News & Politics

Exposing the Dark Forces Behind the Snowden Smears

Who is planting anti-Snowden attacks with Buzzfeed, and why is the website playing along?

Since journalist Glenn Greenwald revealed the existence of the National Security Agency’s PRISM domestic surveillance program, he and his source, the whistleblower Edward Snowden, have come in for a series of ugly attacks. On June 26, the day that the New York Daily News published a straightforward smear piece on Greenwald, the website Buzzfeed rolled out a remarkably similar article, a lengthy profile that focused on Greenwald’s personal life and supposed eccentricities.

Both outlets attempted to make hay out of Greenwald’s involvement over a decade ago on the business end of a porn distribution company, an arcane detail that had little, if any, bearing on the domestic spying scandal he sparked. The coordinated nature of the smears prompted Reuters media columnist Jack Shafer to ask if an opposition research firm was behind them. “I wonder who commissioned the file,” he mused on Twitter.

A day before the Greenwald attacks appeared, Buzzfeed published an anonymously sourced story about the government of Ecuador, which had reportedly offered asylum to Snowden (Ecuador has just revoked a temporary travel document issued to Snowden). Written by Rosie Gray and Adrian Carasquillo, the article relied on documents marked as “secret” that were passed to Buzzfeed by sources described as “activists who wished to call attention to the [Ecuadorian] government’s spying practices in the context of its new international role” as the possible future sanctuary of Snowden.

Gray and Carasquillo reported that Ecuador’s intelligence service had attempted to procure surveillance technology from two Israeli firms. Without firm proof that the system was ever put into use, the authors claimed the documents “suggest a commitment to domestic surveillance that rivals the practices by the United States’ National Security Agency.” (Buzzfeed has never published a critical report on the $3 billion in aid the US provides to Israel each year, which is used to buy equipment explicitly designed for repressing, spying on and killing occupied Palestinians).

Buzzfeed’s Ecuador expose supported a theme increasingly advanced by Snowden’s critics -- that the hero of civil libertarians and government transparency activists was, in fact, a self-interested hypocrite content to seek sanctuary from undemocratic regimes. Curiously, those who seized on the story had no problem with Buzzfeed’s reporters relying on leaked government documents marked as classified. For some Snowden detractors, the issue was apparently not his leaking, but which government his leaks embarrassed.

Questionable journalism ethics, evidence of smears

At first glance, Buzzfeed's Ecuador expose might have seemed like riveting material. Upon closer examination, however, the story turned out to be anything but the exclusive the website promoted it as. In fact, the news of Ecuador’s possible deal with Israeli surveillance firms was reported hours before Buzzfeed’s piece appeared by Aleksander Boyd, a blogger and activist with close ties to right-wing elements in South America. “Rafael Correa's Ecuadorian regime spies on its citizens in a way strikingly similar to what Snowden accuses the U.S. of doing,” claimed Boyd.

Later in the day, Boyd contacted Buzzfeed’s Gray through Twitter, complimenting her piece before commenting, “Evidently Ecuadorian source leaked same info to you guys, seems I jumped the gun before you…”

Since Boyd contacted Gray, who has not publicly responded, Buzzfeed has not credited him or altered its headline to acknowledge that its story was not an exclusive. Buzzfeed’s refusal to acknowledge Boyd was not only a testament to the kind of questionable practices that have plagued the outlet since its inception, it helped obscure the story’s disturbing origins.

Boyd’s disclosure that a single source shopped opposition research to him and Buzzfeed at the same time confirmed the existence of a coordinated campaign orchestrated by elements exploiting the Snowden drama for political gain. Boyd’s remark that he “jumped the gun” suggests that the source intended for Buzzfeed to be the first to publish the story, and that he inadvertently embarrassed the site by running with it before them. There is also the possibility that Boyd was the source all along, and that his tweet to Gray was designed to establish deniability. Either way, the source seemed to be carefully managing the operation, wielding Snowden as a cudgel against the Ecuadorian government and timing the story for maximum impact.

Soliciting smears, dreaming of headless opponents

Who is Boyd, and how did he appear in the middle of the Snowden saga?

A London-based representative of Venezuela’s political opposition, Boyd solicits his services as an opposition researcher, informing potential clients through his official bio, “Alek can be contracted to do due diligence on individuals and companies in Venezuela and LatAm.”

As I reported for The Electronic Intifada, Boyd has repeatedly promoted terrorism and assassination against members of the elected government of Venezuela. Back in 2004, Boyd wrote, “I wish I could decapitate in public plazas [Venezuelan politicians] Lina Ron and Diosdado Cabello. I wish I could torture for the rest of his remaining existence Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel … I wish I could fly over Caracas slums throwing the dead bodies of the criminals that have destroyed my country … Only barbaric practices will neutralize them, much the same way [Genghis] Khan did. I wish I was him.” A year later, he declared, “Re: advocating for violence yes I have mentioned in many occasions that in my view that is the only solution left for dealing with [Hugo] Chavez.”

In 2008, Boyd’s services were contracted by the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), an NGO run by a veteran conservative activist named Thor Halvorssen. The son of a Venezuelan oligarch and former CIA asset who funneled money to the Nicaraguan Contras, Halvorssen founded HRF to publicize the human rights abuses of Hugo Chavez’s government. His first cousin, Leopoldo Lopez, the son of an oil industry executive, is one of the most visible leaders of the Venezuelan opposition, and as such, has received substantial financial support from the US. In 2002, Lopez was among the politicians who momentarily seized power from Chavez during a failed coup attempt. At the 2010 Oslo Freedom Forum, a yearly confab Halvorssen promotes as “the Davos of human rights,” Lopez was presented to an audience of foreign correspondents and diplomats as a “human rights leader.”

Boyd claimed that during his year and a half working for Halvorssen, he successfully campaigned for the release of Guadelupe Llori, an Ecuadorian opposition politician jailed by Correa under charges of sabotage and terrorism for her role in leading a crippling oil workers’ strike. (After her release, Llori was junketed to Halvorssen’s Oslo Freedom Forum). During this time Boyd visited Llori in prison in Ecuador while meeting opposition activists “to coordinate future projects,” as he told an interviewer. Whether this was how he made initial contact with the source that supplied him and Buzzfeed with the documents on Ecuador’s deal with the Israeli surveillance firms is unknown.

Boyd may have never met Buzzfeed’s Gray, however, each are well acquainted with Halvorssen. This May, Gray was among the select cadre of journalists flown to the Oslo Freedom Forum to provide positive PR for Halvorssen and his global operation. Gray returned with a fawning profile of Halvorssen, portraying him as an iconoclastic activist whose “job of opposing strongmen is arguably more media-friendly than that of anyone doing human rights work today.”

In contrast to Buzzfeed’s profile of Greenwald, Gray cast Halvorssen’s eccentricities as charming quirks that bore little relevance to the larger story. And his intimate ties to the right-wing Venezuelan opposition and the oligarchic forces seeking to topple socialist-oriented governments in South America went unmentioned.

Right-wing corporate lobbyists target Correa

Ecuador’s Correa is among the most popular of the Latin American leaders to embrace Hugo Chavez’s socialist economic model. Having defiantly defaulted on $3.2 billion in foreign loans, he has been able to leverage his country’s oil wealth to drastically expand social programs, improving access to education and doubling spending on healthcare while lowering poverty rates by a remarkable five percent since he took office in 2007. Naturally, Correa’s rejection of neoliberal policies has earned him a fair share of enemies, especially among the elites who have traditionally governed Ecuador. In 2010, he resisted a coup attempt led by Lucio Gutierrez, a former president who earned the wrath of Ecuador’s poor by implementing crushing IMF-imposed austerity measures.

Correa’s opponents may have resorted to zero-sum politics, but his response has not always been judicious. He has, for example, advanced criminal libel laws as a means of punishing opposition media and has battled indigenous groups that protested his attempts to open their land up to wide-scale state mining operations. The Committee to Protect Journalists has accused Correa of leading Ecuador “into a new era of widespread repression.”

Of all the enemies Correa has earned, some of his fiercest reside not in Quito, but in the conservative think tanks of Washington. They include George W. Bush’s former Latin America handlers and a coterie of corporate-bankrolled right-wing radicals determined to unravel the South American socialist bloc.

Ezequiel Vazquez Ger, an Argentina-born economist, is among the most aggressive of Correa’s antagonists. Vazquez Ger works for a DC-based lobbying firm run by Otto Reich, a Cuban exile who served as the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs under the second Bush administration. In 1987, Reich was singled out during the US Comptroller General’s investigation of Iran-Contra for having “engaged in prohibited, covert propaganda activities” on behalf of the Nicaraguan Contras. He is also suspected of helping the anti-Castro terrorist Orlando Bosch escape prosecution in Venezuela.

Reich contracted Vazquez Ger in 2011 to help him oversee a portfolio of corporate clients that included Lockheed Martin, Exxon Mobil, and Bacardi International, the rum company whose lawyers drafted much of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act tightening the US embargo of Cuba. Before he partnered with Reich, Vazquez Ger served as a Latin American fellow at the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, a corporate funded think tank that promotes climate change denialism and sweeping deregulation policies.

To compliment their lobbying operation, Vazquez Ger and Reich have churned out a steady stream of op-eds for publications from Foreign Policy to Fox News to the Miami Herald, demonizing the socialist leaders of South America who have stifled the ambitions of multi-national corporations. During the past year, they homed in on Correa, assailing him for sheltering Assange while he cracked down on opposition media. In a June 2012 op-ed for the right-wing Newsmax website, Reich and Vazquez Ger cited Assange as a key reason why the US should refuse to sign any further trade agreements with Ecuador. “Signing or renewing trade agreements with Ecuador will only allow Rafael Correa to continue undermining US foreign policy,” they wrote, “trading with our enemies, and destroying his country’s democracy.” (Following threats from Congress over its alleged offer to shelter Snowden, Ecuador’s government unilaterally rejected US trade preferences).

When Buzzfeed published its expose on Ecuador, Vazquez Ger was overjoyed. A heavily trafficked US news site had recycled he and Reich’s attacks on Correa’s support for Assange, this time framing Ecuador’s president as a hypocrite for supposedly offering asylum to Snowden. At 7:28 PM on June 25 -- a full 27 minutes after the article appeared -- Vazquez Ger took to Twitter to promote the piece to his Spanish-language followers. Next, he personally thanked Buzzfeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith “for unmasking [Correa’s] hypocrisy.”

The following day, at a press conference in Ecuador, Interior Minister Jose Serrano was asked to answer for the Buzzfeed report. Buzzfeed’s Gray quickly picked up Serrano’s defensive comments, quoting them in a follow-up story alongside a strident denunciation of Correa’s sheltering of Assange by Cléver Jiménez, a key opposition leader. Meanwhile, Alek Boyd projected the story of Ecuador’s surveillance deal into South American media, publishing it as an “exclusive” in Semana, a leading Colombian daily.

Whoever planted the story with Buzzfeed appeared to have scored a major success, exploiting the Snowden drama to tarnish the image of Ecuador’s government. Though the identity of the source that triggered the operation may never be known, their agenda does not seem to be much of a mystery anymore.

Max Blumenthal is a senior writer for AlterNet, and the award-winning author of Goliath and Republican Gomorrah. Find him on Twitter at @MaxBlumenthal.