Project Veritas has long occupied a gray area between investigative journalism and political spying, and internal documents obtained by The New York Times reveal the extent to which the group has worked with its lawyers to gauge how far its deceptive reporting practices can go before running afoul of federal laws.
The documents show, for example, Project Veritas operatives’ concern that an operation launched in 2018 to secretly record employees at the F.B.I., Justice Department and other agencies in the hope of exposing bias against President Donald J. Trump might violate the Espionage Act — the law passed at the height of World War I that has typically been used to prosecute spies.
In a separate July 2017 memorandum, Mr. Barr emailed a representative of the group that the criminal statute involving false statements to federal officials “continues to be an expansive, dangerous law that inhibits Veritas’s operations.”
“Because intent is relevant — and broadly defined — ensuring PV journalists’ intent is narrow and lawful would be paramount in any operation,” the group’s media lawyer, Benjamin Barr, wrote in response to questions from the group about using the dating app Tinder to have its operatives meet government employees, potentially including some with national security clearances.
“We never break the law,” he said, railing against the F.B.I.’s investigation into members of his group for possible involvement in the reported theft of a diary kept by President Biden’s daughter, Ashley. “In fact, one of our ethical rules is to act as if there are 12 jurors on our shoulders all the time.”
The documents, a series of memos written by the group’s lawyer, detail ways for Project Veritas sting operations — which typically diverge from standard journalistic practice by employing people who mask their real identities or create fake ones to infiltrate target organizations — to avoid breaking federal statutes such as the law against lying to government officials.
The documents give new insight into the workings of the group at a time when it faces potential legal peril in the diary investigation — and has signaled that its defense will rely in part on casting itself as a journalistic organization protected by the First Amendment.
The F.B.I. last week searched the homes of Mr. O’Keefe and two former Project Veritas operatives — Eric Cochran and Spencer Meads — as part of the investigation into the reported theft of Ms. Biden’s diary. Mr. O’Keefe has acknowledged receiving a grand jury subpoena in the case.
Mr. O’Keefe and his lawyer, Paul Calli, revealed new details about the diary investigation and F.B.I. search to Sean Hannity on Fox News on Monday. During the interview, Mr. Calli said that Project Veritas had paid for the right to publish the diary but was unable to confirm it belonged to Ms. Biden and ultimately decided not to go ahead with a story about its contents. Excerpts from the diary were later published by another conservative website. One of the crimes listed on Mr. O’Keefe’s search warrant was “transporting material across state lines,” his lawyer said. There is a criminal statute against taking stolen goods from one state to another.
Mr. O’Keefe said the F.B.I. took his phones, which had confidential donor and source information. He said that neither he nor his group had done anything wrong, and that the F.B.I. searches were an assault on the First Amendment. The legal documents obtained by The Times were written several years ago, at a time when Project Veritas was remaking itself from a small operation running on a shoestring budget to a group more closely modeled on a small intelligence-gathering organization.
During the Trump administration, the group saw a flood of new donations from both private donors and conservative foundations, and hired former American and British intelligence and military operatives to train Project Veritas agents in spycraft. In a statement issued by one of its lawyers, Project Veritas said it “stands behind these legal memos and is proud of the exhaustive work it does to ensure each of its journalism investigations complies with all applicable laws.”
Most news organizations consult regularly with lawyers, but some of Project Veritas’s questions for its legal team demonstrate an interest in using tactics that test the boundaries of legality and are outside of mainstream reporting techniques. In a February 2018 memo, Mr. Barr said he was writing in response to questions from the group about the use of Tinder “to meet prospective agents of the ‘Deep State’ or those with national security clearances.”
Project Veritas is suing The New York Times over a 2020 story about a video the group made alleging voter fraud in Minnesota. The statement said the work “reflects Project Veritas’s dedication to the First Amendment, which protects the right to gather information, including about those in power.”