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

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First Look’s abrupt shutdown of the Snowden Archive came a few weeks after USAID tried to instigate a coup in Venezuela by publicly sending containerized shipments of “humanitarian aid” to its border with Colombia and daring the Maduro government to block their entry. Sure enough, Intercept co-founder Jeremy Scahill highlighted the action on his “Intercepted” podcast, declaring that “the US is weaponizing humanitarian aid in an effort to sell its regime change campaign against Venezuela.”

But he didn’t utter a word, on his show or in the news site, of Omidyar’s deep ties to this agency clearly committed to counter-revolution. A little research would have uncovered even more unsavory connections, including Omidyar’s long friendship with Richard Branson, the British airline tycoon-turned-neocon who desperately tried to drum up support for USAID’s action against Maduro with a phony “Live Aid” concert on the border. Even for the sake of transparency, those connections should have been mentioned. But there have been one or two examples of stories about their owner.

To its credit, The Intercept once revealed (in 2017) a rather startling fact about Omidyar: that in 2005, he had spoken at NSA headquarters to a conference organized by its director, Michael V. Hayden, promoting “information sharing and collaboration.” Apparently, it had no choice: his appearance was noted in SIDtoday, NSA’s internal newsletter for its Signals Intelligence Directorate, one of the many document collections leaked by Snowden. After months of criticism that it wasn’t releasing enough of the archive, The Intercept offered up the newsletter to prove that it was, in fact, making progress. But the story mentioning Omidyar – which had three bylines, no less – buried the startling revelation of his meeting with Hayden at the very end, was left out of the headline, and never mentioned in the publication’s many tweets about its SIDtoday release.

The authors, who included the arrogant and clueless Micah Lee, also gave Omidyar (who rarely comments on anything) a full paragraph to explain himself. “The invitation was made after news broke in December 2005 about the agency’s ‘warrantless wiretapping’ – and those events were deeply concerning to me,” he wrote. “In addition, I didn’t have anything else to add beyond what I had already shared.” That admission alone should have been alarming to The Intercept’s founders.

But they apparently never followed up on his connections to the national security state – which are substantial, as we shall see. And that’s particularly true for USAID.

For those who don’t know, USAID, despite its friendly, peaceful-sounding title, has been a key component of US destabilization and counterinsurgency projects for decades. From Vietnam to Uruguay to El Salvador to Afghanistan, it’s left a long trail of blood, repression and bitterness. While it does have units (Food for Peace, for example) that actually provide humanitarian relief to suffering people, for the most part the agency is a direct arm of the American empire saddled with what Mark Ames has correctly called a “murderous history.”

Ames was the first reporter to expose Omidyar’s ties to USAID in a Pando investigation into the philanthropist’s activities in support of US objectives in Ukraine. Greenwald, in a style that has become typical for his op-eds in The Intercept, responded with a pious column, “On the Meaning of Journalistic Independence,” that ridiculed Ames’ careful reporting and tried to turn the Pando story into a lesson in TI’s purity and integrity as a news organization. But it completely failed to address the contradictions of a publication dedicated to exposing US imperial adventures founded by an ardent participant in them. Then, to counter Ames, Greenwald actually quoted from an Omidyar Network press release claiming the project merely tried to “amplify the voices of Ukrainian citizens.” A press release. (Want to know the hundreds of organizations that receive Omidyar Network money? Check out its latest IRS 990 form for non-profits).

That was five years ago. Since then, USAID has become Omidyar’s bread and butter. Over the past two administrations, he has joined Bill Gates, George Soros and other scions of the foundation world in a series of multi-million-dollar joint ventures with USAID in internet services, finance, privatized education, and humanitarian aid, many of them in areas, such as Africa, where USAID and US Special Operations Forces are deployed for so-called “stabilization” operations. Some are straight donations, while others are designed to turn a profit. But all of them dovetail with Omidyar’s investments overseas, such as his projects in privatized education in Africa, profit-making micro-financing in Bangladesh, and surveillance-based credit monitoring apps around the world.

A simple search of USAID’s website will yield dozens of agency projects Omidyar is involved with. They include a “Better Than Cash” alliance with Visa to digitize (and therefore monitor) money flows to people living in poverty; a joint venture with the Rockefeller Foundation to promote “impact investment” in education (privatized, of course); and a $200 million project created a few months after Snowden’s NSA leaks to work with the UK to “steer countries towards policy and regulatory change” that would encourage the development of private wireless and Internet networks (gee, why would the US and UK want to do that?). The Omidyar Network is also part of USAID’s program to “Protect Core US Interests by Advancing Democracy and Human Rights and Strengthening Civil Society.”

But don’t let the positive spin fool you. These and other ventures are part of USAID’s decades-long effort to privatize its vast operations and use its humanitarian and development veneer to build markets, and profits, for US companies. That happens to be one of four primary goals of the US Global Development Lab, the part of USAID that Omidyar works most closely with. Its mission statement includes the twin goals of “Advancing US National Security” and “Supporting US Business Interests.” They dovetail nicely with the latest focus of the Omidyar Network to “move past neoliberalism” and “reimagine capitalism” (that’s all explained in this latest puff-piece on Omidyar from Inside Philanthropy).

It’s all a nice way of reshaping the world along capitalist lines and making foreign countries a more hospitable home for multinational corporations and banks. But the Lab, and USAID in general, is far from benign. The agency is a distinct part of a larger agenda of the US government and the Trump administration to use “soft power” along with the military and the CIA to dominate, and intervene in, foreign countries considered a threat to US national security. In fact, the Lab’s acting director, Harry Bader, once served as the co-leader of USAID’s Natural Resources Counterinsurgency Cell in eastern Afghanistan, according to his bio (the cell, Bader wrote in 2014, was “a joint effort of U.S. defense and civilian agencies.”

Omidyar apparently appreciates the Lab’s work so much that he recently appointed as his acting chief of staff of the Omidyar Network Chris Jurgens, the former “director of global partnerships” at the Lab (“his team managed the Global Development Alliance, USAID’s flagship model for building shared value partnerships with the private sector,” the Network says.)

Omidyar’s ties to USAID’s Global Development Lab bring us to the second piece of the story. Several years ago, Omidyar hired as a consultant the Frontier Design Group, a national security contractor based in northern Virginia near the Pentagon and the CIA. Frontier, or FDG, says on its website that it works with government agencies and corporations “who seek to better understand and improve their impact in complex, adaptive environments as they strive to create a safer, more prosperous, less violent world.” It, too, grows out of the murky confluence of counterinsurgency and aid. Moreover, one of its chief clients is USAID’s Global Development Lab. Here’s a quote from Frontier’s mission statement on its website:

Since our founding, Frontier has focused on the challenges and opportunities that concern the “3Ds” of Defense, Development and Diplomacy and critical intersections with the intelligence community. Our work has focused on the wicked and sometimes overlapping problem sets of fragility, violent extremism, terrorism, civil war, and insurgency. Our work on these complex issues has included projects with the U.S. Departments of State and Defense, USAID, the National Counterterrorism Center and the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Frontier was founded in 2015 by Alexa Courtney, a longtime national security operative who managed civilian counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan for USAID (she describes herself as a “human-centered design advisor,” whatever that means). Prior to that, Courtney worked for Booz Allen Hamilton as a counterinsurgency and counterterrorism specialist for both USAID and the United States Special Operations Command, the secretive boss of Scahill’s dreaded Joint Special Operations Command known as JSOC. As you can see, the Omidyar Group and USAID are listed prominently as Frontier’s key clients (“Who We Serve”) on the company’s website.

Courtney also had deep state experience as a former operative with two intelligence contractors: Mission Essential Inc., one of the largest provider of interpreters to the US military, and Caerus Associates, a company founded by David Kilcullen, the sleazy Australian who served as chief counterinsurgency adviser to General David H. Petraeus, in Iraq and Afghanistan. I learned that a few years ago when I was putting together a long piece about Kilcullen and his fellow COINdinistas for The Baffler. Here’s how I described their attempt to repeat the failed “hearts and minds” counterinsurgency campaign in Vietnam in Afghanistan and around the world.

The idea was to focus not merely on the logistics of conquest, but also on the far more saleable (and politically palatable) mission of improving the lives of the people they were supposed to “protect,” whether in East Africa, the Caribbean, or the Middle East. Based on their understanding of past wars, the COINdinistas argued that U.S. forces could defeat an insurgency only by “outgoverning” the enemy—that is, by providing enough assistance to persuade the people that the government chosen for them by the United States, be it Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam or Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, was superior to anything offered by the fighting insurgents, be they the Viet Cong or the Taliban. “Employ money as a weapons system,” Petraeus once wrote of the strategy. “Money can be ‘ammunition.’” Kilcullen, the Global COIN advocate, put it this way: counterinsurgency, he said, was “armed social work.”

During Kilcullen’s time in Iraq and Afghanistan, USAID was an integral part of his and Petraeus’ command, and he founded Caerus in part on USAID contracts. Courtney was his executive vice president at Caerus, and her name is on several Caerus contracts with USAID and US intelligence that were leaked to me on a thumb drive, including a $77 million USAID project to track “licit and illicit networks” in Honduras that I wrote about for The Nation). She knows the world of intelligence, counterinsurgency, and the privatized military from the inside (in her communications with me two years ago, she said she “never did any work with the intelligence community during my time at Booz Allen, Caerus or Mission Essential. I have not done any classified work since I left USAID.”)

At Frontier, Courtney has consolidated her experiences with the national security state to consult with USAID and other pillars of US foreign policy. Frontier is “dedicated to supporting organizations who seek to prevent violent conflict and extremism and make the world a more peaceful place,” she told me. She did not respond to emails asking for comment on this article. When I badgered the Omidyar Group to explain its ties with Frontier, I was referred to Gina Lindblad, a public relations executive with Porter Novelli, a corporate PR firm for several big tech corporations, including Sony, Disney, HP, Amazon and Microsoft (I have subsequently discovered that Lindblad worked for TI during its heady first days, writing press releases announcing new projects and donations). Here’s what she said.

“FDG’s and Alexa Courtney’s experience in conflict resolution and peace building is essential to The Omidyar Group’s work in many places around the world.” But while the Omidyar Group welcomed my invitation to “participate in this story,” she requested that I “please proceed without them.” I have (Lindblad, too, did not return emails for this story).

Over the last two years, Frontier’s client list has expanded significantly. It now includes the Department of State; US Army Special Forces (AKA “The Green Berets” and a key unit of JSOC); and the CIA’s National Counterterrorism Center, which is basically the US intelligence nerve center for America’s endless wars. Recently, Courtney picked up another intriguing partner: Creative Associates International, the USAID contractor that was exposed by the Associated Press in 2014 for managing three covert US influence projects in Cuba that tried to win young Cubans over to the American way (“Working under USAID’s supervision, [CAI] sought to bring about grassroots change by providing a ‘Cuban Twitter’ program called Zunzeo, staging an HIV workshop to recruit activists in Cuba, and trying to infiltrate the hip-hop movement,” AP reported).

From the beginning, Frontier has been a key consultant to the government-funded US Institute of Peace. It’s led by a board of directors chaired by Stephen Hadley, the former national security adviser to President George W. Bush and a senior executive at Raytheon Corp., the nation’s third-largest military contractor (and, as Intercept reporter Lee Fang correctly noted in a 2015 article about USIP and Ukraine, “a relentless hawk whose advocacy for greater military intervention often dovetails closely with the interests of Raytheon.”) At USIP, Courtney has led numerous workshops and conferences, including presiding over sessions where Omidyar Group
representatives spoke. This is from one of those USIP sessions (the Democracy Fund is also an Omidyar creation).

As a USIP consultant, Frontier has also served as the organizing “secretariat” of the “Fragility Study Group,” convened by USIP and the contractor-funded Center for a New American Security (CNAS), which was founded by former Pentagon official Michelle Flournoy and other Democratic hawks.

Best of all for Omidyar, who has managed to maintain his USAID relationships through the Obama and Trump presidencies, Frontier has provided an important link. In 2017 Frontier organized and promoted for USIP a “Passing the Baton” conference billed as “a review, during the transition between administrations, of global challenges confronting our nation.” Its website features a photograph of a happy Stephen Hadley applauding Trump’s incoming (and now disgraced) National Security Adviser Michael Flynn gaily shaking hands with Susan Rice, his hawkish equivalent in the Obama White House.

When I looked into Frontier in 2017, I decided there wasn’t enough of a smoking gun to write a story about the relationship between the lefty billionaire and his counterinsurgency consultant. But a month ago, long before the public closure of the Snowden Archives, I learned that Frontier was the sole contractor for a major USAID project to come up with a new counterinsurgency doctrine for the Trump administration. That caught my attention and convinced me to finally do a story.

In a paper first reported by the trade publication Devex, Frontier, led by Courtney, is urging USAID to create “red teams” of aid workers, CIA operatives and US special forces to intervene in global hot spots, such as Venezuela. They would mobilize to scatter US security personnel throughout a country and outside of the cities when political unrest threatens “stability” and American interests. It was commissioned by none other than Omidyar’s friends at USAID’s Global Development Lab, which Devex reported, has hired “the Frontier Design Group to undertake research and development on new approaches to countering violent extremism.”

The report, which can be found on the Frontier and USAID websites, is extraordinary, and has to be read to be believed.

From the Vietnam War to today’s crisis in Syria, the United States Government (USG) has experimented with various expeditionary models for mobilizing its development personnel alongside their military and interagency colleagues to unleash their unique capabilities for stabilization, reconstruction, and counterinsurgency (COIN) missions.

As the lead implementer of development and humanitarian assistance for the USG since 1961, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is a key interlocutor for mobilizing civilian personnel in non-permissive environments (NPEs). In a risk-adverse post-Benghazi world, designing and building right-sized capabilities to effectively anticipate, plan for, and respond to crises unfolding across a wide spectrum of contexts is an enormous challenge and one that has frequently bedeviled the USG…

Today, the number of USG civilian personnel focused on COIN and countering violent extremism (CVE) in high-threat environments is extremely limited. It is a profound institutional challenge to get USG civilian personnel with mission-critical skillsets to the contexts and the communities they seek to serve. Ironically, the net effect of limiting access in insecure environments may be making civilian personnel less secure and their critical missions less effective.

Courtney’s report, which USAID told Devex is still under review, is based on interviews with dozens of national security operatives, including former CIA chiefs of station, former USAID mission directors, and “those still serving” as Lieutenant Generals, Colonels, Special Advisors, and more. “These individuals have hard-earned experience in leadership roles in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Syria, Philippines, Somalia, the Lake Chad Basin, Venezuela, and Colombia” – basically the entire geography of our endless wars – it states.

Devex reported the gist of the Frontier proposal for USAID’s proposed “non-traditional partners,” which include the CIA:

[They] might include U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, U.S. Army Special Forces, the State Department Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Drug Enforcement Administration, according to the study. In order to gauge potential interest in the idea of RED Teams, the study’s authors consulted with representatives from a variety of military and civilian agencies where development officers might be embedded — including the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Development Group, also known as SEAL Team Six.

Wait! The CIA? SEAL Team Six? Aren’t these the targets of The Intercept’s reporting team? Did the founders, especially Scahill, not know that their benefactor had close ties to a contractor advising US Special Forces? I asked, but got no response.

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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.