutiny by denying the explosive allegations about his activities in Alabama. “We did not write the leaked report and we could not have because it didn’t reflect our research. The leaked version of the report made a number of claims that did not originate with us,” he claimed.
Morgan also insisted that he thought the trolls used in the “false flag operation” were random users and not Russian-backed: “I assumed at the time that this was the work of internet trolls — because genuine state sponsors of disinformation are adept at appearing to be domestic commentators,” he said.
During the height of the the Alabama race, however, Morgan cited Hamilton 68 — a supposed Russian influence tracker he had a central role in designing — to claim that Russian trolls were, in fact, meddling in the Alabama race. His tweet indicated a desire to amplify the so-called “false flag operation” against Moore.
— Jonathon Morgan (@jonathonmorgan) November 10, 2017
‘We probably do it to each other’
Renee DiResta, a self-styled counter-disinformation specialist, helped oversee the Project Birmingham disinformation operation, has stayed quiet about the devious propaganda effort she waged. DiResta is a former advisor to the U.S. Army Cyber Command who testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on August 1, 2018 on “Russian attempts to manipulate social media platforms.”
But this January 2nd, she chose to break her silence by making appearance on Waking Up, the podcast hosted by celebrity atheist-neocon and race science proponent Sam Harris. The anti-religion pundit pitched a series of softball questions to DiResta about Russian interference in the 2016 election while omitting any mention of Project Birmingham.
Listen to New Atheist guru @SamHarrisOrg faithfully accept @NewKnowledgeAI disinformation warrior @noUpside's claim that there's no doubt Russia meddled in the 2016 election because "the intelligence agencies know it happened" https://t.co/GHf94ZAEtB HT @Whtapl pic.twitter.com/Hgf4PQzTA9
— Dan Cohen (@dancohen3000) January 16, 2019
“It happened. There’s really nothing else to say about it,” DiResta declared. “The intelligences agencies know it happened; foreign governments know it happened; researchers know it happened; the platforms acknowledge it happened. I mean, sure, there can be some small group of people who continues to, you know, live like ostriches but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen.”
Harris, a leading figure in the New Atheist movement who wrote that “believing strongly, without evidence, is considered a mark of madness or stupidity,” faithfully accepted DiResta’s evidence-free claims as if they were holy gospel handed down by an apostle.
When Harris asked how DiResta she responded to the fact that the United States interfered in affairs of other countries, she made what read like an admission of her own role in Project Birmingham. “We probably do it to each other at this point, right? There’s evidence of that as far back as 2016 – some things that, insinuations about Alabama. There’s a whole lot of, lot of, you know, evidence that domestic groups can and do do this as well.”
Harris made no attempt to follow-up with a question about her involvement in the Alabama black operations campaign.
Weeks after the Alabama scandal erupted, New Knowledge has emerged unscathed. It is as through the disinformation warriors had not just waged a sophisticated campaign of mass deception in a federal election. Today, their firm remains a go-to source for Western reporters writing about the supposed dangers of Russian disinformation.
In a glowing profile, BBC reporter Mike Wendling wrote that New Knowledge is “at the forefront of the investigation into the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency and other disinformation campaigns” while whitewashing its disinformation operation as mere “involvement in a project during the US Senate race in Alabama.”
On December 27th, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall announced that his office was collecting information for a possible probe. Since then, he has kept mum on the matter.
While scrutiny of New Knowledge and its attack on American democracy remains confined to social media, the NYT’s Shane has moved on to the latest Russiagate uproar.
On January 18, Shane pronounced that Buzzfeed’s report alleging that Trump instructed his lawyer, Michael Cohen, to lie about his business discussions with Russians, would “turn out to be solid.” Jason Leopold, a co-author of that report, replied, “Appreciate that, Scott.”
That evening Robert Mueller’s spokesmen issued a rare statement, declaring that the Buzzfeed report was “not accurate.”
Images of the “Project Birmingham Debrief” are below:
Dan Cohen is a journalist and co-producer of the award-winning documentary, Killing Gaza. He has produced widely distributed video reports and print dispatches from across Israel-Palestine, Latin America, the US-Mexico border and Washington DC. Follow him on Twitter at @DanCohen3000.