Self-described “citizen journalist” James O’Keefe appears to have snagged himself yet another unsuspecting victim: Joseph Scaffido, the assistant dean of students at Cornell University.
A video released this week by O’Keefe’s nonprofit Project Veritas purports to expose the Ivy League institution as a welcoming environment for terrorist groups like the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) and Hamas.
The video shows Scaffido, unaware that he is being filmed, answering questions from someone offscreen about whether Cornell would be open to campus groups supporting Islamic State extremists and Hamas. As far as Scaffido is concerned, he’s talking to a Moroccan student named Ali. But as O’Keefe explains in voice-over narration, the faceless inquisitor is actually a “Project Veritas undercover reporter” who dropped by Scaffido’s Ithaca office posing as a potential Cornell student in search of the truth.
“Ali” tells Scaffido he’s interested in starting a “humanitarian group that supports distressed communities” in “northern Iraq and Syria.”
“I think it would be important for especially these people in the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the families and the freedom fighters in particular and their families,” he says. “I think it would be important to maybe just probably educate, but to maybe send them care packages whether it be food, water, electronics.”
Scaffido nods along, responding that “there are a lot of our student organizations that do things like that all over the world.” Scaffido did not answer a Yahoo News request for comment on the video, but his unflinching response suggests that he may not totally understand what “Ali” is getting at.
After all, IS members or their supporters are rarely referred to in the media as “freedom fighters.” And while most news coverage of the current situation in northern Iraq and Syria now uses “ISIS” and “the Islamic State” interchangeably, the subtitles on the Veritas video include “(ISIS)” in parentheses following “Ali’s” first mention of the Islamic State, acknowledging that the average viewer might need some help putting two and two together.
When asked whether the school would have a problem with students supporting “Hamas or something like that,” Scaffido delivers what sounds like a politically correct stock response designed to depict the Cornell campus as nothing short of liberal and open-minded.
“The university is not going to look at different groups and say you’re not allowed to support that group because we don’t believe in them or something like that,” he says. “I think it’s just the opposite. I think the university wants the entire community to understand what’s going on in all parts of the world.”
Through voice-over interjections, O’Keefe elaborates on Scaffido’s words. Taking a comment like “Ithaca is a great place. Ithaca itself, the community of Ithaca is also very active. ... It’s very liberal,” and translating it to mean that “Ithaca, New York, where Cornell is located, would be sympathetic to even the most provocative causes.” Or explaining that, by noting that the school makes resources available for student groups to pay for speakers, Scaffido is saying that “thousands of Cornell University dollars could be found to bring an ISIS guest to visit the campus.”
Unfortunately for Scaffido, his apparent inability to recognize “Ali’s” references to “Hamas,” “the Islamic State,” and “freedom fighters” as euphemisms for terrorism, coupled with what seems like a desire to not offend someone he’s been led to believe is a potential Middle Eastern student, made him the perfect target for the kind of selective editing that’s become something of a Project Veritas trademark.
O’Keefe's sneak-attack reporting style first gained national attention back in 2009, when he released a series of surreptitious recordings that ultimately led to the dissolution of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, previously one of the largest nationwide community organizations benefiting low- and moderate-income families. Two years later, a sting operation at National Public Radio resulted in the resignation of NPR’s then president and CEO.
While hailed by conservative media for taking stereotypically liberal organizations to task, critics have described O’Keefe’s tactics, from his undercover reporting to postproduction editing, as misleading, dishonest and potentially illegal. Some of his projects have even gotten him into trouble.
In 2010, following a foiled attempt to break into Sen. Mary Landrieu’s Baton Rouge, La., office disguised as telephone technicians to tamper with the phones, O’Keefe and three of his accomplices pleaded guilty to entering federal property under false pretenses. O’Keefe was ordered to pay a $1,500 fine and complete three years of probation as well as 100 hours of community service for the misdemeanor. The others received slightly lighter sentences.
In 2013, O’Keefe agreed to pay $100,000 to settle a lawsuit by a former ACORN employee from California who claimed that O'Keefe's widely viewed video had not only portrayed him in a false light, but also violated California state law by filming their interaction without his consent.
The Cornell video is O’Keefe’s first project to attract media attention in a while — at least since last year’s “American Hustle”-style attempt to trick Hollywood environmentalists into agreeing to accept Middle East oil money to fund an anti-fracking film.
We just did TV interviews with CBS and NBC affiliates all across the State of New York.— James O'Keefe (@JamesOKeefeIII) March 25, 2015
Cornell’s Vice President for University Relations Joel Malina responded to the video in a statement to the New York Post. “Cornell fully supports the free exchange of ideas and does not review or control the political ideology of our students," Malina said. "We do not, of course, tolerate unlawful advocacy of violence, and the comment about training by ISIS freedom fighters does not reflect university policy.”
In a separate statement published in the Ithaca Voice, Cornell University President David Skorton defended Scaffido and derided the undercover filmmaker.
“It is shameful that any individual would pose as a student facing racial discrimination at another university, ask leading questions on hidden camera about Cornell’s tolerance for differing viewpoints and backgrounds, and then conveniently splice together the resulting footage to smear our assistant dean and our University,” Skorton said.
“After speaking with Assistant Dean Scaffido, I am convinced that he was not aware of what he was being asked,” he added.
O’Keefe posted a response to Skorton on the Project Veritas website, arguing that “if your assistant Dean of Students has never heard of Hamas or the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,’ Project Veritas should be the least of your concerns” and promising “there is more to come.”