Meet the Astroturfer Planning to Swift Boat Obama

“Yes, it’s the swift boating of the president,” says the founder of a dark-money group claiming to speak for ticked-off Navy SEALs.

Veterans for a Strong America describes itself “a grassroots action organization committed to ensuring that America remains a strong nation by advancing liberty, safeguarding freedom and opposing tyranny.” Founded in 2010, the ostensibly nonpartisan group kept a low profile until earlier this week, when it posted a splashy online ad that uses statements from President Barack Obama to suggest that the commander-in-chief boasted about his role in killing Osama bin Laden, dishonoring America’s military in the process.

“Heroes don’t politicize their acts of valor,” the ad declares amid shots of American soldiers and quotes criticizing Obama’s “shameless” and “despicable” attempt to claim credit for bin Laden’s death. Not all of those quotes are in context: The video flashes “Obama Spikes the bin Laden Football,” a headline from a post in which Mother Jones‘ Kevin Drum wrote that the bin Laden raid proved Obama’s “leadership.” 

Karl Rove praised the ad on Twitter, calling it “powerful,” and it rapidly burned up the right-wing blogs. “The swift boating of Obama has begun,” The Atlantic announced. “One thing that’s clear from this advertisement, if more current and former SEALs decided to come out of the woodwork in opposition to Obama, it could do real damage to him.”

Joel Arends, Veterans for a Strong America’s founder, chairman, and sole staffer, tells me he’s proud of his organization’s viral video, even if it’s characterized as swift boating. “Yes, it’s the swift boating of the president, in the sense of using what’s perceived to be his greatest strength and making it his greatest weakness.”

The 2004 Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign featured some ex-sailors (though none had been shipmates of Sen. John Kerry), but for now the VFSA does not have any actual Navy SEALs speaking on its behalf. Arend says he’s working on recruiting disgruntled current and recent commandos. “I’ve been in touch with a number of Navy SEALs and special operators. There is discontent, I believe, among them about Obama’s excessive celebration,” he says. “We’re gonna be rolling some of those folks out soon.”

It’s impossible to know how many of America’s 22 million veterans are actually represented by VFSA’s political activities. “We don’t pretend to speak for all veterans,” Arends says. There is no doubt that Arends, a decorated Iraq War vet and longtime Army Reserve and National Guard member, cares deeply about his comrades in arms. But there’s little evidence that VFSA is more than a dark-money group with connections to the Republican Party, the tea party group Americans for Prosperity, and Islamophobic activists.

Arends got his start in politics as a South Dakota Bush-Cheney field director in 2000. He’s currently the Republican party head in Lincoln County, South Dakota. Though he doesn’t list it on his public résumé, around 2006 Arends went to work for Craig Dewey, the state director of Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy outfit that’s astroturfed everything from the tea party and the Wisconsin union fight to public school segregation. (AFP’s nonprofit 501(c)3 wing is chaired by David Koch, who founded the Americans for Prosperity Foundation with his brother Charles.)

“Yes, it’s the swift boating of the president, in the sense of using what’s perceived to be his greatest strength and making it his greatest weakness.”

“I was consulting with Americans for Prosperity on a state level, helping to connect them with key decision makers,” Arends says. Craig Dewey initially denied this to me in a phone conversation. “Joel was never on paid staff at Americans for Prosperity,” he said before conceding, “He was an adviser to me.”

After leaving AFP, Arends and Dewey went into business starting “grassroots” issue groups whose names tended to overstate their reach. There was Combat Veterans for Congress, a Sarah Palin-endorsed PAC that pushed “fiscally conservative” vets to run for office; the Coalition for Cures Not Cloning, set up to combat stem-cell research; and Children Need Parents, a group that succeeded in altering the South Dakota’s mom-friendly divorce and custody laws. They also oversaw efforts to roll back EPA regulations, punish businesses that dealt with Iran, and ban Shariah law in South Dakota. “Our strength is grassroots organizing,” Arends explains. “I love bringing people together.”

In 2007, Arends became the executive director of Veterans for Freedom (VFF), whose members fought Obama’s Supreme Court nominations, coordinated campaigns for right-wing candidates like Florida Rep. Allen West, and freaked out about the prospect of Islamic law being implemented in America. Arends’ job included recruiting vets and flying them, expenses-paid, to Washington, DC, to attend events like the “Vets Take the Hill” rally with Republican members of Congress and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) in April 2008.

As an “independent” nonprofit, VFF tried to downplay its ties to the Bush-Cheney and McCain-Palin campaign teams. It also had ties to the Donatelli Group, the conservative fundraisers who’d seeded Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004. Arends and most of VFF’s leadership have since moved on to lucrative or influential positions in the conservative establishment. “Everybody left VFF happy,” he says.

“I’ve been in touch with a number of Navy SEALs and special operators… We’re gonna be rolling some of those folks out soon.”

More recently, Arends been struggling to roll back what he’s called “the ever-present threat, the emerging threat, of sharia doctrine in the United States.” He has worked closely with prominent Islamophobe Frank Gaffney, as well as the lesser-known groups Mary’s Project and the United West. “The president certainly has reached his hand out to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt,” Arends tells me. “Vets who have been to Iraq and Afghanistan have seen the effects and consequences of what Shariah law allows.”

That’s a more level-headed analysis than Arends has offered in the past. After VFSA hosted a forum for Newt Gingrich in Florida early in the primary season, Arends unloaded to a conservative journalist about how “Islamic Jihadists are infiltrating public schools and the military with their evil message” through the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He continued:

I’ve seen what radical Islam does, I’ve seen those car bombs…you know what? There are groups like CAIR today who are working to kind of, with this creeping Shariah here in America, who are working to plant the seeds of the Shariah code and Shariah law that finds itself manifested in the Middle East…

They’re not going to assault us in the streets like they do in Iraq and Afghanistan. But what they are gonna do is they’re going to try to infiltrate into our schools, try to get in front of young, impressionable children, and in our public school systems, you’re gonna find a welcome audience. You’re gonna find some administrators out there, these politically correct teachers and administrators who love to bring these kinds of organizations into the classroom because they think they’re being politically correct.

Who’s funding Vets for a Strong America, and how does it spend its money? There’s no way to know. The group is registered as a 501(c)4—a “social welfare” group that can engage in political activities without disclosing its donors. So far, VFSA hasn’t released any financial information, and Arends is coy about his group’s backers. “We know we have supporters out there,” he says. “People like what we’re saying, and we’re going to continue on, being very vocal with that message.”

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