Stealth Lobbying Campaign Blamed Elizabeth Warren For 'Socialist Plot' She Had Nothing To Do With

Lobbying in the age of negative partisanship.

WASHINGTON ― If you’re trying to mobilize conservatives to get angry about an obscure provision of a bill moving quickly through Congress, you might as well try and tie it to someone like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

Who cares if she had little to nothing to do with it?

Warren is a hard-charging progressive advocate of consumer rights and government intervention in the economy. She’s exactly the type of politician who makes Republicans’ hair stand on end. So why not blame it on her? That’s what it looks like one corporate lobbying campaign did in an effort to protect its profits.

Oracle, the California-based software company, appears to be behind the lobbying campaign using Warren as its foil. The campaign targeted Warren as the supposed source of a provision added to the National Defense Authorization Act that would encourage the Department of Defense to use open-source software for non-battlefield purposes.

“Open-source software” refers to computer programs for which the source code is both transparent and available for use and reuse by anyone, for any purpose, under the conditions defined by a given license. This is different from the proprietary software often purchased by government agencies, where the agency does not have access to the source code.

For proprietary software, the agency must go back to the company that sold the software and pay for any upgrade, update, patch or fix needed to maintain continued operations. The proprietary model often means that one company has a monopoly on knowledge of military and government systems.

In fiscal 2017, Oracle and its subsidiary companies received nearly $100 million in contracts from the Department of Defense for the use of their proprietary software. In a 2013 white paper, Oracle publicly stated its position against the use of open source by the Department of Defense. The adoption of open-source software preferences could very well provide cheaper and more flexible options for government agencies ― and thus threaten the company’s bottom line. Recently, Britain’s National Health Service dropped Oracle’s proprietary database software for an open-source alternative, saving 21 million pounds ($28.1 million).

Via a series of inflammatory articles in conservative media, a stealth lobbying campaign targeted a provision creating a preference for open-source software used by the Pentagon for non-battlefield purposes.
Via a series of inflammatory articles in conservative media, a stealth lobbying campaign targeted a provision creating a preference for open-source software used by the Pentagon for non-battlefield purposes.
Bill Clark via Getty Images

This discussion of government procurement and open-source preferences is probably boring you to tears right now. That’s why this corporate influence effort simply tried to enrage heavy partisans by invoking someone they wouldn’t like and calling it “socialism.” Like many stealth lobbying campaigns over the years, this effort was done through the careful placement of inflammatory articles on conservative media sites, claiming that liberal socialists were trying to destroy private industry and make it easier for North Korea and Iran to hurt the United States.

In The Daily Caller, Cesar Conda, a registered lobbyist for Oracle, said that the provision “snuck in to the NDAA by Senator Warren... will actually make America less safe and grow government bureaucracy.” An article at RedState by Dean Chambers, who once sought to “unskew” the 2012 presidential election polling, said the provision was “pushed by arch liberal Senator Elizabeth Warren” and called it “a socialist idea ― plain and simple.”

Brian Darling, the head of the public relations and lobbying firm Liberty Government Affairs, wrote that “progressive hero” Warren was leading a federal government takeover of “the development of software in defense contracting.” A reporter for Breitbart said Republicans shouldn’t be supporting “the socialist cause of liberal Democrats.” And an article by Andrew Langer ― the head of the Institute for Liberty, which is known for parroting causes for corporate lobbying efforts ― asserted, without any evidence, that “it is unlikely that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the manager of the NDAA bill on the Senate floor, even knows this provision has been snuck into the base text of the bill.”

The problem with this particular lobbying campaign is that practically none of it was ever close to true.

The provision at issue was originally introduced as a bill in June by Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.). That’s the conservative Republican senator from South Dakota, not Elizabeth Warren. The idea was to increase open-source software adoption by the Pentagon to reduce contracting costs and increase the flexibility of software use. The provision was then added as an amendment to the NDAA by Rounds in the Senate Armed Services Committee.

There was one near-truth in the lobbying campaign: Warren was the Democratic co-sponsor of Rounds’ committee amendment. But it was agreed to in committee by unanimous consent, which means that McCain, the committee chairman, knew about it.

Later, when the bill was debated on the floor of the Senate, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) ― another person who is not Elizabeth Warren ― introduced an amendment to Rounds’ open-source software provision, which was then also adopted by unanimous consent.

Spokespeople for both Rounds and Tillis confirmed that the provision originated from Rounds’ office and was amended by Tillis on the floor of the Senate.

When asked if the company was behind the stealth lobbying campaign, a spokeswoman for Oracle wrote in an email to HuffPost, “We decline comment.”

The adoption of open-source software by government agencies, it should be noted, is not a socialist plot to take over private industry. In fact, government agencies have been using open-source software for years. Large tech firms like Google and Facebook are built on open-source software, and governments around the world use open-source software for a variety of programs. In 2016, the White House chief information officer directed government agencies to preference open-source software adoption.

One of the main purposes behind the adoption of open-source preferences is to allow the easy reuse of code across all of government without every individual agency paying for it. One would think conservatives would be in favor of reducing government spending.

Pictured: Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), who is a different person than Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Pictured: Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), who is a different person than Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Zach Gibson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

“That’s a ludicrous contention,” Alex Howard, the deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, a pro-transparency nonprofit that advocates for better use of technology by governments, said of the idea that open-source software adoption is a front in a socialist war against free enterprise. “I’m going to assume good faith and hope that the people who are reporting on it as if it’s a real issue are just ignorant.”

The Department of Defense has used open-source software for years, and has both a policy and a manual for its use. So does the Central Intelligence Agency. Howard, a former HuffPost editor, noted that when he talks to other agencies considering the adoption of open-source software or standards, he points them to both the Pentagon and the CIA as exemplary models of open-source software use.

Conda, who was not identified as an Oracle lobbyist in his Daily Caller article, argued that open-source software is less safe than proprietary software. He pointed to the use of open-source software by Equifax, the consumer credit reporting company that was hacked this year and lost user data for 143 million Americans.

The Equifax hack was not, however, the fault of open-source software. It was caused by negligence on the part of Equifax’s security team, which failed to patch a known vulnerability for months.

“The arguments around security are ludicrous and completely divorced from what the world’s top [information technology] security experts would say at DefCon [an IT security conference] or any other gathering,” Howard said.

This particular lobbying effort clearly failed. The NDAA passed with the provision included. But this wasn’t the first time Warren has been used to try and scare up opposition, and it won’t be the last.

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