An explosive New York Times report revealed Saturday that notorious war profiteer Erik Prince recruited former American and British spies to work with the right-wing group Project Veritas to infiltrate at least one Democratic congressional campaign and organizations "considered hostile" to President Donald Trump's agenda.
"Secretary DeVos' brother was directly involved in a spying scheme in her home state against a teachers' union she's been hostile with for years. If this doesn't clear the bar for an immediate Congressional investigation, nothing does."
—Derek Martin, Allied Progress
Prince is the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and founder of the mercenary firm Blackwater. Through a spokesperson, he declined the Times' request for comment on the piece, which is based on interviews and documents obtained by the newspaper, including internal Project Veritas emails.
"Both Project Veritas and Mr. Prince have ties to President Trump's aides and family," the Times noted. "Whether any Trump administration officials or advisers to the president were involved in the operations, even tacitly, is unclear. But the effort is a glimpse of a vigorous private campaign to try to undermine political groups or individuals perceived to be in opposition to Mr. Trump's agenda."
The results of the Times' investigation were described by readers on social media as "chilling," "stunning," and "insane." Jacobin magazine assistant editor Alex Press declared, "My paranoid fantasies are all true!" In response to a tweet about the reporting, author and activist Naomi Klein simply wrote, "Read."
The consumer watchdog group Allied Progress responded with a statement Saturday night, calling on the House Oversight Committee to conduct an immediate investigation into what DeVos knew about Prince's activities.
"There's not a lot of dots to connect here," said Allied Progress director Derek Martin. "Secretary DeVos' brother was directly involved in a spying scheme in her home state against a teachers' union she's been hostile with for years. If this doesn't clear the bar for an immediate Congressional investigation, nothing does."
"We already know Secretary DeVos is no friend of public education, but if she gave the go-ahead to enlist former intelligence officers to steal documents from public education advocates that she disagrees with, it steps well beyond policy disagreement and into criminal territory," Martin added. "If Secretary DeVos was in any way involved, it will confirm that she stops at nothing to undermine public schools."
While Betsy DeVos dismantles public education, her brother, Erik Prince, uses spies to infiltrate and undermine advocacy organizations. This kind of espionage harkens back to the Hoover era. https://t.co/1OdWEyrun1
— Kristen Clarke 866-OUR-VOTE (@KristenClarkeJD) March 7, 2020
According to the Times:
One of the former spies, an ex-MI6 officer named Richard Seddon, helped run a 2017 operation to copy files and record conversations in a Michigan office of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the largest teachers' unions in the nation. Mr. Seddon directed an undercover operative to secretly tape the union's local leaders and try to gather information that could be made public to damage the organization, documents show.
Using a different alias the next year, the same undercover operative infiltrated the congressional campaign of Abigail Spanberger, then a former CIA officer who went on to win an important House seat in Virginia as a Democrat. The campaign discovered the operative and fired her.
Both operations were run by Project Veritas, a conservative group that has gained attention using hidden cameras and microphones for sting operations on news organizations, Democratic politicians, and liberal advocacy groups. Mr. Seddon's role in the teachers' union operation—detailed in internal Project Veritas emails that have emerged from the discovery process of a court battle between the group and the union—has not previously been reported, nor has Mr. Prince's role in recruiting Mr. Seddon for the group's activities.
The Times reported that it is unclear whether Seddon was involved in the Spanberger operation and the former British intelligence officer—who is married to American diplomat Alice Seddon—did not respond to the newspaper's request for comment.
James O'Keefe of Project Veritas told the Times that his group is a "proud independent news organization" and "no one tells Project Veritas who or what to investigate." Although he declined to discuss the details of the report, he also claimed that various sources are "providing confidential documents, insights into internal processes, and wearing hidden cameras to expose corruption and misconduct."
Past targets of Project Veritas have included the nonprofit healthcare organization Planned Parenthood, the political group Disrupt J20, and recently, David Wright, a 20-year veteran political correspondent at ABC News. Project Veritas has also recorded undercover video of a Times editor and approached the Washington Post with a false story about Roy Moore, a Republican Senate candidate in Alabama.
Project Veritas is an amateur organization that embarrasses itself as often as it uncovers a faux scandal. The fact that people in Trumpworld are using professionals spies to help it is deeply worrying. pic.twitter.com/AjFnkBs8nN
— Don Moynihan (@donmoyn) March 7, 2020
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The Project Veritas operative inside AFT Michigan was Liberty University graduate Marisa Jorge, according to the Times. O'Keefe and Seddon used the code name "LibertyU" for Jorge when discussing the operation over email. Jorge, who also reportedly infiltrated the Spanberger campaign by posing as a volunteer, did not respond to the newspaper's request for comment. The federal lawsuit that AFT Michigan brought against Project Veritas is scheduled to go to trial later this year.
In a statement to the Times, AFT president Randi Weingarten said: "Let's be clear who the wrongdoer is here: Project Veritas used a fake intern to lie her way into our Michigan office, to steal documents and to spy—and they got caught. We're just trying to hold them accountable for this industrial espionage."
Weingarten added on Twitter Saturday, "They didn't succeed in their attempt to hurt our union but note what the right wing will do to try to eliminate workers' voice."
.@BetsyDeVosED brother #ErikPrince now found part of #projectveritas attempt to spy & steal @aftmichigan documents. They didn’t succeed in their attempt to hurt our union but note what the right wing will do to try to eliminate workers’ voice. https://t.co/E2UHyOIgNv
— Randi Weingarten (@rweingarten) March 7, 2020
The Intercept co-founder Jeremy Scahill—who released the book Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army in 2007—wrote on Twitter Saturday that with this piece, the Times "pushes the 2017 story from [The Intercept's Matthew Cole] forward about Erik Prince attempts to infiltrate liberal groups via Project Veritas."
Last year, Cole published an article for The Intercept titled "The Complete Mercenary: How Erik Prince Used the Rise of Trump to Make an Improbable Comeback."
Noting that Trump gave Project Veritas thousands of dollars through his foundation and met with O'Keefe shortly after announcing his run for president, Cole reported:
It is unclear if Trump's support of Project Veritas spurred Prince's interest in the group, but in late 2015 or early 2016, Prince arranged for O'Keefe and Project Veritas to receive training in intelligence and elicitation techniques from a retired military intelligence operative named Euripides Rubio Jr. According to a former Trump White House official who discussed the Veritas training with Rubio, the former special operative quit after several weeks of training, complaining that the Veritas group wasn't capable of learning. Rubio did not respond to requests for comment.
In the winter of 2017, Prince arranged for a former British MI6 officer to provide more surveillance and elicitation training for Veritas at his family's Wyoming ranch, according to a person with direct knowledge of the effort. Prince was trying to turn O'Keefe and his group into domestic spies. For his part, O'Keefe posted photos on Instagram and Twitter from the Prince family ranch of himself holding a handgun with a silencer attached and wearing pseudo-military clothing. He described the ranch as a "classified location" where he was learning "spying and self-defense," in an effort to make Project Veritas "the next great intelligence agency."
"Erik was weaponizing a group that had close ties to the Trump White House," said the former White House official familiar with Prince's relationship with O'Keefe and Project Veritas.
Cole acknowledged the Times reporting on Twitter Saturday and highlighted a summary of it tweeted by The Atlantic's Adam Serwer:
Currently, the Times noted, "Prince is under investigation by the Justice Department over whether he lied to a congressional committee examining Russian interference in the 2016 election, and for possible violations of American export laws."
Former FBI assistant director and current NBC News national security contributor Frank Figliuzzi shared the Times report on Twitter Saturday and commented that "there are likely numerous criminal violations here."
This post has been updated with comment from the consumer watchdog group Allied Progress.