Now let me turn to how these connections might have affected Omidyar’s decision to shut down the archive. Here’s one possibility: the Snowden Archives, which include tens of thousands of top-secret documents considered to be stolen property by the NSA, may have become an albatross around the neck of the ambitious Iranian-American billionaire anxious to cash in through his close ties with USAID.
And here’s another: perhaps Omidyar and his wealthy partners in First Look no longer have any use for its secrets because they’ve already tapped into them for intelligence on where to invest their money – kind of an inside trading scheme. After all, Omidyar has literally billions of dollars to invest, and parks his capital in private equity funds, such as the powerful Carlyle Group, which trade in insider information from the former high-ranking government officials they hire as managers and consultants (see this list of the Omidyar Network’s $88 million investments in private equity in 2016, including $149,472 invested in the Carlyle/Riverstone Global Energy and Power Fund).
Looking at these possibilities requires some discussion of Omidyar’s overlapping investments and projects at USAID and elsewhere with Jeffrey Skoll, one of his first hires at eBay who himself amassed a fortune of over $3 billion as eBay’s president. Through his eponymous foundation, Skoll owns Participant Media, the Hollywood production company that made Citizen Four, Poitras’s grossly over-hyped and narcissistic cover story (er, documentary) on Edward Snowden. It’s also made dozens of other films – some quite outstanding – that have done exceedingly well at the box office.
Together, Omidyar and Skoll have invested their grant money heavily in every sector of the media, from NPR to ProPublica. They also sunk huge amounts of money into “fact-checking” operations, often in collaboration the Broadcast Board of Governors (BBG), the US government propaganda arm, and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which was created by Congress in the 1980s to replace and augment the CIA (The Mint Press recently described these Omidyar projects as “a global cartel of self-styled fact-checking groups that determine which outlets are legitimate and which are fake.”)
Both men were also proud donors to the Clinton Foundation and developed close ties to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama while they were in office. Skoll alone contributed between $100,000 to $250,000 to the foundation and partnered in “at least” 21 programs through the Clinton Global Initiative, the Associated Press reported in 2016. In 2012, shortly after Skoll met privately with Hillary, according to AP, USAID announced a partnership with his foundation to invest $44.5 million in health, energy, and other sectors around the world (see USAID’s list of projects funded by the foundation). Omidyar and Skoll love this kind of excitement and the rich and famous people who belong to the world of what they call “impact investments.”
In a typical lineup in 2016, they joined William E. McGlashan Jr., a partner with the private equity giant TPG and an early investor in Uber and Airbnb, in a $2 billion “social impact fund” they named “Call Rise.” Among their fellow investors, a star-struck Andrew Ross Sorkin reported in The New York Times, was Bono, the narcissistic rock star, and Richard Branson of Virgin Airways, the flamboyant promoter of the USAID attempted coup at the Venezuelan border. McGlashan called Call Rise “the first global, scale private equity platform directing institutional capital to businesses that measurably address pressing societal challenges.” That’s a good summary of Omidyar’s vision as well: one of his philanthropy’s slogans is “We Believe in Impact, Not Idealism.” (unfortunately, these great liberal minds can be flawed: two weeks ago, McGlashan was accused by the Justice Department of being a key player in an ugly college admission scandal in which he paid $50,000 to have his son’s test scores corrected and create a fake athletic profile for the lad. He has since been fired from TPG.)
Could Omidyar’s and Skoll’s enthusiasm for the government, including deepening involvement with USAID, be threatened by their continued ownership over Snowden’s NSA documents? After all, through The Omidyar Group, Omidyar directly owns The Intercept and its parent company, First Look Media, which have controlled the documents for the past five years. Skoll’s films, including Citizen Four and Zero Days, the Alex Gibney documentary he financed on cybersecurity, also showed that he likely had access to, and some control over, the Snowden documents. If so, these facts would be well known to anyone involved in national security and law enforcement, especially to the Trump administration’s newly aggressive Justice Department.
Only a year ago, for example, Bill Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, told AP that, over the previous year, “we had more international, Snowden-related documents and breaches than ever. Since 2013, when Snowden left, there have been thousands of articles around the world with really sensitive stuff that’s been leaked.” He added that less than one percent of Snowden’s documents have been released, “so we don’t see this issue ending anytime soon.” The story quoted Joel Melstad, a spokesperson for the National Counterintelligence Center (which Omidyar’s consultant at Frontier advises) saying that the Snowden documents “have put U.S. personnel or facilities at risk around the world, damaged intelligence collection efforts, exposed tools used to amass intelligence, destabilized U.S. partnerships abroad and exposed U.S. intelligence operations, capabilities and priorities.”
Greenwald and Snowden, through his attorney, take great issue with that, with Greenwald telling AP that there are “thousands upon thousands of documents” that he and other journalists have chosen not to publish because they would harm their reputations and privacy and expose “legitimate surveillance programs.” In his Twitter explanation of the archive’s closure, he also said that “it is worth remembering that Edward Snowden never wanted the full archive of documents to be published; to the contrary, he adamantly insisted…that there will never be a full dumping of the archive.” Still, he and Omidyar both must know that Evanina and the Justice Department could strike at them even if such a prosecution would be widely seen, correctly, as an attack on press freedoms. I have no doubt that Omidyar, with his vast investments with USAID and throughout the world, could fear the implications of any government move against the archives. Closing them down, in that context, would make financial and political sense.
And then there’s all that money sloshing through their foundations. “The Omidyar Group is a very interesting organization,” says a corporate attorney who has investigated complicated business structures and is familiar with some of the players in Omidyar’s and Skoll’s circles. “There’s many questions to start asking about Omidyar’s foundation because, like Skoll’s, they split themselves into a profit entity and a foundation entity, and there’s vast amounts of money – hundreds of millions of dollars – flowing back and forth in ways that can’t be seen by these entities. Plus they employ armies of lawyers and accountants. They’re pretty much run like private intelligence entities.” He’s the one who told me, “they have the resources of small nation-states.”
To Omidyar and Skoll, my source continued, “the real value of information is what you know that other people don’t know.” That’s how inside trading happens, he suggested, “Just look at the holdings of Omidyar and Skoll. If you have access to classified information, its real value is in what you don’t disclose.” About the people who got access to the trove, he asks: “What if it was arbitraged and they were trading in it?” (According to Investopedia, “Arbitrage occurs when a security is purchased in one market and simultaneously sold in another market at a higher price, thus considered to be risk-free profit for the trader.”)
To underscore his point, the attorney pointed me to an intriguing study on “Coups, Corporations and Classified Information” conducted by a group of professors at UC-Berkeley, Harvard, and Stockholm University in 2009. It correlated coups and overthrows organized by the CIA with stock prices of US companies that stood to benefit, and showed that “not only were U.S-supported coups valuable to partially nationalized multinationals, but that asset traders arbitraged supposedly top-secret” information concerning plans to overthrow foreign governments.” (Here’s a list from the paper of US interventions listed by code name, country, and whether the villain in question had expropriated a US company.)
Could Omidyar and Skoll, like corporations during the Cold War, have used top-secret information contained in Snowden’s unreleased documents to help guide their investments around the world with the private equity and hedge funds they use, which are known to trade on such inside information? Why not? That’s what I would do if I was a billionaire capitalist and had unfettered access to classified documents from the NSA. But perhaps the information had become too dated, and therefore was not worth holding onto any longer. Or, with the continued DOJ interest in the Snowden Archive, perhaps the trove just became too dangerous to hold onto.
“You have to protect your equities,” my lawyer source concluded. One way or another, that’s what Omidyar seems to be doing everywhere he goes.