The EyeOpener: Who Watches the Watchdogs?

What influence do corporate foundation donors have over the organizations they are propping up?


Last month, the EyeOpener investigated the “transparency award” that was bestowed on Obama this past March by a bevy of government watchdog NGOs who are ostensibly advocating for more government openness. As we saw in that report, dozens of high profile government whistleblowers and organizations have launched a petition at calling on these NGOs to rescind the award in light of the Obama Administration’s abysmal record of government secrecy and unprecedented levels of whistleblower prosecution.

 In response to the petition, one of the NGOs named in our report posted a reply defending its decision to honor Obama on the transparency issue and questioning the motives of those opposing that decision. In the rebuttal, Danielle Brian of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) wrote:

It is undeniable that the Obama administration has achieved more openness than any other recent president,” adding that “Public debate and disclosure is often healthy. But there is so much to be done to safeguard our rights and expand openness – our community just doesn’t have the luxury to waste time on distractions.”

A new investigation into the funding sources of the very NGOs who are supposed to be holding the government’s feet to the fire reveals some alternative explanations for why these organizations are so reluctant to call out the Obama administration for its egregious expansion of government secrecy.

The new series on Project on Government Oversight (POGO) and Corporate-Foundation Sugar Daddies looks further into corporate-foundations and Watch-Dogs turned Lap-Dogs. Here are the first two parts in our series:

Part I. The Tentacles of Megas: Reaching from the Government to the Emasculated Watchdogs

Part II. The Journey from Watch-Dogs to Lap-Dogs

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    “The Department of State is easily the most corrupted of the major government agencies.” – Sibel Edmonds

  2. Bill Bergman says:

    Here’s one element of the Obama Administration’s ‘transparency’ — from an article recently out by Vanity Fair, titled ‘The Kingdom and the Towers’, at

    includes ‘…Within weeks of his inauguration, in 2009, Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, made a point of receiving relatives of those bereaved on 9/11. The widow of one of those who died at the World Trade Center, Kristen Breitweiser, has said that she brought the new president’s attention to the infamous censored section of the Joint Inquiry report. Obama told her, she said afterward, that he was willing to get the suppressed material released. Two years later, the chapter remains classified—and the White House will not say why.’

  3. Here you go Bill Bergman…

  4. Personnel skilled at conducting strategic information operations–to include psychological operations, public information, deception, media and computer network operations, and related activities–are important for victory. Despite robust DoD and Intelligence Community capabilities in this area, efforts to establish organizations that focus information operations have not been viewed as a positive development by the public or the media, who perceive government-sponsored information efforts with suspicion. Consequently, these efforts must take place away from public eyes. Strategic information operations may also require the establishment of regional or local offices to ensure dissemination of influence packages and assess their impact. Thus manhunting influence may call for parallel or independent structures at all levels…” (Crawford, op. cit., pp. 27-28, emphasis added)

  5. jschoneboom says:

    Without actually disagreeing with any of the points made or questions raised about the foundations by Sibel or Corbett, I think somehow the overall effect here is misleading. This series makes it sound as if the foundations are, individually and as a group, monolithic masterminds of insidious plots. I have some experience working directly for some of these foundations as well as being funded by them as an employee of a nonprofit organization at different times, and the picture painted here is hard to reconcile with my own experience.

    The contradiction can be explained along the lines of, well, they do some good stuff and some dodgy stuff. Some program officers have free reign to fund very independent-minded, not-ideologically-controlled projects, driven by local people in developing countries. Others may not. That may just be outside my experience. My experience with the foundations all pertains to working with African scholars, scientists, engineers, educators, Internet pioneers. Various program officers at various foundations have different proclivities for “meddling” or hands-on guidance of programs, not in my experience due to particular ideological biases but more having to do with personalities and pet projects, pet buzz words, and so forth. But in general I can say that nearly all the projects I’ve been involved in have been originated and led by Africans setting their own agenda, and the foundations playing an enabling, genuinely “do-gooder” role.

    Like I say, I don’t think that contradicts the thesis here necessarily, it can co-exist with it. Life is complicated. I guess I’d say that to me this series would be more effective if it did a better job of acknowledging that complexity. I also don’t think it’s enough to just point out the connections between the foundation big-wigs and the Obama administration. That’s not really news by itself. It’s enough to go ahead and ask the questions you’re asking, for sure. But it’s “guilt by association” and guilt by sort of unspecified general implication and that’s a dangerous thing. All it basically reveals is an interlocking network of powerful rich people. Yawn. It could well have almost no effect on 99% of foundation programs. Clearly the transparency award thing is totally bogus and you’re asking great questions. But demonizing the foundations in a one-sided way and making them sound purely like evil conspirators is I think inaccurate and therefore ultimately undermines your own case.

  6. Sibel… if you do a word search through this…

    You will see that you come up quite a bit.

  7. Hat’s off to Mr. Corbett, for this presentation.

  8. @jschoneboom: The overall effect is eye opening.

  9. lightviperr says:

    Eye opening and troubling at the same time. Question everything, dispel the thought stoppers that prevents people from asking probing questions. It’s always shocking that people refuse to even consider the possibility that powerful people can collude.

    Critical thinking and information are the key, this is why the internet is so important. The internet is a jewel of free speech, we have to do everything we can to protect it.

  10. jschoneboom says:

    @zica: eye opening, yes. Also misleading, sorry.

    If you want to believe the foundations are 100% implicated in a grand conspiracy of the Illuminati or whatever, be my guest. I’m not disputing the excellent points made by Sibel and by Mr. Corbett, particularly regarding the origins and PR functions of the foundations and their influence on the transparency award fiasco and other (supposed) watchdog organizations. In raising these excellent and valid questions about foundations vis-a-vis watchdog organizations and/or reluctance to go after Democrats, however, there’s a risk of mischaracterizing the foundations *in general*.

    Watching Mr. Corbett’s video I come away with the idea that the foundations are evil and insidious covert operators. I’m not saying there isn’t a grain of truth in it, I’m saying it’s misleading. It’s not an accurate overall characterization. It describes a piece of the elephant and seems to represent it as the whole beast. These are large bureaucracies that give away a lot of money for a lot of different reasons to a lot of different types of grantees who do a lot of different kinds of things.

    This is supposed to be friendly constructive criticism. Better acknowledgement of the wider reality would improve the product, in my opinion. The early history and pre-history of the foundations is fascinating and worthy of study and exposure, but linking the ancestral snake oil salesmen of yore to the daily activities of ordinary program officers today is a tenuous linkage at best and arguably weakens the case about current hypocrisies. But like I say, this is valuable work the Boiling Frogs team is doing and I say go get ’em.

  11. jschoneboom says:

    I mean, the part about the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) I thought was a good example of pure insinuation with no actual facts. It makes you gasp — gasp! — they’re funding SOCIAL SCIENCE?! Those bastards! They’re trying to CONTROL OUR MINDS! If you can give me an example of something SSRC did that stifled independent thought or steered an academic program into, whatever, a pro-globalization uber-capitalist direction, then by all means do so. Insinuation and implication without data are the lowest form of casting aspersions. It’s what the BAD GUYS do. If you can’t give me an actual example, then I suspect you haven’t got one. You either couldn’t find one or you haven’t done your research and you’re just leaping to groundless paranoid conclusions.

    Let me tell you something, I’m paranoid enough! I’m at the point where I’m seeing CIA agents in the shadows of my local subway station, OK? So I demand facts. I need data. I’m not willing to start pointing fingers just because so and so was funded by such and such which was founded by so and so in the 19th century whose uncle sold snake oil. I’m not letting in any new paranoia unless it’s backed up by something more than insinuation.

    Here are the SSRC grants I’m directly familiar with. They fund independent research, explore ways of retaining young scholars to protect the next generation of academics at African universities, and sponsors inter-African collaborative research on academic autonomy:

    They’ve partnered with the Academy of Sciences in Havana to improve scholarly ties between the US and Cuba, they’ve got a project on Gender and HIV that works to improve policy responses to state-sanctioned violence against women, they have a Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum that works to support the UN’s capacity to prevent violence, I mean, it just doesn’t sound that evil to me. Now, I’m nothing if not open-minded, if anybody wants to show me that these are front programs to undermine Cuban nationalism, infect women, and start wars, let’s hear the case. You’re going to need a little evidence though. Actual evidence. Not baseless insinuation. We’re supposed to be better than that.

  12. I think everyone has seen these foundations funding many aspects of our daily experience. How many times do we hear “…the Ford Foundation” during a week? Of course not everything that is done with these funds is nefarious. But you can imagine how deep the tentacles go into society, when this type of funding is so ubiquitous.

    The focus on the funding of government watchdogs by the same money that buys politicians does bring to light something dangerous which many people may think is harmless. How could those nice folks who support public broadcasting do anything unethical? Backing that up by looking at the creation of these foundations from a different angle does not make me think that everything they do is horrible. It makes me understand there’s more to the story.

    And have you seen this film?

    Human Resources
    You’ll want to put an extra layer on your tinfoil hat afterwards…

  13. jschoneboom says:

    @zica: I don’t disagree with any of that (but the fact that you’re able to parse Mr. Corbett’s presentation and put it in context for yourself doesn’t mean the presentation itself isn’t misleading). Thanks for the film link: I’ll get some tin foil and watch it!

  14. @jschoneboom: I hear you and hope Sibel et al will comment on your constructive criticism.

  15. @Zica: If you look at Part II you see the points re: black or white; pure evil. On the other hand, it is important to note the great difference between foundation donations going to …say a soup kitchen vs Government Watch-Dog. The overlap between White House men and women and these organizations is a fact. Fact fact Fact. The signific $$$$s donated to the political campaigns for gov officials is fact fact fact. Now, when we get the same people who fund the gov officials, who have their men and women working in that same goverment, and then turn around and fund the gov-watchdog that is supposed to watch and expose those same people in the gov, well, than we have a huge problem. Conflict of interest. Unless, the watch-dog is not what it says it is, which in this case, POGO, it’s been proven many many times in the cases of many many whistleblowers, and in congressional lobbies.
    Another point for jschoneboom : Let’s say you have a big foundation funding a soup kitchen for homeless and hungry runaway children. Good deed, no? Let’s say the same foundation, runs a brothel a few blocks from this soup kitchen, and markets these runaway kids as prostitutes. Now some who see the soup kitchen only, would say: good work. Those who know about the whorehouse selling children, would say: evil. Those who look at both, those who take in the entire picture would say: doing some good only to imolement lots of evil and profit from it, thus, the good is no longer really good.

  16. jschoneboom says:

    Thank you for responding, Sibel, and you make good points. I don’t want to hijack the discussion into what is really a minor side point about foundations. (Besides, I have to go listen to Julia Davis now!) The main point I agree with wholeheartedly, which is that these watchdogs have become lapdogs and for sure the foundations have a conflict of interest. I respect Mr. Corbett’s work as well, I just think he went slightly far afield in this one, e.g., with the SSRC.

  17. @jschoneboom:…and I appreciate and respect the differences of opinions presented freely over here; especially, those like yours: respectful and rational. This is exactly what I was hoping when I started this site, and I am glad we have it. We are learning from each other, and we get to be exposed to different perspectives/view points. So, thank you and good to have you here with us at BFP.

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