Google – one of the largest and most influential organizations in the modern world – is filled with ex-CIA agents. Studying employment websites and databases, MintPress has ascertained that the Silicon Valley giant has recently hired dozens of professionals from the Central Intelligence Agency in recent years. Moreover, an inordinate number of these recruits work in highly politically sensitive fields, wielding considerable control over how its products work and what the world sees on its screens and in its search results.
Chief amongst these is the trust and safety department, whose staff, in the words of then Google trust and safety vice president Kristie Canegallo, “[d]ecide what content is allowed on our platform” – in other words, setting the rules of the internet, determining what billions see and what they do not see. Before Google, Canegallo had been President Obama’s Deputy White House Chief of Staff for Implementation and is currently Chief of Staff at the Department of Homeland Security.
“We lied, we cheated, we stole”
Many of the team helping Canegallo make calls on what content should be allowed in Google searches and on platforms like YouTube were former CIA employees. For example:
- Jacqueline Lopour spent more than ten years at the CIA, where she served as “a leading U.S. Government expert on security challenges in South Asia and the Middle East and the go-to writer of quickly needed papers for the U.S. President.” She joined Google in 2017 and is currently a senior intelligence collection and trust and safety manager.
- Between 2010 and 2015, Jeff Lazarus was an economic and political analyst for the CIA. In 2017, he was hired as a policy advisor for trust and safety at Google, where he worked on suppressing “extremist content.” He moved to Apple in 2021.
- Ryan Fugit spent eight years as a CIA officer. Then, in 2019, Google convinced him to leave and become a senior manager of trust and safety.
- As a director of trust and safety, Bryan Weisbard led teams that adjudicated “the most sensitive YouTube trust and safety escalations globally” and “enforced” the most “urgent and highest priority” misinformation and sensitive content decisions. Between 2006 and 2010, he was an intelligence officer with the CIA. He is now a director at Facebook.
- Like Lopour and Lazarus, Nick Rossman concentrated on Iraq while he was a CIA analyst (2009-2014). Since January, he has been a senior manager in Google’s trust and safety division.
- Jacob Barrett, Google’s global lead for safe browsing operations, was an analytic lead and open source officer at the CIA between 2007 and 2013.
- A 12-year CIA political and leadership analyst, Michelle Toborowski, left the agency in 2019 to take a job as the intelligence analyst lead in trust and safety at YouTube.
The problem with former CIA agents becoming the arbiters of what is true and what is false and what should be promoted and what should be deleted is that they cut their teeth at a notorious organization whose job it was to inject lies and false information into the public discourse to further the goals of the national security state. John Stockwell, former head of a CIA task force, explained on camera how his organization infiltrated media departments the world over, created fake newspapers and news agencies, and planted fake news about Washington’s enemies. “I had propagandists all over the world,” he said, adding,
We pumped dozens of stories about Cuban atrocities, Cuban rapists [to the media]… We ran [faked] photographs that made almost every newspaper in the country… We didn’t know of one single atrocity committed by the Cubans. It was pure, raw, false propaganda to create an illusion of communists eating babies for breakfast.”
This continues to this day, with the CIA promoting dubious stories about the so-called “Havana Syndrome” and how the Russian government was supposedly offering money to the Taliban to kill U.S. soldiers.
Mike Pompeo, former director of the CIA, admitted as much in a talk he gave in 2019. As he said to the audience at Texas A&M University,
When I was a cadet, what’s the cadet motto at West Point? You will not lie, cheat, or steal or tolerate those who do. I was the CIA director. We lied, we cheated, we stole. We had entire training courses [on] it!”
And all this is to say nothing about the coup attempts on foreign governments, the drug and weapons smuggling and the worldwide network of “black sites” where thousands are tortured. Furthermore, many of the ex-CIA employees listed participated in some of the worst crimes against humanity of the 21st century, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq – and are clearly proud of it. So while there is admittedly a limited pool of qualified people for roles in cybersecurity, it is wholly inappropriate that Google is employing so many spooks to run their most sensitive, influential operations. And it is especially troubling that so many of the individuals mentioned throughout were plucked directly from the CIA to work at Google – a fact that suggests that either Google is actively recruiting from the intelligence services or that there is some sort of backroom deal between Silicon Valley and the national security state.
Elizabeth Murray, a retired intelligence agent who spent 27 years at the CIA and other intelligence organizations, explained how Google might benefit from hiring former spies. “By snagging a CIA employee, a company can save a considerable sum,” she told MintPress, noting that these individuals have been highly trained and likely have a security clearance – something that is exceptionally difficult to attain in civilian organizations.
“In terms of benefit to the CIA, a CIA officer could spend several years acquiring a unique set of skills at a social media conglomerate and then return to the agency, parlaying their newly acquired expertise to the benefit of the agency,” Murray added.
Even if there is nothing explicitly nefarious about this relationship, it still means that Google will start to think like and see problems the same way as the CIA does. Google has become immensely powerful, transforming itself into a behemoth that dominates online communication, commerce, information gathering, entertainment and more. In previous articles in this series, I have detailed how Twitter has hired dozens of individuals from the FBI, how Facebook is awash with CIA agents, how NATO has gained a huge presence in TikTok’s upper ranks and how a hawkish war planner from the Atlantic Council was mysteriously appointed to become Reddit’s director of policy. But Google is different; you can ignore or choose not to use those other platforms. Google, on the other hand, is far too big to escape from.
An inordinate amount of Google’s intelligence and security teams appear to come from the intelligence and security services. These include the following individuals:
- Deborah Wituski, who between 1999 and 2018, rose up the CIA’s ranks, becoming chief of staff to the director. She left the agency for Google, where she is now vice president of global intelligence.
- Chelsea Magnant also left the CIA for Google in 2018, leaving an 8-year career as a political analyst for a job as a global threat analyst for the tech giant.
- Yong Suk Lee spent 22 years at the CIA, leaving to take a position in global risk analysis and global security at Google. In May, he was promoted to become a director.
- Beth Schmierer worked as a strategic analyst for the CIA between 2006 and 2011. She then became a political officer at the State Department. She joined Google in January as a global threat analyst and is now an Americas intelligence manager for the company.
- Toni Hipp joined Google as a global threat team manager (intelligence) in 2017 and is now a global affairs and public policy manager in strategy and operations. Before joining Google, she spent nearly six years at the CIA as a foreign policy analyst.
- Jamie W. is the director of threat assessment for Google and the company’s former global intelligence manager. Before Google, she held a number of senior positions in the CIA, including chief of targeting for the near east region. Before her 13-year stint in the CIA, she also worked as an analyst for the FBI.
- Meaghan Gruppo worked as an intelligence analyst and public affairs officer at the CIA from 2008 until 2014. Since 2018, she has worked in security risk analysis and threat management for Google.
- Clinton Dallas’ LinkedIn profile notes that, until December, he was a CIA officer. In January of this year, he became a risk programs specialist at Google.
The professional background of so many of its security and risk management staff may go a long way to explaining why Google seems focused on countering threats from official enemy states of the United States. The company’s Threat Analysis blog is full of published reports about state-backed efforts from Iran, North Korea, Russia and China to influence its platform. But it never seems to detect any nefarious activities from the U.S. government.
This is despite the fact that the United States is carrying out the largest and most extensive attempt in history to manipulate the internet. A long exposé in Newsweek last year detailed how the Pentagon alone fields a clandestine army of at least 60,000 individuals whose job it is to ruthlessly run national security state propaganda campaigns online. Calling it “the largest undercover force the world has ever known.” The exposé explained that,
These are the cutting-edge cyber fighters and intelligence collectors who assume false personas online, employing ‘nonattribution’ and ‘misattribution’ techniques to hide the who and the where of their online presence while they search for high-value targets and collect what is called ‘publicly accessible information’—or even engage in campaigns to influence and manipulate social media.”
A spook in every department
Google employs ex-CIA agents in a myriad of different departments, a selection of which includes:
- Michael Barlett. Between 2007 and 2017, Barlett was chief of operations at the CIA. Since 2019, he has worked as a risk lead in workforce solutions for Google.
- Nicole Menkhoff. Menkhoff spent more than ten years as a weapons analyst at the CIA. In February 2015, she left the CIA for Google, where she was a senior human resources business partner and later became engineering chief of staff.
- Candice Bryant. Bryant spent nearly 17 years at the CIA, where she rose to become its chief of public communications. In September, she was headhunted from the CIA by Google to become its executive communications manager.
- Kyle Foster. Foster spent six years at the agency, then four more at the CIA’s venture capitalist wing, In-Q-Tel. He left In-Q-Tel in 2016 for a job as a software engineer at Google.
- Joanna Gillia. Gillia was a leadership analyst at the CIA until 2014, the same year she took a job with Google. She worked in staffing until 2020.
- Katherine Tobin. Tobin was a CIA branch chief between 2014 and 2018. She is now head of workspace innovation for Google.
- Christine Lei. Lei left her job as an economic intelligence analyst for the CIA in 2015 for the post of executive compensation manager at Google, where she continues to work to this day.
- Justin Schuh. Schuh retired last year after 11 years as engineering director for Google Chrome. Before Google, however, he had a long career in national security, working as an intelligence analyst for the U.S. Marine Corps, a global network exploitation analyst for the NSA, and a technical operations officer for the CIA.
- Tom Franklin. Franklin worked as a program manager at the CIA between 2011 and 2013. Between 2015 and 2021, he was a product manager for Google.
- Katherine Pham. According to her LinkedIn profile, Pham did “some cool stuff” at the CIA in 2016. Since October, she has been a software engineer for Google.
- Corey Ponder. Ponder was a policy advisor for Google between 2019 and 2021. Before that, he spent six years with the CIA.
Thus, it is clear that former CIA personnel are deeply embedded within the Silicon Valley giant. Of course, Google is a huge company with thousands of employees. It could therefore be argued that it is unsurprising that some number of former national security state agents work for it, especially those who have the rare and highly developed skills necessary to preside over user privacy and safety. But this tolerance of spooks in the ranks is not applied evenly. This study could find no examples of former agents of the SVR, the SEBIN or the Ministry of Intelligence – the CIA’s Russian, Venezuelan or Iranian equivalents – working at Google. Indeed, the very idea seems absurd. Yet dozens of Google employees casually note on public websites that they worked for the CIA and appear to see that as entirely unproblematic.Therefore, this relationship is, at best inappropriate and, at worst, a U.S. government power play to control cyberspace. Google users frequently say they want more agency over their data. But the only agency they get is the Central Intelligence kind.
Google: Nurtured by the CIA
In their 2013 book, “The New Digital Age,” then Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Director of Google Ideas Jared Cohen wrote about how companies like theirs were fast becoming the U.S. empire’s most potent weapon in retaining Washington’s control over the modern world. As they said,
Part of defending freedom of information and expression in the future will entail a new element of military aid. Training will include technical assistance and infrastructural support in lieu of tanks and tear gas—though the latter will probably remain part of the arrangement. What Lockheed Martin was to the twentieth century, technology and cyber-security companies will be to the twenty-first.”
Their prediction has turned out to be accurate. But few people know that Google, from its very inception, was fundamentally intertwined with the CIA. As journalist Nafeez Ahmed’s investigation found, the CIA and the NSA were bankrolling Stanford Ph.D. student Sergey Brin’s research – work that would later produce Google.
Not only that, but, in Ahmed’s words, “senior U.S. intelligence representatives including a CIA official oversaw the evolution of Google in this pre-launch phase, all the way until the company was ready to be officially founded.” He concluded that,
The United States intelligence community funded, nurtured and incubated Google as part of a drive to dominate the world through control of information. Seed-funded by the NSA and CIA, Google was merely the first among a plethora of private sector start-ups co-opted by US intelligence to retain ‘information superiority.’”
As late as 2005, In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capitalist arm, was a major shareholder in Google. These shares were a result of Google’s acquisition of Keyhole, Inc., a CIA-backed surveillance firm whose software eventually became Google Earth. By 2007, Google was selling the government-enhanced versions of Google Earth that it was using for targeting in Iraq, as well as secret search engines that spy agencies were using for surveillance, according to The Washington Post. By this time, the Post also notes, Google was partnering with Lockheed Martin to produce futuristic technology for the military.
In the 21st century, warfare is far more than just bullets and tanks. But Google’s attempts to feed from the trough of the military-industrial complex have proven controversial. In 2018, it faced an employee rebellion after securing Pentagon funding for a project designing lethal weaponry systems. That same year, the company dropped its longstanding motto, “don’t be evil.” Since then, it has also become a huge CIA contractor. In 2020, it secured part of a CIA cloud services contract reportedly worth “tens of billions of dollars.”
Therefore, while the company, for the longest time, presented itself as a group of outsiders attempting to make the world a better place, from the very start, it has been closely connected with the halls of power. Indeed, in 2016, The Google Transparency Project identified at least 258 examples of a “revolving door” between Google and various branches of the federal government as individuals moved from one to the other.
Schmidt and Cohen are two of those individuals. Schmidt was chairman of both the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence and the Defense Innovation Advisory Board, bodies created to help Silicon Valley assist the U.S. military with cyberweapons. Meanwhile, Cohen left his high-powered job at the State Department to work for Google. Schmidt had served as an advisor (particularly on the Middle East) to both Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton. He even participated in an unsuccessful 2009 regime change attempt in Iran, successfully pressuring Twitter to maintain services to the country during a U.S.-backed uprising aimed at toppling the government.
While this article is not trying to claim any of the individuals named are nefarious CIA plants, the way in which Google and the CIA have worked so closely together raises national security questions for all other nations, especially those attempting to pursue foreign policies independent of the United States. Ultimately, the line between big tech and big brother has been blurred beyond recognition.
Murray also warned that this hand-in-hand relationship also endangers individual freedoms, meaning that the Google/CIA connection should worry everybody. “All of this threatens individual rights to privacy, free speech, freedom of expression. Once they have your data, the U.S. government can use it against you at any time,” she told MintPress, “It’s really quite frightening.”
Feature photo | Graphic by MintPress News
Alan MacLeod is Senior Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent, as well as a number of academic articles. He has also contributed to FAIR.org, The Guardian, Salon, The Grayzone, Jacobin Magazine, and Common Dreams.