October 05, 2020
This post was updated on October 13, 2020.
The Americas Blog featured a post last week about the growing wave of election interference and misinformation campaigns sweeping Latin America, especially as a tool of right-wing governments and political movements. As these digital operations have grown in popularity, so has the market for firms to organize them. In particular, new details about the recent Latin American operations of a US public relations firm called CLS Strategies illustrate that Americans are not just on the receiving end of manipulative social media campaigns, but are participants in them as well.
There is a long history of “crisis public relations (PR)” firms taking contracts with foreign governments or opposition movements, lobbying on their behalf or otherwise helping them “improve their image” in Washington. But on September 1st, Facebook announced its removal of “55 Facebook accounts, 42 Pages and 36 Instagram accounts” which were linked to the DC-based CLS Strategies, the first time that such action has been taken against a US PR firm.
According to Facebook, CLS Strategies oversaw coordinated social media campaigns in which sockpuppet accounts, often pretending to be locals, “posted content in support of the political opposition in Venezuela and the interim government in Bolivia, and criticism of Morena,” the party of Mexico’s current President. Their pages, which violated Facebook’s policy against “coordinated inauthentic behavior on behalf of a foreign entity,” had been followed by roughly 509,000 Facebook accounts and 43,000 Instagram accounts. $3.6 million was spent on Facebook ads for the campaigns, far more than the roughly $150,000 reportedly spent by Russian operatives on ads on the same platform.
In Bolivia particularly, the impact of this campaign may have been severe. CLS received a contract to “provide strategic counsel to the government of Bolivia” just one month after former President Evo Morales was ousted in a coup. Allegations of electoral fraud levied by the Organization of American States have provided a political justification for the ouster but have been repeatedly shown to be baseless. In the time between the coup and CLS accepting the contract, the de facto government of Jeanine Áñez repeatedly opened fire on protesters, resulting in numerous deaths. During the length of the contract, the far right Áñez government engaged in a stunning array of human rights violations.
While the government’s political repression of those associated with Morales intensified, the firm oversaw 11 fake Bolivian Facebook pages which promoted inflammatory content, such as ads alluding to Morales as a “mobster” and “coward.” One now-locked page sought to spread confusion in Bolivia by selling itself as a fact-checking page while actually just posting content in support of Bolivia’s de facto government; in fact, it once even shared fact-checks from legitimate organizations and contradicted them, labelled their findings “fake news.” CLS Strategies’ official slogan is “Unexpected Solutions.”
During a time of high tension which frequently broke out into violence on the streets of Bolivia, CLS intentionally sought to further stoke these tensions from their downtown DC offices. The firm has refused to answer most questions from journalists, but did say that they have “a long tradition of doing international work, including on social media, to promote free and open elections and to oppose oppressive regimes…” In a statement (which was later deleted), CLS added that they “take very seriously the issues raised by Facebook and others,” have hired a law firm for an internal investigation, and have placed the “head of [their] Latin American practice” on leave.
According to research by Stanford University’s Internet Observatory, among the accounts that Facebook identified in the operation were 6-8 profiles which appear to be the personal accounts of CLS staff. Around this same time, CLS Strategies removed seven staff profiles from the “Our Team” section of their website. There is no confirmation that all seven were involved in the various campaigns across Latin America, but both public reporting and lobbying disclosures tell us that two of these seven— Juan Cortiñas and William Moore— were registered to lobby on behalf of the de facto Bolivian government.
According to Juan Cortiñas’ formerly public profile on the website, his “expansive international portfolio includes work in all major Latin American countries advising political leaders and corporations.” Once press secretary for former congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Cortiñas now engages in political communications work in the region. Unmentioned on his profile is that he was also involved in a CLS contract to improve the image of the authoritarian de facto Honduran government after a similar military coup occurred there in 2009.
William Moore, on the other hand, began his career in PR while working in Colombia. In 2018, he was recognized as a “Rising Star” at an industry luncheon and was praised for his “hard work and dedication” by Cortiñas in a CLS statement.
Among the five other now-hidden staffers, two others have noteworthy backgrounds. CLS Senior Advisor David Romley not only had his profile removed from the website, but also had the statement announcing his 2019 hiring made private; news of the hiring remains public elsewhere. Romley was a Military Affairs Fellow in the office of former Senator John McCain (R-AZ), a Pentagon spokesperson during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a senior advisor at the conservative Hudson Institute, and the Senior Vice President for the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a hawkish think tank with an extensive bipartisan network. When he was hired at CNAS, future Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis— both a board member of the organization and Romley’s former commanding officer— said “it’s heartening that David will be on the team to achieve our goals.”
Also among the now-hidden staffers is Mark Feierstein. Feierstein briefly worked as the Director of the Global Elections Office at USAID (the US government’s foreign aid agency) in the late 1990’s, spent over a decade in the private sector, and then returned to spend another five years at USAID as an Assistant Administrator for Latin America and the Carribean. Later, he served as Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs in President Obama’s National Security Council, during which he spent six months as a Special Assistant to the president. On top of serving as Senior Advisor to CLS Strategies, his more recent resume also includes positions at CSIS, a right-leaning corporate-funded think tank, and Albright Stonebridge Group, a powerful lobbying organization chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Feierstein has been a subject of quiet speculation as a potential pick to staff a Biden administration due to his connections to the Obama administration and his strong support for the campaign. He frequently promotes Biden fundraisers on social media, has signed a public letter in support of him, and has a license plate on his car that reads, simply, “BIDEN.”
Feierstein’s LinkedIn claims his employment at CLS ended in April of 2020— shortly after the firm’s 90-day contract with the Bolivian government would have ended— but he was present on CLS’s “Our Team” page as recently as September 3. CLS described him as “a principal strategist for winning national campaigns in Austria, Bolivia, El Salvador, and Honduras” who also “designed communications strategies for major multinational companies, including Boeing, BP and Monsanto.”
Feierstein was featured in the 2005 documentary Our Brand Is Crisis, where he and his team succeeded in helping Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (known in short as “Goni”) narrowly beat Evo Morales in Bolivia’s 2002 elections. Goni’s short tenure was marked by mass social unrest sparked by his unpopular economic policies. In October of 2003 Goni fled to exile in the United States after his government carried out a violent crackdown in which over 60 protesters and bystanders were killed.
Feierstein has remained unrepentant regarding his involvement in Goni’s presidential campaign, even stating that he was “proud of the role that we played in electing Goni” during an interview a few years after the October massacre. For years Bolivian authorities and victims of the massacre demanded that the US extradite Goni in order for him to face justice in Bolivia, but— as one of the victims’ lawyers told Bolivia expert Linda Farthing— the chances of success “were slim” given that Goni was “closely connected to high levels of the Democratic party and the Obama administration.”
On top of his work in Bolivia, Feierstein has also publicly called for further policy action towards removing Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro— one of the targets of CLS’s recent campaigns. In one op-ed written shortly before taking his position at CLS, Feierstein argued that “Venezuela should rank among the Trump administration’s highest foreign policy priorities.” In another, written during his time at the firm, he took issue with direct military intervention but argued that “[t]he palatable policy tools that have helped advance democratic transitions around the world in recent years could very well fall short in Venezuela.” By the time the latter op-ed was published, nine of CLS’s fake Venezuelan pages had already been created, suggesting that Feierstein’s employer may have already had an undisclosed contract to support the Venezuelan opposition when he wrote it.
The potential involvement of Feierstein in these contracts raises the prospect of other ethical malfeasance. As part of their contract to improve the reputation of the Bolivian government, CLS’s lobbying disclosures reveal their attempts to set up meetings between Bolivia’s de facto Minister of Government, Arturo Murillo, and numerous Washington power players. On December 16, 2019, the firm helped set up a meeting with USAID’s Assistant Administrator for Latin America and the Carribean, a position that Feierstein held for five years during the Obama administration. This is further concerning because the meeting runs directly counter to the spirit of US law, which prohibits aid to coup governments.
These ethical considerations emerge just from a few recent Latin American contracts belonging to just one firm. CLS Strategies alone lists 16 other countries it has worked in, and many more firms engage in similar kinds of work all over the world.
One final piece of this puzzle is the matter of funding: roughly $3.6 million across Bolivia, Mexico, and Venezuela, “paid for primarily in US dollars.” Both the Bolivian government and CLS Strategies have been very clear that the Bolivian government itself did not put up any of the money for the operation. CLS was paid “a fee” for the project, but the origin of the millions spent on Facebook ads remains unaccounted for. According to CLS, this funding came from “clients inside each country”; who these clients are remains a mystery.
The scale of CLS Strategies’ political interference operations in Latin America, their hidden sources of funding, and the deep political connections of those many of the individuals working for the firm, all come together to paint a troubling, albeit still very opaque, picture. The DC-based firm was paid to knowingly misrepresent themselves to hundreds of thousands of people in order to dishonestly promote right-wing movements and governments, including an undemocratic government responsible for egregious human rights violations. CLS’s story is instructive as an example of how this type of digital manipulation is a growing threat for nations around the world.