Mar 23, 2014 · 13 minutes

[White House officials] know who to call at The Times, they know who to call at The Post. With us, who are they going to call? Pierre? -- Jeremy Scahill, First Look Media
Last month, Pando’s Mark Ames reported that Omidyar Networks, the philanthropic organization operated by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pamela, had co-invested with the US government in opposition groups that played a key role in organizing Ukraine's recent revolution.

Unsurprisingly, given Omidyar is now running First Look Media, a journalistic enterprise dedicated to exposing US government wrongdoing around the world, some FLM staffers and supporters rushed to cry foul over our report.

USA Today's Rem Rieder argued that Omidyar Network's investments were a non-issue as they had been disclosed years earlier. Other supporters pointed out that, just because the Omidyars co-invested with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and appeared to share their policy on regime change in Ukraine, didn't mean that they had actively collaborated with the government on investment strategy.

This narrative of Pierre Omidyar being politically and financially separate from the Obama White House is a vitally important one. In recent weeks, the site's reporters have taken their fight right to the President's doorstep with headlines like "The White House Has Been Covering Up the Presidency’s Role in Torture for Years," claiming that the administration has deliberately withheld thousands of documents relating to the CIA's role in detention and interrogation of prisoners. Any sniff that First Look's owner, publisher and chief editorial recruiter has close ties to the White House could undermine the whole premise of the organization.

Speaking to the Daily Beast, documentary maker Jeremy Scahill mentioned his boss explicitly when comparing the cozy relationship between other news organizations and the White House. First Look, he insisted, would be different…

I think that the White House, whether it is under Republican or Democrat, they pretty much now [sic] who they are dealing with. There are outlets like The Daily Beast, or The Huffington Post that have risen up in the past decade, but they are very quickly just becoming part of the broader mainstream media, and with people that have spent their careers working for magazines or newspapers or what have you, and the White House believes they all speak the language on these things. With us, because we want to be adversarial, they won’t know what bat phone to call. They know who to call at The Times, they know who to call at The Post. With us, who are they going to call? Pierre? Glenn?”
Scahill's question is a good one — and it's also very easy to answer: If the White House has a problem with First Look, it’s a pretty safe bet they’ll pick up the phone and call Pierre Omidyar.

After all, according to records made available under Obama's 2009 transparency commitment, Omidyar has visited the Obama White House at least half a dozen times since 2009. During the same period, his wife, Pamela Omidyar, who heads Omidyar Network, has visited 1600 Pennsylvania Ave at least four times, while Omidyar Network’s managing partner, Matthew Bannick, has visited a further three. In all, senior Omidyar Network officials made at least 13 visits to the White House between 2009-2013. (In fact the logs indicate that, on several occasions, Omidyar visited the White House more than once in the same day. To avoid unfairly inflating the numbers, I’ve removed same-day duplicates from all the totals cited in this article.)

To put the numbers in perspective, Omidyar’s six visits compare to four visits during the same period by NBCUniversal chief Stephen Burke, two by Fox News boss Roger Ailes, two by MSNBC’s Phil Griffin, one by New York Times owner Arthur O Sulzberger, and one each by Dow Jones’ Robert Thompson, Gannett/USA Today’s Gracia Martore and Omidyar’s fellow tech billionaire turned media owner, Jeff Bezos.


In fact Pando could only find three media titans who had earned more White House visitor loyalty points than Omidyar: CNN’s Jeffrey Zucker (7), former Post owner Donald Graham (9) and queen of all media, Arianna Huffington (11). According to records, neither The Daily Beast’s Tina Brown or Barry Diller were invited at all — nor, by the way, was Rupert Murdoch.

Even compared to other major tech leaders, Omidyar is a special case. LinkedIn's Reid Hoffman visited the White House twice during the same period, as did Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg. Omidyar also beat out Marissa Mayer (5), Eric Schmidt (5), John Doerr (4), Dick Costolo (3), Evan Williams (3), Jack Dorsey (2), Larry Ellison (1) and poor old Reed Hastings who wasn't invited at all, until this week. According to records, other people not important enough to make it through the door include Pando investors Marc Andreessen and Peter Thiel.

(In fairness, it should be noted that Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg (7) clocked at least one more visit than Omidyar -- and on one occasion, records show, even scored herself a ride home to San Francisco on Air Force One. Which, I suppose, is what happens when Larry Summers is your mentor.)

Hell, even compared to famous investors, Omidyar holds his own: positioned, as he is, squarely between Warren Buffett (5) and George Soros (7).

The raw numbers can only tell half the story, though. What’s much more interesting — and potentially far more troubling for the owner of a soi-disant “adversarial” publication trying to paint itself as a stranger to the White House — is who Omidyar and his wife/co-founder met during their visits to the White House.

Again, the public data is our friend: From it we learn that, yes, Pierre Omidyar had many of the kind of meetings you might expect from the founder of eBay: For example, in 2009, he met with Beth Noveck, then Obama’s deputy chief CTO, who now works in a similar role for the UK government. That same year, Omidyar further cemented his relationship with the Obama White House when the President personally appointed him to sit on the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships, helping to nominate young future leaders to gain “experience working at the highest levels of the federal government.” (Other appointments to the Commission that year included Tom Brokaw and General Wesley Clark.)

Dig deeper in the visitor logs, however, and we find several meetings involving both Pierre and Pamela Omidyar which apparently have less to do with the former’s tech credentials than with Omidyar Network’s desire to shape US foreign policy.

On 16th April 2010, Pamela Omidyar visited the White House for four hours to meet with Gayle Smith, Senior Director of the National Security Council in charge of “global development” and “democracy.”

The National Security Council, which the president heads, was created by Truman in 1947, under the National Security Act, to act as a liaison between government and the military/intelligence community. This included providing a bridge between the government and the CIA, which was created in the same year under the same act. More recently the NSC, which oversees the "kill lists," has been implicated in the targeted assassinations of American citizens and was responsible for controlling the “high value detainee interrogation group,” which was criticized for its inhumane treatment of prisoners in 2013 by the Guardian’s... Glenn Greenwald. More recently, the NSC was involved in the decision not to declassify thousands of CIA documents, prompting outrage from reporters at Omidyar's First Look Media.

While we can’t know what was discussed at the meeting - not least because a spokesperson for Pierre and Pamela Omidyar declined to comment for this story - it’s possible that Pamela Omidyar and Smith touched upon Omidyar Network’s future international investment plans. After all, before joining the NSC, Smith worked as chief of staff at USAID.

In any case, the following month, another senior official from Omidyar Network was invited to the White House. This time, it was Matthew Bannick, Omidyar Network’s managing partner who made the trip to DC. According to White House records, the meeting was between “BANNICK, MATTHEW J” and “POTUS” — that is, the President of the United States himself.

Records show that Bannick and the President met in the Roosevelt Room for about an hour. That was apparently not enough time to conclude whatever business Omidyar Networks wished to transact with the White House, as Bannick returned to Pennsylvania Ave the very next day to meet the First Lady. The following day, Bannick was back for a third meeting, this time with Peter Rundlet, then deputy assistant to the President. A little over two weeks later, Pamela Omidyar also swung by to meet Rundlet.

These meetings clearly were very fruitful — at least for Rundlet. Just three months after meeting Pamela Omidyar and Matthew Bannick, Rundlet decided to quit his job at the White House and go to work as “vice president for investments” for a humanitarian group called “Humanity United.” The founders of that group? Pierre and Pamela Omidyar.

After Rundlet’s departure, the Omidyars and Bannick stayed away from the White House for almost a year, until suddenly in 2011 they were back with a vengeance. In June and July of 2011, Pierre and Pamela Omidyar and Matthew Bannick have a total five entries on the White House visitor log, including another visit with the President, on 18th July, this time in his private residence. It was two months after that meeting that Omidyar Network announced its co-investment with USAID in Ukraine’s Center UA—which described itself as an "active participant" in the Ukraine revolution earlier this year—as well as in pro-democracy groups in Nigeria, Chile and India.

The last recorded visit by Omidyar to the White House was in December 2012, just ten months before it was revealed that he had hired Glenn Greenwald, keeper of Edward Snowden’s secrets, to launch a site exposing the misbehavior of the US government. Since then, according to all the records Pando has been able to find, no representative of Omidyar Networks has visited the White House, nor have any more co-investments between Omidyar and USAID been announced publicly.

But the key word there is publicly. Just because Omidyar is now painting himself as an outsider, doesn’t mean he’s any less close to his old friends in Washington.

In February of this year, the Intercept published one of its first reports, bylined to Greenwald and Scahill, exposing the involvement of the NSA in foreign drone attacks — a program overseen by the National Security Council. That same month USAID official Sarah Mendelsen testified before the House Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs about the importance of the US government’s ongoing partnerships with private donors and NGO including, specifically, Omidyar Network…

“In 2012, USAID launched “Making All Voices Count: A Grand Challenge for Development,” a $55 million public-private partnership with UKAID, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Omidyar Network and the Open Society Foundations to support innovation and research that will enable citizens to engage with their governments and improve the ability of governments to listen and respond to their citizens. The first round of challenge grants received over 500 applications proposing innovative ways to use technology to enable citizens to better use public information. We are working closely with our colleagues at the State Department to support local civil society efforts to prevent new restrictions from being enacted. And we are leading a process, together with other governments, private donors, and non-governmental organizations to explore new innovative ways to support civil society around the world.

The political trajectory of a country is ultimately a U.S. national security issue, and as such, we are intimately involved in advancing U.S. national security interests. Several of the countries we will discuss today [including Ukraine] are of high national security interest to the United States, and they are also in the category of requiring very long-term democracy efforts.

Accordingly, the investments we make in these closed societies will pay dividends in the future. We know this to be true in many countries where we have worked, where institutions and processes we supported became leading elements ushering in more democratic and accountable governments. That is the story of millions of dollars of USAID investments in Serbia, Georgia, and now Burma. Serbia, Georgia and Burma are, of course, all places where USAID-backed pro-US color revolutions were successful. And now we have Omidyar Network  investing in USAID's newest overseas programs, "advancing U.S. national security interests" in USAID's words.

With Omidyar Networks refusing to comment, we can’t know the full details of what Pierre and Pamela Omidyar discussed with the President and other top White House officials before they co-invested with USAID to bring democracy (and revolution) to foreign shores. And we can’t know if, for all of Jeremy Scahill’s snark, those same White House officials have attempted to use their relationship with the Omidyars to influence First Look’s reporting.

(I emailed Scahill for comment on this article [48+ hrs ago] but he had not responded by press time. A request for comment from First Look Media [48+ hrs ago] received no response by press time. A request for comment from the White House [12+ hrs ago] received no response by press time.)

What we do know for sure is this: for all of First Look’s bluster about Omidyar’s outsider status, his relationship to the White House is at least as close as any other media tycoon. Moreover, his direct business relationship with the Obama administration, through Omidyar Network’s co-investments with USAID and his donation of hundreds of thousands of dollars to the World Bank to promote micro-lending in emerging markets, adds another layer of coziness which most of the biggest media barons don’t even enjoy.

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And yet...

If Pierre Omidyar’s willingness to whitewash his establishment background and recast himself as a fiercely independent thorn in Obama's side comes as a shock to First Look readers (or staffers), it probably shouldn’t. After all, Omidyar is the undisputed king of the fake origin story.

In a now deleted article, Wired UK editor David Rowan busted eBay for completely fabricating its folksy beginnings in order to secure favorable press coverage. The main characters in the fairytale: Pierre and Pamela Omidyar...

It was the warm, smalltown story of a corporate giant’s humble beginnings that enticed Business Week, The Wall Street Journal, even the fact-obsessed New Yorker. When Pam Wesley wanted to boost her collection of Pez sweet dispensers, her fiance, Pierre Omidyar, built a website for her to trade them. That website grew to be the huge online auction house eBay, one of the internet gold rush’s few success stories – even though, in the words of the company’s PR chief, Mary Lou Song, it began simply “as kind of a love token”. It was a touching tale, recounted in endless profiles on both sides of the Atlantic, with only one flaw: it was a lie. As Song admits in a new book by Adam Cohen, The Perfect Store: Inside eBay, she invented the story five years ago to generate publicity for an otherwise dull tech company. “No one wants to hear about a 30-year-old genius who wanted to create a perfect market,” Song confesses. So she constructed what corporate PRs call a “creation myth”, and hoodwinked some of the world’s most respected reporters.
According to Rowan, some of those hoodwinked reporters were “furious” when they discovered the truth about Pierre and Pamela Omidyar: that the couple had allowed staffers to spread a romantic, completely false creation myth about eBay in order to conceal their real, purely market-driven motives for going into the auctions business.

With the stakes so much higher this time around, we can only hope that American journalists don't fall for the same stunt twice.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]

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Editor's note: All figures cited above are taken from the publicly available White House Visitor Access Records, as of November 2013. Pando has removed any duplicate same-day records from the totals. We have also taken steps to filter out erroneous records as well as attempting to verify possible misspellings and name variations (where doubt remains, we have removed records from the count). We'll update this article to reflect any subsequent errors we discover. Note that the publicly available records do not include any visits which the administration considers sensitive on national security grounds, nor do they include all visits to the Vice President's residence. More on the types of visits not included in the public data can be found here.

Update: An earlier version of this post spelled Beth Noveck's name as Novech.