Foundation Watch

The White House’s Iran Treaty Echo Chamber

The role of left-wing nonprofits in advancing the political goals of liberal and progressive elected officials is well known. Our understanding of this dynamic has taken a giant step forward, however, thanks to recent revelations about links between the White House and sympathetic tax-exempt groups and foundations working to advance President Obama’s Iran agenda.

Speechwriting is known as the “silent profession,” in that its practitioners typically do not talk about their work on behalf of politicians, CEOs, and other public figures. Apparently no one ever explained that to White House staffer Ben Rhodes (pictured above).

Rhodes’s official title is “Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting.” In early May, the New York Times Magazine published an interview with a very un-silent Rhodes. David Samuels, the author, quoted Rhodes congratulating himself on the success of the public relations campaign that accompanied President Obama’s long effort for a nuclear arms control deal with Iran—including a public battle in late 2015 with senators skeptical of the Iran treaty.

Obama’s shift on Iran was years in the making. The president signaled his readiness to negotiate with Iran as early as June 2009, when the White House quietly sent a letter to Supreme Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Republic’s spiritual leader, reportedly indicating an openness for renewed diplomatic contact.

One of the more explosive excerpts from Rhodes’s interview with Samuels reads as follows:

In the spring of last year, legions of arms-control experts began popping up at think tanks and on social media, and then became key sources for hundreds of often-clueless reporters. “We created an echo chamber,” [Rhodes] admitted, when I asked him to explain the onslaught of freshly minted experts cheerleading for the deal. “They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.” [Emphasis mine]

Rhodes gloated about how effectively the White House used allies such as the San Francisco-based Ploughshares Fund as part of this campaign. “We had test drives to know who was going to be able to carry our message effectively, and how to use outside groups like Ploughshares … and whomever else. So we knew the tactics that worked,” Rhodes told Samuels.

Rhodes’s words ignited a thousand angry denunciations. He attempted some damage control on May 8 when he claimed the White House had merely attempted to ensure “people understood our policy,” and, to that end, “we made a concerted effort to provide information about the deal to any interested party, including to outside organizations and any journalists covering the issue. This effort to get information out with fact sheets, graphics, briefings, and social media was no secret—it was well reported on at the time. Of course the objective of that kind of effort is to build as much public support as you can—that’s a function of White House communications.”

In the days that followed, attention focused on the Ploughshares Fund, the left-wing foundation seeking to eliminate nuclear weapons worldwide that, according to Rhodes, was at the center of the Iran treaty echo chamber. Ploughshares claimed about $40 million in net assets as of 2014, with revenues of about $7.8 million.

In Ploughshares’ 2015 annual report, its president, Joe Cirincione, claims that its opponents on the Iran nuclear deal “outspent supporters by at least 10-1, including a $40 million ad campaign.” Then, a few paragraphs later in his opening message, he shares that Ploughshares is hardly a slouch in the fundraising department—“Ploughshares Fund raised and disbursed almost $12 million in grants over the past five years” to energize “a network uniting hundreds of organizations and individuals in common cause.” (That is, to support President Obama’s deal-at-any-price approach with the “mad mullahs” of Tehran.)

It’s surely no surprise that Ploughshares’ financial backers includes George Soros’s Open Society apparatus (see below for more details).

Cirincione also writes: “Together, [this network] achieved a victory no single group could have secured. We met and wrote and reasoned together. We pooled ideas, debated strategies and honed messages. We partnered with like-minded foundations. By sharing information, reducing redundancies, collaborating where possible and applying savvy digital organizing techniques, each partner strengthened the collective impact of the whole.”

The annual report helpfully profiles key nodes in this network, including the Truman National Security Project; the Friends Committee on National Legislation; MoveOn; New America; Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans; the Washington Strategy Group; VoteVets; the Stimson Center; J Street; National Iranian American Council; and MIT’s Security Studies Program.

The annual report also refers to the more than 800 op-eds, over 350 letters to the editor, and nearly 230 editorials “published during critical moments of the Iran campaign” by “Ploughshares Fund grantees, partners and allies.”

Picking up on Cirincione’s boast about soliciting $12 million and spreading it among Ploughshares’ allies, two questions come to mind. Where did the money come from? What activities was the money used to support?

Where did the money come from?

In terms of Ploughshares’ fundraising over the last few years from foundations in support of its general operations, public records point to the following cumulative contributions—all made while the organization was ramping up its pro-Iran deal efforts:

Skoll Global Threats Fund and Skoll Foundation – combined $1.7 million (2011–2013)

Rockefeller Brothers Fund – $1.5 million (2012, 2013)

New York Community Trust – $507,000 (2011)

Schooner Foundation – $752,500 (2011, 2013)

William and Flora Hewlett Foundation – $750,000 (2011, 2013)

Colombe Foundation – $600,000 (2012–2014)

Minneapolis Foundation – $484,000 (2012, 2014)

Goatie Foundation – $240,000 (2011–2013)

Carnegie Corporation of New York – $233,300 (2014)

Schwab Charitable Fund – $208,000 (2011, 2014)

San Francisco Foundation – $125,000 (2013–2014)

Chicago Community Trust – $100,000 (2013–2014)

James Family Foundation – $100,000 (2012–2013)

Hess Foundation – $75,000 (2011–2013)

New Land Foundation – $70,000 (2012–2013)

Cogan Family Foundation – $60,000 (2013–2014)

Zalec Familian and Lilian Levinson Foundation – $46,000 (2012–2015)

Foundation to Promote Open Society – $50,000 (2013)

Columbus Foundation – $40,000 (2012–2013)

Barbara Streisand Foundation – $35,000 (2012–2013)

Laura Stratton Dewey Foundation – $32,000 (2011–2012)

Edwin W. and Catherine M. Davis Foundation $30,000 (2011, 2013)

Wilemal Fund – $30,000 (2012–2014)

Where did the money go?

Now that we have an idea of which foundations supported Ploughshares’ work on the Iran file, we can plunge into the next logical question—what activities did the funding support? Presented below are highlights of who participated in Ploughshares’ Iran treaty “echo chamber,” how much money they received and what activities Ploughshares’ donations supported—as described in Ploughshares’ own published annual reports for 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015.

What emerges is a well-thought-out, carefully planned, multi-year effort to influence key audiences and ensure they were aligned with the White House’s Iran agenda, and in some cases position them to thwart criticism of that agenda. Ploughshares’ 2010-2011 grantees included:

National Iranian American Council – $125,000, including funding “to support advocacy and media outreach aimed at finding a peaceful solution to the Iranian nuclear dilemma.”

Link Media – $80,000 “for the Iran Media Project, an enhanced social media and broadcast engagement campaign to amplify the activities of advocacy groups, bloggers and experts working to reduce confrontation with Iran.”

Mainstream Media Project – $80,000 “to support efforts to place experts on a range of radio shows with the goal of promoting diplomatic solutions to reducing tension with Iran and countering Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.”

LBLG Fund – $19,000 “to support monitoring, analysis and publishing related to US policy towards Iran and a critique of arguments favoring confrontation with Iran.”

Foundation for a Civil Society – $50,000 “to support the Iran Project’s work to produce credible recommendations on diplomatic solutions to the nuclear impasse with Iran and to shape the debate among policymakers.”

Gulf 2000 Project, Columbia University – $75,000 “to inform the debate over Iran’s nuclear program in the media and among policymakers by assessing and reporting on events, generating viable solutions and refuting false stories.”

Public Radio International – $100,000 to support reporting on international affairs, including “a special feature focus on Iran and Iranians.”

National Public Radio (NPR) – $150,000 “to support coverage on Iran, US nuclear weapons policy and non-proliferation issues.” In addition, the optics of accepting a grant from Ploughshares as it led the charge for the Iran deal, is what FrontPageMag among others have noted—the number of “Ploughshares-funded analysts and experts who made it on the air to talk up the [Iran] deal, without any acknowledgment of that by NPR.”

Ploughshares’ 2011–2012 grantees included:

National Iranian American Council – nearly $135,000, including “to support media and advocacy work to shape the debate among policymakers and in the media on credible, non-military approaches to resolving the impasse over Iran’s nuclear program.”

J Street Education Fund – $25,000 “to support efforts to educate members of Congress on the consequences that preemptive use of military force against Iran’s nuclear program may have on Israel.”

National Security Initiative – $100,000 “to support policy analysis and media engagement that opposes a military approach to Iran’s nuclear program and supports stronger engagement and diplomacy as the preferred US policy option.”

ReThink Media – $120,000 “to provide communications guidance and support for coalition efforts to promote a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear impasse, cut US spending on nuclear weapons program [sic] and reduce the role of nuclear weapons in US policy.”

Truman National Security Project – $15,000 “to support efforts to deploy Iraq and Afghan veterans and other recent military retirees to speak out against military strikes on Iran.”


Ploughshares’ 2013 grantees included:

American Security Program – $130,000 “to recruit credible national security elites to support reductions in US nuclear weapons budgets and promote diplomatic approaches to resolve Iran’s nuclear program.”

Atlantic Council of the United States – $80,000 “to support the Iran Task Force, a high level bipartisan group of experts and former officials working to inform the debate on US policy towards Iran.”

Center for a New American Security – $100,000 “to support high impact research and analysis of the Iranian nuclear question and its ramifications for security in the Middle East and US.”

Foundation for a Civil Society – $110,000 “to engage high level experts and former officials in examining the Iranian nuclear issue and developing potential policy solutions to resolve the nuclear crisis.”

Gulf 2000 Project – $75,000 “to inform the debate on Iran’s nuclear program in the media and among policymakers through analysis and reporting.”

Ploughshares’ 2013–2014 grantees included:

American Security Project – $100,000 “to educate congressional offices and other decision makers about policy options to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”

Americans United for Change – $50,000 “to support efforts conduct polling on US attitudes or Iran diplomacy, and to disseminate the findings to key audiences, including policy and media”; and about $15,000 “to support mobilization of constituents to contact their Senators about pending legislation on Iran sanctions.”

The Aspen Institute – $35,000 “to support a series of briefings for members of Congress and senior congressional staffers to discuss US policy options towards Iran.”

Atlantic Council of the United States – $80,000 “to support the Iran Task Force, a high level bipartisan group of experts and former officials working to inform the debate on US policy towards Iran.”

Berim – total of about $40,000 to support visits by “constituents, veterans and diverse Iranian voices to Washington DC” to meet with members of Congress. Berim, an organization of Iranian dissidents, merged in 2015 with Win Without War, another Ploughshares grantee.

Center for American Progress – $12,500 “to support a discussion of diplomacy with Iran at a joint Center for American Progress-Molad policy conference on Jerusalem.” (Note: Molad is an Israeli think tank.)

Center for New American Security – about $165,000 for a series of “boot camps” to “educate congressional staffers on the nature of Iran’s nuclear program and the requirements for an enduring and verifiable diplomatic resolution,” and also for “high impact research and analysis related to” the nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Drucker & Associates – $60,000 for “strategic advice and additional outreach capacity for efforts to build political support for preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”

The Foundation for a Civil Society – a total of about $250,000 “to support the Iran Project’s efforts to inform the public debate about policy options to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons through the publication and broad disseminate [sic] of reports, op-eds and other writings” and “to educate policymakers and the media about the potential impact of a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran.”

Gulf 2000 Project, Columbia University – $75,000 “to support analysis, reporting and other efforts to inform the debate abut [sic] Iran’s nuclear program and international diplomatic approaches to verifiably prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”

J Street and J Street Education Fund – a total of about $100,000 to “educate Congress and the public about policy approaches to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon” and to “engage and mobilize a national network of members and supporters to participate in the public debate about the US policy options towards Iran.”

Moore + Associates – a total of about $145,000 to “design and implement a public voice campaign to help shape the narrative in the Jewish community about options to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon” and “to research and design a ‘cultural strategy plan’ that provides options of short- and long-term activities that could begin to shift public perceptions about the role and value of nuclear weapons.” (More on this “cultural strategy plan” appears below.)

Nation Institute – $60,000 “for a rapid response project to debunk misinformation in the debate over negotiations with Iran, as well as in depth journalistic pieces exploring the domestic politics at play.”

National Iranian American Council – a total of about $160,000 “to support an Iran Diplomacy Task Force to promote proactive efforts from members of Congress in support of diplomatic solutions to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon” and “to support advocacy and media work to shape the debate among policymakers and in the media among policymakers and in the media on credible approaches to resolving the nuclear impasse.”

ReThink Media – $20,000 “to amplify the voices of prominent former officials, military officers and experts in the Iran debate through targeted state and national media outreach.”

Vet Voice Foundation – $25,000 “to support efforts to educate policymakers and the public on veterans’ perspectives on a diplomatic approach to resolving the Iranian nuclear program.”

Win Without War – $50,000 “to educate grassroots constituencies and public officials about policy options to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.” This organization calls itself a “national leader in the fight to promote a more progressive national security strategy.”

Ploughshares’ 2015 grantees included:

American Security Project – $25,000 “to mobilize national security elites to support sensible diplomatic approaches to resolving the Iranian nuclear impasse.”

Americans United for Change – a total of about $72,000 “to support mobilization of grassroots constituents to contact their senators in support of a comprehensive agreement to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon” plus polling related to the Iran question.

Arms Control Association – $10,000 “for support of on-site analysis and communications regarding the final phase of negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal.”

Atlantic Council of the United States – $80,000 “to support the Iran Task Force, a high level bipartisan group of experts and former officials working to inform the debate on US policy towards Iran.”

Berim – $25,000 “to enhance online organizing and digital media outreach work in support of diplomacy with Iran.”

Brookings Institution – $75,000 “to support Ambassador Bob Einhorn’s efforts to analyze, explain and endorse the negotiated settlement with Iran on its nuclear program.”

Center for American Progress Action Fund – $25,000 “to support rigorous, accurate coverage of the Iran nuclear talks on Think Progress.”

Center for New American Security – $125,000 “to support high impact research and analysis related to” the Iran treaty negotiations.

Drucker and Associates – $60,000 “to work closely with Ploughshares Fund staff” on tasks related to “the broader context of the Iran campaign.”

Friends Committee on National Legislation – $75,000 for efforts to educate Congress on the Iran deal, including the group’s “Iran lobby day.”

Stimson Center – about $27,000 for “expert analysis and commentary” and other activities in support of “a negotiated settlement to Iran’s nuclear program.”

J Street and J Street Education Fund – $575,000 for “research into the policy environment,” an “intensive education and campaign to continue diplomatic engagement with Iran,” and “mobilize Jewish support for a final deal.”

National Iranian American Council – $245,000 “to increase NIAC’s capacity at a critical moment in the debate” over Iran and “to support advocacy and media work to shape the debate among policymakers and in the media” regarding the Iran treaty.

New Security Action Network – $95,000 “for management and implementation of an online comedic video produced by Funny or Die that supports the negotiated settlement on Iran’s nuclear program.”

ReThink Media – $130,000 “for support of ReThink’s efforts to enhance the nuclear security NGO community’s media skills and capacity, and to effectively engage with the media and policymakers on the issues of the negotiated settlement of Iran’s nuclear program and US nuclear weapons programs.”

Princeton University – $70,000 “for support of Ambassador [Hossein] Mousavian’s analysis, publications and policymaker engagement on the range of elements involved with the negotiated settlement of Iran’s nuclear program.”  Once it came under closer scrutiny, this grant in particular came under attack. Mousavian is not only a former Iranian ambassador, but also a spokesman for the Iranian nuclear effort. As James Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation, observed, “This [grant by Ploughshares] essentially amounted to subsidizing Iran’s propaganda efforts in the United States.”

Truman National Security Project – $50,000 “to execute a comprehensive messaging, communications and outreach campaign that educates the general public and targeted policy audiences about approaches to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops – $50,000 “to build a sustainable channel of communication between the United States and Iran through religious leaders and to help create political space for leaders of both nations to further engage on the nuclear issue.”

Win Without War – $50,000 “for mobilization of a broad base of public support of the negotiated settlement with Iran on its nuclear program.”

“Echo chamber” as a standard tactic

“What Ploughshares did was to pollute the public sphere with self-validated and self-validating noise for the purpose of deceiving the public on behalf of the state,” wrote Weekly Standard senior editor Lee Smith. “It seems that for the Ploughshares Fund, the highest form of patriotism is manufacturing consent.”

But there’s nothing new in terms of the communications strategy Rhodes described. CRC readers may recall, for example, the self-congratulatory message that the pro-assisted suicide organization Compassion & Choices included in its 2014 annual report, describing in detail its meticulously planned campaign to bring assisted suicide to California. Compassion & Choices did not use the term “echo chamber,” but the term definitely fits, with its interlocking print/TV/online media campaigns, combined with intense on-the-ground, face-to-face meetings between activists and lobbyists. (See “The Rise and Rise of America’s Suicide Lobby,” Organization Trends, March 2016.)

Similarly, long-time George Soros/Open Society Institute asset Gara LaMarche committed millions of dollars from the coffers of Atlantic Philanthropies (which he led after leaving the Soros orbit in 2007, before returning to that orbit in 2013 as president of the Democracy Alliance donor collaborative Soros co-founded) to various nonprofits agitating on behalf of Obamacare. LaMarche enjoyed his own public victory lap when the White House invited him to watch as President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Atlantic Philanthropies also funded a smaller “echo chamber”-type network focused on changing U.S. policy towards Cuba. (For more details, see: “A Donor Can Stand Up: Battling over Donor Intent at the Atlantic Philanthropies,” Foundation Watch, April 2015.)

As Smith of the Weekly Standard has also pointed out, Rhodes called the proposed Iran deal in 2014 “probably the biggest thing President Obama will do in his second term on foreign policy. This is healthcare for us, just to put it in context.” From that view, Ploughshares played the role in the Iran deal that Gara LaMarche and Atlantic Philanthropies played during the healthcare debate, and funded groups friendly to the Obama administration’s goals so they could bolster the White House message.

Another noteworthy link between Ploughshares and a past “echo chamber” effort is found in a “cultural strategy report” that the fund commissioned in 2014. The consultants engaged for the report assessed “where nuclear weapons are as an issue in today’s culture and to serve as the basis of a potential cultural strategy that could complement existing funding and operational activities.”

The strategy document includes a summary of the social engineering premise that is the basis for its recommendations to Ploughshares:

“Social change happens when people’s beliefs shift and they act on their new beliefs. People’s beliefs shift when the culture that defines and reflects their beliefs shift. Culture shifts move our collective beliefs past a tipping point, leading to a cascade of changing laws and mores. Policy advocacy and traditional organizing must be a part of an overarching cultural strategy, not an appendage to a campaign.”

One is tempted to call this the “echo chamber manifesto.”

In terms of boosting Ploughshares’ political influence, the report suggests among other things that “Christian youth might be a good starting point for engaging communities of faith in the disarmament space,” and advises Ploughshares to examine the “Kony 2012” multi-media campaign undertaken by an organization called Invisible Children. CRC readers may recall this echo-chamber-style initiative, which combined clever online videos circulated to college students, combined with high-profile celebrity endorsements, urging American support for international intervention in Central Africa to apprehend a warlord named Joseph Kony. (For more details, see “Foundations, Nonprofits and the War on U.S. Sovereignty,” Foundation Watch, April 2012.)

Christian youth-based outreach was not key to the Iran treaty campaign, but perhaps Ploughshares will deploy this tactic at a future date in another campaign.

The echo chamber’s ideology

This edition of Foundation Watch has explored the nexus of tax-exempt groups and funders that made up the Iran treaty echo chamber. But what about the ideology, the belief system that animates this network?

According to John D. Fonte, senior fellow and director of the Center for American Common Culture at the Hudson Institute, the participants in this network anchor their worldview in “post-Americanism.”

This is not the same as anti-Americanism, Fonte points out. “The members of this network believe that to look at a policy question from a patriotic point of view, with a focus on American national interests, is too old-fashioned,” he says. “So they are ‘post-American’ in that they prefer to look at issues from a global perspective. This means that they are ambivalent (and somewhat embarrassed) about attachment to particular U.S. interests because do not see their primary job as representing specifically American goals and priorities, but rather serving ‘the international community.’ Instead, they are more managerial-minded—think of the trans-national elites who populate the higher reaches of the United Nations, or the European Union’s bureaucracies. This detached view was described many years ago in the writings of James Burnham,” the famous thinker and one-time National Review columnist, during the Cold War, Fonte adds.

“This post-American idea comes through in the Rhodes piece. An anonymous Obama administration official comments in the article about how, when the president is presented with options to respond forcefully to Iran’s defiance of the US, Obama ‘hears Dick Cheney in those arguments.’ And, says the anonymous commentator, Obama sees the proponents of these options as a ‘bunch of bloodthirsty know-nothings from a different era,’” Fonte says.

“Of course Rhodes and others in the White House reject this view—because it asserts that there are American interests that need to be defended, that this country must exercise its sovereignty in its own best interests,” Fonte observes.

Further commenting on Rhodes’s interview, Fonte calls it “very revealing, especially when Rhodes feels like he can brag about shaping ‘narratives’ around the Iran deal. Rhodes shows a post-modern attitude here, meaning that he’s moved beyond the reality of the world and taken the view that there is no one single reality, but a series of supposedly competing narratives or stories. This is how I read, for example, the reference in the interview to how Rhodes apparently ‘skillfully shapes and ventriloquizes’ statements by pundits about the Iran deal.”

Fonte also wryly points out how the narrative-minded Rhodes could have used the New York Times Magazine interview to construct a much better explanation for the Iran deal’s success—one that didn’t involve the phrase “echo chamber.”

“Why didn’t he portray the pro-Iran deal network as merely a ‘spontaneous gathering’ of ‘peace-loving organizations,’ motivated only by their strong sense of ‘solidarity’ with the president’s goals?” Fonte asks.


From a public relations view, the strong reaction from commentators and columnists to Ben Rhodes’s revelations about how the Iran treaty was won was completely understandable. Rhodes’s gloating was about as un-subtle as a football player spiking the pigskin after running an 80-yard interception into the end zone.

What a waste it will be, however, if this white-hot anger generates only polemics, when it should be inspiring critics to initiate a closer forensic investigation of the Iran treaty public affairs campaign.

Such an investigation may not be far off, as more information seems to be coming to light by the day. For example, journalist Eli Lake of Bloomberg View wrote in late May about how he’d been leaked material demonstrating just how far back the pro-Iran campaign began. Lake described the leaked items as “e-mails and documents from an internal listserv operated by the arms control nonprofit Ploughshares Fund.”

Recall, as mentioned at the start of this paper, that President Obama’s readiness to deal with Iran did not emerge overnight, but at least as early as 2009. Ploughshares’ intensive Iran-related grant-making kicked off in 2011, and that grant-making just happened to increase in subsequent years as the White House’s need for public allies grew.

Just how closely was all this coordinated directly with the White House, or through plugged-in political operatives linked to the White House? A few more leaks—or another self-congratulatory Ben Rhodes interview—and the answer to this question will become much more clear.

We don’t have all the facts yet, but when we do, at least this is certain: Americans will take a much different view of the Iran treaty and of the pundits, political leaders, media outlets, organizations, and foundations that pressed for its approval.

Neil Maghami

Neil Maghami is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Capital Research Center publications.
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