The world is on fire. But for an increasingly vocal segment of extremely online politicos, there is a greater geopolitical concern hanging over the election: the fear that Pete Buttigieg is secretly an asset, officer, or agent of the Central Intelligence Agency.
The conspiracy theory that Buttigieg is a CIA plant has been congealing in the internet’s fever swamps for as long as profiles of the young candidate have fixated on a biography that, to the conspiracy-minded, seems almost suspiciously clean—the perceived threats of neoliberal imperialists and the “deep state” converging in the unlikely form of a dweebish Midwestern mayor.
“He’s one of the many intelligence community operators working in government,” Steve Poikonen, host of the YouTube vlog series Slow News Day, said confidently in an April episode titled “Pete Buttigieg: CIA Democrat?” In a 13-minute video delineating the conspiracy theory, Poikonen breaks down what he sees as Buttigieg’s Harvard-to-Oxford educational pipeline, his service as a Navy Intelligence officer in Afghanistan after a stint at McKinsey & Co., his fellowship at the Truman National Security Project, and the more than 200 national security and intelligence figures who have endorsed his candidacy, including the former head of the National Clandestine Service and the agency’s former deputy director.
These, Poikonen told The Daily Beast, all amount to evidence that he’s a perfect tool of the intelligence community.
“Put together, a picture forms of an elite-educated, multi-language-speaking employee of the CIA’s consulting firm who currently serves as an intelligence officer in the naval reserves,” Poikonen told The Daily Beast. “If you created a CIA asset in a lab, you’d wind up with Pete Buttigieg.”
Pointing to Buttigieg’s “mesmerizing, hypnotic blue eyes” as an obvious tell, Poikonen alleges that the candidate even confessed to having “botched” an interview with the intelligence agency during a 2017 interview on campaign strategist David Axelrod’s podcast, which, he says, is actually proof that he passed the interview. Such mental gymnastics are emblematic of the tinfoil-hat YouTube genre. (The Daily Beast reviewed the podcast in question and found no such confession; upon listening to the podcast again, Poikonen told The Daily Beast that “either I heard wrong, or it was edited. Both are possible.”)
But the theory, once restricted to the parts of the internet convinced that pop singer Katy Perry is actually child murder victim JonBenét Ramsey, has begun appearing in more mainstream channels. Left-wing political writers, podcasters and netizens are increasingly latching on to the meme that Buttigieg is a spy, an intelligence asset, or a Freemason to further the criticism that the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is not what he seems.
Last weekend, the popular campaign-themed podcast Worst Year Ever dropped an entire episode about Buttigieg under the lawyer-friendly title, “Is Pete Buttigieg a C.I.A. Agent?” Over the course of the 73-minute episode, hosts Robert Evans, Katy Stoll, and Cody Johnston vacillated between rundowns of more mainstream left-wing critiques of Buttigieg’s candidacy—his unpopularity among black voters, his popularity among Silicon Valley tech tycoons, the whole wine cave episode—and semi-humorous suppositions that Buttigieg is a CIA asset that grew less tongue-in-cheek as the episode went on.
“Conspiracy theory thinking is like a disease that is doing incalculable damage to the body politic, and like I hate jumping into stuff like that, but it’s so fucking sketchy!” Evans exclaims at one point. “It’s so hard to not sound like—to not be, in fact—a conspiracy theorist when you talk about this guy, but there’s so much of it that screams fucking spooks.”
In the tradition of presidential candidates who have been asked to disavow even the most facially absurd conspiracy theories about them—including a smear that implicated him in a debunked sexual assault—Buttigieg last month denied in an interview with The Atlantic that he was in the CIA. The rumor had become increasingly visible as his campaign fought a protracted battle with McKinsey & Co. to release the list of his former clients during his employment at the management consulting firm.
Rival presidential campaigns did their part to foment suspicion about Buttigieg’s professional background, encouraging reporters to pursue the idea that a 2008 trip to Somaliland with a college buddy may have been under the auspices of either McKinsey & Co. or some other firm under contract with a foreign government. Those candidates have since dropped out, and Somaliland was nowhere to find on Buttigieg’s client list, but the conspiracy theories remain, some stretching to ludicrous, David Ickes-ian extremes.
“Y’all, who’s Pete Buttigieg, really?” Poikonen, who pronounces the former mayor’s surname “Booteggegg,” asks his viewers.
Poikonen’s commenters are ready with answers.
“Buttigieg has CIA ties for sure,” one responds. “I know this for a fact because I worked beside the CIA in a similar capacity. Buttigieg = Knights of Malta.”
Another commenter, after declaring that the war in Afghanistan is, in reality, “a gigantic opium growing operation,” purports that Buttigieg was a CIA officer tasked with bringing heroin into the United States for unspecified purposes. “This is how corrupt the US govt actually is.”
Some of the growing enthusiasm for the “Pete is CIA” meme is clearly just for lulz—one TeamBlind commenter responded to a post alleging that Buttigieg is a Langley plant by pointing to the adorably cringey “High Hopes” dance choreography as proof that his campaign is in possession of “CIA-grade brainwashing tech.” But even the most blatantly facetious mock-conspiracy theory can take root in real ways: In February 2016, Public Policy Polling found that one in 10 Florida voters said they believed that Sen. Ted Cruz was the Zodiac Killer. (Another 28 percent said that they couldn’t be sure either way.)
Similar to that meme, which articulated the fact that lots of people found (find, even!) Cruz to be serial-killer creepy, the “Pete Is CIA” meme crystallizes a more pervasive feeling about Buttigieg: that he, like the broken world we live in, was crafted by institutions that can no longer be trusted; therefore, he can’t be trusted.
“It’s like he was grown in a laboratory for the purposes of the perpetuation of empire,” said Samuel D. Finkelstein, a political activist, writer, and student at Seton Hall Law School who has written about Buttigieg being “the spooks’ choice” for left-wing online publication The Grayzone. “Obviously, there’s no evidence solidly that we can point to say, ‘oh yeah, Mayor Pete is an asset of the CIA.’ That’s not a claim that I would make publicly. But that said, if the CIA were to have a presidential candidate, it would look a lot like Mayor Pete.”
Finkelstein, whose work Poikonen cited to The Daily Beast as a good starting place for the theory, said that Buttigieg comes across as a model member of “The Blob,” a nickname for the informal permanent bureaucracy that forms America’s intelligence and foreign policy apparatus.
“Those people, you know, they’re there for decades,” Finkelstein said. “They outlast presidential administrations, and they’re really the ones operating the machinery, so to speak.”
“The argument that he is a spy doesn’t need to be made literally for it to be essentially true,” said David Covucci, a writer at The Daily Dot who authored a piece expressing mock-skepticism of Buttigieg’s claim that he’s not in the CIA. In Covucci’s view, saying “Pete is CIA” isn’t dissimilar from saying that Sen. Kamala Harris was a “cop”—both, he said, are just cruder or more conspiratorial ways to articulate a deeper suspicion about the candidate.
“Buttigieg-is-CIA is the same meme,” Covucci told The Daily Beast. “He’s a potential president who people can see would utilize drone strikes conducted without oversight, would campaign on ending the AUMF and then get into office and backtrack, and who would side with the intelligence community over watchdog groups when it comes to things like civilian casualties and the efficacy of the War on Terror. I think that’s much more important to consider than whether he literally is an agent of Langley.”
Buttigieg, for the record, has called for an “end to endless war,” and has sharply criticized President Donald Trump’s decision to order a strike that killed Iran’s top military official last week.
Beyond Buttigieg’s résumé, two pieces of supposed evidence have been the most consistently proposed, both by the satirical and the serious proponents of the “Pete is CIA” meme, to be the most damning: his 2008 trip to Somaliland with a college buddy that was later highlighted in a letter to the editor in the New York Times; and Buttigieg’s campaign’s contracts with a private security company.
On the Worst Year Ever episode, co-host Cody Johnston describes the company, listed in FEC filings as the Virginia-based Patriot Group International, as “a Blackrock-style private mercenary group,” with extensive military contracts and connections with the intelligence community. The Buttigieg campaign has paid the firm more than half a million dollars for security services to the firm this campaign cycle, according to those filings, which Johnston remarked was “very odd”— particularly since Patriot Group International’s founder declared in 2016 that the company was out of the political protection game after an incident involving a PGI agent who broke the foot of a Ron Paul supporter who was heckling Newt Gingrich.
“Presidential campaigns don’t hire mercenaries for crowd control,” co-host Robert Evans added in response.
The Daily Beast found, however, that the theory that Buttigieg is funnelling campaign dollars to a military contractor is rooted in a case of mistaken corporate identity. According to Patriot Group International’s general counsel, the company “has never provided any services to Pete for America or Pete Buttigieg, period, full stop.”
The actual company contracted by Buttigieg’s campaign: Patriot Group International Inc., an eponymous “boutique security services company” that provides event security, protective services, security consulting and background checks.
Patriot Group International’s general counsel told The Daily Beast that they have sent the company a cease-and-desist letter demanding that it change its name, and has informed the Buttigieg campaign that its FEC filings should be corrected to name the correct security contractor.
Regardless of its falsehood, the security contractor rumor is one of the most popular items in the burgeoning “Pete is CIA” misinformation economy. Manipulated images on Twitter are retweet engines: one purports to show that Buttigieg copy-pasted Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) statement condemning Nicolás Maduro’s hijacking of the Venezuelan National Assembly; another that the same statement was tweeted by the CIA. The latter image was crafted by Finkelstein, who called the viral tweet a joke. For those jealous of QAnon gear, you can buy a T-shirt that superimposes “CIA” over Buttigieg’s campaign logo for $20.50.
Buttigieg’s Somaliland trip, which prompted a letter penned by Buttigieg and longtime friend Nathaniel Myers calling for the international recognition of Somaliland as a sovereign state, has a benign explanation, according to the campaign.
“We hate to break the news to Twitter, but no, Pete was not in the CIA,” said Chris Meagher, the Buttigieg campaign’s national press secretary. “As for the Somaliland trip, it was not related to his work anywhere. Pete visited a friend while his friend was living in Ethiopia, and the two visited as curious tourists.”
That conspiracy theory, as all seem to do, has been floated by white supremacist blogs, as well as by critics who note that Myers is now a senior transition adviser at USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives—which, “Pete is CIA” advocates eagerly point out, has a long history of meddling in the domestic affairs of foreign countries in the service of encouraging democratic reforms.
Why an intelligence agent with presidential aspirations would draw attention to their work by writing about it in the New York Times remains an open question. (Is it really that bizarre to imagine that a person who taught himself Norwegian to read the untranslated works of Erlend Loe would make a pitstop in Somaliland midway through a larger vacation? Does Buttigieg really seem like the Myrtle Beach type?)
Even the most humdrum explanations for the two most frequently cited pillars of the “Pete is CIA” meme, though, might not be enough to shake the candidate’s most suspicious critics.
“I really don’t think that there’s all that much they could do to shake that sense of general distrust that people have of him and his background,” Finkelstein told The Daily Beast. For him, and many others who see in Buttigieg a poster child for institutions that people have good reason to distrust, “it’s what he’s selling himself on.”
“His core brand proposition is, ‘I am the Harvard-Oxford-McKinsey guy,’” Finkelstein said. “It would be hard for him to shake that.”