An investigation into billionaire eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and the massive network of regime-change organizations he bankrolls, which work closely with CIA cutouts like USAID and the NED.
By Alexander Rubinstein and Max Blumenthal / MintPress News
This is part one in a two-part investigation of oligarch Pierre Omidyar. Read the first installment here: “eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar is funding a global information war and shaping the media landscape”
Billionaire eBay founder Pierre Omidyar has partnered closely with many of the U.S.-funded outfits that fulfill the role the CIA used to play during the Cold War, supporting opposition media and civil society in countries targeted for regime change. However, Omidyar has also sought state-of-the-art design solutions from a shady U.S. government national security consulting firm with a myriad of ties to the hawkish D.C. foreign policy establishment.
In February 2018, USAID’s Global Development Lab published a series of reports furnished for it by a small, Arlington, Virginia-based company focused on design solutions for national security problems, with a mere 10 employees listed on its website and eight on its LinkedIn page. Those reports caught the attention of journalist Michael Igoe at Devex.
The company, Frontier Design Group, analyzed the feasibility of essentially militarizing USAID. The report proposals like “Rapid Expeditionary Development” (RED) teams. Those teams would be embedded with U.S. Special Forces, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration outside of typical USAID areas of operation.
They would be “trained and authorized to conduct themselves as a force-multiplier able to contribute a full suite of security skills as needed,” the documents suggested. RED team officers would also be trained for “survival, evasion, resistance, and escape,” negotiations, civil reconnaissance, “and weapons qualification courses.”
The report also analyzed the possibility of creating a “Civilian Response Groups” — an organization that sounds like the White Helmets if they were directly controlled by Washington.
Frontier interviewed 36 experts for its report, including a 15-year USAID veteran who told them, “we have to be involved in national security or USAID will not be relevant.” The issue identified by many in the report was that USAID was losing its cutting edge and was hamstrung because it was not allowed to operate in conflict zones.
USAID told Devex that it is “still working on the details in formulating the Rapid Expeditionary Development Teams initiative.”
Another Frontier Design Group client is the Omidyar Group, further demonstrating the eBay founder’s proximity to shady government contractors.
Frontier Design Group touts its work with the Omidyar Group on a number of its posts on Instagram. It also lists Omidyar Group second in its portfolio. Other Frontier Design Group clients include the Council on Foreign Relations think tank and U.S. Army Special Forces.
Karen Grattan — a senior advisor at Frontier Design Group, with a background in “conduct[ing] study and analysis within the Operations Analysis Division of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command” — has even more extensive ties to Omidyar. She is the founder and CEO of Engaging Inquiry, a Fairfax, Virginia-based firm that has enjoyed the Omidyar Group as a client since 2015. Also on its client roster are Omidyar’s Democracy Fund and Humanity United, as well as USAID and the Department of Defense.
The Omidyar Group’s liaison to Frontier Design Solutions appears to be Systems Complexity Coach Robert Ricigliano, a founder of the Alliance for Peacebuilding. This network has previously hosted Grattan for a panel that tackled issues such as “can online bots build peace?”
Omidyar’s cultural cold war
While quietly partnering with USAID and a firm at the forefront of the fight to keep the agency “relevant,” Omidyar, along with a select group of fellow billionaires, is also performing a critical service by providing a private funding channel for cultural vehicles that advance the agenda of Western foreign policy.
At the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, a short buddy comedy called The Climb generated a minor buzz. Weeks later, it was snapped up by a studio called Topic through its “digital storytelling platform.” The studio turned out to be a for-profit arm of Omidyar’s First Look Media, which invests heavily in filmmaking and documentary production. The film festival also happened to be a beneficiary of Omidyar’s spending, with Luminate donating to the Sundance Institute for creation of films “used strategically to articulate pressing public issues and movement-building campaigns.”
Among the films cited by Omidyar’s Luminate as a strategic success was The Last Men in Aleppo, an Oscar-nominated propaganda vehicle for the Syrian White Helmets that was produced by the Sundance Institute. The White Helmets are a Syrian insurgent-aligned “civil rescue” group founded in Turkey by a British former military intelligence officer. Operating exclusively in rebel-held territory, including in the al Qaeda-controlled Idlib province, the White Helmets have been funded by USAID, the U.K. Foreign Office and the Qatari monarchy.
Through its U.K.-based public-relations arm, the Syria Campaign, the White Helmets were at the forefront of a public-relations push for U.S. airstrikes and sanctions against the state of Syria. Omidyar’s The Intercept served as a vehicle for that PR campaign, featuring a piece by staff writer Murtaza Hussain that read like a press release for the White Helmets.
Through Topic and another film studio that Omidyar funds – First Look’s Field of Vision “documentary unit” – the billionaire has overseen two productions on the Panama Papers, named after the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, whose internal documents were leaked to a German newspaper. The document trove exposed the internal data of 214,000 offshore companies, revealing financial corruption on a global scale.
Alongside Topic’s forthcoming “The Laundromat,” a thriller starring Meryl Streep and Antonio Banderas, First Look produced the 2018 “Panama Papers” documentary. The latter film starred Luke Harding, the longtime Moscow correspondent for the Guardian, a liberal British newspaper that Omidyar also funds through his Humanity United. “If you find money tied to Bashar al-Assad and to Putin, maybe it’s not such a good idea that only I know,” one journalist featured in the documentary trailer intoned.
In 2017, the year after the Panama Papers were leaked, and the same year a similar document trove called the Paradise Papers was released, Omidyar ponied up $100 million to fund media groups like the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). According to an Omidyar Group press release, the massive injection of funding to ICIJ was aimed at “address[ing the] trust deficit” by helping the group host the Panama and Paradise Papers.
A quick browse through the ICIJ’s Offshore Leaks Database reveals that Omidyar himself is named in the documents; the billionaire had apparently directed finances from his Omidyar Network Fund LLC into an “Offgrid Electric Ltd” in Seychelles – an island that the ICIJ itself called “a haven for dirty money.”
When ICIJ began disseminating its files to the media, activities like those of its major funders were overlooked. In the New Yorker, John Cassidy wondered why so few American elites were being scrutinized in the coverage of the Panama Papers. Craig Murray, a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, noticed that the investigation instead focused on countries seeking to break Western sanctions: “rogue states” like Zimbabwe, North Korea, Syria and Russia. Murray wrote:
The filtering of this Mossack Fonseca information by the corporate media follows a direct western governmental agenda. There is no mention at all of use of Mossack Fonseca by massive western corporations or western billionaires – the main customers.”
In fact, the ICIJ had turned to the Guardian’s Harding, one of the most Russia-obsessed journalists in Western media, as its lead reporter covering the Panama and Paradise Papers. “He was a good person to have on the team, as an aggressive digger, an experienced and informed reporter on Russia,” said ICIJ’s senior editor, Mike Hudson.
With the Paradise Papers in hand, Harding co-authored a highly suspect story citing the California-based, Russian-American mega-investor Yuri Milner’s investments in Facebook and Twitter as evidence of a Kremlin plot to influence social media.
The story came in for harsh criticism from Oleg Kashin, a famed Russian journalist who is known in his country as one of the most outspoken critics of Vladimir Putin. In a scathing review, Kashin wrote that Harding’s piece on Milner “demonstrated convincingly that anything [he and his Western colleagues] publish about Russia is, as a general rule, total garbage.”
Yet when Harding’s Paradise Papers reporting first appeared in 2017, Poynter — supposedly the world’s premier fact-checking organization — puffed Harding as “a great reporter for The Guardian,” who was leading the way with his coverage of Milner and Russia.
“To be the perfect journalist, you need the skill of a top forensic accountant charging $1,000 an hour, the detective skills of Sherlock Holmes, and the reporting skills of Woodward and Bernstein,” Harding humbly proclaimed to Poynter.
Harding has since been exposed for fabricating a Guardian story claiming that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and former Trump advisor Paul Manafort held several meetings at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. It was one of many stories Harding has published about WikiLeaks that appeared to be at least partly false. After the independent online-news site, Exiled, accused Harding of plagiarizing its reporting, the Guardian was forced to issue a lengthy apology. He has proven unable to defend the central thesis of his bestselling book Collusion, which claims that Trump and Putin conspired to fix the 2016 presidential election. Even New York Times media critic Jim Rutenberg acknowledged listing Harding among a growing cast of reporters in “limbo land” for publishing fake stories on the Russiagate drama.
In November 2017, at around the same time that Poynter was pumping up Harding and the Omidyar-funded ICIJ, the Omidyar Network announced that it was contributing one million dollars to help establish an International Fact-Checking Network through Poynter.
The objective, according to the Omidyar Group, was “to increase [Poynter’s] work as the premier advocate, convener and trainer of fact-checkers worldwide.” But Poynter had already demonstrated biases of its own by hyping up Omidyar’s ventures, including by promoting the dubious Hamilton 68 Russian bot-tracker, which functioned under Bill Kristol’s Omidyar-funded Alliance for Securing Democracy. Poynter has also routinely pumped up Omidyar’s The Intercept, hailing its staff as the modern version of (guess who?) Woodward and Bernstein.
Shaping media to gain “a God’s eye view of the world”
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a group that claims to defend press freedom on behalf of media around the world, has also been a major beneficiary of Omidyar’s fortune.
At this year’s CPJ International Press Freedom Awards, the Filipina journalist Maria Ressa received the Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award. Ressa happens to be the editor of a newspaper, Rappler, that is heavily funded by Omidyar. It was another case of logrolling between two members of the billionaire’s media empire.
In the Philippines, Rappler has dedicated itself to ousting President Rodrigo Duterte, a demagogic politician whose inflammatory rhetoric and occasional entreaties to Russia and China have spawned anxiety in Washington. Duterte’s allies have struck back at the outlet, accusing it in court of violating the Philippine constitution with its foreign support. On February 12, Ressa was arrested and accused of “cyber-libel” for a 2012 article, which was later corrected, accusing a Duterte ally of human trafficking and drug smuggling. “These legal acrobatics show how far the government will go to silence journalists, including the pettiness of forcing me to spend the night in jail,” Ressa said in a press release.
Educated at Princeton, Ressa maintains powerful American allies. Just hours after her arrest and release, the Omidyar Network and the Omidyar-funded CPJ rustled up a $500,000 legal defense fund for Ressa.
Last October, Ressa appeared at the NATO-backed Atlantic Council’s Stratcom conference in Washington to detail what she described as a concerted campaign of legal intimidation and online trolling by supporters of Duterte. The Atlantic Council was hired by Facebook last year to purge its platform of so-called foreign interference and “fake news,” leading to allegations that it had presided over the removal of numerous popular alternative news sites. Before the think-tank audience, Ressa demanded that social media platforms like Facebook impose new algorithms that prioritize what she calls “traditional media” — referring presumably to outlets like her own.
At Rappler, Ressa has hosted a discussion about the perils of social media “disinformation” with Peter Pomerantsev, a neoconservative media operative whose 2015 manifesto co-authored by Michael Weiss, “The Menace of Unreality,” was a post-modern blueprint for media censorship. The paper essentially equated all Russian-backed media with “disinformation” and called for “public information campaigns” and the imposition of an internationally-recognized media rating system to combat it. Pomerantsev is named in internal Integrity Initiative documents as a member of its U.K. “cluster.”
In May 2017, The Intercept partnered with Rappler to publish a series of signals intelligence leaks that revealed the contents of a chummy phone conversation between President Donald Trump and Duterte. How these leaks were obtained (NSA SIGINTs?) was left unexplained. But the Omidyar connection — he was a key backer of both outlets — was undeniable. Thus, the journalistic logrolling continued.
While The Intercept has established a reputation for exposing the abuses of the security state in the U.S., Rappler’s mission in the Philippines appears to have an ulterior and entirely opposite agenda. In announcing Omidyar’s investment in the digital media site, Rappler touted its one-of-a-kind and arguably extremely creepy business model.
Rappler’s description of its digital toolkit hints at why Omidyar — a mogul who has relied on high-tech innovations and national security state connections to build his business empire — might have been so eager to add this seemingly random website to his extensive portfolio.
The details are so unsettling they are worth quoting in their entirety:
Using a patented user engagement model and a community mapping data analytics tool, Rappler tracks how stories and emotions move through its community. It starts with a mood meter on every story, an effort to capture non-rational reactions. Developed with psychologists and sociologists, the mood meter is based on research that shows up to 80% of how people make decisions in their lives is not about what they think but how they feel.
Every vote on the mood meter is aggregated by the mood navigator in the middle of the home page, a novel way of navigating a news site. It’s the simplest of Rappler’s crowdsourcing initiatives, which include a collaborative platform for disaster risk reduction and management…”
Rappler’s “patented user engagement model” and “community mapping data analytics tool” evoke the kind of corporate surveillance apparatus a privacy-obsessed introvert like Omidyar might oppose. But for high-tech titans like him, the benefits of honing this model clearly outweigh the social costs.
As Yasha Levine, the author of Surveillance Valley: The Military History of the Internet, told MintPress:
This kind of multi-level approach — combining a journalism startup on the front-end with a behavior profiling risk management system on the back-end — is very much inline with Omidyar’s vision for how to use technology to manage society — and make money in the process.
Central to most of his investments is the use of user profiling and behavioral tracking to manage and run all areas of modern life: journalism, transportation, banking and finance, and government administration. To him it’s not just about running a single service, but integrating things together to give technocrats, business executives and government officials a God’s-eye view of the world — to manage and control society more efficiently.”
The eBay founder is not the only notable elite whose interest piqued upon learning of Rappler’s disturbing user-tracking model. Rappler boasted just months before Omidyar’s investment that a group called North Base Media (NBM) had also decided to shovel money into the self-described “social news network.”
NBM, according to Rappler, was founded by “a triumvirate of top journalists” consisting of Marcus Brauchli, a former top editor at The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, and “veteran journalists Sasa Vucinic and Stuart Karle.” The latter once served as chief operating officer at Reuters, while the former’s claim to fame, says Rappler, is that he “was thrown out of the former Yugoslavia by then Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic.”
Three years after the disintegration of Yugoslavia, Vucinic would establish the Media Development Investment Fund with seed money from billionaire George Soros. Considering Soros’ well-documented appetite for regime change and Vucinic’s involvement with the investor, NBM’s interest in a media company that openly brags about its ability to track not only the movements but the “moods” of its readers starts to make sense.
When insurrection and instability falls on the doorstep of U.S. enemies, Soros’ Open Society Institute is often caught ringing the bell. The Guardian’s Ian Traynor documented Soros’ role in fomenting Ukraine’s 2004 “Orange Revolution,” which he describes as “an American creation, a sophisticated and brilliantly conceived exercise in western branding and mass marketing that, in four countries in four years, has been used to try to salvage rigged elections and topple unsavoury regimes.”
The Democratic Party’s National Democratic Institute, the Republican Party’s International Republican Institute, the U.S. state department and USAID are the main agencies involved in these grassroots campaigns, as well as the Freedom House NGO and billionaire George Soros’s Open Society Institute.”
With this history in mind, it’s easy to understand why Soros’ old pal Sasa Vucinic might view Rappler’s user-monitoring tools as a worthwhile investment. In June of 2018, Rappler launched its “civil engagement arm,” MovePH, which it describes as “an ecosystem of civic action enablers and doers collaborating towards sustainable progress and nation-building.”
“Do you want to be part of a bigger movement?” Rappler asks. “Do you have an event or activity that needs an extra social media boost? Do you want to harness the power of social media to amplify your group’s advocacy?”
MovePH, claims Rappler, is here to guide you “whether you’re an individual or a member of a non-governmental organization or student organization.” Potential movers and shakers are invited to attend a meeting at Rappler’s headquarters.
Driving a regime-change youth network in Zimbabwe
Omidyar’s wish to spark “bigger” social movements is not confined to the Philippines, nor to the world of media either. His Omidyar Network coordinates openly with U.S. State Department and intelligence cut-outs, acting as a private fund arm, much like the Ford Foundation did during the Cold War. Across the globe, he is creating new opportunities for himself by assisting the U.S. drive for regime change under cover of “democracy promotion.”
In November 2017, two weeks before the resignation of Zimbabwe’s longtime leader Robert Mugabe, the country’s government arrested a young American woman named Martha O’Donovan and charged her with attempting to interfere in the country’s politics. According to prosecutors, O’Donovan had “systematically sought to incite political unrest through the expansion, development and use of a sophisticated network of social media platforms as well as running some Twitter accounts.”
O’Donovan, who was immediately granted bail and had her charges dropped months later, was not a lone actor. She was, in fact, an employee at the Magamba Cultural Activist Network, a Harare-based NGO that operated thanks to a $280,000 grant from the Omidyar Network. Claiming to “use creative forms of youth activism to open up democratic space in Zimbabwe,” the group served as an incubator for an array of initiatives, from hip-hop festivals to satire to digital media, stirring up anti-establishment youth activism.
Kalabash, one of the media outlets spun out of Omidyar’s Magamba, boasts “a style that is youthful, urban and purposely disrespectful of authority!” A quick visit to the site will turn up a stream of incendiary commentary, mostly by a single writer, against Mugabe’s successor from the ZANU-PF party, Emanuel Mnangagwa, along with an overview of a U.S. sanctions bill against Zimbabwe.
Open Parly, another online activism hub generated by the Magamba network boasts several successful hashtag campaigns that turned up the heat on the government last year. In 2016, Zimbabwe saw protests erupt after a deluge of activism around a single hashtag, #ThisFlag, which The Guardian depicted as an “accidental movement for change.”
At the 2011 Clinton Global Initiative event, Omidyar’s Humanity United announced a partnership with Richard Branson’s Virgin Unite called “Enterprise Zimbabwe.” The initiative aimed to “catalyse investments from philanthropic and commercial donors to fund small and medium-size businesses and social development initiatives.” Today, the website for the initiative is inaccessible and Virgin has also scrubbed its page on it.
For this effort, then-President Mugabe dubbed Branson a “vulture disguised as an angel” while a ruling party-linked columnist denounced Branson’s attempts to “re-colonise Zimbabwe.” The “Enterprise Zimbabwe” initiative and its failure offer a fairly clear indication of the motives behind Omidyar’s backing of the historic opposition to Mugabe.
While there is no denying the deepening wellspring of popular opposition to Zimbabwe’s elected government, it is also clear that Omidyar’s strategic grants have bolstered its impact. His meddling complements the historic role of British government, which has long sought to unravel the ZANU-PF’s lock on power, and the U.S., which has supported Zimbabwe’s opposition over the years through USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
Partnering with the CIA’s regime-change cut-outs
Over the years, Omidyar has invested alongside the NED as well as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in strategic locations around the globe. In fact, the NED’s media arm, the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA), lists the Omidyar Network as a partner organization that is “tackl[ing] the root causes of the global trust deficit” in mainstream media.
The NED was founded in 1983 following a series of scandals that exposed the CIA’s blood-soaked covert actions against foreign governments. “It would be terrible for democratic groups around the world to be seen as subsidized by the CIA,” NED President Carl Gershman told the New York Times in 1986. “We saw that in the Sixties, and that’s why it has been discontinued. We have not had the capability of doing this, and that’s why the endowment was created.”
Another NED founder, Allen Weinstein, conceded to the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.”
Since its foundation, both the NED and USAID have played a pivotal role in regime-change operations. The NED funded groups behind the coup attempt against Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez in 2002; it helped drive another coup in Haiti two years later, and planted fake news in major publications like the Associated Press and New York Times. Meanwhile, USAID was exposed for creating a fake social-media platform in Cuba called Zunzuneo that aimed to spark a color revolution.
Both U.S. government outfits have played a seminal role in keeping Ukraine in the Western sphere of influence. And Omidyar has been right by their side, supplementing their work with cash infusions into pro-NATO civil society groups.
In Venezuela, we couldn’t stop Chávez. Don’t make the same mistakes we did. – The Washington Post https://t.co/BYmj1PMljL
— Pierre Omidyar (@pierre) January 29, 2017
In 2012, the State Department’s USAID pumped money into a network of Ukrainian NGOs called Center UA, contributing over half of its budget. Most of the remaining funding these NGOs received was from Omidyar, who delivered nearly $200,000 in 2012.
Just a year earlier, Omidyar invested $335,000 into Center UA, claiming the donation was merely designed “to amplify the voices of Ukrainian citizens.” The group is affiliated with Oleh Rybachuk, one of the main architects of Ukraine’s so-called Orange Revolution, which swung the government in support of the West in 2004. In 2014, this group “played a big role in getting the [Maidan] protest up and running,” according to the Financial Times. Just a year earlier, Omidyar’s investments in the outfit surpassed a million dollars in total.
In the months leading up to Euromaidan, Omidyar partnered with the U.S. Embassy in Kiev to found Hromadske, a Ukrainian broadcast news channel that carried the message of regime change day after day. Recently, Hromadske hosted a radio program that formed part of the Omidyar-funded International Fact-Checking Network.
At the 2018 awards ceremony of the Committee to Protect Journalists, another Omidyar-backed organization, Ukrainian journalist Anastasiya Stanko was handed the International Press Freedom Award. Stanko happened to be a founder of the Omidyar-backed Hromadske. Thus the logrolling continued, unabated and unacknowledged by the journalists celebrated for supposedly holding powerful interests accountable.
An outlet funded by tech billionaire Pierre Omidyar announces an award for an employee of an outlet funded by Omidyar at the gala of an organization funded by Omidyar. #IPFA exhibits the intersection of journalism, oligarchy, and soft American power. https://t.co/lS8bagtcB9 https://t.co/8cXJKtZx7a
— Max Blumenthal (@MaxBlumenthal) November 21, 2018
Omidyar’s enthusiasm for American empire appears motivated as much by his own bottom line as it is by ideological zeal. Having earned his fortune through eBay and Paypal, the billionaire is seeking to rope the cash-dependent global poor into a system of profitable electronic transfers through an initiative called “Better Than Cash Alliance.” According to Omidyar Partners, “The organization focuses on shifting away from cash payments in order to improve the livelihoods of those in low-income areas who lack access to more efficient digital payments.” His partners in this faux humanitarian alliance include noted altruists like Mastercard and Visa Inc., as well as USAID.
Omidyar’s first employee at eBay, fellow billionaire Jeffrey Skoll, has also partnered with USAID. In fact, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a $44.5 million joint USAID-Skoll Foundation venture in 2012.
As MintPress previously reported, the Skoll World Forum has played host to members of the White Helmets organization, an international influence operation that was established with USAID funding to stimulate public support for U.S. intervention in Syria.
Omidyar appears to have links of his own to the proxy war on Syria: a director of Omidyar Network, Amy Regas – in charge of the group’s decidedly neoliberal “property rights” campaign – is the former director of a notoriously opaque private aid and development firm called Chemonics. This was the company that was contracted by USAID to deliver $35 million in funding and equipment to the White Helmets in territory under the exclusive control of Syrian insurgents — including Idlib province, which is currently under the full control of Syria’s local Al Qaeda affiliate.
What’s more, Omidyar has contributed heavily to an organization called News Deeply. Founded by a former McKinsey consultant named Lara Setrakian, the $2.5 million media operation is is the publishing parent of Syria Deeply, an outlet that features commentary and analysis from an almost uniformly pro-opposition perspective, including by the directors of the USAID-funded Syrian American Medical Society.