Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Sacha Baron Cohen, Propagandist

CIA contacts, a web of lies, and a robust propaganda operation. It's time to start asking questions about Borat's methods—and his goals.

Ayman Abu Aita is a family man. For years, he was a grocer by trade, running his shop in Bethlehem while serving on the board of the Holy Land Trust, a nonprofit group working for peaceful reconciliation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Like many Palestinians, he is a Christian, a practicing member of the Greek Orthodox Church.

He must have been as shocked as everybody else to see his face broadcast across the world above the identifier: “ayman abu aita, terrorist group leader, al-aqsa martyrs brigade.”

The interview in question—conducted in character by Sacha Baron Cohen and featured in his movie Bruno—had been held under false pretenses, and deceptively edited to boot. Abu Aita pursued legal action and, in a rare (albeit measured) victory for one of Cohen’s victims, managed to settle out of court. The lawsuit ended in 2012, and the interview had been conducted in 2009, so this all may seem like ancient history. But a few of the episode’s more bizarre details have never been adequately explained, and Borat’s carefully timed return ought to revive our interest.

In addition to his long record of peaceful activism—which had earned Abu Aita two years in an Israeli jail on unsubstantiated charges—Baron Cohen’s fake terrorist just happens to have been a parliamentary candidate in Palestine at the time of the Bruno debacle. Thanks to Cohen’s actions, Abu Aita received death threats and sustained serious damage to his reputation, his business, and his campaign.

While it remains possible that Abu Aita was a random victim, it practically defies belief: why travel halfway across the world to interview a random person who is manifestly not a terrorist? Had the goal here solely been the bit, the same scene could have been shot for a fraction of the cost in a cheap LA motel, with an unknown actor of a reasonably believable ethnic extraction. It is immensely difficult to consider the great lengths to which Cohen went in painting Abu Aita as a terrorist to be somehow independent of who he was, of his years of political activity, and of the damage done to him by the stunt. It is hard to see any of this as accidental.

In Abu Aita’s account, the interview “was set up via Awni Jubran, a journalist for the Palestinian news agency, PNN,” with the supposed purpose of discussing peace efforts and life in Palestine. Cohen, in an interview with David Letterman the week after Bruno‘s premiere, offered a somewhat different account of how he first became interested in Abu Aita. Out of character, clean-shaven, sporting a t-shirt, a blazer, and the Queen’s English, Cohen provided a sometimes-necessary reminder that he is neither a poor Kazakh reporter nor a gay Austrian fashionista, but an obscenely wealthy, Cambridge-educated Brit. This rarely seen, authentic Cohen informed Letterman that he had sought a list of names from a contact at the CIA, and from there did some asking around in the Middle East until he located the “terrorist” he wound up interviewing. The million questions that ought to arise from this admission—Who does Cohen know at the CIA, and why? Why did this CIA contact share any information with him? What was the CIA’s interest in Abu Aita? and countless others—were simply brushed aside, and the conversation continued.

In his answer to Abu Aita’s complaints, Cohen swore, through his lawyers, that the statements in question were “substantially true.” Likewise, Letterman’s answer attested to the substantial truth of the interview while also “admit[ting] Cohen stated that he received information from a contact at the ‘C.I.A.'” While substantial truth in libel and slander law allows for “slight inaccuracies of expression,” any conceivable definition of the term still includes Cohen’s insistence on the sincerity of the CIA claim.

* * *

Fast forward eight years, and Cohen once again has his sights set on a candidate for office. This time it’s the vice president of the United States, in the midst of a heated reelection campaign. (Cohen has never been shy about his Trump/Pence hatred, and has often stated publicly that his sole reason for returning to his trademark brand of activist comedy was to help bring an end to the present administration.)

On Thursday, February 27th, a man dressed as Donald Trump burst into the Potomac Ballroom at the Gaylord in National Harbor, MD, where Vice President Pence was addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). With a woman in a green dress and ripped tights slung over his shoulder, the man shouted something at the vice president in labored and heavily accented English. Ian Walters, communications director of the American Conservative Union which runs CPAC, said that it sounded vaguely obscene (suffice it to say the impersonator bungled the VP’s surname) but he could not make out clearly what the man was saying. Video footage of the incident shows the crowd clearly appalled, and the pair were quickly escorted out by CPAC security, Secret Service agents, and officers of the Prince George’s County Police Department.

Though no charges were pursued, the police report from the incident identifies the man as Sacha Noem Cohen, while the woman identified is a stunt double who has worked extensively in Hollywood. (TAC has been in touch with the woman in question, but she had not responded to our inquiries as of press time.) The PGPD report claims that all information was shared with CPAC security, who then confiscated the pair’s access passes. But CPAC personnel maintain that they were never informed of Cohen’s identity, and did not confiscate any pass that would have tipped them off.

The police department’s claim is hard to square with CPAC personnel’s obvious confusion about the events that followed. Over the next two days, two more Trump impersonators appeared at the convention, both in professional-grade costumes. The third and final Trump impersonator was detained by the Secret Service. His prosthetics were so elaborate that he had to call an associate—a professional makeup artist—to assist in their removal so that the Secret Service could confirm his identity. That wasn’t the only person who came to help him, though: Brian Stolarz, an attorney specializing in white-collar criminal defense, was at the ready.

From there, an hour and a half passed before the big event: somebody ran through a highly trafficked area of the hotel in full Klan robes, while numerous CPAC attendees looked on in horror. Security arrived quickly, and the Klan impersonator was detained as well. Stolarz—the lawyer who had shown up for the Trump impersonator that same day—was on the scene here too, further confirming the link between what otherwise might have passed for unrelated episodes.

Given everything that has occurred in the interim—COVID became the big news just a few days after CPAC—most people seem to have forgotten that the Klansman story took on a life of its own at the time. Because Cohen’s presence was not made public at the time, despite the discovery of his identity on Thursday, speculation ran wild. Clips of a man in Klan robes running through CPAC made the rounds on the internet—often, according to Walters, via accounts that seemed obviously bogus. In addition to the social media buzz, the CPAC incidents were given a good bit of airtime in major news outlets. The ACU fielded calls from, among others, leaders of D.C.’s Black Lives Matter, outraged that one of the largest gatherings of mainstream conservatives in the country would tolerate a Klansman strolling through. (The initial clips that surfaced did not show the horrified reactions of actual CPAC attendees, nor the actor’s detainment by security.) Just as with the Abu Aita interview, what was ostensibly a comedy act apparently doubled as a very real political influence operation.

It was more than six months before what actually happened at CPAC became apparent to the public. With Borat Subsequent Moviefilm‘s hurried release (a week and a half before Election Day), the Trump impersonators and the Klansman were all shown to be part of a massive Cohen stunt—perhaps his biggest to date. But it is worth considering how carefully the film itself glosses over the complexity of this production. Walters estimates that a team of a dozen unauthorized security personnel were operating at CPAC, accompanying a slightly larger, undercover film crew. It came to the attention of CPAC personnel that this group had rented, and were operating out of, a block of rooms at the nearby Westin. All of these personnel had purchased access passes to CPAC (which aren’t cheap) and security also suspected that some registration credentials may have been forged—with top-notch equipment and skill, at that. Walters estimated the cost of the operation to be somewhere around a quarter of a million dollars, if not more.

To an impartial observer, this all would seem to be not a goofy comedy sketch, but a serious information op at a major political event in the midst of an important election year. In a way, it was: all these scenes existed independently, floating around the internet—forming opinions and sparking controversies and stoking hatred—for months before they were folded into the context of the film. First as tragedy and then as farce, right?

* * *

Between the CPAC saga and the movie’s release, another major operation—in some ways more complex than that in February—had been carried out at the end of June. The third annual March for Our Rights rally was set to be a small affair, operated out of one organizer’s flatbed truck, run by a local crew with hardly any budget to speak of.

A few months before the event, though, the rally’s three organizers—Allen Acosta, Matt Marshall, and Tessa Ashley—were contacted by a production company who asked to film at the event for a documentary. Something seemed off, and the organizers declined. Then, just a few weeks out from the rally, they were contacted by a group representing themselves as a PAC based in Southern California. The name they used was “Back-to-Work USA,” and beside a cell phone number—which now goes to voicemail—and one press release, there was little out there to attest to their existence. Again, the organizers were skeptical, but the group seemed eager to offer financial support.

Acosta, who has been the event’s lead organizer in each of the three years it’s occurred, started out slow. He asked the two women from “Back-to-Work”—the names they gave were Tamara Young and Mary Harris—if their group would pay to rent out porta-potties for the event. When they followed through, he took it as a sign that they were legitimate, and that their offer of support was sincere. At breakneck pace, the supposed PAC contracted a professional stage and other equipment, an army of security, and a number of legitimate musical acts, including Larry Gatlin. In all, the expenses—the group virtually paid for the whole event—amounted to tens of thousands of dollars.

The morning of June 27th, Acosta kept close watch over the setup. He directed participants, including Young and Harris, exactly where to park their cars. He gave a security briefing to the team that Back-to-Work USA had hired—about 40 locals hired for the day. Once the event began, he immersed himself in the crowd, making conversation with attendees and making sure everything went smoothly audience-side.

Meanwhile, the Back-to-Work crew claimed they were rushing to get one more act to warm the crowd up for Gatlin. They told Marshall that they had found one at the last minute, and in the middle of the action neither he nor any of the other event organizers had much time to vet the new find.

The first portion of the event, which featured stump speeches from conservative political candidates, was wrapping up, and they were ready to pivot to the entertainment segment, with Gatlin headlining. At this point, organizers noticed a substantial swell in the crowd. Acosta didn’t think anything of it at the time, as he had encouraged people who might not be interested in the political rally to come enjoy the music nonetheless. In retrospect, a number of the new arrivals seem suspect. Notably, a group with Gadsden and Confederate flags were standing off in the back, hesitant to join the main body of people even at Acosta’s urging. Looking back on the moment months later, he said it was “like they were waiting for a cue.”

It was then that Acosta got a call from the police. One woman, upset by some Trump flags at the rally, was causing a scene across the street. A few attendees were engaging with her verbally. Acosta went over to help get a handle on the situation. The lone protestor continued for about 15 minutes, and her outburst escalated until she was eventually arrested. At that point, Acosta crossed back over to rejoin the event.

As soon as he returned, he was met with complaints from worried parents: somebody was walking through the crowd with a backward-facing camera in his backpack, which the parents thought was pointed down to the level of their children. Acosta actually found the man, and was questioning him when a commotion broke out in the area of the stage. Acosta turned in that direction, and in the blink of an eye the man had bolted for the parking lot.

The ruckus that caught Acosta’s attention has been widely publicized, though very little of what actually happened has broken into the mainstream narrative. The second act which “Back-to-Work” had supposedly booked last minute was actually Sacha Baron Cohen, in character as Borat who was in character as “Country Steve.” Country Steve sang a song about injecting various liberals with the Wuhan flu, as well as chopping up journalists “like the Saudis do.” Parts of the song also featured anti-Semitic undertones.

This was hardly met without resistance: one video—distinctly absent from most reporting of the event—shows a young attendee, draped in an Israeli flag, grabbing a bullhorn and rushing to the front of the crowd to confront Cohen. At the same time, Marshall and one other rally participant (who happens to be the son of a Holocaust survivor) managed to get past Cohen’s security—with a good bit of effort—and chase him off the stage. In a late-October interview with Steven Colbert, Cohen claimed that one of the two men reached for his gun while rushing the stage. Marshall, who was carrying an unloaded pistol at the event, denies that this ever happened. Cohen seems to relish the idea that he has placed himself in danger for these stunts: he claimed to Letterman that his interview with Abu Aita was conducted at a secret location, with two hulking bodyguards accompanying the “terrorist,” while in reality it was conducted at a popular hotel under Israeli jurisdiction, with Abu Aita accompanied by a journalist friend and the peace activist who runs the Holy Land Trust.

Country Steve, clearly unwelcome, ran into a staged ambulance that rushed away with the lights on. Acosta hurried to the parking lot and saw that the cars of the Back-to-Work crew had all disappeared as well. In a matter of seconds the scam became apparent. But the spin was quickly applied online: clips of the violent and anti-Semitic song started to pop up on social media, with the confrontation by the young Jewish activist and the moment where Marshall chased Cohen offstage conveniently left out. Special attention was given to the members of the crowd who enthusiastically sang along. But, by and large, these do not seem to be actual attendees of the March for Our Rights. For the most part, they seem to have come from the group of bystanders that Acosta suggests were “waiting for a cue.” Marshall—who is convinced that these were hired extras—points out that these people are dressed in over-the-top, stereotypical MAGA get-ups, complete with straw hats and Rebel flags. He also notes that, given Washington’s history and location, Confederate flags simply aren’t a part of the culture, even in more provocative corners of the right.

Nevertheless, the episode was cast as a classic Borat sting: Cohen, it was assumed, had shown up at this rally, hopped on stage, and easily gotten the right-wingers to show their racist side. Nobody looked into the immense effort that had gone into the scene. That somebody had spent tens of thousands of dollars even to get him there, and apparently planted willing collaborators in the crowd, was hardly considered at all.

Once again, the stunt took on a substantial political character. Reports that right-wing rally-goers had gleefully participated in Country Steve’s act cropped up all over the internet, bolstered by social media buzz—supposedly showing the dark underbelly of MAGA-world right before the election. And once again—as with CPAC, and Abu Aita, and any number of Cohen’s marks—great pains were taken to hide just how orchestrated the whole thing was.

* * *

It’s interesting how Borat—within the plot of the movie—is supposed to have wound up at the rally in Washington. While quarantining with two new friends—Jim Russell and Jerry Holleman, two supposed QAnoners with virtually no online presence—Borat stumbles upon a video of his daughter, Tutar (played by newcomer Maria Bakalova) pretending to be a journalist named Grace. In the clip, Tutar/Grace/Bakalova is interviewing two anti-lockdown activists about the risk COVID emergency measures pose for a long-term slide into authoritarianism.

What’s really interesting here is that this interview actually happened. The two interviewees, Ashley and Adam Smith, are leaders of ReopenNC, a grassroots movement with over 80,000 members in their Facebook group. On April 22nd—long before the March for Our Rights rally in late June—Ashley received an email from someone using the name Charlotte Richardson, claiming to be “a producer for More Than Sports TV, a production company working together with One America News Network on a documentary that explores the horrors of socialism and its corrosive impact on creativity, success and innovation here in America.” More Than Sports TV had a website, registered in November of 2019. Likewise, Held Back, the supposed documentary project in the works, had a website that was just registered on March 9th of this year. (Neither website remains active today.) Given the apparently legitimate websites and the purported connection to OAN, Smith agreed to the interview.

She conducted a 40-minute interview over Zoom with “Grace,” in which the two talked seriously about the subject matter; Bakalova did not break character once, and Smith never suspected a thing. Charlotte even reached out to set up another interview, this time with Ashley’s husband, Adam, participating. It was from this second interview that a brief clip was pulled and posted to The Patriots Report, ostensibly a news site. It is this posting that Borat stumbles upon in the film.

The Patriots Report domain was registered in September of 2019. Like all the other sites in play here, it was registered using an anonymous proxy service, making it impossible to determine who purchased the domain. The bulk of its content is plagiarized from popular sites like The Gateway Pundit—though some portion, notably the Bakalova/Smith interview, is original, fabricated content. As of October 31st, The Patriots Report is still active, still masquerading as a news site, and still posting new content. In these last days before the election, there seems to be a focus on just that. One story, pulled from Politico without attribution, warns that “Most social media users in three key states have seen ads questioning the election.” Another story, ripped straight from Daily Kos, has been pinned to the site’s homepage for days: “It’s not just social media: Election disinformation now spreading through text, emails.” If the site was meant solely as a prop for a comedy film, it’s hard to imagine why it’s being used to spread fears over “election disinformation” a week after the movie opened and mere days before the election itself.

This is particularly interesting given Cohen’s public activism calling for stricter censorship of speech by tech platforms, with a special focus on Facebook, in close association with the Anti-Defamation League. Cohen is fond of talking about “fake news” on the talk show circuit, but he has not offered any explanation as to why he is apparently running a fake news outlet himself.

* * *

Besides the Smith interview and the widely discussed Rudy Giuliani interview, Borat revealed in a tweet on October 24th that Bakalova, posing as an aspiring journalist for The Patriots Report, had been given a brief tour of the White House press room by One America News Network’s chief White House correspondent, Chanel Rion. (That a White House correspondent generously offered advice and a tour to a hopeful fellow journalist is somehow meant to be taken as a prank.) On the surface level, he seems to just be suggesting that the current White House is unserious because this actor—who passed a Secret Service background check two days before the tour—was allowed into the press room and onto the north lawn.

But another interesting (and deeply concerning) dimension to Sacha Baron Cohen’s operation—on top of CIA sources connecting with Palestinian activists, small fortunes spent crafting political scenes that spread through the internet like a virus, and online disinformation campaigns undertaken in earnest while publicly pushing for tech censorship—is added by a detail that Rion observed.

The camera crew Bakalova used in her White House stunt were neither amateur pranksters nor Hollywood professionals: they were credentialed members of the press corp. When Rion inquired about this, Bakalova’s producer “shrugged and told [her] he has friends at CBS.” According to Rion, all three members of the crew had congressional press badges, and at least two of the three had White House hard passes. Hard passes are issued to those who have been on the White House grounds at least 180 times within a six month period—suggesting that Bakalova’s accomplices were full-time, long-term members of the White House press.

Plenty has been said about the cheapness of Borat’s humor, and the tiredness of the shtick. Likewise, many have observed that Cohen’s comedy—always heavily political—has crossed the line into blatant politicking, especially with respect to the Giuliani interview. But there is more than enough here to suggest that the politics run much deeper than might be evident at first glance.

If we’re supposed to be so worried about “election disinformation” and foreign election meddling, shouldn’t we be concerned about a British multimillionaire—with unexplained connections to the CIA and the White House press corps, and public affiliation with other institutions clearly hostile to Trump like the ADL—carrying out massive information ops in the lead-up to an election that he has publicly expressed an interest in influencing? Or should we just pretend it’s all okay because the press told us we’re supposed to be laughing?



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