Introducing the Swiftboat Network

by Karoli on September 28, 2009 · 31 comments

The right wing has designed an insidious new way to allow many rich contributors to fund unlimited spending on political message campaigns, all orchestrated by one PR firm, thus avoiding most existing FEC laws for reporting and disclosure. The bottom line? Massive propaganda blitzes with virtually no limits, and no accountability.

Buried deep within the Internet, there is a place called the Federal Election Commission. Buried deeper within the Federal Election Commission, there is a place where any interested party can view requests for advisory opinions, read both sides’ arguments for and against, comment, and listen to the audio of public hearings.

Buried deeper still, are the seeds of a plan to circumvent all election finance law and everything we know right now about so-called ‘astroturf organizations’ in a perfectly legal, United States Federal Election Commission-approved kind of way.[Index here]

The Players

  • Carl Forti and Michael Dubke, principals of the newly-formed Black Rock Group in Alexandria, Virginia. Just for reference, Carl Forti was a former principal of Freedom’s Watch and communications director for Mitt Romney and the NRCC.
  • Wealthy donors to Republican causes. Some notable possibilities: Steve Forbes, Charles Koch, Richard Mellon Scaife, Betsy DeVos, James Dobson, and just about anyone listed on the board of the US Chamber of Commerce, their friends, and their friends’ friends, as well as a network of less-wealthy but nevertheless committed internet denizens, led by people like Tea Party Guy Eric Odom.
  • Anyone with the money to play. There is only one requirement: They must be willing to use their own money, act on their own, and hire Black Rock Group as their consultant.

The Plan

People who might otherwise make donations to 527 groups (which are subject to campaign disclosure laws), will instead form as Limited Liability Companies (LLCs). Each company will advertise, take polls, or conduct direct media campaigns for or against Federal candidates as they choose. The company will not accept any funds from any outside sources. Simply put, wealthy donors will no longer be restricted to current contribution limits or disclosure laws because they will be acting individually as a company to put their message on the air. This has long been held to be a First Amendment right of individuals. They’re allowed to spend whatever they want. It isn’t new.

Black Rock Group will act as advisor to these groups. From their original request for an advisory opinion:

BRG may encourage its individual clients to establish LLCs with the above characteristics. BRG also may be approached by clients who have already established, or are contemplating establishing, an LLC with the above characteristics.

BRG will advise these LLCs on the development of messages that expressly advocate the election or defeat of the Federal candidates chosen by the client. BRG’s role will be to advise each LLC concerning how best to communicate its sole member’s views on these Federal candidates.

And this:

Each LLC will spend more than $1,000 per calendar year on independent expenditures for television, radio, direct mail, phone bank, and print advertisements. In no case, however, will any communication be funded by more than one individual…BRG, its LLC clients, and any other vendor providing services to each LLC will not coordinate any communications with any Federal candidate or political party committee.

The key here is not the message. It’s the messenger, and the advisor behind the messenger.

It’s not difficult to imagine 100 different Swiftboat ads, each with the same message but a different messenger, a messenger who is a client of Black Rock Group and involved in the same campaign against the same candidate.

So what? This isn’t new, right?

Well, yes. And no. It’s about networks and identity. As Politico noted back in June:

When rich players have run into trouble for their political dabbling, it’s usually been because they got creative or sneaky in an effort to hide their identities or pool resources in a way they hoped would avoid the $5,000 donation limit for political committees.

This is different, because each person will be acting as their own company with one common link: Black Rock Group, where Black Rock Group fully intends to be the central hub crafting the central message, no matter what small differences may emerge in the final presentation by each company.

Moreover, it is anticipated that BRG will facilitate communication among various LLCs by scheduling conference calls or meetings between certain LLCs or passing along messages between LLCs.

Black Rock Group has asked the FEC to rule on whether their role, as stated above, would cause these individual companies to be deemed a “political committee”, which would then be subject to FEC disclosure and limits.

Has this been approved?

FEC has issued two Draft rulings. The first one blesses the arrangement as being completely legal and permissible, including BRG’s involvement. The second rules that if BRG facilitates communication, there will be a “group of persons” subject to the 527 reporting and disclosure requirements.

A final decision is pending. However, even if Draft ruling B is adopted, all that really means is that BRG may not communicate with these LLCs as a group, but only on an individual basis. There is nothing really stopping them from communicating the same message to each client separately rather than as a group.

It seems clear that the only indecision at the FEC right now concerns whether BRG can communicate with these companies as a group via conference call or other means. The fundamental structure doesn’t appear to be an issue at all. What that means to voters is that we will be inundated with negative campaign ads funded by shadow entities who will be shielded from the light of day. They will say whatever they want to say in whatever fashion they want to say it, including the usual smear tactics, but will never have to own one word of what they’ve said, because they are shielded by a legal entity surrounding the individual.

That’s the real problem here. If a Goldman Sachs executive wants to go negative on a candidate and has the funds to pay for it, no one will ever be able to point back to Goldman Sachs, nor will that executive ever have to own the words. Now multiply that by a factor of many, all blasting the same message over radio, tv, push poll, polls, and other means. It’s lucrative for Black Rock Group, shields candidates from associations they’d rather not disclose, and inundates the rest of us with a barrage of ‘nattering nabobs of negativity.’

This isn’t astroturf. It’s a concrete firewall, intended to shield and protect the messenger who brings destructive messages. In a day and age where transparency and disclosure have cast light on the interests of those carrying the message, this plan seeks to drop a lightproof curtain over the process, with the full consent and blessing of the Federal Election Commission. It is the equivalent of a full-scale Google bomb via direct mail, television, radio, and your telephone (via pollsters).

Networks are networks, no matter how small…

But what about the Internet? I see the same plan being hatched here, too. Eric Odom’s recent Project 73 announcement indicated some similar characteristics. He’s planning a news portal with a for-profit business model, similar to the Huffington Post, which appears to be an aggregator. We’ve already seen sites turn up that are nearly impossible to trace, such as the recent “US Citizens Association“, which appears to have been created solely to broadcast an anti-Obama and anti-health care reform ad while claiming to be a ‘grass-roots organization.”

Under the arrangement described by BRG, there will no longer be a need for any such claim. All anyone will need to do is buy a domain, put up a turnkey site (presumably assisted by Odom’s firm), and slap their last-aired video, full-page print ad, article, or blog post up there, which Odom can then aggregate via his American Liberty Alliance site. Presumably, the message could be crafted by BRG, and the clients “advised” to put up a site. This tracks with some of the recent activity I’ve seen just in California. LLCs created in the past three months with LegalZoom or a different online legal service as the agent for legal process, with a domain name associated, but no site launched. As Odom says,

We have the branding, we have the domains

Same network, different venue.

Stay tuned. The message will be the same, but the messenger will be cloaked and masked, wrapped in a shell entity advised by the architect of some of the most destructive messages this country has seen yet.

Update 11/27/2009: The FEC made a decision to (sort of) allow these networks to populate. This is why the second FEC link doesn’t work anymore. The first link goes to the ‘compromise decision’ which essentially allows a tentative go-ahead with caveats for future rulings if they see a problem. Funny, I see a problem right now. By the time FEC gets around to it, it’ll be a crisis.
Cross-posted to The Bipartisan Report

  • MBinDC

    There could be some good info here, but you start off sloppy – LLCs are Limited Liability *Company*s. And they don't “incorporate”. If you're missing (important, for structural and disclosure reasons) details like that, I'm not apt to trust the other things you're saying.

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  • http://www.drumsnwhistles.com/ Karoli

    thank you for the correction. I've edited the text to properly reflect those details which are important ones.

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  • http://dotlizard.com dotlizard

    So, if “anyone” can play, does this mean I can start up a news portal and aggregate a bunch of shadowy left-wing propagandists, people who are fed up and wish to fight fire with a flamethrower? Sure, most of the big BIG money is on the other wing, but with shrewd management of resources, and someone with the ability to leverage existing technology on a budget to create a robust content delivery system … what (other than the noble but perhaps ill-advised notion of taking the high road) would stand in the way?

    Not saying I'm advocating such a thing. I'm just … sayin'.

  • http://www.drumsnwhistles.com/ Karoli

    Well, that's true. But in thinking about how the left funds its initiatives compared to the right, I imagine there will be far more possibilities for utilization by the right. Just sayin'. :)

  • http://dotlizard.com dotlizard

    It's all about ingenuity, resourcefulness, doing more with less. Working smarter, not with obscene amounts of money.

    I know that sinking to their level (even if it's very frugal & clever & with the best intentions) is bad and wrong and all. But how many times in the past has that led to disaster, and is it maybe time to toss a little batshit right back at 'em?

    As a wise man once said, “But we're never gonna survive unless, we get a little crazy.” Just sayin; :)

  • disgustedbyyourblog

    Wow, I never knew the left to be so concerned with integrity and 'taking the high road'. If it wasn't for this blog, I would be misinformed. Take ACORN for example. We all knew the reason for its existance, Obama's ties to it and his support of it. We were aware of how it was used to bilk money from the government. As a matter of fact, two young kids exposed it for what it is on ACORN's own turf.

    The right uses its own money to support its ideology, the left thinks all Americans should pay its way. And then. . . . the left continues to berate and browbeat those who earn their own money and pay their own way as well as the majority of taxes, etc, etc.

    Same old tired arguments. Same old sad results. I'm just … sayin' too.

  • mrbeck2009

    You can't possibly be as stupid as your post indicates.. could you? Try some critical thinking of your own sometime instead of barfing up the usual right wing talking points.

  • http://warlocketx.wordpress.com/ Ric Locke

    How remarkable.

    It never fails to amaze when people who are free with the derogations “wingnutz” and “bedwetters” need a clean pair of skivvies every time they discover that ZOMG!!! THERE'S A POLITICAL OPPOSITION TO OUR INFALLIBLE PROPOSALS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!AND THEY'RE ACTUALLY ALLOWED TO SAY THAT!!!!!!!!! IN PUBLIC!!!!!!1111ELEVENTY!111!!

    Regards,
    Ric

  • http://www.drumsnwhistles.com/ Karoli

    The attacks on ACORN have always been an effort toward voter disenfranchisement, and ACORN has absolutely nothing to do with what I'm discussing here. If opposition is such a high value, I fail to understand why those in opposition wouldn't want to own what they believe.

    Of course, we both know the answer to that. When one is smearing someone else, they'd like to appear to be more than one, because it plays better when there are many saying the same thing.

    I am not browbeating anyone. I'm simply reporting on an effort to circumvent existing disclosure laws via a scheme that appears to avail itself of loopholes. Will you be as willing to defend it if the left also uses this strategy? I wonder.

  • http://www.drumsnwhistles.com/ Karoli

    Ric,

    I reported the facts. As I stated above, if one so strongly believes in their reasons for opposing, why not say so without subterfuge? The answer seems clear to me. It appears to me that by coming around the campaign finance and disclosure laws, swiftboats can launch at will. Sort of like gossips around a water cooler, passing on “I heards” that can neither be proven nor disproven.

    It does not speak well to the integrity of the positions argued. With that said, it's never stopped anyone before, and I doubt it will now. It really means having to hunt through pages of meaningless, anonymous Google results to dig down at the truth.

  • http://warlocketx.wordpress.com/ Ric Locke

    Pfui. In the first place, all the “campaign finance reforms” constitute an attempt to keep water in a fishnet. So long as we have something resembling free speech, attempts to suppress political opinions will continue to be made and continue to work. Of course, since your and your fellows' definition of “free speech” includes the caveat “unless we don't like it” — vide “hate speech” — that argument falls flat, doesn't it?

    In the second place, the examples of Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber — and the original Swift Boat Veterans for Truth — illustrate clearly the value of keeping a personal low profile when expressing opinions that don't meet the standards of TRVTH you and your fellows maintain. When one can confidently expect a 24/7 barrage of calumny and obloquy for saying such things, it well behooves one to seek a bit of cover.

    It always seems remarkable to me that, in regard to the original controversy, everyone Left and Right misses the point: There are something like two hundred people on the planet who can claim to be “Swift Boat Veterans”. Of those, a tiny minority — either three or five, I forget — stood up for John Kerry. Of the remainder, all of those willing to speak out at all were either willing or eager to denounce him as unworthy of the Presidency.

    Your very use of the term “swiftboating” echoes the unrelenting screams and insults the expression of that opinion generated, confirming the definition of the term as “uttering truths the Democrats don't want heard.” Other people wishing to utter truths Democrats would prefer left hidden will naturally seek some protection.

    Regards,
    Ric

  • disgustedbyyourblog

    “The attacks on ACORN have always been an effort toward voter disenfranchisement, and ACORN has absolutely nothing to do with what I'm discussing here.” Karoli, you continue to be an amusing post. I'll bet you believe your own quote above. Also, your staunch defense of the left being full of nothing but integrity and honor make may sad for you. You continue to educate me and help me understand how the left thinks and why Obama and his minions are able to manipulate so easily.

    Carry on Karoli. Keep digging and digging and digging to expose the right while ignoring blatant news worthy reported events in our faces everyday on the left.

    Still watching to see if it's the ideology that propels you or your earlier quote that I love so much “Get out of my kid’s way and let the big boys forge a realistic pathway for him to work toward his goals.” Mamma bear doesn't mention one word about encouraging her son to man up and deal with his illness and pay his way. No, instead he is seen as her gift delivered on her birthday, so therefore, we should pay his medical bills while he plays his drums for her and anyone else he wants to for that matter.

    As long as you continue to slam those who pay you and your son's say, you will get push back, like the article you wrote about. You will continue to receive pushback from those who do not agree with your ideals.

    And … you find sympathy from those who agree with you cause thier hands are outstreched while they spit in the face of the hands that feed them.

    I'm just … sayin.

  • disgustedbyyourblog

    Well Said Ric.

  • http://www.drumsnwhistles.com/ Karoli

    I'm not going to respond to your personal attacks. We either have
    discussions on issues or not. I have not attacked you personally. You
    may disagree with my outlook and my politics. That's your choice.
    Nevertheless, it doesn't warrant any attack from me, nor will one be
    forthcoming.

    As to my kid, he faces barriers which were not of his creation, nor
    are they necessarily surmountable. He has gifts, talents, and
    ambition. I do not believe he should be left bankrupt at age 20
    because he has the misfortune of being diagnosed with two chronic
    conditions which work at cross-purposes with each other when it comes
    to management. I believe he should have access to health care and the
    necessary medications at a reasonable price. I believe he should be
    able to BUY and AFFORD insurance to cover his health needs. As it
    stands today, he is forced to purchase the same supplies from the same
    pharmacy at twice what he would pay if he were insured and they were
    non-formulary (because he would still get the negotiated price).

    This is not free enterprise. It places him and others like him in the
    position of powerlessness against corporate interests. The only
    recourse in a situation like that is government, and it does not
    necessarily have to come in the form of assistance. A level playing
    field, an opportunity is what's needed here. He is a taxpayer. He
    isn't taking public assistance. He is earning his way. As such, he
    deserves the same consideration as any other citizen and taxpayer in
    this country: the opportunity to obtain health care at a reasonable
    price that doesn't discriminate. We do not have such a system today.

    ACORN is still a red herring. It will always be a red herring. ACORN
    does not provide, price, or insure for health care. Therefore, we can
    either remain focused on what I am talking about, or you can have an
    ACORN discussion with your friends like Ric who think that name
    calling and personal attacks somehow solve problems.

    Be well.

  • disgustedbyyourblog

    “The attacks on ACORN have always been an effort toward voter disenfranchisement, and ACORN has absolutely nothing to do with what I'm discussing here.” “ACORN is still a red herring. It will always be a red herring. ACORN does not provide, price, or insure for health care.” True, “ACORN does not provide, price, or insure for health care.” But ACORN is an excellent example of fraud and abuse in a government funded program, just like Social Security, Medicare, etc. If we get what you are demanding, single payer health insurance through government, we will have no recourse to undo the fraud and abuse that goes on now and even more then. On top of that, Social Security and Medicare are bankrupt, adding another program the size of medical insurance will set this country back in ways that no one will have good health insurance. Better health insurance coverage for all is better provided for through the private sector. I wish you would write a blog about the effects single payer health insurance will have on our economy. This has been done before, the effects have been recorded and they are not good …
    By the way, I'm glad to hear your son is being responsible, I was worried for him based on what you wrote in that previous blog of yours. Again, it seems we want the same outcome, “the opportunity to obtain health care at a reasonable price that doesn't discriminate”, but we want to use different means to get there. Also, it does exist now, but if you get your way, and we do get a government single payer solution, you can kiss your dream goodbye.

  • http://www.drumsnwhistles.com/ Karoli

    Single payer has never been on the table. Progressives are out of
    their body over the fact that it was excluded before it could be
    included. Having an option in the exchange that is a public option is
    not single payer. Not at all. As for responsibility, we all want to be
    responsible. Without reform, he will not be able to be. His current
    rate, if he were insurable, would be around $200/month. Under Baucus'
    proposal, that would rise to $1000 month, assuming no rate increases
    now or in the future (a silly assumption, we all know better than
    that). This is my objection: There is no way a 20-year old college
    student (or his parents) can afford that kind of insurance premium for
    basic coverage.

  • http://www.drumsnwhistles.com/ Karoli

    Just so we have everything clear here, the government did not fund ACORNs voter registration arm. The only funding went to the branch of ACORN that advised low-income mortgage holders on how to manage their mortgage. That was not the ACORN branch that was 'caught on tape'.

  • Earthbound

    Great article. I hope you get on Rachel's show, I'm emailing it to her. Please fix the link to the FCC, preferably to lead to the proposals and to the proper site to comment.

  • http://www.drumsnwhistles.com/ Karoli

    Hi Earthbound. I just updated this post with the most recent news. The reason FEC link #2 doesn't work is because they made their decision, and the link now goes to that ruling. The FEC ruling site is an almost-unnavigable labyrinth of embedded frames, making it very easy to break links or not link at all.

  • http://www.drumsnwhistles.com/ Karoli

    Hi Earthbound. I just updated this post with the most recent news. The reason FEC link #2 doesn't work is because they made their decision, and the link now goes to that ruling. The FEC ruling site is an almost-unnavigable labyrinth of embedded frames, making it very easy to break links or not link at all.

  • http://www.drumsnwhistles.com/ Karoli

    Hi Earthbound. I just updated this post with the most recent news. The reason FEC link #2 doesn't work is because they made their decision, and the link now goes to that ruling. The FEC ruling site is an almost-unnavigable labyrinth of embedded frames, making it very easy to break links or not link at all.

  • Earthbound

    Great article. I hope you get on Rachel's show, I'm emailing it to her. Please fix the link to the FCC, preferably to lead to the proposals and to the proper site to comment.

  • http://www.drumsnwhistles.com/ Karoli

    Hi Earthbound. I just updated this post with the most recent news. The reason FEC link #2 doesn't work is because they made their decision, and the link now goes to that ruling. The FEC ruling site is an almost-unnavigable labyrinth of embedded frames, making it very easy to break links or not link at all.

  • Earthbound

    Great article. I hope you get on Rachel's show, I'm emailing it to her. Please fix the link to the FCC, preferably to lead to the proposals and to the proper site to comment.

  • http://www.drumsnwhistles.com/ Karoli

    Hi Earthbound. I just updated this post with the most recent news. The reason FEC link #2 doesn't work is because they made their decision, and the link now goes to that ruling. The FEC ruling site is an almost-unnavigable labyrinth of embedded frames, making it very easy to break links or not link at all.

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  • http://www.osborneink.com OsborneInk

    WOW. Chapter, verse, and everything. All you need are graphics to draw the pictures.

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