Hacked Soros files open up Open Society Foundations

Journalist documents clashes in Ukraine: Photo: Mstyslav Chernov / WikiMedia

There’s surprisingly little that’s surprising in the mass document dump of George Soros’ Open Society Foundation internal papers, illegally hacked and posted on the DCLeaks website this month. The intrusion was detected in June and reported to the FBI. Hackers had used an intranet system used by board members, staff and foundation members.

OSF’s work is fine by my political lights, speaking as a former employee of non-profit media NGOs that got its support. At worst the organisation, Soros the man and his CEO President Chris Stone, come over like a contrapositive Koch Brothers, giving out millions to organisations that mirror their ambitions for the world – just without the Koch trademark malignancy. Both are hauled over by the commentariat. “Sinister denizens of the stygian underworld of ‘dark money’,” to borrow from the conservative US magazine National Review, talking ironically about the Koch Brothers here, and probably thinking seriously about Soros the same way.

But the OSF has broad shoulders. The outrage from the US right-wing online and Moscow that followed the leak is being weathered in stony, pun intended, silence. Their staffs are used to being abused for supporting civil society and accountable, participatory governance. Arguably the world’s broadest foundation, OSF had branches in 37 countries last year and a budget of $930 million. Even after giving away nearly $12 billion, Soros, 86, has an estimated net worth of $26 billion now, likely to grow even more and then drop into the OSF endowment when he passes on.

The Soros organisation does share the Koch Brothers’ poorly regarded record for openness. A think tank transparency monitor – funded by OSF itself – gave the various Open Society Foundations the worst score among all 43 U.S.-based think tanks it reviewed, for a third straight year in June. And the OSF also shares the Kochs’ dislike for self-promotion, either personal or institutional. Reflecting Stone’s own style, its team prefers to let the organisation’s work speak for itself. “Don’t look on OSF’s website for press releases touting new grants or a blog where staffers muse about their theories of change,” writes David Callahan of Inside Philanthropy. OSF ”tends to spotlight the issues it cares about as opposed to its own doings”.

It’s this internalisation, and the years of wondering what some of the sharpest minds in progressive US thought are really thinking, that makes the revelations so fascinating. OSF wasn’t always so inward looking. Stone came in in 2012 to bring order. Prior to his arrival OSF was famous for its quick flexibility and openness, by my account, and for “its fragmentation and maddening, jerry-rigged qualities,” by Callahan’s. (Though he also describes it as “creative chaos,” which I think is probably about right.)

I would say that under Stone’s captaincy the foundations became less open, ironically enough, certainly harder to penetrate in comparison to 2009. Then, as one of the hacked confidential documents has it, energised by the election of Barack Obama, OSF promised “strategic and nimble” support for grantees able to “shape the issue landscape, shift public will, and build broad-based and lasting support for a transformative agenda to advance open society”.

“Strategic and nimble” are not words readily applied to today’s OSF. The giant folder of hacked documents is packed with the results of Stone’s numerous ‘portfolio reviews’. Results are diligently analysed but a strategy is hard to divine. “Could the foundation be more strategic?” asks Callahan. “Maybe so. But fancy blueprints for grant making have never been what this outfit is all about.” In the ‘pre-Stone Age’ you barely needed a blueprint. You could find and ask a grant-making OSF staffer easily enough, joining you on an investigation mission, by your side observing a pro-democracy rally, or making their presence discreetly known to dissidents stalked by glowering secret policemen.

Now, not so much. A flexibility and openness to partnership has been replaced with a cautiously internalised process regulated by a forensic self-analysis that the Foundation kept to itself. Regardless of its actual effect as a catalyst for institutional change, it could have done much to inform to inform a wider debate, had it been more widely shared. I can’t completely endorse the leaks, which are likely to put a number of pro-democracy activists around the world in harm’s way. They have also been released by a source with a clear political agenda with little to do with building vibrant and tolerant democracies or making governments accountable. But for anyone interested in that ambition, many of the documents are truly enlightening. A warning though. They include many MS Word documents and PDFs that have reached the site via the laptops of some of the word’s most fearsome hackers. Access and download with care.

Rebuilding Economics: George Soros
George Soros (WikiMedia)

In the privacy of its board rooms and via its formerly secure communications networks, how does OSF address the challenges of its work? Stone calls on a Brains Trust of OSF ‘Fellows’ who have the most curious missions of mainstream foundation grantees anywhere. It’s what OSF calls ‘choreographed dissonance’. The foundation wants, it says, to “orchestrate” alternative perspectives within their management. It recruits and funds the experienced practitioners it likes, to bring a “collection of clashing ideas that lack a resolution” to their meeting room tables. Grants and research budgets are provided (an average $124,269 for the 2012-2013 fellows)*. Results are diligently absorbed.

To what purpose? They didn’t know. They knew what it wasn’t for. It wasn’t to be simply contrarian for its own sake, nor to simply insert diversity or bipartisanship into processes judged to be missing one or the other. So Stone and Leonard Benardo, regional director for Eurasia and director of the Open Society Fellowship, did the OSF thing and held a review “to explore the difficulties in ritualising the practice of dissonance”. Its hacked conclusions make interesting reading, naturally enough. (Among them is this perplexing jewel: “In order to effectively achieve constructive dissonance, all fellows have to be able to communicate their work in a way that resonates with OSF’s thinking and identifies potential areas for engagement.“)

This year’s fellows-to-be have a particularly tough subject to be dissonant about. The challenge asks “why human rights are under siege everywhere,” then invites would-be fellows to “dispute, substantiate, or otherwise engage” with two propositions:

  • Those who carry out human rights analysis and reporting have been seduced by legal frameworks and largely ignore imbalances of power that lead to rights violations.
  • Political leaders increasingly play on fears that human rights are a Trojan Horse, threatening societies by promising rights to dangerous “others.”

The ‘othering’ of whole communities – diligently understood by academics and campaigners, but rarely by lawyers – used to be in the sole ownership of public & private media giants. Now anyone can do it, for pleasure, profit, or out of simple hatred. The non-partisan critique of OSF’s work in this sector is that promising rights to these dangerous “others” threatens the law, and thus society. Yet it works where the law does not deliver justice, and only further imbalances power structures, often deliberately so.

It’s a cliché to say the independent media and alternative politics are in revolutionary mode. But true, especially where the two mix and match – among, say, dissident bloggers in Azerbaijan or video publishers evidencing #BlackLivesMatter. It’s a fantastically transformative cross-fertilisation of new politics and new media that OSF wants to sustain. All of it though, fundamentally disrespects laws that maintain imbalances of power – from law of copyright, to law of treason. And all of it disrespects media traditions that refuse to recognise that restoring balance to power is the way to restore justice to law.

Freedom of expression rights activism routinely involves law breaking. Laws that are repressive, obstructive, discriminatory. Laws that are none of these things on paper, but are simply misused – libel, public order, taxation – to repress others. Every day I seek to break a small law. To smuggle a satphone SIM, send an encrypted message to countries where the act is illegal, read and share a stolen document, take a tourist visa for covert work purposes, support protests bound to challenge public order. It’s the job and fun with it, I won’t lie. But fewer and fewer of my colleagues are allowed to do this. The trustees that employ them are politically as well as legally responsible. Their funders are constantly trailed for evidence of impropriety, real or imagined.

Seduced by legal frameworks? ‘Seduced’ is not the right word, but ‘framework’ is. I don’t mind a bit of legal order. Last year I helped publish a report designed to help the UK police better credit freedom of expression rights law when required to police creative expression in theatres, galleries and public spaces. OSF’s support for media law reform initiatives, and especially the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression at the UN during 2013-14, transformed institutional perceptions of the duty of key actors to highlight failing or sub-standard law that undermines freedom of expression standards.

But it’s functionality, not justice, that’s wanted from legislation and international convention texts. A focus on the letter of law is the safe option in a confusing world. It provides clarity and draws lines. It allows the sector to say no, and defend yes. The grantees’ world is regulated by deliverables and benchmarks for accountability, governance and value for donated money. If they are seduced, it is by the belief that convention texts and legal readings will give them not just purpose, but measurable purpose. Stone’s new OSF is a creature of this environment. It is hard to imagine how dissonant opinion – choreographed, orchestrated or neither – will change this fact.

* Full disclosure: I applied to the OSF Fellowship this year, but failed to find a subject in the Foundation’s current focus list that fitted my concerns. So I simply presented them with a thesis important to me. An irritated colleague described this as “finding an open window in the OSF wall, and throwing a dead cat in a bag through it”. Sounds about right.

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