WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - A network of conservative activists, aided by a British former spy, mounted a campaign during the Trump administration to discredit perceived enemies of former US president Donald Trump inside the government, according to documents and people involved in the operations.
The campaign included a planned sting operation against Trump's national security adviser at the time, H.R. McMaster, and secret surveillance operations against FBI employees, aimed at exposing anti-Trump sentiment in the bureau's ranks.
The operations against the FBI, run by the conservative group Project Veritas, were conducted from a large home in the Georgetown section of Washington that rented for US$10,000 (S$13,303) per month. Female undercover operatives arranged dates with the FBI employees with the aim of secretly recording them making disparaging comments about Trump.
The campaign shows the obsession that some of Trump's allies had about a shadowy "deep state" trying to blunt his agenda - and the lengths that some were willing to go to try to purge the government of those believed to be disloyal to the president.
Central to the effort, according to interviews, was Richard Seddon, a former undercover British spy who was recruited in 2016 by security contractor Erik Prince to train Project Veritas operatives to infiltrate trade unions, Democratic congressional campaigns and other targets. He ran field operations for Project Veritas until mid-2018.
Last year, The New York Times reported that Seddon ran an expansive effort to gain access to the unions and campaigns and led a hiring effort that nearly tripled the number of the group's operatives, according to interviews and deposition testimony. He trained operatives at the Prince family ranch in Wyoming.
The efforts to target American officials show how a campaign once focused on exposing outside organisations slowly morphed into an operation to ferret out Trump's perceived enemies in the government's ranks.
Whether any of Trump's White House advisers had direct knowledge of the campaign is unclear, but one of the participants in the operation against McMaster, Barbara Ledeen, said she was brought on by someone "with access to McMaster's calendar." At the time, Ledeen was a staff member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, then led by Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa.
This account is drawn from more than a dozen interviews with former Project Veritas employees and others familiar with the campaign, along with current and former government officials and internal Project Veritas documents.
The scheme against McMaster, revealed in interviews and documents, was one of the most brazen operations of the campaign. It involved a plan to hire a woman armed with a hidden camera to capture McMaster making inappropriate remarks that his opponents could use as leverage to get him ousted as national security adviser.
Although several Project Veritas operatives were involved in the plot, it is unclear whether the group directed it. The group, which is a non-profit, has a history of conducting sting operations on news organisations, Democratic politicians and advocacy groups.
The operation was ultimately abandoned in March 2018 when the conspirators ended up getting what they wanted, albeit by different means. The embattled McMaster resigned on March 22, a move that avoided a firing by the president who had soured on the three-star general.
Project Veritas did not respond to specific questions about the operations. On Thursday, James O'Keefe, the head of the group, said this article was "a smear piece."
"Because The New York Times is losing to Project Veritas in a court of law, it is trying to smear Project Veritas in the court of public opinion," he said. "I think the court, like me, may well be appalled at The New York Times' continued pattern of defamation of Project Veritas." He also released a video.
Project Veritas sued The Times for defamation last year over coverage of one of the group's videos.
Neither Seddon nor Prince responded to requests for comment. McMaster declined to comment.
When confronted with details about her involvement in the McMaster operation, Ledeen insisted that she was merely a messenger. "I am not part of a plot," she said.
Scheme against McMaster
The operation against McMaster was hatched not long after an article appeared in BuzzFeed News about a private dinner in 2017. Exactly what happened during the dinner is in dispute, but the article said that McMaster had disparaged Trump by calling him an "idiot" with the intelligence of a "kindergartner."
That dinner, at an upscale restaurant in downtown Washington, was attended by McMaster and Safra Catz, the chief executive of Oracle, as well as two of their aides.
Not long after, Catz called Donald McGahn, then the White House counsel, to complain about McMaster's behaviour, according to two people familiar with the call.
White House officials investigated and could not substantiate her claims, people familiar with their inquiry said. Catz declined to comment, and there is no evidence that she played any role in the plot against McMaster.
Soon after the BuzzFeed article, however, the scheme developed to try to entrap McMaster: Recruit a woman to stake out the same restaurant, Tosca, with a hidden camera.
According to the plan, whenever McMaster returned by himself, the woman would strike up a conversation with him and, over drinks, try to get him to make comments that could be used to either force him to resign or get him fired.
Who initially ordered the operation is unclear. In an interview, Ledeen said "someone she trusted" contacted her to help with the plan. She said she could not remember who.
"Somebody who had his calendar conveyed to me that he goes to Tosca all the time," she said of McMaster.
According to Ledeen, she passed the message to a man she believed to be a Project Veritas operative during a meeting at the University Club in Washington. Ledeen said she believed the man provided her with a fake name.
By then, McMaster already had a raft of enemies among Trump loyalists, who viewed him as a "globalist" creature of the so-called deep state who was committed to policies they vehemently opposed, like remaining committed to a nuclear deal with Iran and keeping American troops in Afghanistan.
The president often stoked the fire, railing against national security officials at the CIA, FBI, State Department and elsewhere who he was convinced were trying to undermine him. These "unelected deep-state operatives who defy the voters to push their own secret agendas," he said in 2018, "are truly a threat to democracy itself."
Seddon recruited Tarah Price, who at one point was a Project Veritas operative, and offered to pay her thousands of dollars to participate in the operation, according to interviews and an email written by a former boyfriend of Price and sent to Project Veritas Exposed, a group that tries to identify the group's undercover operatives.
The May 2018 email, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, said that Price was "going to get paid US$10,000 to go undercover and set up some big-name political figure in Washington."
It was unclear who was funding the operation. Price's former boyfriend was apparently unaware of the target of the operation, or that McMaster had been forced to step down in March.
Two people identified the political figure as McMaster. Price did not respond to requests for comment.
Ledeen was a longtime staff member for the Judiciary Committee who had been part of past operations in support of Trump. In 2016, she was involved in a secret effort with Michael Flynn - who went on to become Trump's first national security adviser - to hunt down thousands of emails that had been deleted from Hillary Clinton's private email server.
According to the report by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, Ledeen had prepared a 25-page proposal about how to obtain what she believed were "classified emails" that had already been "purloined by our enemies." The exchange was included in emails the special counsel obtained during the investigation.
Ledeen later claimed to have obtained the deleted Clinton emails from the dark web and sought Prince's assistance to authenticate them. "Erik Prince provided funding to hire a tech adviser to ascertain the authenticity of the emails. According to Prince, the tech adviser determined that the emails were not authentic," the special counsel's report said.
She is part of a network of conservative activists who had particular influence in the Trump White House. She is a member of one group, Groundswell, that pushed to purge the White House and other government agencies of "deep state" enemies of Trump.
Last year, Axios reported that a memo written by Ledeen - laying out a case against a nominee for a top job in the Treasury Department - was instrumental in Trump's decision to withdraw the nomination.
Barbara Ledeen is married to Michael Ledeen, who wrote the 2016 book The Field of Fight with Flynn. She said she retired from the Senate earlier this year.
After Flynn resigned under pressure as national security adviser, Trump gave the job to McMaster - inciting the ire of loyalists to Flynn.
Ledeen posted numerous negative articles about McMaster on her Facebook page. After The Times published its article about Prince's work with Project Veritas, she wrote on Facebook, "We owe a lot to Erik Prince."
A former spy's role
Seddon first came to know Prince in the years after the Sept 11, 2001, attacks, when he was stationed at the British Embassy in Washington and Prince's company, Blackwater, was winning large American government contracts for work in Afghanistan and Iraq. Former colleagues of Seddon said he nurtured a love of the American West, and of the country's gun culture.
He is married to a longtime State Department officer, Alice Seddon, who retired last year.
After Seddon joined Project Veritas, he set out to professionalise what was once a small operation with a limited budget. He hired former soldiers, a former FBI agent and a British former commando.
Documents obtained by The Times show the extent that Seddon built espionage tactics into training for the group's operatives - teaching them to use deception to secure information from potential targets.
One role-playing exercise involved a trainee being interrogated by a law enforcement officer and having to "defend their cover" and "avoid exciting" the officer.
Another exercise instructs trainees in how to target a person in an elevator. The students were encouraged to think of their "targets as a possible future access agent, potential donor, support/facilities agent." "The student must create and maintain a fictional cover," one document read.
The early training for the operations took place at the Prince family ranch near Cody, Wyoming, and Seddon and his colleagues conducted hiring interviews inside an airport hangar at the Cody airport known locally as the Prince hangar, according to interviews and documents. Prince is the brother of Betsy DeVos, who served as Trump's education secretary.
During the interview process, candidates fielded questions meant to figure out their political leanings, including which famous people they might invite to a dinner party and which publications they get their news from.
After finishing the exercises, the operatives were told to burn the training materials, according to a former Project Veritas employee.
Project Veritas also experienced a windfall during the Trump administration, with millions in donations from private donors and conservative foundations. In 2019, the group received a US$1 million contribution made through the law firm Alston & Bird, according to a financial document obtained by The Times. The firm has declined to say on whose behalf the contribution was made.
That same year, Project Veritas also received more than US$4 million through DonorsTrust, a nonprofit used by conservative groups and individuals.
Targeting FBI employees
Around the time McMaster resigned, Seddon pushed for Project Veritas to establish a base of operations in Washington and found a six-bedroom estate near the Georgetown University campus, according to former Project Veritas employees.
The house had a view of the Potomac River and was steps from the dark, narrow staircase made famous by the film The Exorcist. The group used a shell company to rent it, according to Project Veritas documents and interviews.
The plan was simple: Use undercover operatives to entrap FBI employees and other government officials who could be publicly exposed as opposing Trump.
The group has previously assigned female operatives to secretly record and discredit male targets - sometimes making first contact with them on dating apps. In 2017, a Project Veritas operative also approached a Washington Post reporter with a false claim that a Senate candidate had impregnated her.
During the Trump administration, the FBI became an attractive target for the president's allies. In late 2017, news reports revealed that a senior FBI counterintelligence agent and a lawyer at the bureau who were working on the Russia investigation had exchanged text messages disparaging Trump.
The president's supporters and allies in Congress said the texts were proof of bias at the FBI and that the sprawling Russia inquiry was just a plot by the "deep state" to derail the Trump presidency.
Project Veritas operatives created fake profiles on dating apps to lure the FBI employees, according to two former Project Veritas employees and a screenshot of one of the accounts. They arranged to meet and arrived with a hidden camera and microphone.
Women living at the house had Project Veritas code names, including "Brazil" and "Tiger," according to three former Project Veritas employees with knowledge of the operations. People living at the house were told not to receive mail using their real names. If they took an Uber home, the driver had to stop before they reached the house to ensure nobody saw where they actually lived, one of the former Project Veritas employees said.
One woman living at the house, Anna Khait, was part of several operations against various targets, including a State Department employee. Project Veritas released a video of the operation in 2018, saying it was the first instalment in "an undercover video investigation series unmasking the deep state." In the video, O'Keefe said Project Veritas had been investigating the deep state for more than a year. He did not mention efforts to target the FBI.
A former Project Veritas employee and another person identified the woman who targeted the State Department employee as Khait, who had appeared on the television show Survivor. Khait did not respond to a request for comment.
By the time Project Veritas released its first "deep state" video, Seddon had left the group for other ventures - chafing at what he viewed as O'Keefe's desire to produce quick media content rather than to run long-term infiltration operations, three former Project Veritas employees said.
He was replaced by Tom Williams, a longtime associate of Prince's, two of the former Project Veritas employees said. Williams also eventually left the group.
O'Keefe has long defended his group's methods. In his 2018 book, American Pravda, O'Keefe wrote that a "key distinction between the Project Veritas journalist and establishment reporters" is that "while we use deception to gain access, we never deceive our audience."