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."