Freedom of speech is messy, which is why defending it is so important

By Kent R. Kroeger (June 3, 2021)

A family member attached this May 13th New York Times article — Activists and Ex-Spy Said to Have Plotted to Discredit Trump ‘Enemies’ in Government — to a spirited email that started: Do you still defend Project Veritas?!

It took me the 15 minutes required to read the article to do just that — defend Project Veritas.

First off, however, I don’t think I’ve ever “defended” Project Veritas in the past. To the contrary, I do not care for the Mike Wallace/60 Minutes-pioneered form of ‘hidden camera’ journalism that Project Veritas has heavily relied upon in its news-gathering activities. While it makes for good television and internet click bait, the technique is easily abused, especially when it captures private comments out of context. And Project Veritas’ use of ‘honey pots’ to entrap their targets is downright unethical.

All the same, I defend their right to do what they do. Furthermore, I cannot recall a single instance where Project Veritas and its founder, James O’Keefe, have ever had to retract a news story they’ve published. The New York Times only wishes it could say the same.

I must also confess I find it exhilarating when powerful people (particularly in the news media) are forced to reconcile their private statements with their public facade of journalistic objectivity. Project Veritas’ exposure of CNN as the propaganda arm of the Democratic Party is priceless — and entirely accurate.

Still, I take seriously the question as to whether Project Veritas’ professionalization of its ‘gotcha’ news-gathering approach is socially constructive — especially when the organization employs intelligence experts (‘spies’) and their sophisticated spycraft.

We should start that answer with a brief summary of the recent New York Times story (via The Hill):

“A conservative activist group, helped by a former British spy, secretly surveilled government employees during the Trump administration with the goal of discrediting perceived enemies of former President Trump…Project Veritas — with aid from a former British spy and Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater — was part of a campaign that involved surveillance operations against members of the FBI.

The overall effort, the Times wrote, also included a plan for a sting operation against Trump’s former national security adviser H.R. McMaster that involved some Veritas staffers, though Veritas itself has denied any involvement with that plot. Both, the Times alleged, were intended to reveal anti-Trump sentiments.”

If echoes from the Nixon administration using government resources to spy on his enemies come to mind, you are not alone. There is nothing more frightening to people in my age cohort than a sitting U.S. president using his or her immense powers to investigate and discredit enemies.

But the comparisons of Project Veritas’ activities to Nixon’s diverge quickly with the details offered by the Times story. According to that story, there is no evidence Trump’s White House authorized or coordinated Project Veritas’ efforts to investigate the ‘loyalty’ of key members of Trump’s foreign policy circle.

The Hatch Act makes it illegal for public officials, such as White House staffers, to use their time or government resources to pursue their own private interests or someone else’s (such as a U.S. president’s). That prohibition includes explicitly partisan political activities.

[Admittedly, Donald Trump pushed the envelope on those restrictions on at least one occasion. And, in my opinion, Trump’s personal actions with respect to investigating Hunter Biden’s questionable activities in Ukraine constituted a serious breach of ethical, if not legal, behavior for a president. However, given that the U.S. news media rarely engages in credible, non-partisan investigative journalism anymore, it is hard to judge Trump too harshly.]

And while a U.S. Senate staffer (Barbara Ledeen) was implicated in the Times story about Project Veritas’ alleged activities to “expose the deep state’s disloyalty” to the Trump administration, it is not clear that she had engaged in any activities outside legal bounds. In fact, congressional committees possess exceptional latitude through their oversight powers to investigate executive actions and personnel.

Think about the Times story from this perspective: Is it newsworthy if a senior member of a presidential administration is actively working behind the scenes against the president’s policies?

Of course it is. To suggest otherwise is intellectually dishonest.

In the final analysis, watching the powerful eating their own is the least of my worries, except when such activities potentially compromise the privacy or liberties of all Americans. Targeting the powerful with sophisticated intelligence gathering tools is one thing, but should those capabilities be turned against average citizens, that is worrisome.

In that sense, I am not a fan of Project Veritas’ increasingly sophisticated and deceptive news-gathering methods, even as I will passionately defend their right to do what they do — provided they don’t violate criminal law in their pursuit of such information.

Our Constitution’s First Amendment extends to all citizens — not just journalists — broad and inviolable rights to investigate, report on and judge the activities of the political class. To impose unnecessary limits on those rights is a direct threat to all of our freedoms.

  • K.R.K.

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I am a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion (You can contact me at: kroeger98@yahoo.com)