A new report from The New York Times revealed that right-wing video producer Project Veritas engaged in deceptive practices when trying to authenticate a stolen diary belonging to President Joe Biden’s daughter Ashley Biden, as it “worked to expose personal information about the Biden family” ahead of the 2020 election.
In November, the FBI raided the apartments of multiple operatives of Project Veritas, including CEO James O’Keefe, looking for information related to the theft of Biden’s diary, which she had stored with some other belongings at a friend’s place in Florida. Multiple journalists and media rights organizations jumped to defend Project Veritas, claiming that the raid set a bad legal precedent. Project Veritas claims in its court filings that its work is protected as journalism and that the FBI raid violated its First Amendment rights.
In light of new reporting from the Times, these journalists and organizations may have acted prematurely in November rather than waiting for the full story to unfold — and given a right-wing propaganda group fuel in the process.
Based on reporting by the Times’ Michael Schmidt and Adam Goldman, Project Veritas appeared to have lied to Ashley Biden over the phone in order to authenticate her diary, which it eventually purchased for $40,000:
A month before the 2020 election, Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s daughter, Ashley, received a call from a man offering help. Striking a friendly tone, the man said that he had found a diary that he believed belonged to Ms. Biden and that he wanted to return it to her.
She agreed with the caller to send someone to retrieve the diary the next day.
But Ms. Biden was not dealing with a good Samaritan.
The man on the other end of the phone worked for Project Veritas, a conservative group that had become a favorite of President Donald J. Trump, according to interviews with people familiar with the sequence of events. From a conference room at the group’s headquarters in Westchester County, N.Y., surrounded by other top members of the group, the caller was seeking to trick Ms. Biden into confirming the authenticity of the diary, which Project Veritas was about to purchase from two intermediaries for $40,000.
The caller did not identify himself as being affiliated with Project Veritas, according to accounts from two people with knowledge of the conversation. By the end of the call, several of the group’s operatives who had either listened in, heard recordings of the call or been told of it believed that Ms. Biden had said more than enough to confirm that it was hers.
Drawn from interviews, court filings and other documents, the new information adds further texture to what is known about an episode that has led to a criminal investigation of Project Veritas by federal prosecutors who have suggested they have evidence that the group was complicit in stealing Ms. Biden’s property and in transporting stolen goods across state lines.
And by showing that Project Veritas employed deception rather than traditional journalistic techniques in the way it approached Ms. Biden — the caller identified himself with a fake name — the new accounts could further complicate the organization’s assertions in court filings that it should be treated as a publisher and granted First Amendment protections. Project Veritas regularly carries out undercover stings, surveillance operations and ambush interviews, mostly against liberal groups and journalists.
O’Keefe insists that his organization engages in journalism, but the group has consulted its legal teams to ensure its work toes the line between political spying and journalistic practices, testing “the boundaries of legality.” Additionally, Project Veritas almost always directly lies to its targets while trying to obtain information, a line not often crossed by journalists today. In the past, the group’s operatives have pretended to go on dates with the victims of its sting operations and have posed as victims of assault in order to get footage. The revelation that the group also lied to Ashley Biden should come as no surprise.
Project Veritas has also engaged in partisan lobbying to get out of legal trouble. According to the Times, the group even lobbied congressional Republicans in an attempt to get the FBI to back off its investigation:
After the criminal investigation into Project Veritas became public last fall, a prominent Republican lawyer who was lobbying on behalf of the organization and Mr. O’Keefe briefed a group of congressional Republicans on the case, to urge them to try to persuade the Justice Department to back off the investigation because the group did nothing wrong, according to a person briefed on the matter.
The lawyer, Mark Paoletta, said that upon learning about the diary at the fund-raiser, Donald Trump Jr. showed no interest in it and said that whoever was in possession of it should report it to the F.B.I. But shortly thereafter Mr. Paoletta, who had served as Vice President Mike Pence’s top lawyer in the White House, called back the congressional Republicans to say he was unsure whether the account about Donald Trump Jr.’s reaction was accurate.
Lobbying filings show that Mr. Paoletta was paid $50,000 during the last two months of last year to inform members of Congress about the F.B.I. raid on Mr. O’Keefe. Mr. Paoletta and a lawyer for Donald Trump Jr. did not respond to messages seeking comment.
The group has also targeted other journalists. When the Times first began reporting on O’Keefe’s involvement with the diary, Project Veritas started posting videos targeting the journalists who were working on the story, calling them “The NYT Hardy Boys.” O’Keefe harangued reporter Mark Mazzetti at a restaurant and then chased him down the street, asking if he was “pleading the Fifth Amendment with me right now,” when Mazzetti continued to not respond.
When the news of the raids first broke, many jumped to Project Veritas' defense, despite expressing reservations about the group itself. Even if that support was reluctant, it came at a time when we didn’t have important details about Project Veritas' involvement, such as this recent Times report. In the meantime, Project Veritas has boosted some media outlets' support on its YouTube channel and has at the same time tried to muzzle the press freedoms of the Times.
Now, following the NYT reporting that provides more details about their involvement in obtaining Ashley Biden's stolen diary, Project Veritas is claiming that prosecutors had secretly obtained search warrants for its emails in the year before the raid. But once again, the only information publicly available comes from Project Veritas, and it has proved itself to be an unreliable narrator. Journalists and advocacy groups would be wise to reserve judgement on this case until the full facts are known, rather than rely on information provided solely from Project Veritas.