Meet the ex-CIA agents deciding Facebook’s content policy*
By Alan MacLeod (Posted Jul 14, 2022)
It is an uncomfortable job for anyone trying to draw the line between “harmful content and protecting freedom of speech. It’s a balance”, Aaron says. In this official Facebook video, Aaron identifies himself as the manager of “the team that writes the rules for Facebook”, determining “what is acceptable and what is not.” Thus, he and his team effectively decide what content the platform’s 2.9 billion active users see and what they don’t see.
Aaron is being interviewed in a bright warehouse-turned-studio. He is wearing a purple sweater and blue jeans. He comes across as a very likable, smiley person. It is not an easy job, of course, but someone has to make those calls. “Transparency is incredibly important in the work that I do,” he says.
Aaron is CIA. Or at least he was until July 2019, when he left his job as a senior analytic manager at the agency to become senior product policy manager for misinformation at Meta, the company that owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. In his 15-year career, Aaron Berman rose to become a highly influential part of the CIA. For years, he prepared and edited the president of the United States’ daily brief, “wr[iting] and overs[eeing] intelligence analysis to enable the President and senior U.S. officials to make decisions on the most critical national security issues,” especially on “the impact of influence operations on social movements, security, and democracy,” his LinkedIn profile reads. None of this is mentioned in the Facebook video.
Berman’s case is far from unique, however. Studying Meta’s reports, as well as employment websites and databases, MintPress has found that Facebook has recruited dozens of individuals from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), as well as many more from other agencies like the FBI and Department of Defense (DoD). These hires are primarily in highly politically sensitive sectors such as trust, security and content moderation, to the point where some might feel it becomes difficult to see where the U.S. national security state ends and Facebook begins.
In previous investigations, this author has detailed how TikTok is flooded with NATO officials, how former FBI agents abound at Twitter, and how Reddit is led by a former war planner for the NATO think tank, the Atlantic Council. But the sheer scale of infiltration of Facebook blows these away. Facebook, in short, is utterly swarming with spooks.
TRUST ME, BRO
In a political sense, trust, safety and misinformation are the most sensitive parts of Meta’s operation. It is here where decisions about what content is allowed, what will be promoted and who or what will be suppressed are made. These decisions affect what news and information billions of people across the world see every day. Therefore, those in charge of the algorithms hold far more power and influence over the public sphere than even editors at the largest news outlets.
There are a number of other ex-CIA agents working in these fields. Deborah Berman, for example, spent 10 years as a data and intelligence analyst at the CIA before recently being brought on as a trust and safety project manager for Meta. Little is known about what she did at the agency, but her pre-agency publications indicate she was a specialist on Syria.
Between 2006 and 2010, Bryan Weisbard was a CIA intelligence officer, his job entailing, in his own words, leading “global teams to conduct counter-terrorism and digital cyber investigations,” and “Identif[ying] online social media misinformation propaganda and covert influence campaigns”. Directly after that, he became a diplomat (underlining how close the line is between those two professions), and is currently a director of trust and safety, security and data privacy for Meta.
Meanwhile, the LinkedIn profile of Cameron Harris–a CIA analyst until 2019–notes that he is now a Meta trust and safety project manager.
Individuals from other state institutions abound as well. Emily Vacher was an FBI employee between 2001 and 2011, rising to the rank of supervisory special agent. From there she was headhunted by Facebook/Meta, and is now a director of trust and safety. Between 2010 and 2020, Mike Bradow worked for USAID, eventually becoming deputy director of policy for the organization. USAID is a U.S. government-funded influence organization which has bankrolled or stage managed multiple regime change operations abroad, including in Venezuela in 2002, Cuba in 2021, and ongoing attempts in Nicaragua. Since 2020, Meta has employed Bradow as a misinformation policy manager.
Others have similar pasts. Neil Potts, a former intelligence officer with the U.S. Marine Corps, is vice president of trust and safety at Facebook. In 2020, Sherif Kamal left his job as a program manager at the Pentagon to take up the post of Meta trust and safety program manager.
Joey Chan currently holds the same trust and safety post as Kamal. Until last year, Chan was a U.S. Army officer commanding a company of over 100 troops in the Asia Pacific region.
None of this is to say that any of those named are not conscientious, that they are bad people or bad at their job. Vacher, for example, helped design Facebook’s amber alert program, notifying people to missing children in their area. But hiring so many ex-U.S. state officials to run Facebook’s most politically sensitive operations raises troubling questions about the company’s impartiality and its proximity to government power. Meta is so full of national security state agents that at some point, it almost becomes more difficult to find individuals in trust and safety who were not formerly agents of the state.
Despite its efforts to brand itself as a progressive, “woke” organization, the Central Intelligence Agency remains deeply controversial. It has been charged with overthrowing or attempting to overthrow numerous foreign governments (some of them democratically elected), helping prominent Nazis escape punishment after World War Two, funnelling large quantities of drugs and weapons around the world, penetrating domestic media outlets, routinely spreading false information and operating a global network of “black sites” where prisoners are repeatedly tortured. Therefore, critics argue that putting operatives from this organization in control of our news feeds is deeply inappropriate.
One of these critics is Elizabeth Murray, who, in 2010, retired from a 27-year career at the CIA and other U.S. intelligence organizations. “This is insidious,” Murray told MintPress, adding,
I see it as part of the gradual and sinister migration of ambitious young professionals originally trained (with CIA’s virtually unlimited, U.S.-taxpayer funded pot of resources) to surveil and target ‘the bad guys’ during the so-called Global War on Terror of the post-9-11 era.
MintPress also contacted Facebook/Meta for comment but has not received a response.
ARM’S LENGTH CONTROL
Some may ask what the big fuss is. There is a limited pool of individuals with the necessary skills and experience in these new tech and cybersecurity fields, and many of them come from government institutions. Casinos, after all, regularly hire card sharks to protect themselves. But there is little evidence that this is a poacher-turned-gamekeeper scenario; Facebook is certainly not hiring whistleblowers. The problem is not that these individuals are incompetant. The problem is that having so many former CIA employees running the world’s most important information and news platform is only one small step removed from the agency itself deciding what you see and what we do not see online–and all with essentially no public oversight.
In this sense, this arrangement constitutes the best of both worlds for Washington. They can exert significant influence over global news and information flows but maintain some veneer of plausible deniability. The U.S. government does not need to directly tell Facebook what policies to enact. This is because the people in decision-making positions are inordinately those who rose through the ranks of the national security state beforehand, meaning their outlooks match those of Washington’s. And if Facebook does not play ball, quiet threats about regulation or breaking up the company’s enormous monopoly can also achieve the desired outcomes.
Again, this article is not claiming that any of the named individuals are nefarious actors, or even that they are anything but model employees. This is a structural problem. Put another way, if Facebook were hiring dozens of managers from Russian intelligence agencies like the FSB or GRU, everybody would recognize the inherent dangers. It should be little different when it hires individuals from the CIA, an organization responsible for some of the worst crimes of the modern era.
FROM STATE INTELLIGENCE TO PRIVATE INTELLIGENCE
Facebook has also hired a plethora of ex-national security state officers to run its intelligence and online security operations. Until 2013, Scott Stern was a targeting officer at the CIA, rising to become chief of targeting. In this role, he helped select the targets for U.S. drone strikes across South and West Asia. Today, however, as a senior manager of risk intelligence for Meta, “misinformation” and “malicious actors” are his targets. Hopefully he is more accurate at Facebook than at the CIA, where the government’s own internal assessments show that at least 90% of Afghans killed in drone strikes were innocent civilians.
Other former CIA men at Facebook include Mike Torrey, who left his job as a senior analyst at the agency to become Meta’s technical lead of detection, investigations and disruptions of complex information operations threats, and former CIA contractor Hagan Barnett, who is now head of harmful content operations at the Silicon Valley giant.
Meta’s intelligence and online security team includes individuals from virtually every government agency imaginable. In 2015, Department of Defense intelligence officer Suzanna Morrow left her post to become director of global security intelligence for Meta. The FBI is represented by threat investigations manager Ellen Nixon and head of cyber espionage investigations Mike Dvilyanski. Facebook’s influence operations policy manager Olga Belogolova had stints at the State Department and the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
Before Meta, David Agranovich and Nathaniel Gleicher both worked for the National Security Council. Agranovich is director of global threat disruption at Facebook while Gleicher is head of security policy. Hayley Chang, director and associate general counsel for cybersecurity and investigations, worked formerly for both the FBI and Department of Homeland Security. And Meta’s global head of interaction operations, David Hansell, was once an Air Force and Defense Intelligence Agency man.
One of Meta’s most outwardly-facing employees is its global threat intelligence lead for influence operations, Ben Nimmo, a character MintPress has covered before. Between 2011 and 2014, he served as NATO’s press officer, moving the next year to the Institute for Statecraft, a U.K. government-funded propaganda operation aimed at spreading misleading information about enemies of the British state. He was also a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, NATO’s semi-official think tank.
Perhaps then, it is not surprising that Facebook never seems to find U.S. government influence operations online–they are part of one!
CYBER WAR, CYBER WARRIORS
While Meta has not unmasked any nefarious U.S. government action, it regularly uncovers what it claims are foreign disinformation campaigns. According to a recent Facebook report, the top five locations of coordinated inauthentic behavior between 2017 and 2020 on its platform are Russia, Iran, Myanmar, the United States and Ukraine. However, it was at pains to note that American operations were driven by fringe far-right elements, white supremacists and conspiracy theorists, and not the government.
This is despite the fact that it is now well-established that the Pentagon fields a clandestine army of at least 60,000 people whose job is to influence public opinion, the majority of them doing so from their keyboards. A Newsweek exposé from last year called it “The largest undercover force the world has ever known,” adding,
The explosion of Pentagon cyber warfare, moreover, has led to thousands of spies who carry out their day-to-day work in various made-up personas, the very type of nefarious operations the United States decries when Russian and Chinese spies do the same.
Newsweek warned that this army was likely breaking both U.S. and international law by doing so, explaining that,
These are the cutting-edge cyber fighters and intelligence collectors who assume false personas online, employing ‘nonattribution’ and ‘misattribution’ techniques to hide the who and the where of their online presence while they search for high-value targets and collect what is called ‘publicly accessible information’—or even engage in campaigns to influence and manipulate social media.
As far back as 2011, The Guardian was reporting on this enormous cyber force, whose job it was to “secretly manipulate social media sites by using fake online personas to influence internet conversations and spread pro-American propaganda.” Yet the ex-military and ex-CIA officials Facebook employs do not seem to have found any trace of their former colleagues’ at work on the platform.
DIGITALLY SWINGING ELECTIONS
Since its beginnings in 2004, Facebook has grown to become a massive global empire and by far the most important news distributor the planet has ever known. The company boasts almost 3 billion active users, meaning that nearly 2 in 5 people worldwide use the platform. A recent 12-country study suggested that around 30% of the entire world gets its news via their Facebook feeds. This gives whoever is in charge of curating those feeds and controlling those algorithms inestimable power. It also represents a serious national security threat for all other countries, especially those that might wish to take a path independent from the United States. That those people are in large part former spooks makes this threat all the more perilous.
This is far from a hypothetical quandary. In November, less than a week before the country’s election, Facebook took the decision to delete hundreds of pages and accounts belonging to individuals and groups that supported the Nicaraguan Sandinista party–a longtime U.S. target for regime change. These included many of the nation’s most influential journalists and media outlets. Considering that around half of the country uses the platform for news and entertainment, the decision could barely have been more intrusive, and was likely designed to try to swing the election towards the pro-U.S. candidate.
Facebook claims that those accounts were bots engaged in “inauthentic behavior.” When those individuals migrated on to Twitter, recording videos identifying who they were to show they were not bots, Twitter immediately deleted those accounts too, in what was dubbed a coordinated attempt at suppression.
The individual behind this attempt was the aforementioned Ben Nimmo, who co-authored an unconvincing report, full of questionable assumptions and allegations. This included an insinuation that accounts following a pattern of activity whereby their Facebook usage levels peaked in the morning and afternoon and dwindled to almost nothing after midnight Nicaragua time suggested they were bots.
Facebook was also used by right-wing Cubans to attempt a U.S.-backed color revolution against the ruling Communist government last year.
Giving any individual or group that much control over the airwaves of communication raises huge questions about national security and sovereignty–doubly so when those individuals are so intimately connected to the U.S. national security state.
When asked what the public’s reaction would be to the news of such an intimate connection between Facebook her former employer, Murray stated that she was unsure whether many would be bothered:
I would like to think that the American public would strenuously object. However the CIA and other agencies have worked over many decades to cultivate a positive–indeed almost glamorous–image in the eyes of the vast majority of the public, mostly through TV series, Hollywood films, and favorable media coverage–so sadly my guess is that the vast majority of the public probably believes that these are the folks who should be in charge.
However, she said, the news would likely land a very different way in countries that have been the target of Washington’s ire. “As you’re no doubt aware, the CIA has an atrocious public reputation in most parts of the world,” she added.
SPOOKS IN EVERY DEPARTMENT
MintPress has found former representatives of the U.S. national security state in virtually every politically sensitive department at Facebook. This includes even higher levels. Between 2020 and 2021, Kris Rose was a member of Meta’s governance oversight board–the group responsible for the overall direction of the platform. He left his job at the Director of National Intelligence as the president’s daily brief writer to take up the role. Before that, he had spent six years at the CIA as a political and counterterrorism analyst. Meanwhile, Gina Kim Sumilas, Facebook’s director and associate general counsel for the Asia Pacific region, spent nearly twelve years in the CIA before moving into the tech private sector.
There is also considerable overlap with the U.S. government in the company’s front facing staff. Kadia Koroma, for instance, was plucked from her position as an FBI spokesperson in January 2020 to become media relations manager at Facebook. Jeffrey Gelman, policy communications manager for Facebook’s oversight board, is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and held influential roles in both the State Department and the National Security Council. And executive communications spokesman Kevin Lewis spent many years in the White House as President Obama’s spokesperson.
Meta’s vice president of legal strategy is Rachel Carlson Lieber, who went straight from the CIA into Facebook. Her first role at the Silicon Valley giant was as head of the North America regulatory and strategic response, a department that continues to feature a number of former state officials. This includes head of strategic programs, Robert Flaim, who spent more than twenty years as an FBI, and Erin Clancy, who left a 16-year career at the State Department to become a manager of strategic response policy.
Clancy’s official work centered around U.S. policy in the Middle East. Her own bio boasts that she worked on the U.S. sanctions regime placed on Iraq and Sudan. She also worked at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus at the time of the Arab Spring and the beginning of the Syrian Civil War. It is known that she also coordinated closely with the White Helmets, a controversial aid organization that some have alleged is far too close to Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Even after her Facebook appointment, Clancy moonlighted as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and as a fellow at the Atlantic Council, the hawkish body that serves as NATO’s brain trust.
Why are these national security state officials so attractive to Meta? One reason, Murray explained, is financial. “By snagging a CIA employee a company can save a considerable sum,” she said, explaining that, “The individual has likely undergone extensive professional training (at taxpayer expense) and probably has a security clearance,” something that is difficult, expensive and time-consuming to obtain in private sector work. Therefore, companies dealing with matters of state secrecy (such as defense contractors) have historically courted both current and former officers to fill their ranks, enticing them with much higher salaries than they can receive in government service.
“What is new (or at least newly known to us!) is that now these professionals are being sought after by social media companies like Facebook, Google and others who are now heavily into monitoring, surveilling, and censoring content, and then sharing data about users with U.S. government entities,” Murray added.
Such is the need for these individuals in these fields that private companies often hire former national security agents to do the recruiting for them. For instance, John Papp, who spent 12 years at the CIA as a senior intelligence officer and 4 years as an imagery analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency, went on to work as a recruiter for many of the largest defense contractors in Washington. These included Booz Allen Hamilton, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, IBM and Lockheed Martin. Today, he works as a recruiter for Meta.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Meta also employs former spooks for their internal security operations. The company’s vice president, chief security officer is Nick Lovrien, a former counterterrorism operations officer at the CIA, while its head of insider protection is ex-CIA operational psychologist and “undercover officer” Nicole Alford.
Meanwhile, Meta’s director of global security governance–the individual reportedly responsible for the personal safety of Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg–is Jill Leavens Jones. Jones left her job as a U.S. Secret Service special agent to take the appointment. And director of global security operations Alexander Carrillo continued on as a lieutenant commander in the Coast Guard for several months after his appointment at Facebook. The company also hires former feds to work directly with law enforcement on legal issues. One example of this is former FBI special agent Brian Kelley.
A LONG PATTERN OF INFILTRATION
45 years ago, legendary journalist Carl Bernstein released an investigation documenting how the CIA had managed to infiltrate U.S. and global media. The CIA had placed hundreds of agents into newsrooms and had convinced hundreds more reporters to collaborate with them. These included individuals at some of the most influential outlets, including The New York Times. The CIA needed to do this clandestinely because any attempt to do so openly would harm the effectiveness of the operation and provoke stiff public resistance. But by 2015, there was barely a murmur of disapproval when Reuters announced that it was hiring 33-year veteran CIA manager and director Dawn Scalici as a global director, even when the company announced that her primary responsibility was to “advanc[e] Thomson Reuters’ ability to meet the disparate needs of the U.S. government.”
Facebook, however, is vastly more influential than the New York Times or Reuters, reaching billions of people daily. In that sense, it stands to reason that it would be a prime target of any intelligence organization. It has become so big and ubiquitous that many consider it a de facto public commons and believe it should no longer be treated as a private company. Considering who is making many of the decisions on the platform, that distinction between public and private entities is even more blurry than many presume.
*About Alan MacLeod
Alan MacLeod is a MintPress Staff Writer as well as an academic and writer for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. His book, Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting was published in April.