CNN Analyst Michael Weiss Hosted Anti-Muslim Rally with Far-Right Hate Queen Pamela Geller
On June 4, CNN terminated its contract with Reza Aslan, the popular religion pundit, bestselling author and host of the network’s recently released show "Believer." A day earlier, Aslan had become infuriated by President Donald Trump’s call for restoring a Muslim travel ban in response to a terror attack committed in London by a British national. Aslan took to Twitter to call Trump a “piece of sh*t” and “an embarrassment to America.” Though Aslan quickly deleted his tweet and apologized, CNN caved to pressure from right-wing bloggers, who dredged up other derogatory comments Aslan had tweeted about Republicans years before.
In a statement about his firing, Aslan said, “I recognize that CNN needs to protect its brand as an unbiased news source.”
Back in April, just weeks before CNN fired Aslan, the network hired Michael Weiss, already a contributor to the network, to bolster its investigative team as a reporter for international affairs. Weiss had been a regular contributor for CNN since 2015, fashioning himself an expert on everything from the Syrian civil war and ISIS to Russian geopolitical subterfuge.
A look back at Weiss’ activist history reveals a clear double-standard in CNN’s hiring-and-firing decisions. While Aslan, who happens to be Muslim, had his contract terminated for a crudely worded tweet, Weiss was hired despite having organized a major anti-Muslim rally held in the heart of New York City that attracted help from Pamela Geller, an Islamophobic demagogue identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as the "anti-Muslim movement's most visible and flamboyant figurehead.”
When I relayed to Reza Aslan the news that Weiss had been hired as a lead correspondent for CNN's investigative team, he told me he was "shocked and dismayed that CNN would choose someone with such a clearly documented history of xenophobia and anti-Muslim activism like that to represent the network." Aslan could not comment on the cancellation of his show as he was in the midst of negotiations with CNN.
Weiss has described the New York rally as one of his proudest achievements. It was organized in support of Danish cartoonists who had depicted the Islamic prophet Mohammed as a mass murderer and terrorist, and who painted Muslim immigrants as unassimilable fanatics. Weiss was on his way up in the neoconservative movement, and would soon be hired by one of the premier anti-immigrant think tanks in the West, the Henry Jackson Society.
Today, Weiss is best known as a self-styled expert on Russia and Syria who has promoted regime change in both countries with an almost unmatched fervor. Despite the irony of an anti-Muslim free speech crusader emerging as one of the most aggressive promoters of Syria’s Islamist rebels, or perhaps because of it, Weiss has become the face and voice of next-generation neoconservatism. His hiring by a top American cable news network marked the culmination of his long, strange transformation from political public relations agent to credentialed reporter. Behind the patina of journalistic seriousness, Weiss still bears the sectarian fervor of a neocon operative carrying out an ulterior ideological agenda.
AlterNet sent a detailed list of questions and request for comment to Weiss' publicly listed email. He did not immediately respond.
From Zooperville to Snarksmith
Michael Weiss' political journey began back when he was a student at Dartmouth in the late 1990s. In the school’s student paper, the Dartmouth, Weiss amused his classmates with his satirical comic strip, Zooperville, and offended many others when he published a cartoon apparently depicting a gay student getting an erection while being subjected to a fraternity’s “time-honored ass-paddling hazing rituals.” Weiss joked that the student left the frat so he could “listen to his Bjork and Erasure mix-tapes without headphones.” A student named Jared Knote complained to the Dartmouth, “The publication of this abhorrent (not to mention humorless) ‘funny’ exacerbates what is already epidemic: homophobia.” (Weiss was also accused by a classmate of gratuitously mocking a mentally ill student in a separate Zooperville comic.)
After graduating in 2002, Weiss widened his circle of followers through his blog Snarksmith. On the blog, which Weiss has deleted but whose archives were retrieved for this article, he argued vehemently in support of Bush’s invasion of Iraq and boasted about a “tete a tete” he held with the British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg “at a Cosi cafe in the old Trotskysant Left's stomping ground of the Upper West Side.” Well before he had established himself as an expert on world affairs, Weiss slipped jokes about Frank Miller’s Dark Knight series into a blog post on an incident in the Turkish city of Batman.
Weiss became a prolific contributor to outlets like the Weekly Standard, Jewcy, Slate and Harry’s Place, emulating the wordy, bottle-and-thesaurus style of his idol, Christopher Hitchens. On Snarksmith’s sidebar, he featured a lengthy disquisition he wrote on the “fables and truths of neoconservatism,” an entry that was densely packed with overblown, extravagant language. (A typical passage: “An old moral protractor of the Left Opposition used to measure the angles by which one could make common cause with exponents of a hoary conservatism for the purposes of eliminating a far more exigent threat of reaction.”)
But Weiss was hardly content to remain latched to a laptop pecking away about neocon godfathers; like his intellectual heroes, he was an aspiring rabble-rouser with a hunger for political street theater.
In a 2007 interview, Weiss was asked to describe his “best blogging experience.” He replied that it was, “Organizing a 'Solidarity with Denmark' rally—after the flap about the Mohammed cartoons—in New York City. It was attended by over a hundred people, most of whom had interesting things to say.” This was a delicate way of describing a demonstration that brought together some of the biggest names in the burgeoning Islamophobia industry.
Rallying for anti-Muslim cartoons with Pam Geller
In March 2006, Weiss organized a rally outside the Danish consulate in New York City to demonstrate solidarity with the 12 Danish cartoonists who drew images of Mohammed for the center-right publication Jyllands-Posten. Promoted as an exhibition of free speech, the cartoons elicited worldwide outrage from Muslims and sparked protests and even rioting, along with campaigns to boycott Denmark by Middle Eastern governments. (Weiss was among the right-wing bloggers who spread a false story that jihadists had attempted to kidnap the daughter of one of the Danish cartoonists; he issued a correction the day after his rally.)
The Jyllands-Posten cartoons exuded contempt not only for the religion of Islam, but toward Muslim immigrants to Denmark. One satirist depicted immigrants as anti-democratic fanatics incapable of integration. Another cartoon showed Mohammed holding back a parade of would-be suicide bombers seeking to get into heaven, exclaiming, “Stop, stop, we have run out of virgins.” Another depicted his head as a ticking bomb.
Weiss’s rally gathered about 100 people, many dressed in traditional Danish garb. Some carried anodyne messages of support for the Danish government, while others waved more provocative placards reading, “No Burkhas on Free Cartoons.”
“Today's rally could not have gone better,” Weiss declared after the demonstration. “There were easily over a hundred people on the scene, most of whom showed up early and stayed until 1 o’clock… Who can say that this isn't, at bottom, a struggle between life and death?”
On Snarksmith, Weiss also took time to thank the blogging colleagues who helped fill the ranks of the demonstration. “Luckily, Pamela from Atlas Shrugs came through like the Ayn Randian champ she is. All street theatre should be this well-coordinated,” Weiss said.
Pamela Geller—perhaps the most prominent Islamophobic blogger and activist in the English-speaking world—returned the praise, gushing on her blog about “the delicious Rally held in NYC in Support of Denmark, organized by Snark Smith, a lovelier group of freedom lovers you will never meet.”
Geller’s extremism was hardly a secret at the time. In the days just after the rally with Weiss, she took to her blog to rail against the Democratic “party of dhimmitude,” a term she used to describe the second-class status Christians and Jews have been relegated to under Islamic law. She branded Howard Dean “a Jew’s worst nightmare” because he spoke before the American Jewish Committee, a mainstream pro-Israel group. In another post, she claimed “an aggressive jihad was already being waged against the United States" during the 18th century. She then took aim at Jews supportive of a peace process with the Palestinian Authority: “The Jews are victims of their own ‘enlightenment.’ This road to hell may very well be paved with good intentions but leftist Jews are suicidal.”
Even as Weiss cultivated his image as a refined contrarian who punched out multi-part takedowns of Noam Chomsky while rubbing elbows with folk-rock celebrities in Upper West Side cafes, he echoed Geller’s conspiratorial warnings of a hostile Islamic takeover of the West. In a May 15, 2006 blog post defending the decision by Dutch anti-Muslim activist and serial fabricator Ayaan Hirsi Ali to take a fellowship at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, Weiss mocked her critics for their supposed belief that “the prospect of a black flag of jihad being raised over Amsterdam (or London, or Paris) is so much more equable than Richard Perle hovering around the same CoffeeMaker as this brave and sworn enemy of jihad.”
Geller, for her part, spent the following years mobilizing neo-fascists and ultra-Zionist cranks into a so-called “counter-jihadist” movement. In its entry on Geller, the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote that she “mingled comfortably with European racists and fascists” and “spoke at an event in Paris put on by the Bloc Identitaire, which opposes race-mixing and ‘Islamic imperialism.’”
The 2006 demonstrations Weiss organized in support of the Danish cartoonists foreshadowed the deliberately provocative “Draw Muhammad” contests that Geller later staged. In May 2015, a mentally disturbed American ISIS sympathizer was gunned down by local police outside one such event in Garland, Texas. Organized by Geller, the contest featured an appearance by Geert Wilders, the far-right Dutch politician who had become arguably the world’s most influential anti-Muslim elected official. An investigation by "60 Minutes" revealed that an FBI informant encouraged the failed attack on the cartoon contest and was mere feet away from the shooter at the scene of the crime, yet did nothing to intervene.
As Geller drifted off to the farthest shores of the right, Weiss was rising through the ranks of the British neoconservative movement, with his eyes on the mainstream spotlight.
PR agent for the U.K.’s top anti-immigrant think tank
In 2008, Weiss relocated from New York City to London to take a job as communications director with Just Journalism, an anti-Palestinian media monitoring group formed by the neoconservative Henry Jackson Society. Melanie Philips, the British anti-Muslim pundit and author of the Islamophobic screed Londonistan, called Just Journalism’s founding, “A very welcome and desperately needed initiative [that] has just been launched to monitor distortions, bias and prejudice in British media coverage of the Middle East.” The newfangled outfit also named Nina Rosenwald, one of world’s leading funders of the Islamophobia industry, as an advisor.
A year after Just Journalism was founded, its director, the former journalist Adel Darwish, resigned in protest. Darwish complained that "the project suffered from the start [from] the absence of any analyst or researcher with journalistic experience." He was especially disappointed that hires like Weiss “lacked the experience of being reporters on the ground and were never exposed to newsroom culture.” The group’s staffers were “young, impressionable and also zealous,” Darwish lamented.
In the aftermath of Darwish’s departure, Weiss rose to the position of director at Just Journalism. But he left soon after, in March 2010, to join the more high-profile Henry Jackson Society—yet another non-journalistic job for the young go-getter.
At HJS, Weiss set out to undermine then-director Marko Attila Hoare, who saw Weiss’ hiring as part of an overall effort by donors to drive the think tank deeper into neoconservative zealotry. Weiss' toxic presence was a key factor in Hoare’s resignation. Citing a former HJS staffer, the journalist and blogger Richard Silverstein reported, “Things became so acrimonious [Weiss] had to hire a lawyer and later sign a non-disparagement agreement so as not to air any dirty linen in public.”
Following his departure, Hoare described in a blog post how Weiss had appointed himself “acting director of research” and unsuccessfully attempted to prevent Hoare from publishing his own column at the HJS website. Weiss then proceeded to transform the think tank’s site into his own personal blog.
“Under Weiss’s direction, the website has been not entirely ungenerous in providing space for the promotion of his own work,” Hoare wrote. “At the time this article was first drafted, no fewer than five of the ten ‘commentary’ articles and three of the ten ‘blog’ articles on the HJS website were by Weiss.”
By this time, the Syrian civil war had begun and the drumbeat for a war of regime change against a country allied with Iran and Russia was intensifying by the day. Weiss, who had demonstrated scarce interest in Syria up until this point, suddenly refashioned himself as an expert on the situation.
Hoare was replaced by Douglas Murray, a xenophobic British pundit who was much more amenable to Weiss and the right-wing oligarchs driving the HJS agenda. Murray had insisted in a speech that, “Conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board,” and warned of a “demographic time-bomb which will soon see a number of our largest cities fall to Muslim majorities.” (Murray’s comments were too extreme for even the Conservative Party front bench, prompting its members to sever relations with him.)
Murray not only defended far-right politicians like Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Donald Trump from critics of their anti-immigrant positions, he openly decried the growth of Britain’s non-white population. “In 23 of London's 33 boroughs ‘white Britons’ are now in a minority,” Murray lamented, warning that “white voters” were “losing their country.”
While Murray escalated his Muslim bashing, Weiss invested increasing stores of energy into encouraging regime change in Syria, where a two-year proxy war was threatening the government of President Bashar al-Assad. The project was part of a longstanding neoconservative blueprint for the region that aimed to topple the governments of "seven countries in five years"—mostly Middle Eastern nations that had resisted American and Israeli ambitions in the region. With Iraq down and Syria in the crosshairs, Weiss positioned himself as the operation’s point man.
Rebel selfies and regime change fraud
Above: â€‹Michael Weiss in rebel-held Aleppo, August 2012, with Syrian rebels.
In August 2012, Weiss suddenly materialized on BBC as a "Syria analyst" for the Henry Jackson Society, where he had previously served as communications director. Weiss had just returned from Aleppo, the Syrian metropolis where rebels had taken several districts by force from the government. The rebel units included hardcore Islamist groups like Liwa al-Tawhid and Ahrar al-Sham, as well as Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda.
The presence of Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups among the rebels in Aleppo was widely reported at the time, including by the New York Times, which noted the campaign of terror it had waged in the city and against civilians in Damascus.
During his brief time in Aleppo, Weiss posed for a photo with two of the triumphant rebels. One of those insurgents was apparently a Syrian rebel commander named Yousef Ajjan Al-Hadid. Al-Hadid’s death soon after meeting Weiss was confirmed by the opposition-run Violations Documentation Center.
The other character in the photo appears to be Mahmoud Sheik Elzour, a Syrian from Hama who petitioned to stay in the United States on the grounds that he was persecuted in Syria for his family's support for the Muslim Brotherhood. When the Syrian rebellion began, Elzour returned home to join the rebels, serving as a fixer for many Western journalists. (He remains Facebook friends with Weiss.)
It might have seemed strange for Weiss, a right-leaning political operative who had worked with hardcore Islamophobes like Pam Geller and Douglas Murray, to suddenly be seen in the middle of a war zone palling around with Islamist guerillas. But the war in Syria had created strange bedfellows. As Jake Sullivan, a liberal interventionist foreign policy advisor to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, informed his boss, “AQ [Al Qaeda] is on our side in Syria.” Indeed, the Salafi-jihadi rebels battling the Syrian government had become the perfect proxies for neoconservatives like Weiss who longed for conflict with Iran and Russia — and offered them a prime opportunity to weaken the U.S.'s and Israel’s strongest regional adversaries.
After returning from his jaunt into Aleppo, Weiss linked up with the Syrian opposition in Washington to stimulate support for regime change. In June 2013, he co-authored an op-ed in the Atlantic with a 26-year-old opposition lobbyist named Elizabeth O’Bagy arguing that the U.S. military could easily “take out Assad’s air capability.”
Three months later, at a September 3, 2013 meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, both Secretary of State John Kerry and Sen. John McCain cited a Wall Street Journal editorial by O’Bagy — “Dr. Elizabeth O’Bagy,” her byline read — to support their assessment of the Syrian rebels as predominately “moderate,” and potentially Western-friendly.
Kerry insisted, “I just don’t agree that a majority [of the rebels] are al-Qaida and the bad guys.”
As I reported in 2013, Kerry and McCain had neglected to mention that O’Bagy was working as the political director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a State Department-funded lobbying arm of the Syrian opposition in Washington.
Cited in Congress as a leading expert on the Syrian armed opposition, O’Bagy had hardly spent more than a few months researching the topic, partly as an intern at the neoconservative, arms industry-funded Institute for the Study of War. Soon after her moment of glory in Congress, O’Bagy was exposed as a fraud who had faked her PhD from Georgetown University. She was swiftly fired by the ISW.
But in the grand tradition of neoconservatism, O’Bagy was kicked upstairs, rewarded for her deceit and failures with a plum job in the office of Sen. John McCain. "Elizabeth is a talented researcher, and I have been very impressed by her knowledge and analysis in multiple briefings over the last year,” McCain declared.
Weiss was on his way up as well. He would be hired as a senior editor by the Daily Beast, the neoconservative-oriented web tabloid, and was teaming up with Hassan Hassan of the Gulf-funded Middle East Institute to publish a book on ISIS.
Marko Attila Hoare scoffed at his former colleague’s attempts to style himself as a Syria expert. “Weiss is not, be it remembered, an academic expert on Syria and the Middle East...” Hoare wrote, “but merely an activist with strong views who follows events there closely.”
Bunk analysis and fake news, handsomely rewarded
Once Russia intervened in the Syrian conflict, neoconservative ideologues like Weiss found themselves in a quandary. As Secretary of State John Kerry privately acknowledged, Russia’s intervention had prevented ISIS and Al Qaeda from marching on Damascus. The Russian military was critical in removing ISIS from the ancient city of Palmyra, and had forced Al Qaeda-affiliated rebels from eastern Aleppo. The British military think tank IHS Jane’s, meanwhile, had identified the Syrian army as “the primary opponent” of ISIS — “the anvil to the US-led Coalition’s hammer” — confirming its effectiveness in pushing back jihadist forces. How could neocons like Weiss still claim to oppose jihadists while maintaining their vendetta against Russia and its allies?
Weiss attempted to pull off this neat trick through a series of intellectually contorted pieces asserting that Russia’s involvement in Syria was actually a boon to ISIS. “Russia’s Giving ISIS an Air Force,” was the headline of one of Weiss’s most ham-handed attempts to square the contradictions in his analysis. Arguing that Russia was “too busy killing the anti-Assad rebels supported and armed by the Central Intelligence Agency” to target ISIS, he suggested that ISIS would expand its influence as a result of Russian intervention.
Yet those supposedly “moderate” rebels that Weiss was promoting had often worked alongside ISIS (during the siege of the Menagh Airbase, for instance) or provided rearguard support to Al Qaeda (in Raqqa, Idlib, and Aleppo). When the “moderates” did confront jihadist forces, they proved impotent, and wound up having their arms taken and their fighters cannibalized. And when the CIA-backed Free Syrian Army attacked Syrian and Russia military assets, they diverted resources away from the fight against ISIS and Al Qaeda.
Looking back at the CIA’s program in Syria, Sam Heller of the Century Foundation described it this July as “an elaborate, Rube Goldbergian military-political project that could never work.”
Heller explained, “By last year—arguably earlier— CIA-backed northern rebels were mostly backfilling for either the Nusra Front [Al Qaeda] or Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist movement-opposition faction and Nusra’s erstwhile ally.”
He concluded, “The idea that the U.S. covert arms program in north Syria and CIA-backed FSA factions were somehow a bulwark against al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front was a fiction.”
Undeterred by the inconvenient facts on the ground, Weiss plowed ahead, recycling his bunk analysis again and again. After the Russian military helped the Syrian government recapture eastern Aleppo in December 2016 from a collection of foreign backed Islamist armed groups, Weiss teamed up with pro-opposition analyst Hassan Hassan to claim that Russia had just handed a massive "gift to ISIS."
When Robert Worth of the New York Times visited Aleppo in the aftermath of the rebels’ defeat, however, he found that the areas they occupied had been “almost as bad” as ISIS-held territory: “a chaotic wasteland full of feuding militias — some of them radical Islamists — who hoarded food and weapons while the people starved.”
With the rebels vanquished from their stronghold in Aleppo, the Syrian and Russian militaries were able to take the fight directly to ISIS in Deir Ezzor and outside Aleppo. They were also free to recapture Palmyra from ISIS, fully discrediting Weiss and Hassan’s assertions that concentrating on the armed groups in Aleppo revealed Russia’s lack of interest in taking on ISIS.
In the last days of the battle for Aleppo, Weiss published flagrantly fake news alleging that women in the city were committing mass suicide to avoid being raped by government forces. The lone source for that claim was Abdullah Othman, a commander of the Shamiya Front, a hardcore Salafist militia that is now formally allied with Ahrar al-Sham. Seven months since Weiss published the widely disseminated story, not a single piece of corroboration has been produced. The Daily Beast, for its part, has not corrected, clarified, or retracted the story.
Weiss previously claimed that “Assad’s militias… they lock whole Sunni families in their homes and set the house on fire and let the families cook alive.” He provided no sourcing or evidence to support his incendiary claim, noting only that, “You’re just not seeing it on CNN.”
Though he has affected concern for the human rights of Syrians, Weiss’s agenda has ultimately centered on encouraging a direct military confrontation with Russia. “Hardly a risk of ‘open-ended’ conflict with Russia in Syria. Entire Russian deployment could be wiped out in 48 hrs by US. Putin knows it,” he insisted on Twitter.
General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was far less cavalier than the former Dartmouth cartoonist, Snarksmith blogger and neoconservative public relations operative. “For us to control all of the air space in Syria would require us to go to war against Syria and Russia,” Dunford warned in congressional testimony, arguing against imposing a No Fly Zone.
Backing from the US government and a mob-tied Russian oligarch
As the Syrian conflict dies down, Weiss is rebranding himself as a Russia expert and vying for the limelight amidst the storm of accusations of collusion between Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump. Despite his penchant for tossing back buzzwords like kompromat, Weiss speaks little to no Russian and has left no record of reporting inside Russia.
“Weiss has reinvented himself also as an expert on Russia – about which he has no more academic expertise than he does about the Middle East,” his former colleague at the Henry Jackson Society, Hoare, wrote.
Back in 2011, Weiss established a “Russia Studies Centre,” or what Hoare derided as a “Potemkin village-like” operation “which describes itself grandiloquently as a ‘research and advocacy centre’, but is really just a website where Weiss blogs about Russia.”
After leaving HJS, Weiss folded his one-man Russia research center into The Interpreter, an online translation and blog site that takes a decidedly interventionist line against Russia’s government. This operation received its seed money and support from exiled Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose Open Russia organization has been dedicated to the replacement of Vladimir Putin with a more complaisant, Western-friendly government.
If Khodorkovsky had not founded his personal think tank, conspiracy theorists might have invented it. As the New York Times reported, the name of his Open Russia was "an echo of George Soros's Open Society Institute," and the outfit relied on funding from the family trust of Lord Rothschild while enlisting Henry Kissinger as a member of its board.
During the Boris Yeltsin era, when a cast of oligarchs were given free reign to buy up the state’s assets and pilfer its mineral wealth, Khodorkovsky’s Menatep bank was identified by the CIA in a 1995 report as one of the most corrupt financial institutions in the world, with documented ties to organized crime. Konstantin Kagalovsky, a top Menatep executive, was implicated by US investigators in a massive scheme to illegally launder billions of dollars from Russian mobsters in the Bank of New York.
Khodorkovsky’s Menatep bank was reported to be so corrupt, in fact, that it became the target of an undercover CIA investigation into the oligarch’s mob and KGB ties. The CIA operative who oversaw the investigation, Karon von Gerhke-Thompson, testified before Congress that she “volunteered [her] services as an unpaid intelligence asset to the CIA on a CIA operation to penetrate what the CIA, FBI and Department of Justice knew was a KGB money-laundering operation with tentacles that reached in the Kremlin to Boris Yeltsin.”
Given Khodorkovsky’s generous support for The Interpreter magazine, it can be fairly asserted that Weiss’s personal political operation originated with funds from a fortune that originated from the KGB and Russian mafia — a hilariously ironic aspect of a project dedicated to uncovering Russian mob and intelligence intrigues.
In 2015, Weiss placed The Interpreter under the patronage of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a public relations arm of the US government that emerged out of what the CIA called “one of the longest running and successful covert action campaigns ever mounted by the United States.” The move made Weiss a de facto US government employee while he oversaw a raft of articles at The Daily Beast purporting to expose Russian influence on American politics.
Today, The Interpreter is supported by the Atlantic Council, an aggressively pro-war think tank where Weiss serves as nonresident senior fellow. The Atlantic Council takes a reliably anti-Russian line and has served as a regular promotional platform for Western-backed Salafist rebels in Syria. It also happens to be funded by the US and NATO, along with some of the major bankrollers of Syrian rebels, including the governments of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey.
Another significant funder of the think tank where Weiss and his Interpreter are housed is the Ukrainian nationalist oligarch Victor Pinchuk. Pinchuk made his billions through a series of rigged privatization schemes for Ukrainian assets carried out under the watch of former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, who happened to be his father-in-law. Pinchuk was reportedly placed on a US visa blacklist for helping Viktor Yanukovych fix the fraudulent first round of elections in the recently deposed politician’s favor. After the triumph of the Orange Revolution that ousted Yanukovych, two of Pinchuk’s assets obtained in rigged auctions were seized and resold for much higher prices. Since then, the oligarch has realigned himself and his ill-begotten riches with the pro-Western forces of the post-Maidan government in Kiev.
For his part, Khodorkovsky has continued to support Weiss by funding the publication of a tract Weiss co-authored with the British writer Peter Pomarantsev arguing that Russia was “arguably more dangerous than a communist superpower.” The two unveiled their paper on the Russian “Menace of Unreality” in 2015 at an event sponsored by the Legatum Institute, a British think tank funded by the secretive billionaire vulture capitalist Christopher Chandler. (Pomarantsev served as senior fellow at Chandler’s Legatum.)
As journalist Mark Ames documented, “the Chandler brothers were the largest foreign portfolio investors in Russia throughout the 1990s into the first half of the 2000s, including the largest foreign investors in natural gas behemoth Gazprom.” Like Khodorkovsky, Chandler’s gravy train ended when Putin clamped down hard on the oligarchs and cultivated his own circle of nationalist-minded cronies. So he formed his own influence operation, snapping up neoconservative operatives like Pomerantsev and Weiss to rally Western opposition to Putin.
The National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a US government backed entity dedicated to encouraging regime change across the globe through the semi-covert backing of political opposition groups and media fronts, also provided a forum for Weiss and Pomarantsev’s white paper on Russian subversion.
In a bizarre twist, Weiss claimed to have received additional funding for his and Pomarentsev’s paper through a previously unknown source called the Herzen Foundation. When journalist James Carden searched for information about the foundation, he came to a stunning conclusion: “there is no evidence Herzen exists.”
According to Weiss and Pomarantsev’s paper, the Russian threat stemmed from a sophisticated global disinformation campaign waged by the Kremlin through outlets like RT and “far-left and far-right movements.” The authors demanded an “internationally recognized ratings system for disinformation,” a recipe for censorship that has since inspired crank online blacklists like PropOrNot. Weiss and Pomarantsev also argued that “media organizations that practice conscious deception should be excluded from the community.”
While avoiding a definition of deception, it was not difficult to imagine whom the two operatives would have singled out. As James Carden explained in a detailed profile of Weiss and Pomarantsev, “Organizations that do not share the authors’ enthusiasm for regime change in Syria or war with Russia over Ukraine would almost certainly be ‘excluded from the community.’”
Endangering ideological foes, threatening critics
The malevolent capacity Weiss has wielded against his perceived ideological foes was on full display when he targeted an Iranian-American businessman named Siamak Namazi. In his role as an editor at The Daily Beast, Weiss collaborated with and published an exiled operative named Nikahang Kowsar (who wrote under a pseudonym, Alex Shirazi, which he failed to disclose) to target Namazi with a thinly sourced, sensationalistic hit piece that branded him as part of “The Shady Family Behind America’s Iran Lobby.” At the time, Namazi was being interrogated by Iranian authorities, who suspected him of double dealing. “After The Daily Beast article came out, things got worse for Siamak,” Namazi’s cousin told the Huffington Post. Within a month, and thanks in no small part to Weiss’s handiwork, Namazi and his father were in Iran’s Evin prison.
When journalist and blogger Richard Silverstein highlighted Weiss’s role in the imprisonment of Namazi, Weiss took extreme measures to suppress the bad publicity. Kevin Rothrock, an editor at the Russia-focused news site, Meduza, received a series of angry emails from Weiss just hours after he tweeted out Silverstein’s article. “Right now, I’m compiling those who find [the article] persuasive enough to circulate,” Weiss wrote menacingly. He also demanded to speak to Rothrock’s employers at Meduza. Rothrock complained on Twitter, “This is the 2nd time Weiss has threatened my livelihood, after I tweeted a link to something criticizing his work.”
As we have seen, neoconservatives are consistently rewarded for their failures and deceitful behavior, whether they have trumped up a war on false pretenses, published fake news and half-truths, or simply gotten it all wrong on an issue where they claimed unique expertise. Weiss has committed all of these offenses and has been kicked upstairs each time. CNN was the latest outfit to award his ideologically driven gaffes with a high profile sinecure. But only weeks after being hired by the network, Weiss’s journalistic blooper reel expanded again.
Lex Harris, the CNN Investigates executive editor who hired Weiss, was among three employees fired by CNN for their role in publishing fake news accusing former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci of collusion with Russia. Since being hired by the disgraced Harris, it is not clear if Weiss has worked on a single investigative project.
Instead, Weiss is back to opinion blogging, hammering the alt-right in his most recent piece at CNN's website for its supposed sympathy for Bashar al-Assad. (Weiss was one of the earliest and most aggressive promoters of the defamatory term, "alt-left," which Trump wound up co-opting to demonize anti-fascists who protested a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.)
Weiss’s Twitter profile now identifies him as a “CNN Analyst for International Affairs,” suggesting that he was demoted just weeks after being promoted.
Whatever direction Weiss takes with the network, he can count on the support of a small but especially dedicated base. “Thanks for your patriotic work on this Michael,” Louise Mensch, the notoriously paranoid godmother of anti-Russian conspiracism, told Weiss. “You are an unsung hero, but those who know, know.”