There's a good chance you've heard about James O'Keefe. Odds are even better you have one of two extreme reactions when you hear his name: Adoration or contempt.
O'Keefe, the young filmmaker known for secret-camera video stings that cause migraines in the highest echelons of government, is entering a new era of his life. Last month, federal probation officers released O'Keefe from a sentence that kept him largely confined to the state of New Jersey for three years, the result of a botched investigation into Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu in 2010.
"I have endured 1,210 days of unjust government surveillance and oppression," O'Keefe recently wrote on his website, "but today I am a free man."
For a man unable to leave his home state without the express permission of the federal government, O'Keefe has been incredibly productive. In 2010 he launched a nonprofit group, Project Veritas, which has coordinated several stings across the country. A new book about his experiences, Breakthrough: Our Guerrilla War to Expose Fraud and Save Democracy, hit stores this week.
Throughout O'Keefe's book—which serves simultaneously as a memoir, a manifesto, a tell-all and an activist handbook—the reader watches a young man grow up, wise up and toughen up. The story is a roller-coaster ride of epic highs after successful sting operations followed by phenomenal lows, like the time he found himself “curled up in a fetal position, on a green mattress stained with seminal fluid” in a Louisiana jail cell in 2010. (More on that later.)
In 320 gripping pages, 28-year-old O'Keefe describes being thrust under the national microscope at a young age after he and fellow activist Hannah Giles, armed with hidden cameras, asked employees of the now-defunct Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) to help them open a brothel for underage teens from Latin America. In the videos, some ACORN employees obliged or looked the other way. The footage caused a sensation at the time and led to an overwhelming vote in Congress to strip ACORN of grant money from the federal government.
The operation made O'Keefe an instant household name—and also a target.
The videos, first released by the late Andrew Breitbart's website, made O'Keefe the scourge of the American left. O'Keefe was quickly maligned as "racist" for wearing a "pimp costume" in his videos that consisted of a chinchilla coat he borrowed from his grandmother. He was also called a manipulator who "selectively edits" his videos to make them appear sensational. (O'Keefe pushes back on that criticism, noting that he makes it a habit to release the raw, unedited versions of footage alongside his final product, a practice largely unused by most documentary filmmakers and television journalists.)
“If you’ve never been subject to this kind of ritual defamation," O'Keefe writes in his book, "let me warn you, it hurts.”
Riding high after the ACORN hit in January 2010, O'Keefe led a team into Landrieu's office in New Orleans, La., in an attempt to find out if she was lying when she told constituents who could not reach her office that the phone lines were malfunctioning. Two of the men with O'Keefe, who were dressed as telephone repairmen, asked to "check the phones to make sure they're working." Landrieu's staff didn't buy it—O'Keefe's "repairmen" were wearing tool belts without tools in them—and the group was quickly detained and their equipment confiscated. (Law enforcement officials erased the footage on their cameras before returning them, O'Keefe says.)
After a few days in a local jail and a lengthy fight in court, O'Keefe was cleared of felony charges but convicted of the misdemeanor of entering a federal building under "false pretenses."
Despite the outcome, some news outlets incorrectly labeled him a felon after his trial, errors that forced them to issue corrections and, in some cases, settle with O'Keefe when he sued them.
In his book, O'Keefe doesn't reserve his indignation purely for the left or the media. Although he has been lauded by many on the political right for his work, O'Keefe clearly expresses a level of distrust for the Washington, D.C.-based "conservative movement" groups.
For instance, O'Keefe writes that his former employer, the Leadership Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based organization that trains conservative activists, fired him after he conducted a video sting on Planned Parenthood in 2008. After being let go, O'Keefe says the group later used the work he did for them to raise funds. “The message was crystal clear," O'Keefe writes. "The Beltway—right, left and center—in an unprincipled swamp.”
“To this day,” O’Keefe adds later, “I struggle with people in ‘the conservative movement’ who resist all action for fear of ruining their careers.”
While O'Keefe spends many pages detailing his successes, he concedes plenty of mistakes. His work puts him on a steep learning curve about the law, media and politics that he never could have anticipated. He admits missteps in the handling of the Landrieu sting; a poorly thought-out (and strange) attempt to embarrass a CNN reporter on O'Keefe's boat; and even some naivete about how his work would be received by the national media.
Beyond his story, O'Keefe's book also serves as a handbook for activists—a 21st-century version of "Rules for Radicals," which, like the 1971 original by Saul Alinsky, could be useful to those on the left and the right. O’Keefe was obviously inspired by Alinsky—he quotes the late community organizer throughout the book—and he has incorporated his teachings into his own work.
Each chapter of O'Keefe's book begins with one of the “Veritas Rules” he's compiled over the years: "No journalist can speak truth to power unless they are willing to be slandered and arrested"; "Safely extract the tape. If you don't they'll say anything and be believed"; "Content is king." The rules serve as a set of practical reminders about securing media coverage for an investigation and avoiding the swift hand of the law, and how to set up secret cameras. The book has the tendency to both inspire and dissuade readers from getting into the activist-journalism business, given the consequences O'Keefe faced after his more successful exposés.
O'Keefe plans to charge on. (This week he released a new video that shows abuses in a government cellphone program. Several employees of the company featured in his video were fired within hours of the video's release.) In this new era, O'Keefe is wiser than the boy who once donned his grandma's chinchilla coat and better funded than the kid who maxed out his credit cards to make Internet videos.
He will no doubt make plenty more enemies before he's finished, which for O'Keefe probably tells him he's doing something right.