11.15.11 9:45 AM ET
Allies Accuse James O'Keefe of 'Hit Job' in Undercover NPR Sting
The fake Muslim donor had played his role perfectly. The question was what to do next.
As the world would soon learn, Simon Templar had secretly recorded National Public Radio executives saying disparaging things about conservatives by passing himself off as Ibrahim Kasaam of the Muslim Education Action Center. He had even gotten a phone call with Vivian Schiller, NPR’s chief executive.
James O’Keefe, the man behind the undercover project, wanted to make the hidden-camera video public immediately last February as Congress debated whether to kill NPR’s funding. Templar insisted on waiting, and a confrontation ensued.
In a series of interviews with The Daily Beast, Templar says he had designed the effort to be “a very thoroughly researched and impeccably executed project that was by no means limited to NPR. James wanted it to be a hit job.”
What’s more, says Templar, O’Keefe “didn’t seem to care about the reasons why we were doing this. All he cared about was that he had people saying embarrassing stuff on video. I came to learn how desperate he was in terms of money and needing to rehabilitate his reputation.”
Shaughn Adeleye, who worked with Templar in posing as another member of the phony Muslim group, also disagreed with O’Keefe’s tactics. “We were both sold a false bill of goods,” says Adeleye, who devised the NPR scheme and persuaded O’Keefe to adopt it.
He and Templar “were under the impression we were going to go all the way with this. We did not want to halt it at such a critical moment when we had established a footing with our characters …
“I felt deceived and misled because James did not live up to what we all agreed upon would be a multifaceted project,” says Adeleye, who was born in Nigeria. “After a while I could not deny the truth anymore.”
Reached by telephone on Monday, O’Keefe said he would have no comment.
The clash highlights the debate swirling around O’Keefe’s surreptitious taping: Is it a new and audacious form of citizen activism, or ideological warfare dressed up as journalism? And why are his methods leaving some of his former allies disillusioned?
Whatever the misgivings of the participants, they had remarkable success by offering to donate up to $5 million to NPR if it could be done anonymously. In a phone call, Templar told Schiller that some of his organization’s members were affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic organization founded in Egypt that has a history of violence. He told her the Muslim Brotherhood had been unfairly demonized as a terrorist group by the likes of Glenn Beck and that he appreciated the stand that NPR took in firing analyst Juan Williams for comments made on Fox News about fearing airplane passengers in Muslim garb. Schiller responded only briefly, saying “I know” or that she understood what Templar was saying, without endorsing his views. She praised his generosity and said NPR would be honored to accept a check if the legal issues could be worked out.
“I’m telling Vivian Schiller about our Muslim Brotherhood connections and she didn’t have any problem with it,” Templar says. One of his motivations for the project was that “I really wanted to bring attention to the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the most racist organizations on the planet.”
Schiller says the conversation wasn't damaging in the slightest: "There's a reason O'Keefe never released the phone conversation...secretly taped with me: he had nothing. I shut them down on every pass because they've could not answer even simple questions about their alleged organization.
"Was I polite? Of course I was," she said. "But we were never even close to taking their money."
Templar says he based the project on "Sharia: The Threat to America," a report published by the Center for Security Policy that outlines how, according to the report, political correctness allows the Muslim Brotherhood to operate freely in the United States.
When Templar and Adeleye had lunch with the NPR executives on Feb. 22, O’Keefe’s brief career was at a low point. He had gained wide attention by posing as a pimp and videotaping ACORN staffers making incriminating remarks about underage prostitution (though it turned out the tapes were edited). But O’Keefe was later arrested for infiltrating Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office and given three years’ probation for entering federal property under false pretenses. And then he was caught trying to lure reporter Abbie Boudreau, then with CNN, onto a boat laden with sex toys and pornography in an effort to embarrass her.
“I was always struggling to pull him away from his shtick of walking into an office with a bizarre pretense and taping some secretary or low-level worker,” says Templar. “I wanted him to think much bigger.”
Templar grew a beard and dyed his hair dark for the sting. After the lunch, Templar and Adeleye wanted to stick with the plan of approaching other media outlets and academic institutions to expose their purported hypocrisy.
But Templar says O’Keefe told him the video had to be released within three days because he was in touch with sources in Congress and a vote was about to be taken on a budget resolution that could eliminate federal funding of NPR. O’Keefe said he had been assured that "this story would push it over the edge,” according to Templar.
“James was insistent … My position was that trying to beat that deadline was not only futile but irrelevant, even if the desire was to directly prompt the defunding of NPR,” Templar says. “The only result would be an extremely slipshod product.”
In an interview with me in March, O’Keefe maintained he was trying to do good journalism, not damage NPR. He defended the deception by saying that “people are not going to be honest” if you approach them with a notebook. “I think reporters do a lot of stenography in this country,” O’Keefe said. “They do a lot of damage control, they do a lot of punditry. But real investigative reporting is showing things for what they are.”
In any event, the team wound up delaying release of the videotape for two weeks. The undercover footage, made public on March 8, had an immediate impact. Vivian Schiller was forced out of her job. NPR’s top fundraiser, Ron Schiller (no relation), was also forced to quit after being secretly recorded as saying that Republicans are “anti-intellectual” and Tea Party members are “racist.”
The next day, according to Templar, O’Keefe and others on the team held a conference call with conservative fundraiser Richard Viguerie, whose firm was retained to send out financial appeals for O’Keefe’s nonprofit group, Project Veritas.
The dispute between the collaborators is also an argument about who receives recognition for the scandal that rocked NPR. O’Keefe’s face is now too well known for him to carry out stings himself. He has recently had colleagues conduct more modest stings aimed at reporters and journalism professors.
Templar, who maintains that he “literally handled every inch of this story,” says he feels “exploited.” He had, for instance, written an opinion column on the affair that was intended for The Wall Street Journal. But the public-relations firm working with O’Keefe’s group insisted the piece had to carry O’Keefe’s byline.
“Give us the credit we’re due, that’s all we asked,” Adeleye says. “It was hijacked to his own purposes, to a degree … James is just, unfortunately, someone I cannot work with anymore.”
Says Templar: “He needed the story to be that Shaughn and I were both just actors he hired to carry out his master plan. Otherwise, he wouldn’t get his ‘comeback’ or his ‘redemption,’ and it wouldn’t help his ‘business’ nearly as much.”