How A Former Spy Trained Conservatives To Infiltrate Progressive Groups
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Over the past year and a half, The New York Times has reported on an effort by conservatives to train operatives in undercover spy techniques to infiltrate progressive groups, political campaigns, unions and the offices of Democratic and moderate Republican elected officials. Last week, our guest, reporter Adam Goldman, co-authored a story about a couple who ingratiated themselves with Democrats in Wyoming, often making substantial political contributions to ensure their access to valuable information. They'd been recruited and trained in an operation led by a former British spy and security contractor Erik Prince, an avid supporter of Donald Trump. This espionage operation was aimed at perceived enemies of Trump and included a planned sting operation against former national security adviser H.R. McMaster.
Adam Goldman reports on the FBI and national security for the Times and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for national reporting on Russia's meddling in the presidential election. Previously, he covered national security for The Washington Post and worked on the investigative team at the Associated Press, where he and his colleagues revealed the New York Police Department's Muslim spying programs. Their reporting on the department won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.
Adam Goldman, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You know, in this recent story that you wrote with Mark Mazzetti of the Times, you introduce us to a couple. Their names are Beau Maier and Sofia LaRocca, and they're in Las Vegas for a Democratic primary debate. Tell us about them. Why are they there?
ADAM GOLDMAN: They went there after making sizable donations to the DNC, the Democratic National Committee - $10,000 each - at the request of a Colorado businessman who was a - he's a fundraiser for the Democrats and basically said, if you make this donation, you can come and hang out in Las Vegas. And, of course, that was an entree into a larger circle of prominent Democrats.
DAVIES: Right. Now, this couple weren't really the committed Democrats they presented themselves as, right?
GOLDMAN: No. They were, in fact, undercover spies who had been building a cover as eager Democrats when, in fact, they were anything but that. And Las Vegas was the - you could almost say it was the pinnacle, the apex of their operation.
DAVIES: They'd gotten formal training in this.
GOLDMAN: What - the training they got was when they worked for an outfit called Project Veritas. And they received what was essentially clandestine training at a ranch in Wyoming that's owned by the family of Erik Prince.
DAVIES: Right - Erik Prince, the security contractor who we'll talk more about. So flesh out the picture a bit. This couple, Beau and Sofia - they spent real time and effort trying to ingratiate themselves with Democrats and progressives. What kind of inroads did they make?
GOLDMAN: Well, they - you know, they - Beau is from Cody, Wyo., so he had some Wyoming roots. Sofia is from Maryland. And they start trying to make inroads in the Wyoming Democratic Party. Beau picks up - starts working this marijuana legalization angle to try to make contacts with people - elected officials who are, in fact, pushing this bill to legalize marijuana. And then on a parallel but different track, you know, Sofia is trying to make her way through the Young Democrats of Wyoming, the Wyoming Democratic Party, you know, building her bona fides as an eager, young Democrat.
DAVIES: Right. They make significant political contributions, right?
GOLDMAN: Beau does. Sofia makes a contribution - a small contribution to a woman she had befriended who ran, unsuccessfully, for the Wyoming state legislature. And then, you know, they both end up giving to the DNC. And he ends up giving, you know, $6,000 to Wyoming Democratic Party and also money to other political figures.
DAVIES: But Sofia was just - she was active. She went to meetings. She actually got a contract fundraising gig with the Democrats, right?
GOLDMAN: She was very active. And, I mean, they were both active, but she was literally, you know, infiltrating these Democratic groups. She was doing outreach to, you know, Democratic figures in Wyoming. She was attending, you know, Democratic fundraisers. There's an annual one, Nellie T. Ross Banquet, and I believe it's in Cheyenne every February. You know, she attended that. You know, she used that to hobnob with people. You know, they were always - you know, always on the lookout for connections they could make. And, you know, eventually she starts using this to meet other prominent Democrats in the state.
DAVIES: Did any of them have opinions about whether these two had done damage? I mean, if the idea was to get inside information, which would be useful to, you know, Republicans and conservatives, did they succeed?
GOLDMAN: Well, I think it was - our latest story revealed, you know, at least one person who had been working for the Democrats thought that Sofia likely might have gotten some damaging information about Democratic efforts to help, you know, moderate Republicans. It's not clear, though, if any of that was actually used in a way that thwarted anybody's candidacy or damaged their political reputation.
DAVIES: Let's talk about some of the people who are behind this. The training was done by a guy - a lot of the training was done by a guy named Richard Seddon, S-E-D-D-O-N. Who is he?
GOLDMAN: Richard Seddon is a former MI6 spy. He's a former British intelligence officer who served in Washington, D.C., and in Pakistan and eventually leaves the British Secret Intelligence Service and develops some relationship with Erik Prince, a security contractor, and ends up being director of field operations at the conservative group known as Project Veritas.
DAVIES: Right. We'll talk about Project Veritas in a moment. You mentioned that he was recruited by Erik Prince. That's a name some people will know. Remind us who he is.
GOLDMAN: Erik Prince is the well-known founder of Blackwater, the security contractors who were involved in the massacre in Iraq.
DAVIES: Right. They had a private security firm. There was a massacre at a plaza in Iraq. There was eventually litigation about that, wasn't there?
GOLDMAN: Yeah, and the Justice Department prosecuted a number of individuals. I think Trump pardoned at least one.
DAVIES: What are Erik Prince's contacts or associations with Donald Trump and the Trump family?
GOLDMAN: That's a good question. It also seems, to me, murky. I mean, we know that Erik Prince was trying to sell a plan to the Trump administration to put these - for him, in fact, to put a private, you know, army of a bunch of mercenaries in Afghanistan and sort of take over those responsibilities from the government, sort of, in some ways, replace the U.S. forces on the ground there. And it would - you know, and make an enormous amount of money. And he was pitching that plan, but it never got anywhere. It's not clear to me how close he is to Trump. But, you know, his sister is Betsy DeVos, and she was Secretary of Education during the Trump administration.
DAVIES: Right. And he comes from a wealthy, conservative family in Michigan, right?
GOLDMAN: Yes, very wealthy and very conservative.
DAVIES: Right. So he had pitched this idea of a private security force to largely replace American troops in Afghanistan. The Defense Department didn't go for it. He's proposed similar things in other countries, hasn't he? Is he actually providing those kinds of services?
GOLDMAN: I think - yeah, I think the latest is - you know, he's worked - his latest adventure is in Libya. I believe he was involved in an effort to battle pirates in Somalia. So he's certainly moved in this world before.
DAVIES: He was at a meeting in the Seychelles, the islands in the Indian Ocean, January of 2017. That got a lot of attention, was investigated by Robert Mueller. What was going on there? What does that tell us about Erik Prince?
GOLDMAN: Well, some people have speculated this was some sort of back channel to Russia because there was a - I believe there was a Russian investment manager there who has ties to Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia. And there was, you know, another individual from the Emirates who was there. You know, there seemed to be - what it showed was, you know, Prince is well-traveled and is always looking for business opportunities. And Prince comes up in the special council report - Robert Mueller's report. You know, again, as when Barbara Ledeen, the staffer for the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was run by Chuck Grassley, you know, was trying to find Hillary Clinton's missing emails, and Prince gets involved in that, too.
DAVIES: So an active player in the Trump world.
GOLDMAN: Yeah, I would say an active - sure, an active player in certain parts of Trump's world, yeah, or conservative - the conservative world. And, you know, and he is - you know, he's an international businessman. So he's going to pop up in all sorts of different places.
DAVIES: So he is the guy who hires this British spy, Richard Seddon, to train operatives to, you know, gather intelligence from, you know, Democrats and progressives. When does he do this, and do we know why?
GOLDMAN: Well, again, this is a little murky. We're still trying to fully understand how Project Veritas, which is founded by James O'Keefe, actually came into contact with Erik Prince. But what we know is there was an arrangement made, and Erik Prince allowed Project Veritas to use his farm to train its operatives. And as part of this effort, Richard Seddon was brought on to handle training and really professionalize Project Veritas' undercover operations.
And, you know, Seddon was out at the farm. He was leading training. It's my understanding he designed the training exercises, which could have included, like, you know, going out to bars in Cody and trying to get people's names and numbers, how to pitch somebody in an elevator, how to spot people who could potentially provide you information. You know, there was one exercise, I believe, where they had a cop - you know, a local cop who was there. And they stopped the - they would actually stop the operatives in a car. And the operatives had to give a - you know, had to give a cover story under duress.
So, you know, this is not something I had ever done as a - you know, this is not something journalists do. But (laughter) this seemed to be the training out in Wyoming. And then Seddon - you know, he stays on. He comes in late '16 or '17 - around that time period. And then he stays on working for a Project Veritas till roughly June of '18.
DAVIES: When Richard Seddon and Erik Prince got connected with Veritas and cooperated on some of these operations, what was the effect on Veritas? Did it expand the number of people that they had? Did it expand their operations?
GOLDMAN: Yeah, I think they nearly tripled the number of people they hired. And, you know, Seddon then reached out to, you know, a family - an old friend who had worked at the FBI. And his son - he brought his son, who was a former army officer, on board to help. He recruited a British commando to help - this guy Gaz Thomas, who I guess had knew Seddon through his days at MI6. And so these people were brought on to help manage these many, many, many, many operations.
DAVIES: Right. Richard Seddon, in 2018, I guess, decided to stop working with Project Veritas. Do we know why?
GOLDMAN: To my understanding, there was a disagreement in how Project Veritas should be run. You know, we had - we talked to many, many people who worked there, and, you know, they described Seddon as wanting to do more long-term operations - right? - not quick-hit videos or, you know, shorter-term operations, which I think people say Mr. O'Keefe wanted to do. You know, I think part of Mr. O'Keefe's motto - I think it's important for him to have regular and consistent content - right? - not one expose every year. Not saying this is the case with Mr. O'Keefe, but it's sort of hard to fundraise that way if you're only doing one thing a year or if it's - you know, there are long periods of silence between each expose.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Adam Goldman. He's a reporter for The New York Times. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRUNO COULAIS' "SPINK AND FORCIBLE")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and our guest is Adam Goldman. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times. He's been reporting on an effort by conservatives to train operatives in undercover operations to infiltrate progressive groups and Democrats.
Now, you mentioned Project Veritas. There's a long backstory there. People have probably heard of this organization. Remind us who they are and what they've done.
GOLDMAN: Project Veritas is founded by James O'Keefe. It's a conservative group, and they conduct undercover operations, for instance, to expose bias or what they would describe as, you know, wrongdoing primarily in liberal circles. You know, they targeted the teachers unions. They went after a Democratic staffer in Washington. They - you know, there's a wide range of targets, and many of them have been exposed. And they - the purpose for - they themselves will launch this undercover operation and then, you know, secretly record you - audio, video - and then make a video out of it and, you know, expose what they describe as wrongdoing.
DAVIES: They targeted ACORN. They targeted NPR. There was a meeting at lunch which led to a resignation, I believe, of...
GOLDMAN: They targeted our editor, Dean Baquet. They've targeted CNN. They targeted The Washington Post. But then they got reversed stung by the Post, which was quite a moment.
DAVIES: Right. They had a - someone came to the Post. This is when there was the special Senate election in Alabama, right? And...
GOLDMAN: Involving Roy Moore - exactly. And they targeted a reporter, a Washington - a very good Washington Post reporter named Stephanie McCrummen, who - they picked up on it very, very, very quickly...
GOLDMAN: ...And figured out that this woman was not who she said she was.
DAVIES: Right. The woman was claiming she had been impregnated by the Senate candidate, thinking that The Washington Post would be so excited to get dirt about a conservative that they would publish a bogus story. And it all kind of went south when the Post exposed it. Overall, how do conservatives regard Project Veritas?
GOLDMAN: It's not clear to me. You know, O'Keefe has clearly raised a lot of money, you know, millions of dollars. There was a billionaire in - well, a very - I don't know if he was a billionaire. But he was extremely wealthy conservative in Wyoming named Foster Friess, who had actually run for governor in '18. He passed away recently. And Mr. O'Keefe disclosed that Foster Friess had actually given Project Veritas money. And, you know, we've talked to people who have given to them, including people who gave smaller donations - right? - 500, 1000.
DAVIES: Do we know of connections between Project Veritas and James O'Keefe and Trump, Donald Trump or the Trump family?
GOLDMAN: I believe that O'Keefe has interacted with Trump. And we've written about that. I also think that - I think recently, too, O'Keefe, did a photo op or made a video with Donald Trump. So there has been - the two have interacted, I think, even before Trump was president. O'Keefe writes about it in his book. But I don't know how close they are.
DAVIES: Right. But Trump would, from time to time, cite Project Veritas videos in his, you know, comments, public comments and speeches, right?
GOLDMAN: Yeah. Of course. I mean, this is - you know, he no doubt sees them as a conservative ally, like other conservative networks.
DAVIES: You know, the other thing that I wanted to just clarify to the extent I can is how much of a driving force Erik Prince was in this. He's, you know, the private military contractor. Was he primarily the guy who got this thing moving?
GOLDMAN: Well, I don't know if he is primarily the guy. I mean, he - it seems that - it's our understanding that Prince introduced Seddon to Project Veritas. That was certainly a catalyst. It's not clear to us why Prince decided to help Project Veritas. You know, Princes are pretty savvy. You know, he's a businessman. And it's not clear to us if he was making any money off of this. I'm not sure that just because he's a conservative, this is something he wanted to help. And I certainly don't think he thought he was going to get dragged into this. I know that, you know, one of the first instances of his association with this - or maybe the first instance of his association - was in an Intercept article in which O'Keefe had posted a picture of himself firing a pistol with a silencer on Instagram. And I think the Intercept geolocated that photo and determined it was Erik Prince's ranch. So O'Keefe's Instagram photo, you know, led people to realize that, you know, Prince had played a role, at least in letting Project Veritas use the ranch for training. They also did the secret interviews at the airport in Cody in the - at the Prince hangar.
DAVIES: That's an airport in Cody, Wyo. So they were interviewing people who wanted to become operatives. Is that what these interviews were about?
GOLDMAN: Yes. Yes.
DAVIES: Wow. And this photo of James O'Keefe, who's, you know, the founder of Project Veritas, firing a weapon with a silencer, apparently, at Erik Prince's ranch - were they being trained in firearms there? Do we know?
GOLDMAN: It's not clear they're actually being trained in firearms training. I mean, people did shoot guns. What's interesting about that Instagram post - and you can see it yourself, it's still out there - they like to describe themselves as journalists. But, you know, O'Keefe brags on the Instagram photo that they're going to be the world's best intelligence agency - I believe that's what it says - not the world's best journalists.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you again. We're going to take a break here. Adam Goldman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times. He'll be back to talk more about his stories on undercover operations by conservatives to infiltrate democratic and progressive groups after this short break. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF FRANK ZAPPA'S "EAT THAT QUESTION")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with New York Times reporter Adam Goldman, one of a team of Times reporters who've been writing about an effort by conservatives to train operatives in undercover operations to infiltrate progressive groups, unions and the offices and campaigns of Democratic and moderate Republican candidates and elected officials. Key figures in the operation are a former British spy named Richard Seddon and private security contractor Erik Prince, a staunch supporter of Donald Trump.
So Erik Prince, the private security contractor who is an ally and avid supporter of President Trump, connects with Project Veritas, who does these videos, and then they develop this whole different operation. Part of it involved a rented, rather large house in Georgetown in Washington, D.C., right? What was this about?
GOLDMAN: The Georgetown house in D.C. was used as a base to, you know, essentially launch these undercover operations in the summer of '18, I guess, into the fall and maybe later. There was a year-long lease that was signed that allowed Project Veritas to put its operatives in that fancy house. And they targeted - Project Veritas had a whole series. I think it was called "Deep State Exposed" or "Deep State Uncovered." And that was their logo. And, you know, they targeted somebody from the State Department, and they targeted somebody from GAO. They targeted somebody from the Justice Department, and I wrote they also targeted FBI employees. And they were doing this - it appears that they were doing this from the house where Beau and Sofia lived with others.
DAVIES: And when we say they targeted these public officials or FBI agents, what would they do? What were they trying to get?
GOLDMAN: In some instances, they were on, you know, these social - these dating apps, right? And they would find people, and they would go out with them. And they would secretly record them, you know, and create content and then eventually, you know, release a video, like they did in several instances. In particular, you know, Sofia targeted a employee with the GAO. She was involved in that.
DAVIES: That's the Government Accountability Office.
GOLDMAN: Yes, the Government Accountability Office. And that one was made public. And, you know, these were - they were not really long-term operations. And in the end, you know, O'Keefe would release them and, you know, make a big deal out of them.
DAVIES: But the idea was that these public officials or FBI agents were secretly - they were part of the deep state. They were critical of Donald Trump and his agenda. That was the idea.
GOLDMAN: They were thwarting the president's agenda. In the case of the FBI, you know, they were looking for bias to see if somebody - they could get somebody to say something anti-Trump, which, of course, fit the theme at the time because, you know, these infamous text messages between these two FBI officials who had worked on the Russia investigation - the FBI's Russia investigation had come out, right? And they were deeply critical of Trump. So they were looking to mine that, to exploit that territory. And, you know, there were a whole range of people they went after.
DAVIES: What was on those videos? What did they show?
GOLDMAN: These were videos - you can find them on Project Veritas', you know, website or on YouTube now. These were videos of - you know, in one case, Democrats or people working for the government who were - you know, it seemed like they were slow rolling the president's agenda or trying to thwart it or using - they were part of, you know, the DSA, the Democratic Socialists of America. And they admitted doing, you know - engaging in political activity while working for these government institutions, which Project Veritas asserted was, you know, wrong or even, you know - I can't remember if they said it was illegal or not.
DAVIES: Did any of these result in resignations, firings, criminal investigations...
GOLDMAN: Yeah, they did.
GOLDMAN: You know, and in the end, the people who were involved, I think, were, you know, slightly humiliated. You know, was it effective? I don't know. Did it help, you know, Project Veritas raise more money? I don't know. You'd have to ask Mr. O'Keefe.
DAVIES: Now, one of the more well-known operations - because, well, you reported on this - was an effort to embarrass Trump's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster. He was the one who replaced Michael Flynn after he was fired. Why were they targeting H.R. McMaster? Why did they want to embarrass him and get him out of the government?
GOLDMAN: You know, individuals - we're not exactly sure who was behind this effort - but it's clear that they believe that, you know, H.R. McMaster was thwarting the president's agenda - right? - and, you know, that probably in terms of, you know, Iran - not pulling out of the agreement with Iran, the JCPOA, and, you know, McMaster, you know, wanting to keep, I guess, troops in Afghanistan. Trump, of course, wanted to pull out. And they thought McMaster had fired, you know, several people who the president had brought on and - or Mike Flynn, his former - his first national security adviser had brought on. And they - you know, I think they - it seemed like they were seeking revenge.
And this was not - you know, James O'Keefe has said Project Veritas was unaware of this, and they adamantly deny knowing anything about this. Our understanding of the operation is that Mr. Seddon, while employed, in fact, at Project Veritas, was involved in this. And another individual named Barbara Ledeen, who worked for a prominent senator, his committee - Chuck Grassley - she admitted her involvement, and she had actually said she had met with a Project Veritas operative.
DAVIES: Right. So what exactly was the plan to (laughter) catch McMaster saying something he shouldn't?
GOLDMAN: The plan was to - it was basically - you know, in some ways, it was a classic sort of honey trap. They were certainly using attractive women to lure people out on dates. And, you know, typically they would have a male individual working for Project Veritas who would accompany these women on these dates as sort of, like, security. They were, in fact, going to use a former Project Veritas operative named Tarah Price, who lives in the Dallas area, to, you know, possibly ensnare McMaster at a restaurant, get him to say something ill toward or maybe negative about Trump, something that would compromise him. And I think the end goal was make a video and, if necessary, try to get the White House to fire McMaster.
There were steps taken to advance this plan, but in the end, it didn't happen because McMaster was fired. And it's a fascinating story. We still don't know everything about it, and we're trying to learn more about exactly who was behind this and if money was paid and so on.
DAVIES: So how did you come upon this couple, Beau and Sofia?
GOLDMAN: Well, as we started reporting on Erik Prince and Richard Seddon, I became deeply interested in learning who, in fact, was working for this organization. And last year, I learned that Beau and Sofia had been working out of this house in Georgetown. And then I started Googling them and doing some research on them. And I realized they were giving money to Democrats in Wyoming, Arizona and Colorado. And, of course, this was really weird because they work for Project Veritas. These two are conservatives, right? It's a conservative organization. So I thought to myself, why are they giving money to these people, these Democratic politicians? I knew something was off immediately. In fact, I wrote a memo about what I had found. The whole thing was completely - was really weird.
And then as I sort of gathered - started to gather information on this, I knew this was going to be a story. But then January 6 happened, you know, the insurrection. And I got swept away reporting on that and eventually was able to come back to it. And, you know, we wrote the story about the operation targeting McMaster and Georgetown. But I didn't reveal that I knew Beau and Sofia had lived at that house at the time because we were working - concurrently, we were working on this larger story about them. So it was a fascinating moment in time last year when I realized what I suspected Beau and Sofia were doing. And then Mark Mazzetti, you know, my colleague, who just is an extraordinary journalist, we - you know, we managed to suss out what was going - we think - to a great degree what was going on in Wyoming and these other states.
DAVIES: That's a really fascinating example of the power of, you know, database reporting now because you knew they were doing the thing in Georgetown, but their campaign contributions in Wyoming have to be publicly reported. That's how you found them, and that's what raised the question?
GOLDMAN: Yeah. Well, that and - by the way, at some point - I don't know the time period. But when I learned about Beau and Sofia last year - there's a website, Project Veritas Exposed. And this website is devoted to revealing the identities of Project Veritas operatives. And so Sofia's picture was up there. But it was not her real name. It was Maria (ph). And as I was reporting this, somebody said, well, you know, her picture, you know, she's on that website. And then I talked to somebody else. And they said, well, you know, she worked for Project Veritas. And so I was able to piece that together. So what I'm saying is from Richard Seddon's standpoint, the fact that she had a picture up on Project Veritas Exposed, that was a real risk they were taking, right? And ultimately, it did blow up in their face.
DAVIES: It was a risk because she couldn't effectively work undercover if they'd been exposed by this organization that's critical of Veritas?
GOLDMAN: Yes. And her picture wasn't her name...
GOLDMAN: ...It was a fake name, Maria. But her picture was on this website. So somebody was just waiting - and it turned out to be me and Mark - to come along and make the connection between the Sofia de LaRocca (ph) out in Wyoming and "Maria," quote, unquote, on the Project Veritas Exposed website. And by the way, as we began reporting this, we started learning more about Beau's connection to people. His uncle is the conservative commentator Glenn Beck. And Beau's mom is the ranch cook at the Erik Prince family's ranch near Cody, Wyo.
DAVIES: What did you learn about how Beau and Sofia met?
GOLDMAN: It's my understanding that they met during a training at the Prince ranch in Wyoming in the spring of '17 and then grew closer over time. And, you know, I'm not sure when the relationship started. But, you know, over 18, they - it grew closer. And Beau eventually divorced his wife.
DAVIES: And then Beau and Sofia married, right?
GOLDMAN: Yeah. And then they married last week. And Glenn Beck, Beau's uncle, gave a toast. We know that because Glenn put it up on his Instagram account.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you again. We are speaking with Adam Goldman. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times. We'll talk more about his stories on undercover operations by conservatives to infiltrate Democratic and progressive groups after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GOGOL BORDELLO'S "NOT A CRIME")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with New York Times reporter Adam Goldman.
You know, a big question about the stories that you've described is, is this activity illegal, what the couple did in Wyoming, you know, presenting themselves as - dishonestly as active Democrats in order to get information? Is this stuff a crime?
GOLDMAN: I don't know if misrepresenting yourself to - and getting a job at a Democratic organization is a crime. But what is clear is if Beau and Sofia made these campaign contributions - right? - were directed to make them or reimbursed for them, then that's a potential crime. That's a strawman campaign donation. You know, and each time, you know, money is wired in furtherance of that crime, you know, that's also - that could be a possible count of mail fraud. And if they were given money, if the money was distributed by this former spy, Richard Seddon, and they pulled from that pot of money, which was part of that operation, that could also be problematic. And as we quoted an expert in our story, you know, if there's a sudden pattern of somebody giving money to the Democrats and they had never done that before, you know, that could also raise suspicions.
DAVIES: Right. Funneling contributions through a third party is a feature of the federal election code and most state election codes. You know, you say in one of these stories, this operation's use of spy craft to manipulate the politics of several states over the years greatly exceeds the tactics of traditional political tricks operations. Set some context for us here. What are traditional political dirty tricks?
GOLDMAN: Well, that's a great question and one we struggle with at the Times in trying to put this in context. Of course, everybody's familiar with Watergate, right? They broke into the DNC. They were going to bug it. You know, this is something we haven't seen, right? We know that political operatives will gather opposition research as it's called - right? - trying to find, you know, damaging information on, you know, on political rivals, you know, using, you know, private investigative firms. And so we're all familiar with that, I think, to some extent.
Where we're not - what we hadn't really seen was an actual British spy, somebody trained in clandestine activities, launching a secret operation using undercovers with false - basically false cover stories to infiltrate political circles, gather information and collect it for whatever purpose, I guess, because ultimately, as our story says, this appeared to be a paper play. So we had never seen something like that. And we actually - I, you know, I - Mark and I reached out to our - one of great political reporters, Jonathan Martin, and asked him, you know. And we all sort of wracked our brains to try to figure out if, like, has this been done before? And so, you know, I can't tell you right now it hasn't, that somebody else isn't doing this. But we were unaware of that.
DAVIES: Right. You know, I've covered politics for a long time myself, mostly at the state and local level. And, yeah, people steal lawn signs. And they will attend their rival's news conferences, public events and gather information. And they will get, you know, negative information from public records. But, yeah, this kind of actual infiltration and spying, I don't think I've run across that.
GOLDMAN: I was going to say, you know, talking to Republicans, moderate Republicans, I mean, moderate - these guys are pretty conservative, by the way - when we're describing it as moderate Republicans they were targeting. You know, they were angry too, right? And it was interesting to hear some of these Wyoming Republicans, you know, thank us for our reporting, you know, being The New York Times, because Trump has, you know, vilified us. And his supporters have vilified us. But they thanked us for bringing, you know, putting some sunlight on this.
But I think - you would think that Democrats and Republicans would all be united, that this is a bipartisan issue, right? Neither party wants to be infiltrated like this. Neither party wants to be, you know, exposed to this kind of spycraft - right? - where you have people in your organization who aren't who they say they are, you know, collecting intelligence, if that's what you want to call it.
DAVIES: Adam Goldman, thank you so much for speaking with us.
GOLDMAN: Thank you for having me.
DAVIES: Adam Goldman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews new songs by veteran artist Tom Jones, Jackson Browne and John Mayer. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.