“It’s a good book. I really think you’ll like it,” James O’Keefe tells me, tapping a finger on the steely-faced photograph of himself gracing the cover of his new book, Breakthrough. “It’s not an ideological book. It’s like a thriller.”
The conservative muckraker, who gained notoriety with his controversial sting-operation videos targeting the low-income family assistance program ACORN and National Public Radio, had just finished delivering a short speech to a group of New York conservatives on his mission to “expose fraud” and took a break from signing books to offer his thoughts on the other scandal maker currently dominating headlines: NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
“I hope his motivations are pure and I like the fact that he’s getting information out there,” O’Keefe said, while pointing out that he feels more of a kinship with Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who published the leaks, than Snowden. O’Keefe considers himself a journalist, scoffing at attempts to label his work, typically targeted at liberal organizations, as conservative activism. Fresh off of three years probation for entering federal property under false pretenses (the office of Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu), O’Keefe can’t help but be a little excited that a member of the so-called mainstream media is on his side of the firing squad.
“What you’re starting to see is a sort of mainstreaming of the criminalization of journalism,” said the soft-spoken 29-year-old, clad in a sandy brown suit and muted salmon pink tie that matches the reddish hue of his cheeks. He’s referring to Meet the Press moderator David Gregory’s recent suggestion that Greenwald “aided and abetted Snowden,” and should be charged with a crime. “First it was, you know, bloggers and people like me over the last few years who’ve faced political prosecutions. So, it’s sort of a good thing to see that this problem is no longer confined to my colleagues and I. Now other journalists are facing the same types of calls for prosecution that we’ve faced.”
Though O’Keefe is quick to throw his weight behind Greenwald, he’s more skeptical of Snowden, noting a report in the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post in which Snowden acknowledged seeking a position at Booz Allen Hamilton for the sole purpose of gathering information on the NSA spying program.
“There is certainly a difference [between what we do and what Snowden did],” O’Keefe clarifies. “We don’t, for example, contract with an actual company and then break that contract. The notion that he would get a job at [Booz Allen] in order to do what he did is an interesting turn of events and a line that I’ve never crossed. Maybe I’ll cross it.”
“Regardless of what you think of the tactics,” he says, “what he exposed is true, and that’s a good thing. It’s a good thing for our democracy to have more information and, frankly, that’s what my mission is all about. I believe in the power of free people, and that if given basic information they can make decisions for themselves.”
O’Keefe may support Snowden’s mission to expose secret government data-collection programs, but believes he should end his globetrotting search for political asylum.
“It was an extremely ballsy move; [Snowden]’s got more courage than I do.”
“He made a decision. It was an extremely ballsy move; he’s got more courage than I do. But along with that comes the decision to face the fire,” he said. “Whether it’s justice or injustice that will be done, he has to face it and he has to fight it with everything he’s got. I’d like to see that happen out in the open here in the United States of America.”
Having received what he considers unfair treatment from both the media and the judicial system, O’Keefe acknowledges that Snowden is right to fear prosecution. “But that’s the fight that we must face. So if he wants to fight, if he wants to make America a better place, I think he should come home.”