Erik Prince, the founder of the mercenary firm Blackwater and brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, helped recruit former spies to infiltrate and gather intelligence about Democratic campaigns and labor organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers, according to an explosive report by The New York Times. The story exposes previously unreported details about the ties between Prince and Project Veritas, a right-wing group that often sets up sting operations targeting the media and journalists by recording covert videos. According to documents and interviews, one former spy recruited by Erik Prince helped run an operation to secretly tape leaders in the Michigan office of the American Federation of Teachers in 2017. In another instance, in 2018, the same undercover operative who gathered information about the AFT infiltrated the congressional campaign of former CIA officer Abigail Spanberger, who was running for Congress representing Virginia as a Democrat. We are joined by The Intercept’s investigative reporter Matthew Cole, who first broke the story of Erik Prince’s ties to the Trump administration last year.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Erik Prince, the founder of the mercenary firm Blackwater, brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, helped recruit former spies to infiltrate and gather intelligence about a Democratic congressional campaign and the American Federation of Teachers. That’s according to an explosive new New York Times report that exposes previously unreported details about the ties between Prince and Project Veritas, a right-wing group that often sets up sting operations, targeting, oh, everyone from Planned Parenthood to journalists, by recording covert videos.
According to The New York Times, one former spy recruited by Erik Prince helped run a Project Veritas operation to secretly tape leaders of the Michigan office of the American Federation of Teachers in 2017. The spy, named Richard Seddon, directed an undercover operative to gather and make public information that could damage the union. In response to The New York Times report, Derek Martin, director of the consumer watchdog Allied Progress, said, quote, “There’s not a lot of dots to connect here. 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,” he said.
In another instance in 2018, the same undercover operative who gathered information about the American Federation of Teachers infiltrated the congressional campaign of former CIA officer Abigail Spanberger, who was running and eventually won her seat in Congress, representing Virginia as a Democrat. The campaign fired the operative after discovering the operative’s identity.
Well, for more, we’re joined by The Intercept's Matthew Cole. He's the investigative journalist who first broke the story of Erik Prince’s ties to the Trump administration last year in his story headlined “The Complete Mercenary: How Erik Prince Used the Rise of Trump to Make an Improbable Comeback.” His latest piece, “The FBI Is Investigating Erik Prince for Trying to Weaponize Crop Dusters,” has recently been published.
It’s great to have you with us. So, let’s talk, Matthew, about this explosive front-page New York Times piece, that really is coming off of your investigation.
MATTHEW COLE: Yeah, what The New York Times was able to do was to figure out where Erik Prince’s team of former spies had helped Project Veritas in operations. What I reported last year for the first time was that Prince had paid for and arranged for training for Project Veritas.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain what Project Veritas is.
MATTHEW COLE: So, Project Veritas is run by a gentleman named James O’Keefe. And they purport to highlight and expose liberal bias and agendas and progressive agendas in organizations, news organizations, Planned Parenthood, as you described. They, early on, were involved in sacking — they’ve been successful in exposing some stuff at ACORN, I think in 2009, just after Obama had come in. They often find people who are at the bottom of organizations — and I say, by “the bottom,” not the leaders, but people who are working on sort of ground level — saying things that they probably shouldn’t say on camera but often reflect an individual’s viewpoint rather than an entire organization’s. They then cut that video and blast it out and make a media spectacle out of it.
And in some cases, some of the things they have done have been legitimate. Most of what they’ve done has been ham-handed or illegitimate. But without fail, they focus only on liberal and progressive organizations, whether it’s Democratic campaigns — now we know the teachers’ union — and news organizations. They are not interested in looking at anything on the right side of the political spectrum.
AMY GOODMAN: So, go back to what Erik Prince did in recruiting these spies.
MATTHEW COLE: So, Prince has for years helped fund them. He was — you know, you have to understand that Project Veritas got its funding — they’re a nonprofit — from conservative organizations, the Mercer family, the Erik Prince family, Betsy DeVos, who is Erik Prince’s brother. They have been funding them. Coming into the —
AMY GOODMAN: Erik Prince’s sister.
MATTHEW COLE: Erik Prince’s sister. Coming into the 2016 election, Erik Prince decided that what Project Veritas needed was better training. And the training that they needed specifically was to get from former spies. So, in 2016, he hires a former spy, American spy, to do the training. I reported that. That training failed. The former spy quit because he thought that they weren’t serious people. It wasn’t going to stop Erik Prince. After Trump wins the election —
AMY GOODMAN: He was with him election night.
MATTHEW COLE: He was with him election night, he and his wife. After the election and the inauguration, Erik Prince arranges for a former MI6 officer named Richard Seddon —
AMY GOODMAN: British intelligence.
MATTHEW COLE: British intelligence — to train Project Veritas at the Prince family ranch in Wyoming. And what he gives them is a series of weapons training, secret video camera, you know, undercover video camera work, elicitation. He’s teaching them to be spies. And at the time, O’Keefe and one of the other Project Veritas members tweeted out and put on Instagram what they were doing. They described it as from a classified location and special training, and described their organization not as journalists, which publicly and today James O’Keefe will say and defend himself. They were describing themselves as the next great intelligence agency. And that’s a key thing.
What I reported last year was that after Erik Prince trained them, Erik Prince sought to use Project Veritas for his own operations and a business opportunity abroad as undercover spies. And it’s important to understand that when you start to mix spying with domestic political operations, you’re looking at a Nixonian-era system of domestic black bag jobs. And that is where we see Erik Prince now, is moving in that direction. And that is what is actually really frightening here.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about these two examples that the Times exposes, the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and then Abigail Spanberger’s campaign in Virginia.
MATTHEW COLE: Yeah, so, Veritas had long been trying to seed their people inside of Democratic members of Congress and the Senate. And there were efforts on the House and in Congress with a picture of people — literally, a photo sheet, a facebook, that identified Veritas undercover members so that they couldn’t — they could be caught. And what they got was better at what they were doing, although in this case they were caught. There were suspicions, when I was reporting my story last year, that Veritas had been involved in the teachers’ federation in Michigan. There was an obvious connection there between Betsy DeVos and her antagonism and antipathy towards the teachers’ federation and in Michigan, where Erik and Betsy, they grew up in western Michigan, Holland, Michigan, specifically.
AMY GOODMAN: And where there’s a primary tomorrow.
MATTHEW COLE: Where there’s a primary tomorrow. And what Veritas did was they used the British spies to help run the operation. So they run — you know, the people who were undercover were not former spies. They were not former foreign intelligence officers. What they had were the professionals running the operation from the outside, directing them. They had given them training. Now they were going to direct them. And that’s what the Times was able to find, was how Prince had used these spies to help run and sort of elevate and improve Veritas’ ability to get inside organizations and pull documents out.
AMY GOODMAN: And how did it affect the Michigan Federation of Teachers and also Abigail Spanberger? Interestingly, she is a former CIA official. She has worked for the CIA. And she was able to find the spy within her organization and fired her.
MATTHEW COLE: Yeah. Like I said, Congress had — the Democrats in Congress have a list that they share, because they all know that they are being targeted by Project Veritas. And in this case, they were able to catch the person who had come in as an intern to work in the office.
In Michigan, the exposé that Project Veritas did and a video that they put out resulted in a lawsuit. The federation, teachers’ federation there, has been suing Project Veritas for a variety of crimes, under the notion that this had been a spying operation, not some disgruntled whistleblower. And that’s often what Veritas presents itself as, you know, an organization that gets whistleblowers from the inside. In fact, what they’re often doing, they’re seeding people in under false pretenses and then exfiltrating data and information.
AMY GOODMAN: They also succeeded in getting an ABC reporter suspended, David Wright. You used to work for ABC.
MATTHEW COLE: I used to work for ABC. And, you know, again, I think this — the ABC case is actually a fantastic example of what they do. They got a reporter to give his personal opinions, who makes a statement and qualifies what he’s about to say as not in his professional capacity but in his personal capacity, and then blast it out as liberal bias in media.
AMY GOODMAN: Talking about Medicare for All.
MATTHEW COLE: Yeah, I mean, it was absurd. But, you know, one thing that needs to be — I need to mention here about Project Veritas is that in 2017 they tried to get The Washington Post to run a false story during the Roy Moore scandal down in the —
AMY GOODMAN: Alabama.
MATTHEW COLE: — Alabama Senate seat election. And what they did was they sent one of their operatives in posing as a victim, a sexual assault victim of Roy Moore. And the idea was to get the Post to run a fake story. Now, let’s let that sink in for a second. Now —
AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.
MATTHEW COLE: They were caught. And what we believe is, is that there was some awareness or coordination by the Trump White House and administration that Project Veritas was targeting The Washington Post. But that is — if that’s the case, that is literally selling fake news and trying to seed in propaganda.
AMY GOODMAN: And now people are calling for a congressional investigation. Matthew Cole, I want you to stay here. We’re going to do Part 2 and put it online at democracynow.org. Matthew Cole, investigative journalist for The Intercept. That does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.