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Project Veritas's Cornell Video: One Big Red Herring

Submitted by Robin Messing on Sun, 04/19/2015 - 5:18am

Disclaimer: I am both a Cornell alumnus and a staff member of Cornell. Everything I write in this post (and every post) represents my opinion and my opinion only. I have not and will not be paid by Cornell to write this post or any other post. I write this on my time and any attempt to portray what I write here as representing Cornell's position is patently dishonest unless Cornell's Administration explicitly states its agreement with me. I also do not know Assistant Dean Joseph Scaffido.  In fact, I had never heard of him until Project Veritas released its controversial video.

And what a video!  Cornell University has found itself in the cross hairs of an angry backlash after Project Veritas released a video ostensibly showing an assistant dean endorsing the idea of ISIS and Hamas establishing footholds on campus. Republican New York State Assemblymembers Chris Friend and Brian Kolb have called on state and federal funding to be withheld from Cornell, and Friend has demanded that the Department of Homeland Security start a full investigation of the University. Is their threat to defund the University reasonable in light of the video?

Before you read any further you should watch the video that is at the center of the Cornell controversy.



This looks REALLY bad. At first glance it does indeed look like Assistant Dean Joseph Scaffido has no objections to ISIS or Hamas setting up operations on campus. But is that really what is happening? Several people have looked at the video more closely and demonstrated that the damning evidence it produced is less than meets the eye. Someone who goes by the name of Dex Digital posted the most insightful critique of the video that I've seen.   READ HIS ANALYSIS NOW! Then carefully re-watch the video keeping his analysis in mind. You may have to watch it a few times to verify his accuracy. I did, and Dex Digital was right.


As Dex Digital notes:

The scam becomes obvious within the first few moments of the video, when the operative begins his introduction to Mr. Scaffido by saying that he would like to ‘start a humanitarian group that supports distressed communities, a humanitarian group in the Middle East, northern Iraq and Syria’.

He then says that he is concerned for ‘the families and the freedom fighters in particular and their families…’, and wants ‘to maybe send them care packages, whether it be food, water, electronics.’


That is, throughout the video, the operative never actually says ‘ISIS’.

Instead, he says he is interested in ‘helping out the communities in the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’. Not ‘of’, which is the official name, but ‘in’.

This grammatical sleight of hand is important. Had he wanted to be direct, he could have said ‘in ISIS’ or even ‘helping out the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’. But by using ‘in’ repeatedly, and purposefully, he indicates that he is talking about areas or regions, not organizations.

By repeatedly saying ‘communities’, he speaks as though he is talking about groups that live in ISIS-controlled areas, that are being affected by terrorism and need shelter or other humanitarian aid. And, in the way he uses the word ‘freedom fighters’, he gives the impression that he is talking about people fighting ISIS. Anyone would assume this.


If you don’t believe me, ask the Internet.

For example, if you did a google search before March 24th (that is, before Project Veritas posted their video) for ‘ISIS Freedom Fighter’, nearly every instance would be a reference to people fighting against ISIS. A New York Post article tells the story of ‘three renegade freedom fighters [who] are the first known Americans to take up the on-the-ground fight against the Islamic State’. It even features a quote from an ex-Army soldier boasting that he just ‘delivered an ISIS bastard to hell’. A piece in VICE shows action shots of smiling, rifle-toting Kurdish women, ready to defend Syria’s northeastern Hasakh province against ISIS.


The video hits its fear-mongering peak

when a clumsy, out-of-sync voiceover says that Cornell would also welcome terrorists visiting the campus to lecture. But again, the operative uses misleading language to bait for soundbites. He never refers to ISIS directly, but instead asks if he could ‘bring a freedom fighter to speak’, or to run ‘a training camp for students’. I know that if I heard this, I would assume that he perhaps wanted to invite one of the oppressed people of the region, or perhaps even Canadian-Israeli Gila Rosenberg, who was featured in the Jerusalem Post for joining the anti-ISIS fighters, to lecture.

So, not only didn't Dean Scarfiddo mention ISIS, neither did the interviewer, either by the group's official name or by its acronym. But, as Dex Digital points out, the editors of this video felt it was necessary to spell "ISIS" out in the captions to inform the audience as to who the interviewer was referring to. If it was so obvious that the interviewer was referring to ISIS, why did the editors of the video feel like they needed to clue the audience in by adding the "ISIS" acronym to the video's caption?

At 3:11, the voiceover for the video states: "Scaffido was saying thousands of Cornell University dollars could be found to bring in ISIS guests to visit the campus."  But Scaffido never said that. It looks more like Project Veritas edited the video selectively in order to put words in his mouth.

But what about Hamas? Look at 1:50 - 2:17 of the video. Didn't Scaffido say the University wouldn't object to a student group if it supported Hamas? There are several possible ways to interpret what is going on.

1) Scaffido is on automatic pilot and not paying particularly close attention to the question being asked. Being asked to support an organization that has been officially declared to be a terrorist group by the U.S. government is so far beyond what one would expect in a conversation that it may not have registered with Scaffido that this is what was being asked. Note that Scaffido never says the word "Hamas".  He may have been parroting standard University boiler plate without really listening to the interviewer and paying attention that this is what was being referred to.

Cornell professor Thomas Gilovich wrote a book exploring the fallibility of human reason in every day life entitled "How We Know What Isn't So." His book explores mental shortcuts and algorithms that we all use to help our brains process information rapidly and efficiently. Most of the times these algorithms produce accurate, or at least "good enough", results. But sometimes they result in systematic biases that lead us astray from perceiving the world as it really is. One of the biases we all suffer from is that we tend to see what we expect to see, especially in ambiguous situations. Gilovich starts Chapter 4 of his book by quoting a slip of the tongue by psychologist Thane Pittman: "I'll see it when I believe it." He then sums up a key point of the chapter as follows:

No feature of human judgment and reasoning illustrates this trade-off of advantage and disadvantage better than the tendency for our expectations, preconceptions, and prior beliefs to influence our interpretation of new information. When examining evidence relevant to a given belief, people are inclined to see what they expect to see, and conclude what they expect to conclude. Information that is consistent with our pre-existing beliefs is often accepted at face value, whereas evidence that contradicts them is critically scrutinized and discounted. Our beliefs may thus be less responsive than they should to the implications of new information.

Israeli director Yoav Shamir produced a movie in 2009 called "Defamation" that examined the Anti-Defamation League and its tendency to exaggerate the severity of anti-Semitism in society.  One segment of the movie provides a perfect demonstration of the "I'll see it when I believe it" principle. A group of Israeli teenagers who were visiting Europe had been primed over and over and over again by their teachers and guides that Europe was rife with anti-Semitism. They had been warned to be careful because there was a Jew-hater lurking around every corner. The students were put on high alert to expect hatred directed towards them and, sure enough, several ended up believing that they had become targets of anti-Semitic epithets.  In reality, the "anti-Semitic" incident arose because the Israeli students didn't understand the language of the native Polish speakers and filled in the blanks by assuming that what was being said was anti-Semitic bile directed toward them. The situation was ambiguous, and they reduced the ambiguity by seeing what they expected to see. (True anti-Semitism was relatively low in Europe when the video was filmed. It has risen sharply since then, especially in the aftermath of last summer's war in Gaza.)



It is almost certain that Scaffido would not have expected a potential applicant to ask about supporting a terrorist group. Therefore, he may not have been paying the attention he should have been when the interviewer mentioned the word "Hamas". If this is the case then he should be criticized for his poor listening skills, but not tarred as a terrorist sympathizer.

2) On the other hand, maybe Scaffido heard and understood that he was being asked whether Cornell would allow a student organization on campus that supported Hamas. But the concept of "support" is itself an ambiguous one. What exactly does it mean to "support" Hamas? Does it mean raising money for Hamas? Does it mean recruiting potential soldiers for Hamas? Does it mean sending weapons to Hamas? All of these would be clearly illegal, and if this is what Scaffido meant then clearly this would be grounds for his firing. But support could mean, and I suspect in Scaffido 's mind, does mean something else entirely. It could simply mean allowing a sympathizer a platform to explain to an audience why Hamas thinks the way it does and why it behaves as it does.

I 'm about to write something that, if taken out of context will make me look very, very bad. And if someone takes this out of context and attributes it to Cornell, it could make the University look very, very bad. So let me repeat. WHAT FOLLOWS IS MY OPINION ONLY AND DOES NOT NECESSARILY REPRESENT THE OPINION OF CORNELL UNIVERSITY. EVEN IF CORNELL DECIDES TO LINK TO THIS POST FROM ITS WEBSITE, IT WILL PROBABLY DO SO BECAUSE IT AGREES WITH SOME OR ALL OF WHAT I HAVE WRITTEN SO FAR. But it would be wrong to conclude that it agrees with what I am about to write unless President Skorton or the Board of Trustees officially and explicitly state that Cornell agrees with my stance.

I do not want to be taken out of context. If you quote my position in order to discredit me without fully including my reasoning then you will reveal yourself as intellectually untrustworthy.  You will be taking a cheap shot and there is only one thing I can say to you--may you have a very intimate relationship with a candiru.

So here it is: Hamas, or someone representing Hamas should be allowed to present its position on campus. That is, of course, assuming the speaker or group is cleared to come to Cornell by the State Department and Homeland Security. I am not advocating that Cornell break the law by inviting someone or some organization that is on a terrorist list to come to speak without first obtaining special dispensation from the State Department. But someone who is unaffiliated with Hamas who is familiar and sympathetic with their position should be allowed to speak so long as they obey a few restrictions. They should be allowed to explain why Hamas is fighting Israel, but they should not be allowed to incite violence, nor should they be allowed to fund raise or recruit fighters. I take this stance for several reasons.

  1. Even if you are convinced that Hamas is evil and will never change, hearing their point of view can help you know your enemy better and thus make you more efficient at battling their propaganda on a world stage.
  2. Though much of what Hamas says may be vile, they do have legitimate grievances against Israel. Hamas or its sympathizers are also probably in a better position than most to explain how the summer war has affected the Gaza population. Will Hamas use the opportunity to spread anti-Israeli propaganda? Of course, but I would expect a vigorous question and answer session, letters to the editors, leafleting and other forms of speech by Hamas 's opponents to keep their distortions in check.
  3. It is necessary to allow speakers to have the freedom to argue that specific groups should be removed from the list of U.S. terrorists. In fact, the Mojahadin-e-Khaliq (MEK), an organization strongly opposed to the Iranian regime, was designated by the U.S. as a terrorist group in 1997. However, the group 's supporters spent millions of dollars to indirectly fund former high level U.S. officials and military personnel to take up their cause. They also lobbied Congress hard and, with the aid of Senators McCain and Menendez amongst others, were able to get off the terrorist list in 2012. If one were to ban all supporters of organizations on the U.S. terrorist list from speaking on campus then the likes of Howard Dean, former FBI Director Louis Freeh, and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Hugh Shelton, would be barred from Cornell.
  4. Most importantly, I would like to see the State Department make an exception and allow a high-level, decision-making Hamas official speak at Cornell. Why? First, Hamas has shown the potential for flexibility in the past and hinted that it MIGHT be willing to live with Israel. We should be trying to find the outer boundaries of their flexibility. And second, communication is a two-way street. Of course, the Hamas leader will be trying to influence the way we think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But he will also be subjected to harsh questioning from the audience, questioning that has the potential to put him on the defensive and plant seeds that could cause Hamas to modify its views. The best way to plant those seeds would be to have an event where he had to share the stage and face questions from one or more critical experts. Here are FIVE QUESTIONS that I would like to see answered by a Hamas official. To sum up, I don 't believe in molly-coddling Hamas officials by shielding them from tough questioning.
  5. Finally, the University has a special role in a democratic society as safe-place where orthodox thinking can be challenged and ideas can rise or fall on their merits. At least, that's how it should be in theory. Unfortunately this sometimes does not work out in practice, as the case of the recently canceled conference at England's Southampton University demonstrates. Zionists who saw the conference, entitled "International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism" as a threat to Israel brought pressure on the University to shut the conference down. The conference was not as one-sided as Zionists perceived it to be, but nevertheless they were able to shut it down under the bogus pretext of public safety. Thirteen Jewish professors from elite British Universities responded by writing an open letter protesting the cancellation. Their letter provides one of the best summaries of the purpose of the University that I have seen.


The unhindered airing and rigorous critiquing of ideas, especially controversial ones that may make some feel uncomfortable or offended, is at the core of the academy and the intellectual process. Academic freedom should not be restricted because some people disagree strongly with ideas being expressed or because such ideas are against their strongly held convictions. Rather, those people should challenge such ideas with counter-arguments based on sound analysis and evidence. 



Though Dex Digital wrote the most thorough critique of Project Veritas's video, he was certainly not the only one to question their editing technique. David Weigel, reporting for Bloomberg Politics is also skeptical. As Weigel explains, project Veritas turned down his request to see the complete, unedited video:

In a statement, Project Veritas explained that the full video of the exchange would not be released. "Project Veritas does not release raw or unedited tapes or reporters’ notes of investigations," said the group. "This policy ensures compliance with federal and state laws while providing the best privacy protection for individuals recorded. The reporting process and methods of Project Veritas are proven successful and effective and are the protected intellectual property and trade secrets of Project Veritas.” 

What state and federal laws would be violated by releasing the unedited video of the interview? And how would it violate the law? Project Veritas obviously isn't shy about invading people's privacy. I can't imagine anything they caught on camera during the interview that would have subjected them to prosecution for violating privacy laws. What did they do?  Violate HIPAA regulations by asking Scaffido to join them on a break-in at Gannett Health Center and recording patients' health records? Did Scaffido develop the sudden urge during this interview to start reciting students' social security numbers? Project Veritas's excuse just doesn't pass the smell test. Which leads me to believe that the full video either shows evidence of their illegal behavior, or more likely, shows that Scaffido's comments weren't as damaging when taken in context.

Dex Digital and David Weigel were joined in their skepticism by Jeff Stein at the Ithaca Voice who asked :

But let’s go to the more fundamental question: Do even the people who made the video really believe that a Cornell assistant dean supports a student group backing ISIS? And if the videographers do believe this, why wouldn’t they ask the dean this question? Why pretend to ask the Cornell official about a “humanitarian group” helping victims in Syria and Iraq if they want to learn Cornell’s stance on the group universally known as “ISIS?”


We know the answer: Because the interviewer and O’Keefe are more interested in getting a video they can use to grab attention than in actually learning what’s happening on university campuses.


Cornell's President David Skorton released the following statement the day after the video's release.

As the president of Cornell University, I want to be clear that the notion that Cornell would allow ISIS training sessions on our campus is ludicrous and absolutely offensive. 


Project Veritas, the organization behind this shoddy piece of “journalism” has been repeatedly vilified for dishonest, deceitful activity. It is shameful that any individual would pose as a student facing racial discrimination at another university, ask leading questions on hidden camera about Cornell 's tolerance for differing viewpoints and backgrounds, and then conveniently splice together the resulting footage to smear our assistant dean and our University. After speaking with Assistant Dean Scaffido, I am convinced that he was not aware of what he was being asked. 

Let me be clear: Cornell has an unwavering commitment to the free and responsible exchange of ideas. However, we remain vigilant in maintaining an appropriate balance of freedom of expression within accepted boundaries. Of course, incitement to violence is not protected and would never be tolerated on our campus.

President Skorton reacted appropriately.   Had he believed Scaffido would allow an ISIS training camp on campus, he should have fired Scaffido's sorry ass in a second.  But clearly he did not believe this to be the case.  Skorton had to weigh the evidence and decide who was telling the truth?  Was it Scaffido, who told him that he did not support terrorists and was unaware that his words would be twisted to make it look like he did?  Or should he believe an obviously edited video by Project Veritas?  Which was more likely--that Scaffido truly wanted to allow ISIS to set up a training camp on campus, or that he was being inattentive and did not consider the ramifications of his words and how they might be misconstrued through deceptive video editing?  Skorton gave Scaffido the benefit of the doubt, as well he should, because the video did not provide sufficient evidence to fire an employee who has presumably served Cornell well for some time.

But it is doubtful that such reasoning will persuade James O'Keefe and Project Veritas and political hacks New York State Assemblymembers Chris Friend and Brian Kolb.  They want blood, and nothing less than Scaffido's firing will satisfy them.  And even then they might not be satisfied.  For the sake of academic freedom, let's hope their efforts go nowhere fast.


Update: 4/21: I changed the title of this article.