The FBI has executed a string of search warrants targeting the homes and cell phones of Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe and several others associated with that organization. It should require no effort to understand why it is a cause for concern that a Democratic administration is using the FBI to aggressively target an organization devoted to obtaining and reporting incriminating information about Democratic Party leaders and their liberal allies.
That does not mean the FBI investigation is inherently improper. Journalists are no more entitled than any other citizen to commit crimes. If there is reasonable cause to believe O’Keefe and his associates committed federal crimes, then an FBI investigation is warranted as it is for any other case. But there has been no evidence presented that O’Keefe or Project Veritas employees have done anything of the sort, nor any explanation provided to justify these invasive searches. That we should want and need that is self-evident: if the Trump-era FBI had executed search warrants inside the newsrooms of The New York Times and NBC News, we would be demanding evidence to prove it was legally justified. Yet virtually nothing has been provided to justify the FBI’s targeting of O’Keefe and his colleagues, and the little that has been disclosed by way of justifying this makes no sense.
The FBI investigation concerns the theft last year of the diary of Joe Biden’s daughter, Ashley, yet Project Veritas, while admitting they received a copy from an anonymous source, chose not to publish that diary because they were unable to verify it. Nobody and nothing thus far suggests that Project Veritas played any role in its acquisition, legal or otherwise. There is a cryptic reference in the search warrant to transmitting stolen material across state lines, but it is not illegal for journalists to receive and use material illegally acquired by a source: the most mainstream organizations spent the last month touting documents pilfered from Facebook by their heroic “whistleblower” Frances Haugen.
On Monday night, we produced an in-depth video report examining the FBI’s targeting of O’Keefe and Project Veritas and the dangers it presents (as we do for all of our Rumble videos, the transcript will soon be made available to subscribers here; for now, you can watch the video at the Rumble link). One of the primary topics of our report was the authoritarian tactic that is typically used to justify governmental attacks on those who report news and disseminate information: namely, to decree that the target is not a real journalist and therefore has no entitlement to claim the First Amendment guarantee of a free press.
This not-a-real-journalist tactic was and remains the primary theory used by those who justify the ongoing attempt to imprison Julian Assange. In demanding Assange’s prosecution under the Espionage Act, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) wrote in The Wall Street Journal that “Mr. Assange claims to be a journalist and would no doubt rely on the First Amendment to defend his actions.” Yet the five-term Senator insisted: “but he is no journalist: He is an agitator intent on damaging our government, whose policies he happens to disagree with, regardless of who gets hurt.”
This not-a-real-journalist slogan was also the one used by both the CIA and the corporate media against myself and my colleagues in both the Snowden reporting we did in 2013, as well as the failed attempt to criminally prosecute me in 2020 for the year-long Brazil exposés we did: punishing them is not an attack on press freedom because they are not journalists and what they did is not journalism.
What is most striking about this weapon is that — like the campaign to agitate for more censorship — it is led by journalists. It is the corporate media that most aggressively insists that those who are independent, those who are outsiders, those who do not submit to their institutional structures are not real journalists the way they are, and thus are not entitled to the protections of the First Amendment. In order to create a framework to deny Project Veritas’s status as journalists, The New York Times claimed last week that anyone who uses undercover investigations (as Veritas does) is automatically a non-journalist because that entails lying — even though, just two years earlier, the same paper heralded numerous news outlets such as Al Jazeera and Mother Jones for using undercover investigations to accomplish what they called “compelling” reporting.
I am very well-acquainted with this repressive tactic of trying to decree who is and is not a real journalist for purposes of constitutional protection. Many have forgotten — given the awards it ultimately ended up winning — that the NSA/Snowden reporting we did in 2013 was originally maligned as quasi-criminal not just by Obama national security officials such as James Clapper but also by The New York Times. The first profile the Paper of Record published about me the day after the reporting began referred to me in the headline as an “Anti-Surveillance Activist” and then, once backlash ensued, it was changed to “Blogger” (the original snide, disqualifying headline is still visible in the URL).
The Guardian, Jan. 29, 2014
As the New York Times‘ own Public Editor at the time objected, by purposely denying me the label “journalist,” the paper was knowingly increasing the risks that I could be prosecuted for my reporting. Indeed, recent reporting from Yahoo! News about CIA plots to kidnap or murder Julian Assange reported that denying Assange the label “journalist,” and then re-defining what I and my colleague Laura Poitras were doing from “journalist” to “information broker,” would enable the U.S. Government to spy on or even prosecute us without having to worry about that inconvenient “free press” guarantee of the First Amendment.
New York Times, June 6, 2013
All of this demonstrates how dangerous it is to invoke this very same not-a-real-journalist tactic against O’Keefe and Project Veritas. Yet, if one warns of the dangers of the FBI’s actions, that is precisely what one hears from liberals, from Democrats and from their allies in the media: the FBI’s targeting of Project Veritas has nothing to do with press freedoms since they’re not real journalists. They are invoking the authoritarian theory that maintains that the state (or, in this case, the FBI) is vested with the power to decree who is a “real journalist” — whatever that means — and who is not.
There are so many ironies to the use of this framework. So often, employees of media corporations who have never broken a major story in their lives (and never will) revel in accusing independent journalists who have broken numerous major stories (such as Assange) of not being real journalists. At the height of the Snowden reporting, I went on Meet the Press in July, 2013, only for the host, David Gregory, to suggest that I ought to be in prison alongside my source Edward Snowden because I was not really a journalist the way David Gregory was. At the time, Frank Rich, writing in New York Magazine, noted how bizarre it was that the TV personality David Gregory assumed he was a real journalist, whereas I was a non-journalist who belonged in prison for my reporting, given that Gregory — like most employees of large media corporations — had never broken any story in his life. Rich used a Q&A format to make the point this way:
On Sunday, Meet the Press host David Gregory all but accused the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald of aiding and abetting Edward Snowden’s fugitive travels, asking, “Why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?” And, speaking to his larger point, do you see Greenwald as a journalist or an activist in this episode? And does it matter?
Is David Gregory a journalist? As a thought experiment, name one piece of news he has broken, one beat he’s covered with distinction, and any memorable interviews he’s conducted that were not with John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Dick Durbin, or Chuck Schumer. Meet the Press has fallen behind CBS’s Face the Nation, much as Today has fallen to ABC’s Good Morning America, and my guess is that Gregory didn’t mean to sound like Joe McCarthy (with a splash of the oiliness of Roy Cohn) but was only playing the part to make some noise. In any case, his charge is preposterous. As a columnist who published Edward Snowden’s leaks, Greenwald was doing the job of a journalist — and the fact that he’s an “activist” journalist (i.e., an opinion journalist, like me and a zillion others) is irrelevant to that journalistic function. . . . [I]t’s easier for Gregory to go after Greenwald, a self-professed outsider who is not likely to attend the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and works for a news organization based in London. Presumably if Gregory had been around 40 years ago, he also would have accused the Times of aiding and abetting the enemy when it published Daniel Ellsberg’s massive leak of the Pentagon Papers. In any case, Greenwald demolished Gregory on air and on Twitter (“Who needs the government to try to criminalize journalism when you have David Gregory to do it?”).
At the time — both in terms of that exchange with Gregory and my overall reporting on the NSA — I had significant support from the liberal-left (though it was far from universal, given that we were exposing mass, indiscriminate, illegal spying by the Obama administration). But few believed that I ought to be prosecuted on the grounds that, somehow, I was not a real journalist.
So why are so many of them now willing to endorse this same exact theory when it comes to O’Keefe and Project Veritas, or even to justify the prosecution of Julian Assange? The answer is obvious. They are unwilling and/or incapable of thinking in terms of principles, ones that apply universally to everyone regardless of their ideology. Their thought process never even arrives at that destination. When the subject of the FBI’s attacks on O’Keefe is raised, or the DOJ’s prosecution of Assange is discussed, they ask themselves one question and only one question, and that ends the inquiry. It is the exclusive and determinative factor: do I like James O’Keefe and his politics? Do I like Julian Assange and his politics?
This primitive, principle-free, personality-driven prism is the only way they are capable of understanding the world. Because they dislike O’Keefe and/or Assange, they instantly side with whoever is targeting them — the FBI, the DOJ, the security state services — and believe that anyone who defends them is defending a right-wing extremist rather than defending the non-ideological, universally applicable principle of press freedoms. They think only in terms of personalities, not principles.
The FBI’s actions against Project Veritas and O’Keefe are so blatantly alarming that press freedom groups such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Freedom of the Press Foundation (on whose Board I sit) have expressed grave concerns about it, including on their social media accounts for all to see. Even the ACLU — which these days is loathe to speak out in favor of any person or group disliked by their highly partisan liberal donor base — issued a very carefully hedged statement that made clear how much they despise Project Veritas but said: “Nevertheless, the precedent set in this case could have serious consequences for press freedom” (at least thus far, the ACLU has just quietly stuck this statement on its website and not uttered a word about it on its social media accounts, where most of its liberal donors track what they do, but the fact that they felt compelled to say anything in defense of this right-wing boogieman demonstrates how extreme the FBI’s actions are). The federal judge overseeing the warrants has temporarily enjoined the FBI from extracting any more information from the cell phones seized from O’Keefe and other Project Veritas employees pending a determination of their legal justification.
Committee to Protect Journalists, Nov. 15, 2021
The reason this is such a grave press freedom attack is two-fold. First, as indicated, any attempt to anoint oneself the arbiter of who is and is not a “real journalist” for purposes of First Amendment protection is inherently tyrannical. Which institutions are sufficiently trustworthy and competent to decree who is a real journalist meriting First Amendment protection and who falls outside as something else?
But there is a much more significant problem with this framework: namely, the question of who is and is not a real journalist is completely irrelevant to the First Amendment. None of the rights in the Constitution, including press freedom, was intended to apply only to a small, cloistered, credentialed, privileged group of citizens. The exact opposite was true: the only reason they are valuable as rights is because they enjoy universal application, protecting all citizens.
Indeed, one of the most passionate grievances of the American colonists was that nobody was permitted to use the press unless first licensed by the British Crown. Conversely, the most celebrated journalism of the time was undertaken by people like Thomas Paine — who never worked for an established journalistic outlet in his life — as he circulated the pamphlet Common Sense that railed against the abuses of the King. What was protected by the First Amendment was not a small, privileged caste bearing the special label “journalists,” but rather the activity of a free press. The proof of this is clear and ample, and is set forth in the video we produced on Monday night.
But none of this matters. If you express concern for the FBI’s targeting of O’Keefe, it will be instantly understood not as a concern about any of these underlying principles but instead as an endorsement of O’Keefe’s politics, journalism, and O’Keefe himself. The same is true for the discourse surrounding Kyle Rittenhouse. If you say that — after having actually watched the trial — you believe the state failed to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in light of his defense of self-defense, many will disbelieve your sincerity, will insist that your view is based not in some apolitical assessment of the evidence or legal principles about what the state must do in order to imprison a citizen, but rather that you must be a “supporter” of Rittenhouse himself, his ideology (whatever it is assumed to be), and the political movement with which he, in their minds, is associated.
On some level, this is pure projection: those who are incapable of assessing political or legal conflicts through a prism of principles rather than personalities assume that everyone is plagued by the same deficiency. Since they decide whether to support or oppose the FBI’s actions toward O’Keefe based on their personal view of O’Keefe rather than through reference to any principles, they assume that this is how everyone is determining their views of that situation. Similarly, since they base their views on whether Rittenhouse should be convicted or acquitted based on how they personally feel about Rittenhouse and his perceived politics rather than the evidence presented at the trial (which most of them have not watched), they assume that anyone advocating for an acquittal can be doing so only because they like Rittenhouse’s politics and believe that his actions were heroic.
In sum, those who view the world through a prism bereft of principles — either due to lack of intellectual capacity or ethics or both — assume everyone’s world view is similarly craven. It is this same stunted mindset that saddles our discourse with so much illogic and so many twisted presumptions, such as the inability to distinguish between defending someone’s right to express a particular opinion and agreement with that opinion. In a world in which ideology, partisan loyalty, tribal affiliations, in-group identity and personality-driven assessments predominate, there is no room for principles, universally applicable rights, or basic reason.