We can now add another outrageous plot to the litany of crimes against democracy perpetrated by the Koch Brothers and their network of big-money donors and shadowy political action committees: a massive CIA-like intelligence apparatus designed specifically to spy on their liberal opponents. While the Kochs’ pollution of our democracy has long been known, the private political spying operation reveals just how far these tyrannical reactionaries and their fellow oligarchs are willing to go to defend their self-entitled empires against any incursion of freedom and justice.
The Koch network has apparently been running its private spying operation, which it euphemistically terms a “competitive intelligence team,” for several years, although it is little known even within the Koch organization. One former Koch official described the spying operation as being “like the CIA,” and indeed the operation, into which some $13 million has been poured, includes a former CIA analyst among its twenty-five person team. The main focus of the spying has been to gather information on liberal groups, their tactics, and their campaigns, which Koch officials felt they had severely misread prior to the 2012 elections.
The spy network gathered intelligence from liberal organizations grassroots campaigns by embedding Koch moles in the groups, has tracked canvassing, voter-registration and phone banking drives, and has obtained several confidential documents from numerous liberal groups. The operation has even been tracking the movement and operations of liberal groups and individuals through tracking geo-tags on social media posts and other stealth technologies. The targeted groups include environmental activists, unions, democratic fundraising groups, and numerous prominent liberal organizing groups. All of the information gathered by the intelligence operation is disseminated to important Koch officials in weekly “intelligence briefings” that the team sends.
The bombshell revelation broken today by Politico stemmed from release of a secret audio tape recorded at the Kochs’ June 2014 closed-door donor gathering in Dana Point, CA, which carried the dangerously militaristic title “The Opposition: Understanding Their Strategy and Infrastructure.” The billionaire attendees were graced with a presentation by Mark Holden, a prominent Koch advisor, detailing the organization’s spying efforts and the documents and information that it had obtained.
Besides the obvious Orwellian overtones of a large private intelligence force spying on its political opponents, there are questions as to whether the operation is even legal. At the donor session that was recorded in California, Holden, after discussing the details and documents the group was “able to get a hold off,” quickly adds “I’m general counsel and I just want to say it was all legit, legal, appropriate.” The comment is followed by quick and awkward laughter from the audience, bringing to mind Jordan Belfort or Mr. Burns cackling at the manipulation of the political system that their money can buy. While it is not illegal to gather information on political opponents, even through duplicitous and underhanded measures, the monitoring of opponents through online tracking could very well be grounds for a legal challenge. In any case, the entire operation is an insult to the American democratic system and to the freedom and right to privacy that conservatives such as the Kochs claim to value so highly.
The Kochs and their band of anachronistic reactionary politics fueled by flows of shadowy oligarch money made legal by Citizens United have become the dominant force in the Republican Party, more powerful even than the Party itself; the group plans to spend some $889 million on the 2016 elections, which is more than twice as much as the RNC spent on the 2012 election. But even this massive kleptocratic buy-off of the electorate is apparently not enough to make the Kochs feel secure in their regressive and oppressive agenda. These pathetic would-be-tyrants feel the need to undertake a massive spying opposition of questionable legality to combat the forces of liberalism, which have not only logistical advantages but the inherent advantages of logic and progress as well. And to these billionaires, progress is terrifying, as every move for greater freedom, justice, and equality spells a dilution – however minute – of the tremendous power of the oligarchs. To stop that progress, and the progress it would bring to the rest of us, the Koch’s have instituted a private Orwellian spying operation that seeks to sabotage their political opponents, who are described and treated as if they were war-time enemies. It’s hardly surprising that these men took such a despicable step, but it is a sad reminder of who really runs American politics today that they have gotten away with it for so long and in all likelihood will continue to do so.
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Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.