Why Did Omidyar Shut Down The Intercept’s Snowden Archive?

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Remember the “Pierre Omidyar Insurgency”? That was the title of a fawning New York Magazine profile in 2014 of the Silicon Valley billionaire who financed The Intercept after Edward Snowden’s theft of thousands of classified National Security Agency documents from his Booz Allen Hamilton NSA workstation in Hawaii. The story was just one of many adoring articles to appear in the left-liberal media at the time, with its author swooning over The Intercept’s “scorching brand” of “fearless, adversarial journalism” and detailing in ironic tones the wacky adventures of its world-famous founding editor, Glenn Greenwald.

Five years later, those articles, and The Intercept’s extravagant claims, look ridiculous. On March 13, its readers learned that Omidyar’s First Look Media, was shutting down access to its vast archive of NSA documents. The news appeared in The Daily Beast, a center-right entertainment publication that’s known for its slanted, neocon-tinged reporting on Russia and North Korea. Its initial dispatch focused on Laura Poitras, Snowden’s first contact, who was said to be “livid” and “sickened” about the archive’s closing.

“This decision and the way it was handled would be a disservice to our source, the risks we’ve all taken, and most importantly, to the public for whom Edward Snowden blew the whistle,” Poitras wrote in an email shared with Intercept staff. According to the Beast, she learned of the decision when First Look CEO Michael Bloom sent out an email saying that because other news organizations had “ceased reporting” on the NSA archive “years ago,” First Look had decided to “focus on other editorial priorities.”

Greenwald, who won a Pulitzer for his spoon-fed reporting on Snowden, has been surprisingly reticent about the closing. He has provided only the vaguest of details about the future of the documents that Snowden earmarked for him while he was working for Booz, one of America’s most notorious intelligence contractors. In a Twitter post the after the Beast story broke, he took the company line that it was purely a business decision. “Like all digital media outlets, the Intercept has been confronted with financial restraints,” the $500K+ a year founder and journalist explained in his best bureaucratic voice. “The budget given to the Intercept by First Look Media for 2019 forces its editor-in-chief Betsy Reed, in consultation with the Intercept’s senior editors, to make extremely difficult decisions.”

Greenwald added that he and Poitras “continue to possess full copies of the archive” and that he is working to “ensure that publication” of the material will continue with “academics and researchers, not reporters” working with institutions that have enough funds “to do so robustly, quickly and responsibly.” He didn’t bother to mention Omidyar and the enormous investment ($250 million, equal to what Jeff Bezos paid to buy the Washington Post) gave to him and his partners to create The Intercept in the first place (Omidyar is the “sole shareholder” of First Look, its IRS form 990 states). And true to form, his “fearless” Intercept has yet to inform its many readers and supporters about the shutdown on its website. That’s odd, considering that it was financed by Omidyar specifically to control, publicize and promote Snowden’s archive. And perhaps that’s why the slogan “fearless, adversarial journalism” quietly disappeared from The Intercept Twitter feed in recent months and was replaced by the bland “We pursue the stories others don’t.” Who doesn’t?

The story of the shutdown raises fundamental questions about why the decision was made and what, ultimately, will happen to the Snowden collection and the vast number of secrets about US and global intelligence agencies still buried in its archive.

I believe the answers to these questions lie in two areas: first, the extensive relationships the Omidyar Group, the billionaire’s holding company, and the Omidyar Network, his investment vehicle, have forged over the past decade with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and other elements of the national security state; and second, the massive funds Omidyar and his allies in the world of billionaire philanthropy control through their foundations and investment funds. “They have the resources of small nation-states,” says a corporate lawyer familiar with their operations.

In my view, the Snowden collection had become problematic to Omidyar as he positioned himself as a key player in USAID’s “soft power” strategy to wean the world from “extremism” with massive doses of private and public monies. The classified NSA documents may not have been a problem under the Obama White House, where Omidyar enjoyed privileged status. But under Trump, whose Justice Department has gone beyond Obama’s attacks on whistleblowers by pursuing Julian Assange and Wikileaks, holding on to the Snowden cache may had become a liability. It’s a plausible theory, based on extensive reporting and research I’ve done over the last five years.

Before starting, let me say that my reporting comes with no help from The Intercept. Greenwald, Scahill and Reed did not respond to detailed emails to the three of them seeking comment for this story. That’s not surprising, considering that, along with editor Ken Silverstein, journalist Mark Ames and a few others, I’ve been a critic of its operations from the beginning (I was also quoted prominently in a New York magazine profile of Reality Winner and how The Intercept failed her by stupidly turning over her original documents to NSA for review). But that’s their loss; they all know me, and have even quoted from my work; they’re well aware that I’ve been writing about US intelligence, national security and contracting for years.

Omidyar, too, has refused comment. I’ve tried for two years to contact him through the Omidyar Group and the Omidyar Network, to no avail. But he damn sure knows what I’m doing: he just started following me on Twitter. As a result, this story is left to my propensity, always, to follow the money. That’s the first and best rule I learned in journalism, and it definitely applies here. So let’s follow Omidyar’s fortune, estimated by Forbes at $12.2 billion, that he created from eBay and PayPal back in the 1990s.

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Tim Shorrock has been writing about the convergence of national security and capitalism since the 1980s. He is the author of Spies for Hire: Inside the Secret World of Intelligence Contracting, and is a correspondent on US foreign policy and the two Koreas for The Nation. Shorrock has been a frequent guest on Democracy Now! and his stories have appeared in many publications, including Salon, Mother Jones, The Progressive, The Daily Beast, and The New York Times. You can find much of his past work at his blog, Money Doesn’t Talk, It Swears. He has lived in Washington, DC, since 1982, and is a big fan of Bob Dylan and American blues and folk music.