James O’Keefe III, the guerrilla videographer, advised conservative students this month that they needed to start taking more risks.
“The more you put yourself out there and you take those calculated risks,” he told the Web site CampusReform.org, which works to foster conservative activism on college campuses, “you’re actually going to get opportunities.”
Just days later, Mr. O’Keefe, 25, took his own advice, but did not get quite the opportunity he expected.
He and three other men — including a 24-year-old associate, Joseph Basel, who was interviewed alongside Mr. O’Keefe by the Web site — were arrested and charged with a federal felony, accused of seeking to tamper with the office telephone system of Senator Mary L. Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana. Two of them were impersonating repairmen in the senator’s New Orleans office and were caught after being asked for identification.
Mr. O’Keefe said Friday that the four men had been trying to determine whether Ms. Landrieu was avoiding constituent complaints about the Senate health care bill after her phone system was jammed in December. (Her office said no calls had been intentionally avoided.) On reflection, he said in a statement, “I could have used a different approach to this investigation.”
But that approach was precisely the kind that he and others have been perfecting for years, a kind of gonzo journalism or a conservative version of “Candid Camera.”
Those methods took root on college campuses in the latter half of George W. Bush’s presidency, fostered by a group of men and women in their late teens and early 20s with a taste for showmanship and a shared sense of political alienation — a sort of political reverse image of the left-wing Yippies of the 1960s. They studied leftist activism of years past as their prototype, looking to the tactics of Saul Alinsky, the Chicago community organizer who laid the framework for grass-roots activism in the ’60s, as well as those of gay rights and even Communist groups.
They held “affirmative action” bake sales with prices set based on the age and race of the buyer, posed as donors to Planned Parenthood seeking to contribute to the abortion of African-American fetuses only, and held a mock “Love Thy Prisoner” campaign to find American homes for Guantánamo inmates.
Mr. O’Keefe made his biggest national splash last year when he dressed up as a pimp and trained his secret camera on counselors with the liberal community group Acorn — eliciting advice on financing a brothel on videos that would threaten to become Acorn’s undoing.
He quickly became a cult hero among young conservatives who saw his work as groundbreaking and sought to emulate him.
Liberals have denounced his methods as dishonest, a form of entrapment, but national Republican leaders seized on them as revelatory, pressuring Congress into cutting Acorn’s financing.
Mr. O’Keefe produced his videos with a partner, Hannah Giles, who posed as a prostitute in them. Although he may be the most public face of this new approach, he is just one of a group of young conservatives who use political pranks and embarrassing recordings to upend what they view as overwhelming liberal biases on college campuses and in the culture at large.
The Path to New Orleans
In the incident in New Orleans, several of the group’s central players came together. They had met through a small community of conservative college newspaper editors that is fostered by advocacy organizations supported by old Republican families like the Coorses and Scaifes.
One of those arrested was Stan Dai, 24, a former editor in chief of the irreverent GW Patriot at George Washington University, where he published an anti-feminist article lampooning the play “The Vagina Monologues.” His version was called “The Penis Monologues.”
Another was Mr. Basel, 24, the co-founder of a conservative publication at the University of Minnesota, Morris, that features headlines like “Third World Countries Need Sweatshops” and “I Hate Che Guevara T-Shirts.”
The fourth was Robert Flanagan, 24, who did not know the others before roughly two weeks ago, his lawyer said, when Mr. O’Keefe gave a speech for the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, a libertarian organization in New Orleans for which Mr. Flanagan works a few hours a week. Until then, Mr. Flanagan, a star athlete and son of a federal prosecutor, had not been known by friends to be particularly provocative in his conservatism, though he had been sharply critical of Ms. Landrieu on the institute’s blog.
And then there was Ben Wetmore, 28, who was not arrested but who allowed Mr. Dai, Mr. O’Keefe and Mr. Basel to stay at his house in New Orleans this month. The authorities have not indicated that Mr. Wetmore, a Loyola law student, was connected to the incident at Ms. Landrieu’s office, but he has nonetheless played a vital role in Mr. O’Keefe’s career, as well as that of Mr. Basel and other activists.
Mr. Wetmore helped introduce many of the activists to one another and inspired them through his take on attention-grabbing tactics. His often behind-the-scenes role was detailed in a trail he left on the Internet, as well as in several interviews.
“Benjamin Wetmore: a mentor of mine; a genius,” Mr. O’Keefe said during an interview with The New York Times in September, after the Acorn videos were released. “He said, ‘Take on the politically correct crowd on campus, satirically.’ ”
Mr. O’Keefe declined several interview requests, and Mr. Wetmore responded to an e-mail message by sending photographs of Jayson Blair, a reporter for The New York Times who resigned after admitting to plagiarism and fabrication. Mr. Dai, Mr. Basel and Mr. Flanagan could not be reached for comment. (The four men arrested were freed on bail, awaiting a pretrial hearing.)
The partnership between Mr. O’Keefe and Mr. Wetmore appears to have started in earnest in 2004.
As a philosophy major at Rutgers University, Mr. O’Keefe came to believe that conservative-leaning students were being force-fed a diet of academic liberalism. As he put it at the time, they were “drowned in relativism, concepts of distributive justice and redistribution of wealth.”
He and some friends started an alternative conservative publication called The Centurion with $500 from the conservative Leadership Institute’s Balance in Media grant program, which was overseen at the time by Mr. Wetmore. The institute, founded in 1979, is based in Arlington, Va., and is best known for training campus conservatives to influence public policy.
Before joining the institute, Mr. Wetmore had established his own bona fides as a college provocateur at American University. He drew national attention after being arrested by the campus police and accused of breaking a prohibition against recording Tipper Gore during a speech she gave there in 2002 and refusing to surrender the tape.
The arrest became a cause célèbre for First Amendment advocates and showcased what would become a standard technique of Mr. Wetmore and his cohort: taping classes, lectures and other campus events in the hopes of catching professors and others in moments of excessive political correctness or other embarrassments. He made headlines again roughly two years later when American University’s president, Benjamin Ladner, unsuccessfully tried to stop Mr. Wetmore from running the Web site BenLadner.com, which was devoted to criticizing him.
Campus pranks have a long tradition, but Mr. O’Keefe and Mr. Wetmore were “among the early users of putting multimedia content online for the conservative cause,” said Ryan Nichols, a grass-roots conservative activist and former colleague of both men at the Leadership Institute. “In that sense, they were pioneering.”
The group’s other main tactic, which Mr. O’Keefe has said was inspired by “Rules for Radicals,” Mr. Alinsky’s manifesto for left-wing organizing, was to caricature liberal political and social values by carrying them to outlandish extremes.
In the Times interview last September, Mr. O’Keefe credited Mr. Wetmore with giving him the idea for one of his most talked-about video farces, which continues to draw attention on YouTube: a campaign to rid a dining hall of Lucky Charms cereal, because it was offensive to Irish students.
In the video, Mr. O’Keefe quickly exhibited his absurdist improvisational style, telling a school official that the leprechaun on the cereal box appeared as “an Irish-American” who is “portrayed as a little green-cladded gnome or huckster.”
His first issue of The Centurion — with a mock New York Times front page with headlines like “Study Shows Mr. Bush Unfit for Presidency” — drew an immediate reaction, and a following.
“Everyone was like: ‘Whoa, what is this? Oh my goodness,’ ” said Gregory W. Levitsky, a friend and colleague of Mr. O’Keefe at The Centurion. Anthony Gioia, another former Rutgers student, said he joined the newspaper after seeing that first issue.
“Rutgers, like every university, is a very liberal institution, so we were a small group of friends trying to combat that atmosphere,” Mr. Gioia said. “The way we went about it was very provocative and made people take notice, and we won over a lot of people to our way of thinking.”
Mr. Gioia recalled discussions of “Rules for Radicals” and visits to the paper by Mr. Wetmore, whose motto was “Don’t complain about the media — be the media.”
But if The Centurion delighted fellow conservatives, it frequently left campus liberals flabbergasted. When it published an opinion article titled “The Inequality of Black History Month,” a student, Whitney Pennington, wrote in The Rutgers Daily Targum, “Honestly, in responding to this article, I do not even know where to begin.”
Tabitha Rice, who was in the College Democrats at Rutgers and who had numerous run-ins with Mr. O’Keefe, described him as “insufferable.”
“He always would do something that would get a rise, but he always knows how to work the system,” she said.
Around the same time, Mr. Wetmore wrote on his blog about a visit with another recipient of a Leadership Institute grant, Mr. Basel, who used the money to start his newspaper, The Counterweight.
Among Mr. Basel’s stunts was one in which he put up posters all over his campus in Minnesota that said “End Racism & Sexism Now: Kill All White Males.” The posters prompted such an outcry that he was asked to speak at a campus forum, where, according to two students, he asked why everyone could not use racial epithets the way black rappers do. Many black students walked out.
“His methods were kind of to create an uproar,” said Nate Giles, a former president of the black student union at the university. “That’s what was abrasive, not his actual points.”
After college, Mr. O’Keefe took a job with Mr. Wetmore at the Leadership Institute and began traveling the country to help students with their publications. He worked intensely, said Morton Blackwell, the institute’s founder, remaining dedicated to his own projects. But eventually the institute developed some discomfort with the approach.
“He wanted to do sting operations that would affect legislation; he made some calls which have been covered in the news media to Planned Parenthood,” Mr. Blackwell said. “That was beyond the scope of what we had hired him to do. We are an educational organization. We are not an activist organization.”
Mr. Blackwell said he offered Mr. O’Keefe the choice between pursuing activism or working for his organization, “and he said he was committed to the activism.”
In the end, Mr. O’Keefe’s Planned Parenthood campaign — in which some of the organization’s workers were recorded accepting donations from one of Mr. O’Keefe’s characters who said the money should go to abort only black fetuses — forced Planned Parenthood to apologize in multiple states, though officials also complained that some tapes were “heavily edited.”
Old Tactics, New Goals
The campaign caught the eye of Andrew Breitbart, a conservative Web publisher and a former editor of The Drudge Report. In an interview, he said he had admired the Planned Parenthood campaign but did not know who was behind it until Mr. O’Keefe approached him with the Acorn project.
Mr. Breitbart likened Mr. O’Keefe’s approach to that of Abbie Hoffman and Hunter S. Thompson. His business arrangement with Mr. O’Keefe to run the videos on his Big Government site is widely credited with giving them national exposure, and making Mr. O’Keefe a star of his movement.
By last fall, Mr. Wetmore seemed less involved in Mr. O’Keefe’s projects, apparently because he had moved to New Orleans to attend law school at Loyola University. Nonetheless, Mr. O’Keefe, Mr. Basel and Mr. Dai showed up in town a few months later.
Mr. O’Keefe had been invited to speak at a Pelican Institute luncheon on Jan. 21. The invitation had come about, said the institute’s president, Kevin Kane, because the institute had done its own investigations of Acorn, albeit of the more traditional kind.
The topic of the day was undercover video and new media, but Mr. O’Keefe made it clear to some who attended the luncheon that he had other, unspecified work to do in New Orleans.
Also at the luncheon was Mr. Flanagan, who had worked as an intern in the offices of several Republican members of Congress. He moved to New Orleans last year, putting in a few hours a week as a blogger for the Pelican Institute.
David Centofante, who was in a defense and strategic studies program with Mr. Flanagan at Missouri State University, said he received an e-mail message from Mr. Flanagan a couple of weeks ago.
“He said to me, ‘You know the guy O’Keefe who did the Acorn thing?’ ” Mr. Centofante said. “ ‘We’re working together on something kind of cool.’ ”
Things did not quite work out as planned.