TSAstroturf: The Washington Lobbyists and Koch-Funded Libertarians Behind the TSA Scandal
Does anyone else sense something strange is going on with the apparently spontaneous revolt against the TSA? This past week, the media turned an "ordinary guy," 31-year-old Californian John Tyner, who blogs under the pseudonym "Johnny Edge," into a national hero after he posted a cell phone video of himself defending his liberty against the evil government oppressors in charge of airport security.
The Nation hasn't been—and never will be—in the business of muffling citizen protest.
A Nation article investigating the Astroturf roots of the TSA scandal elicited a fierce rebuttal from Glenn Greenwald of Salon. The authors reply.
While this issue is certainly important—and offensive—to Americans, we are nonetheless skeptical about how and why this story turned into a national movement. In fact, this whole campaign feels a bit like déjà-vu: As the first reporters to expose the Tea Party as an Astroturf PR campaign funded by FreedomWorks and Koch-related front groups back in February, 2009, we see many of the same elements driving the current "rebellion" against the TSA: Koch-related libertarians, Washington lobbyists and PR operatives posing as "ordinary citizens," and suspicious fake-grassroots outrage relentlessly promoted in the same old right-wing echo chamber.
So far, all we know about "ordinary guy" John Tyner III, the freedom fighter who took on the TSA agents, is that, according to a friendly hometown profile in the San Diego Union-Tribune, "he leans strongly libertarian and doesn't believe in voting. TSA security policy, he asserts 'isn't Republican and it isn't Democratic.' " [Emphasis added.]
Tyner attended private Christian schools in Southern California and lives in Oceanside, a Republican stronghold next to Camp Pendleton, the largest Marine Corps base on the West Coast.
At least one local TSA administrator wondered if Tyner hadn't come to the airport prepared to create a scandal. Tyner switched on his recording device before even entering the checkpoint—and recorded himself as he refused to go through the body scanner. Most importantly, Tyner recorded himself saying, "If you touch my junk, I'm gonna have you arrested!"—which quickly morphed on blogs into the more media-savvy tagline, "Don't touch my junk!"
According to the Union-Tribune, when asked if the TSA was set up by Tyner, the local administrator coyly replied, "I don't know that it was an actual set up—but we are concerned that this passenger did have his recording [on] prior to entering the checkpoint so there is some concern that it was an intentional behavior on his part."
Tyner scoffs at the suggestion of a set up. "I can't set up the TSA side of this action," he said. In an interview with The Nation, Tyner said he doesn't belong to any libertarian organizations and did not have any contact with anyone mentioned in this article until after he posted his encounter with TSA agents.
Strangely enough, just a few days before Tyner's episode, another self-described "libertarian," Meg McLain, went online telling almost the exact same story of oppression and attempted sexual molestation at the hands of TSA agents. McLain is an occasional co-host of a libertarian radio show out of a libertarian quasi-commune located in Keene, New Hampshire. As reported in the Washington City Paper, the libertarian "Free Keene" movement where McLain makes her home is yet another libertarian project tied to the billionaire Koch brothers, the prime backers of the Tea Party campaign, through the Koch-funded Mercatus Center at George Mason University.
Meg McLain almost became a national celebrity as the first victim of the body scanner/TSA molesters. On November 8, McLain was preparing to fly out of the Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, airport, when she claimed to have been the victim of invasive TSA molestation. According to McLain, when she refused to have her body scanned, the TSA agents supposedly started screaming "Opt out! Opt out!" and pulled her aside and "molested" her—specifically, they "squeezed and twisted" her breasts so hard that "it hurt." ("OptOut" is the name of a "grassroots" protest movement designed to tie up airports during the holidays—more on that later.) As she described it, "It's getting to the point where I feel more physically molested [by the TSA agents] than if some random guy actually came up and molested me. It's more intrusive than that." McLain also claimed that she was made to stand in an open area next to the metal detector, where every passenger could look at her while a TSA agent "screamed" at her, until, finally, she was handcuffed to a chair by a "dozen cops." McLain immediately called into the Keene libertarian radio show to tell her awful story, which was posted on YouTube, and spread virally after it was promoted on Drudge Report.
There was only one problem with McLain's story: she made it up. The TSA released video evidence showing that McLain wasn't molested, wasn't screamed at and wasn't attacked by a dozen cops and half a dozen TSA agents. In fact, other passengers don't seem to notice her, although a TSA agent does seem to be trying to comfort McLain, offering her tissues as the libertarian rebel breaks out crying.
By her own account, McLain was down in Florida visiting a pair of traveling libertarians who were spreading the word of libertarianism in what they billed as "Liberty On Tour," funded at least partly by Koch-backed organizations like "Students for Liberty." One of the libertarians that McLain met with, Peter Eyre, has spent much of the past five years on a variety of Koch payrolls: as an intern at the Koch-founded Cato Institute, a "Koch Fellow" at the Drug Policy Alliance and nearly three years as director for the Koch-funded Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University, home also to the Koch-funded Mercatus Center.
George Donnelly, a libertarian colleague of McLain's who writes that he "loves" her traveling libertarian friends in Florida and "learned a lot" from them, also happens to be one of two men behind the WeWontFly.com, one of the main websites pushing the "National Opt-Out Day" movement. The domain was registered on November 3, 2010, five days before McLain's fake airport incident. Donnelly provided McLain with the funds to return back to her libertarian commune in Keene, New Hampshire, after the (fake) incident.
McLain wasn't the only questionable libertarian "victim" of the TSA turned into a freedom-hero on the Drudge Report. In fact, according to the TSA's account, the 6-year-old who was allegedly "strip-searched" by evil TSA agents had his shirt removed by his own father—and not at the TSA's request. And the latest "hero" of the Drudge Report, Samuel Wolanyk—who stripped down to his underwear in alleged anger at TSA agents in San Diego, earning himself top billing on Drudge—is also a libertarian activist in the San Diego area, home of the self-described "libertarian" hero John Tyner, III. (According to an SEC lawsuit that dates back to 2002, a Samuel Wolanyk from San Diego, roughly the same age as the TSA libertarian hero, was charged with securities fraud for engaging in illegal "pump and dump" stock schemes that ripped off investors for millions of dollars.)
Then there's Brian Sodergren, founder of the "National Opt-Out Day," when "ordinary citizens standup for their rights." But Sodergren is no "ordinary citizen." Cached and scrubbed online LinkedIn records show that Brian Sodergren is a Washington lobbyist specializing in "grassroots education" for the American Dental Association and ADPAC, the American Dental Association Political Action Committee. No wonder that Sodergren has gone out of his way to scrub his employment record.
So now let's take one more look at the TSA hysteria, and re-evaluate if we should continue to simply accept the surface narrative, or consider what we might learn by looking beneath the surface. Because everywhere you look, the alleged victims' stories often turn out to be false or highly suspicious, promoted by lobbyists posing as "ordinary guys," and everywhere the cast of characters is always the same: drawn from the cult-ish fringes of the libertarian movement, with trails leading straight to the billionaire Koch brothers' network of libertarian think-tanks and advocacy groups.
We could take it all at face value and just trust that they're all "ordinary guys." Or we could ask, "Who profits?"
One person who seems to have the answer is Rep. John Mica, the Florida Republican who is set to chair the Transportation Committee. Mica co-wrote the bill establishing the TSA in 2001, just over a month after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC. A little-known provision in that bill allowed airports to "opt out" from the federal agency's security umbrella and to instead hire private contractors. As Media Matters pointed out recently, the whole reason why the TSA was formed was because private contractors paying airport security minimum wages were considered a big part of the reason why the 9/11 terror attacks were allowed to happen. Since the formation of the TSA, not a single terror attack originating from an American airport has taken place. But apparently that's not nearly as relevant as the complaints of a few libertarians.
The links between Mica, the libertarians, the Kochs, and the TSA scandal are only now emerging, and we hope more journalists will dig deeper. So far, we have learned:
Mica's longtime chief of staff, Russell Roberts, lists the Koch-backed Mercatus Center as the top sponsor of Roberts' privately financed travel expenses, according to Congressional travel disclosure forms. Roberts stated in his form that he participated in discussions related to "transportation policy."
In 2005, Mica reportedly came out in favor of backscatter X-ray machines, or "porn scan" body scanners, which he now opposes.
Immediately after the launching of the "National Opt-Out Campaign" by Washington grassroots lobbyist and "ordinary citizen" Brian Sodergren, Rep. Mica sent out letters to the heads of at least 100 airports across America advising them to "opt out" of the government-funded TSA program and hand over the job to private contractors. One of the first airports to sign on to Rep. Mica's privatization program, Orlando's Sanford Airport, happens to lie in Rep. Mica's district. The airport also happens to be a client of Rep. Mica's daughter, D'Anne Mica, who is listed as a partner in two lobbying/PR firms consulted by Sanford Airport. One of Ms. Mica's PR firms, "Grasshopper Media," boasts of its "history of success in organizing strategic and comprehensive grassroots campaigns." In other words: astroturfing.
According to a recent AP article, "Companies that could gain business if airports heed Mica's call have helped fill his campaign coffers. In the past 13 years, Mica has received almost $81,000 in campaign donations from political action committees and executives connected to some of the private contractors already at 16 U.S. airports." ("Airports Consider Congressman's Call to Ditch the TSA")
While so far there is no "smoking gun" linking Rep. Mica to the anti-TSA campaign, there is clearly enough evidence to call into question the official version of events as a "spontaneous" outbreak of anti-TSA hysteria carried out by "ordinary guys" that it claims to be. Instead, there is plenty of evidence of a coordinated campaign for purposes that are only just beginning to emerge—a campaign with a profit motive and a political objective. What we should not do is assume that, in the midst of the worst recession in decades, when untold thousands of families are being thrown out of their homes in fraudulent foreclosures, that the biggest most pressing issue facing Americans is the "porn scan" at airports.
But don't ask us, ask Americans themselves: a recent CBS poll found that fewer than one in five Americans object to the TSA's use of scans and pat-downs. Nevertheless, like the Tea Party libertarian protests that "erupted" "spontaneously" in February 2009, the protests against the TSA, and the media coverage of the spectacle, grips the nation.