Billionaire eBay founder who has partnered closely with many of the U.S.-funded outfits that fulfill the role the CIA used to play during the Cold War, supporting opposition media and civil society in countries targeted for regime change. However, Omidyar has also sought state-of-the-art design solutions from a shady U.S. government national security consulting firm with a myriad of ties to the hawkish D.C. foreign policy establishment.
In February 2018, USAID’s Global Development Lab published a series of reports furnished for it by a small, Arlington, Virginia-based company focused on design solutions for national security problems, with a mere 10 employees listed on its website and eight on its LinkedIn page. Those reports caught the attention of journalist Michael Igoe at Devex.
The company, Frontier Design Group, analyzed the feasibility of essentially militarizing USAID. The report proposals like “Rapid Expeditionary Development” (RED) teams. Those teams would be embedded with U.S. Special Forces, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration outside of typical USAID areas of operation.
They would be “trained and authorized to conduct themselves as a force-multiplier able to contribute a full suite of security skills as needed,” the documents suggested. RED team officers would also be trained for “survival, evasion, resistance, and escape,” negotiations, civil reconnaissance, “and weapons qualification courses.”
Frontier interviewed 36 experts for its report, including a 15-year USAID veteran who told them, “we have to be involved in national security or USAID will not be relevant.” The issue identified by many in the report was that USAID was losing its cutting edge and was hamstrung because it was not allowed to operate in conflict zones.
USAID told Devex that it is “still working on the details in formulating the Rapid Expeditionary Development Teams initiative.”
Another Frontier Design Group client is the Omidyar Group, further demonstrating the eBay founder’s proximity to shady government contractors.
Frontier Design Group touts its work with the Omidyar Group on a number of its posts on Instagram. It also lists Omidyar Group second in its portfolio. Other Frontier Design Group clients include the Council on Foreign Relations think tank and U.S. Army Special Forces.
Karen Grattan — a senior advisor at Frontier Design Group, with a background in “conduct[ing] study and analysis within the Operations Analysis Division of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command” — has even more extensive ties to Omidyar. She is the founder and CEO of Engaging Inquiry, a Fairfax, Virginia-based firm that has enjoyed the Omidyar Group as a client since 2015. Also on its client roster are Omidyar’s Democracy Fund and Humanity United, as well as USAID and the Department of Defense.
The Omidyar Group’s liaison to Frontier Design Solutions appears to be Systems Complexity Coach Robert Ricigliano, a founder of the Alliance for Peacebuilding. This network has previously hosted Grattan for a panel that tackled issues such as “can online bots build peace?”
Omidyar’s cultural cold war
While quietly partnering with USAID and a firm at the forefront of the fight to keep the agency “relevant,” Omidyar, along with a select group of fellow billionaires, is also performing a critical service by providing a private funding channel for cultural vehicles that advance the agenda of Western foreign policy.
At the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, a short buddy comedy called The Climb generated a minor buzz. Weeks later, it was snapped up by a studio called Topic through its “digital storytelling platform.” The studio turned out to be a for-profit arm of Omidyar’s First Look Media, which invests heavily in filmmaking and documentary production. The film festival also happened to be a beneficiary of Omidyar’s spending, with Luminate donating to the Sundance Institute for creation of films “used strategically to articulate pressing public issues and movement-building campaigns.”
Among the films cited by Omidyar’s Luminate as a strategic success was The Last Men in Aleppo, an Oscar-nominated propaganda vehicle for the Syrian White Helmets that was produced by the Sundance Institute. The White Helmets are a Syrian insurgent-aligned “civil rescue” group founded in Turkey by a British former military intelligence officer. Operating exclusively in rebel-held territory, including in the al Qaeda-controlled Idlib province, the White Helmets have been funded by USAID, the U.K. Foreign Office and the Qatari monarchy.
Through its U.K.-based public-relations arm, the Syria Campaign, the White Helmets were at the forefront of a public-relations push for U.S. airstrikes and sanctions against the state of Syria. Omidyar’s The Intercept served as a vehicle for that PR campaign, featuring a piece by staff writer Murtaza Hussain that read like a press release for the White Helmets.
Through Topic and another film studio that Omidyar funds – First Look’s Field of Vision “documentary unit” – the billionaire has overseen two productions on the Panama Papers, named after the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, whose internal documents were leaked to a German newspaper. The document trove exposed the internal data of 214,000 offshore companies, revealing financial corruption on a global scale.
The almost total absence of critical coverage that Omidyar enjoys is partly the product of his aversion to publicity. Unlike Soros, who seems to yearn for the media limelight, Omidyar is an eccentric figure who owns a “safe house” in the wilds of the American West; he interacts with business partners in virtual-reality simulations he funds, and has been magnetized by New Age gurus. But the free pass Omidyar has received from the media is also a testament to how much money he has channeled into it – as well into the organizations that ostensibly exist to keep it honest.
While backing media outlets around the world that produce news and commentary, Omidyar supports a global cartel of self-styled fact-checking groups that determine which outlets are legitimate and which are “fake.” He has also thrown his money behind murky initiatives like the non-profit backing New Knowledge, the data firm that waged one of the most devious disinformation campaigns in any recent American election campaign; and he is a key backer of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism (ICIJ), the outfit that holds the Panama Papers and oversees the strategic dissemination of that leaked trove of financial files to hand-picked journalists.
Omidyar’s political agenda came into sharper focus last May when he began funding the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a pet project of neoconservative operative Bill Kristol that has stoked public fear of Russian infiltration of social media. This December, it appears that Omidyar’s donations helped Kristol launch a new online magazine called The Bulwark — rebranding the defunct Weekly Standard, which had served as the banner publication of the neocon movement and a central organ for promoting America’s wars. As usual, the billionaire’s activities were ignored in progressive media, leaving the critical coverage to a few right-wing outlets frustrated with Kristol’s anti-Trump crusading.
Omidyar’s support for the same neocon guru who oversaw the publication of an article branding NSA spying whistleblower Edward Snowden as a “traitor” should place the ebay founder’s acquisition of the Snowden files in a disturbing light. By establishing The Intercept and recruiting the journalists who possessed Snowden’s leaks, the billionaire effectively privatized the files. Not only did this delay their release, it denied the public access to the information in order to supply his stable of hired reporters with exclusive scoops that continue to appear years after they were leaked. To this day, only a minuscule percentage of the Snowden files have been made public and, for whatever reason, none of those that have been released relate to ebay or its assorted business interests.
While hoarding this valuable trove, Omidyar has forged relationships with the very same private military contractor that Snowden fought to expose. Two years after founding The Intercept, Omidyar welcomed a man named Robert Lietzke to the Omidyar Fellows program. Lietzke is no small character — he happened to have been Snowden’s former boss, reportedly one of “three principals [running] day to day operations” at the Hawaii branch of the Booz Allen Hamilton defense firm where Snowden toiled as an NSA contractor.
The Omidyar Group did not respond to requests for comment on Omidyar’s involvement with the publication of the Snowden documents. Additionally, The Intercept did not respond to questions about the extent of control Omidyar’s First Look Media enjoys over the Snowden archive.
Through his purchase of influence over the daily flow of information to American media consumers, a dizzying array of connections to the national security state, and a media empire that shields him from critical scrutiny, Omidyar has become one of the world’s most politically sophisticated data monarchs.
In today’s backlash over Silicon Valley’s contracts with American military and intelligence agencies, people are focused on Facebook, Google and Amazon — while Pierre Omidyar’s eBay has been entirely ignored. But Omidyar has been at the forefront of building out Silicon Valley’s global private-public surveillance apparatus.
For the past decade Omidyar has quietly worked to expand eBay’s privatized surveillance-state model beyond online sales and into elections, media, transportation, education, finance, as well as government administration. His vehicle for that: the Omidyar Group, an investment vehicle that bankrolls hundreds of startups, business and non-profits around the world.”
Omidyar’s political empire consists of a web of organizations overseen by its center of administration: the Omidyar Group. Each outfit appears to be an independent entity with its own staff and directors. Taken together, however, these organizations pursue a mission that reflects the vision of the billionaire behind it. Below are the seven initiatives spun out of the Omidyar Group:
- Ulupono Initiative: This group seems to be focused on supporting mundane activities, mostly centered in Omidyar’s home state of Hawaii. However, a look under the hood reveals national security-state connections. For example, Ulupono sponsors a Defense Department gala for contractors like Snowden’s former employer, Booz Allen Hamilton. What’s more, a former VP at Booz Allen, Kyle Datta, is also a general partner of Ulupono.
- Humanity United: This NGO was founded after the largest human trafficking scandal in U.S. history (detailed later in this investigation) was exposed on the Maui Pineapple farm in which Omidyar had invested. Ostensibly formed to combat slavery, Humanity United has also been used to fund The Guardian, a liberal British newspaper that has provided positive coverage to and collaborated with numerous Omidyar-backed initiatives.
- Hopelab: An initiative that focuses on encouraging a “behavioral change” and “mindshift” in teen and young-adult cancer survivors through “positive psychology skills” like “practicing gratitude,” “mindfulness,” and “random acts of kindness.” The group’s mission reflects the New Age sensibility of Omidyar and his wife, Pam, as well as the billionaire’s interest in potentially profitable data-gathering ventures. (Medical data is at the center of an ongoing debate about the use of artificial intelligence in various industries.)
- Luminate: Luminate has doled out $314 million to 236 organizations around the world. As outlined earlier, this organization is run by Ben Scott, a former Obama administration official who also served in Hillary Clinton’s state department. Scott led the previously noted “semi-secret” January 26 workshop where Canadian news “stakeholders” discussed the government’s plan for a “news industry bailout” of $645 million in subsidies. A day earlier, the Bureau of Investigative Journalists announced a $1 million contribution from Luminate over the next two years. Luminate is Omidyar’s central hub for funding a cartel of fact-checking outlets around the globe. It continues to fund the pro-Israel Anti-Defamation League after the Omidyar Network provided seed money for the group’s Silicon Valley internet monitoring center.
- Omidyar Network: With offices in Washington, Silicon Valley, and six foreign countries, the Omidyar Network propagates the neoliberal ideology of its billionaire namesake through “impact investing” and a “property rights” initiative. Outside the U.S., the Omidyar Network funds an array of foreign media outlets, like Ukraine’s Hromadske and the Philippines-based Rappler, that have participated in pro-Western information warfare-style campaigns against rogue governments. In Zimbabwe, where the Omidyar Network supports a series of oppositional youth organizing initiatives through the Magambe Network, an Omidyar employee was arrested, accused of attempting to stir up a revolt through online organizing, and ultimately released (the incident is detailed later in this article). This February 12, Rappler editor-in-chief Maria Ressa was arrested as well, accused of “cyber-libel” by the Filipino government for a 2012 article. The Omidyar Network and the Omidyar-funded Committee to Protect Journalists have set up a $500,000 legal defense fund for Ressa.
- First Look Media: This organization is the main arm for supporting the cutting-edge media projects produced under Omidyar’s watch. Besides The Intercept, First Look funds a documentary division called Field of Vision that has overseen films about high profile journalists. Past productions include Risk, a negative portrayal of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange that prompted Wikileaks lawyers to accuse its director, Laura Poitras, of “undermin[ing] WikiLeaks just as the Trump administration has announced that it intends to prosecute its journalists, editors and associates.” A Field of Vision documentary on the Panama Papers functioned as a PR vehicle for the Omidyar-funded International Consortium of Investigative Journalism that holds the documents, and features journalist Luke Harding in its trailer. Harding is the Russia-obsessed Guardian correspondent who recently fabricated a report on meetings between Assange and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. First Look also sponsors the for-profit studio Topic, which is producing another film on the Panama Papers, The Laundromat, starring Meryl Streep and Antonio Banderas.
- Democracy Fund: The main arm of Omidyar-backed activist media initiatives, this group funds a collection of groups like the Center for Public Integrity that advocate transparency in politics. At the same time, the Democracy Fund backs Bill Kristol’s neoconservative mini-empire Defending Democracy Together, and provides support to his new Cold War vehicle, the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a project of the German Marshall Fund think tank. Omidyar’s Democracy Fund has donated to German Marshall Fund’s Defending Digital Democracy project, as well the German Marshall Fund itself.