With backing from the US government’s regime-change arm, an Operation Mockingbird-style website called Coda Story is attacking American journalists who have punctured Washington’s sensationalist narratives against China.
By Ben Norton
A shadowy neoconservative website called Coda Story has launched a smear campaign against American journalists who challenge new cold war propaganda. But what this publication has not disclosed is that it is funded by the US government, backed by the European Union, linked to the NATO war alliance, and part of a larger network of regime-change outfits that are bankrolled by Western governments and corporate oligarchs.
Launched in 2016, Coda Story markets itself as a brave counterweight to Chinese and Russian state-backed “disinformation.” This is quite ironic, because the website is itself financed by the regime-change arms of the US government and the European Union, and peddles disinformation of its own in support of Washington’s new cold war on Beijing and Moscow.
A case study of Coda Story’s deceptive smear tactics came in the form of a malicious hatchet job the site published in July, maligning The Grayzone for exposing the extremely dubious sources and methodology of Western government propaganda against China.
The Coda Story hit piece did not dispute a single fact in The Grayzone’s thoroughly documented reporting. Instead, the diatribe relied on superficial insinuations and misleading guilt-by-association tactics, implying that The Grayzone is “fringe” and untrustworthy because its contributors have given interviews to Russian and Chinese state-backed media outlets, and because foreign government officials have occasionally tweeted links to The Grayzone articles.
Despite the patent lack of facts, the Coda Story smear piece inspired a similarly McCarthyite article by an avowedly anti-China blogger at the corporate-run outlet Axios, which also failed to challenge any of The Grayzone’s factual journalism. Instead, Axios writer Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian quoted the ranking Republican co-chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul, to vilify The Grayzone as “deeply disturbing” and reinforce the Donald Trump administration’s attack on the World Health Organization.
Allen-Ebrahimian also cited the US government-funded Alliance for Securing Democracy, an intelligence agency and State Department cutout, to defame The Grayzone and try to link it to the Chinese government. Not only did she fail to inform readers about the Alliance’s US government backing, Allen-Ebrahimian was unable to point to any data buttressing her dubious claim, despite repeated challenges to do so.
While Coda Story and Axios went to great lengths to imply this outlet is somehow connected to Beijing, the institution attacking The Grayzone is, in fact, sponsored by the same Western governments responsible for igniting a new cold war with China.
Unlike Coda Story, The Grayzone is totally independent; it does not accept funding from any government or any state-backed group.
Coda Story cannot say the same about itself. Although the neoconservative website markets itself as independent and its editor has claimed “we don’t take money from governments,” it is actually financed by the US government’s regime-change arm, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
The NED is a CIA cutout established by the Ronald Reagan administration during the last decade of the first cold war. One of its primary goals, stated clearly on the NED website, is to promote “free markets.” To do so, the putative “democracy promotion” organization finances right-wing opposition groups, NGOs, and media outlets in countries the US government has targeted for regime change.
A co-founder of the NED, Allen Weinstein, gloated in the Washington Post in 1991, “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.”
In 2019, the Coda Network that presides over Coda Story reaped a $180,130 grant from the NED. The ostensible mission of the funding was to “bring together journalists and independent media outlets from throughout Eurasia to create high-quality narrative journalism, focusing on a set of key themes related to disinformation.”
The description of the 2019 NED grant for Coda Network
This June, the NED’s blog Democracy Digest celebrated its grantee Coda Story winning the European Press Prize for its anti-China content.
Coda Story is funded by the US government’s National Endowment for Democracy (NED)
The National Endowment for Democracy appears to believe it is getting its money’s worth, because the US government regime-change organization followed up with a post on the official NED website a few days later that again praised grantee Coda Story for its work.
Coda Story is funded by the US government’s National Endowment for Democracy (NED)
Democracy Digest, the NED blog, frequently promotes Coda Story. It cites the neoconservative website’s articles to portray China and Russia as evil “totalitarian” regimes and “threats to democracy” that spread constant “disinformation.”
In its description accompanying the podcast episode, the NED misleadingly portrayed Coda Story as an indie underdog operation, selling it as an “award-winning media start-up” — curiously failing to mention that the website was swimming in money from powerful interests like the NED.
Anne Applebaum, a neoconservative pundit and anti-Russian fanatic who frequents hawkish Western think tanks, is also listed as a member of the board of advisers of Coda Story. Applebaum also happens to sit on the board of directors of the NED.
Applebaum’s husband Radoslaw Sikorski is a conservative Polish politician who has filled top roles in Poland’s government, including minister of defense and foreign affairs.
But the NED is not the only Western government regime-change organization that bankrolls Coda Story.
The European Union has a regime-change arm as well, which also funds the website. This EU soft-power organization, founded in 2013, was explicitly modeled after the NED, and shares almost the same name: the European Endowment for Democracy (EED).
Like the NED, the EED uses the cover of “democracy promotion” to destabilize foreign adversaries and advance Brussels’ foreign policy interests.
In the “About” section of its website, Coda Story lists a series of organizations as “partners” and supporters. The first financial sponsor listed is the EED.
Organizations that Coda Story lists as “partners” and “supporters”
The money that the European Endowment for Democracy gives to Coda Story in turn is provided by European countries – making it another form of indirect state sponsorship.
The EED website makes it clear that 23 European governments are responsible for its budget.
Coda Story’s NATO links and mysterious office in Georgia
The US government’s National Endowment for Democracy emphasized in materials praising Coda Story that the media outlet has two offices: one in New York, typical for Western news organizations; and another in the country of Georgia, a former member of the Soviet Union that since the end of the first cold war has become a major hub for Western intelligence operations and “color revolution” coup-plotting.
Following a Western-backed 2003 regime-change operation dubbed the “Rose Revolution,” Georgia effectively became a client state of the United States, NATO, and European Union. Georgia has actively sought to become a member of NATO, and the US-led military alliance boasts on its official website that “Georgia is one of the Alliance’s closest partners.”
Georgia represents a central friction point with Russia, and waged a brief war with Moscow in 2008. Some members of Georgia’s special forces who were trained by the US military to battle Russia in that conflict later went on to join the genocidal Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, including top ISIS commander Omar al-Shishani.
Mikheil Saakashvili, the strongly pro-Western president who assumed power as a result of the color revolution, had been carefully cultivated for a leadership role by US intelligence officials, and was so subservient that he was described as a “Washington pet.”
This son of this loyal US asset, Eduard Saakashvili, landed a job at Coda Story after he graduated from college in the United States.
Eduard Saakashvili worked as an associate managing editor of Coda Story from 2018 to 2019, writing about his personal experiences with “disinformation” concerning his father and Georgian politics. He also oversaw the creation of the blog’s section on “Authoritarian Tech” – by which the neoconservative website means technology largely originating from China, Russia, and their allies, not the West.
Coda Story publishes some of its articles in the Georgian language. The website also translates pieces into Russian.
Natalia Antelava, the co-founder of Coda Story, is an overtly pro-Western journalist originally from Tbilisi, Georgia. Before becoming the neoconservative site’s editor-in-chief, Antelava worked as the Caucasus correspondent for the UK government-backed BBC, and covered the 2008 Russo-Georgian War from a hardline anti-Moscow perspective.
NATO has taken notice, and has found utility in Antelava’s viewpoint. In 2018, the Coda Story editor was invited to speak at the NATO-Georgia Public Diplomacy Forum in Tbilsi.
The NATO conference featured Georgia’s prime minister and president, alongside top US government officials. It was organized by Tbilisi’s NATO and EU Information Center, along with the Georgian foreign and defense ministries.
Antelava participated in a panel titled “The Era of Post-Truth and Fake News.” Joining Antelava on the stage was Oleksiy Makukhin, the director of the Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group of the Ukraine Crisis Media Center, an anti-Russian organization funded by a long list of Western governments, including the United States, NATO, Germany, Canada, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and the Netherlands, along with the European Endowment for Democracy.
The other panelist sitting next to Antelava at the NATO conference was Anna Nemtsova, a correspondent for neoconservative website The Daily Beast whose willingness to propagate the most lurid narratives of the new Cold War has made her a favorite at Western confabs.
The moderator of the event was Mark Laity, a NATO spokesperson who directs strategic communications at the military alliance’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE).
Like Antelava, Laity is a veteran of the UK government’s BBC, which is closely linked to British intelligence and was used by MI6 during the first cold war to spread propaganda.
Coda Story provides neoconservative disinformation warriors with a new home
Natalia Antelava founded Coda Story with a little-known professor of journalism named Ilan Greenberg. Greenberg, who serves as publisher and editorial director of the website, states on his bio that he began discussing the idea for Coda Story with Antelava when he was a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.
The Woodrow Wilson International Center is a US government-funded think tank whose offices are located in the government’s Ronald Reagan Building. The organization is dedicated to producing research that advances Washington’s foreign policy interests. It is directed by hawkish former Democratic Rep. Jane Harman, whose congressional campaigns were heavily funded by the arms industry, and whose husband, Sidney Harman, was a longtime Pentagon contractor.
Secretary of State and former CIA Director Mike Pompeo is a member of the board of trustees of the Wilson Center. Other members of the board of the elite organization – which claims to be the most-quoted think tank in the corporate media – include Trump’s education secretary, billionaire privatization enthusiast Betsy DeVos, and Trump’s health secretary, the former Big Pharma lobbyist and corporate executive Alex Azar.
In February 2018, Greenberg announced that Coda Story had merged with The Interpreter, an anti-Russian blog that has also relied on US government backing.
The two neocon websites proudly stated they had “entered into a strategic partnership to closely cooperate, share resources, and expand the scope of their journalism.”
Greenberg proclaimed in a press release, “The bridging of Coda’s storytelling and The Interpreter’s approach to explaining Russian politics and anatomizing disinformation campaigns is the beginning of what we hope will be a long and fruitful partnership.”
The Interpreter is a pet project of neoconservative operative Michael Weiss. The Grayzone editor Max Blumenthal published an exposé on Weiss, showing how the fanatical war hawk has undergone a series of rebrandings, while always pushing the most belligerent line on US foreign policy.
Weiss kicked off his career as an anti-Muslim agitator and moderate Republican who organized rallies with far-right Islamophobe Pamela Geller. Once the Syria proxy war kicked off, he fashioned himself a supposed “Russia expert” and friend of the Islamist Syrian opposition, lobbying for more Western military support for Salafi-jihadist rebels in Syria while demanding the most aggressive policies possible against Moscow.
Weiss has attacked The Grayzone with obsessive fury, and has sponsored less distinguished henchmen to spin out smear pieces.
In fact, when Coda Story asked him for a comment for its hit piece on The Grayzone, editor Max Blumenthal pointed to the editorial role Weiss plays in the neoconservative website. But Coda Story edited Blumenthal’s quote, removing this salient piece of information.
The Interpreter was created by Weiss in 2013 with the backing of former Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a staunch opponent of President Vladimir Putin, who was one of a group of men who plundered Russia’s economy in the 1990’s, quickly becoming billionaires as millions were reduced to paupers.
In its early years, the Interpreter blog was overseen by the Institute of Modern Russia, a think tank run by the powerful Khodorkovsky family to push anti-Russia propaganda. Additionally, the blog stated that it was the recipient of a “seed grant” from the London-based Herzen Foundation. Strangely, there are no references online to Herzen outside of its association with The Interpreter.
In 2015, The Interpreter announced that it was being sponsored as a special project of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a US government propaganda outlet founded by the CIA during the first cold war to spread disinformation against the Soviet Union.
Then in 2017, The Interpreter became a “media partner” of NATO’s de facto think tank, the Atlantic Council. This notoriously hawkish organization, which is funded by NATO, the governments of the US and Britain, corporate weapons manufacturers, and the fossil fuels industry, has also benefited from huge sums of money from the Burisma Group, the scandalously corrupt Ukrainian gas company that paid former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter $83,000 per month to sit on its board.
The 2018 “strategic partnership” stipulated that Michael Weiss would still remain editor-in-chief of The Interpreter, while also serving as “Consulting Executive Editor” for Coda Story. The press release noted that Weiss “will provide guidance and thought leadership to Coda’s senior editorial management and will contribute his own journalism to both publications.”
But The Interpreter is not the only neoconservative US organization that enjoys a close relationship with Coda Story. The website also lists hawkish think tank the Center for European Policy Analysis as a “partner.”
Despite its name, the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) is not based in Europe but rather in Washington. The neoconservative group is made up of a who’s who of anti-Russian, pro-NATO hawks, including Coda Story advisor Anne Applebaum and former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
This Coda Story partner is also bankrolled by Western governments, NATO, and the weapons industry. CEPA states clearly on its website that past donors include the NED, the US State Department, NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division, and the arms manufacturers Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Bell Helicopter.
Coda Story did not respond to The Grayzone’s request for comment inquiring about its exact relationship with CEPA.
Coda Story’s singular fixation on non-Western ‘disinformation’
Coda Story’s extensive links to Western governments and neoconservative organizations might explain its obsessive, almost singular focus on China and Russia, portraying them as the roots of all evil in the world.
The website says its bloggers “exclusively cover three subjects: disinformation, authoritarian tech, and the war on science.” Its interest in these topics scarcely extends beyond the realm of Moscow and Beijing to places like Washington or Brussels.
Coda Story offers appetizing fellowships to journalists, pledging to subsidize their reporting with tens of thousands of dollars, as long as they cover one of the blog’s three approved topics.
The Coda Story smear piece attacking The Grayzone was filed under “disinformation.” This is ironic, because the NED-funded blog has demonstrated itself to be in essence an instrument of US and NATO propaganda.
On Twitter, Antelava claimed that Coda Story doesn’t “take money from governments, oligarchs, and tech platforms.” That statement is simply false, as the NED that provides her outfit with grants is an arm of the US government that is funded by Congress.
Coda Story has other notable sources of financing. When the neoconservative website launched its “Authoritarian Tech” channel under the editorial guidance of the son of Georgia’s pro-Western president, the blog acknowledged that it was provided seed funding by a foundation called Access Now.
Access Now is a pass-through that uses millions of dollars from Western governments and massive corporations to fund “open technology” initiatives targeting countries where the US and EU want regime change.
Coda Story did not reveal who gave Access Now the money to create its “Authoritarian Tech” channel, but in 2019, the year it launched, the foundation reported millions of dollars in funding from the governments of Britain, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands, and Sweden, as well as corporate tech giants Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Verizon, AT&T, Facebook, and Twitter.
Access Now also gets significant pass-through money from other foundation giants, which have historic ties to the CIA and the regime-change industry, such as the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Foundations of billionaire George Soros, and the Omidyar Network and Luminate Group of tech oligarch Pierre Omidyar.
On its website, Coda Story also lists the Content Fund as a financial supporter. The Content Fund describes itself as “a private law foundation based in Brussels with its office in Kyiv.” Its mission is to spread pro-Western, anti-Moscow messaging in the Russian-language media.
The Content Fund discloses on its website, “Our funding comes from voluntary contributions of like-minded governments, private foundations and international organisations.” Which specific governments bankroll it is not revealed.
Coda Story did not respond to a request for comment from The Grayzone, including a detailed series of questions about its funding sources.
The website is part of a larger constellation of pro-NATO Eastern European media outlets called Coda Network. Other members include the pro-Western Ukrainian website Ukrayinska Pravda, which holds friendly interviews with the US ambassador and is also funded by avowed anti-communist billionaire George Soros, a generous sponsor of regime-change campaigns from Venezuela to Syria.
Coda Story enjoys crossover with another pro-Western website bankrolled by US government-linked regime-change billionaire George Soros: Eurasianet, a project spun out of the Open Society Foundations (OSF) that was created as the media arm of the oligarch’s Eurasia Program, which is aimed at strengthening NATO and the EU and weakening any independent countries that refuse to join the hegemonic US-led imperial bloc.
Eurasianet was in 2016 transferred from OSF over to Columbia University’s hawkish Harriman Institute, a relic of the first cold war that was created by the Rockefeller Foundation to produce anti-communist scholarship on the Soviet Union. Today, the Rockefeller Foundation is headed by the former director of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and is historically linked to US intelligence as a CIA pass-through.
In 2018, editor Antelava tweeted, “many thanks to Eurasianet for allowing us to commission” Joshua Kucera, the Turkey/Caucasus editor at the pro-Western website, who produced a lengthy article for Coda Story bashing Russia’s attempt to create a Eurasian Economic Union.
Coda Story’s articles are also very frequently reprinted by Rappler, another media outlet funded by the US government’s NED. These pieces, naturally, portray China and Russia as dystopian authoritarian hellscapes, and even try to blame racial tensions in the United States on Moscow. Rappler’s primary funder is Omidyar, the big tech billionaire who also sponsors Access Now.
In fact, editor Natalia Atelava stated that Rappler is an “editorial partner” of Coda Story.
These extensive ties reveal Coda Story’s location in the center of an ecosystem of online publications sponsored by Western governments and oligarchs that were established to wage information warfare on Washington’s designated adversaries. And those enemies not only include Russia and China, but also independent US journalists who challenge the hegemonic political line.
Coda Story cites US government-backed Uyghur separatist to smear The Grayzone
Coda Story’s defamatory hatchet job attacking The Grayzone’s independent investigative journalism demonstrate the deceptive tactics that have become a hallmark of the outlet.
Notably, Coda Story did not challenge any of The Grayzone’s factual reporting on its merits. Instead, the neocon US government proxy site resorted to defaming The Grayzone by citing highly partisan anti-China separatist activists who are themselves funded by the US government.
Caitlin Thompson, the Coda Story staffer who authored the article, previously worked at Foreign Policy, another hawkish pro-war website that is closely linked to the US national security establishment. Edited until recently by David Rothkopf, who has moved on to a lucrative gig lobbying for the United Arab Emirates, Foreign Policy is itself supported by the UAE, an absolute monarchy that practices modern-day slavery.
The main source Thompson relied on to smear The Grayzone was Nury Turkel, whom she identified simply as a “Uyghur lawyer and the Commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.”
What the neoconservative blog curiously failed to mention is that Turkel is a separatist leader whose anti-China organization is, like Coda Story, substantially funded by the US government’s National Endowment for Democracy.
A fan of Turkey’s authoritarian leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkel has also collaborated with the Trump administration to ratchet up pressure on Beijing, successfully lobbying for US sanctions on China.
Coda Story used Turkel to maliciously accuse The Grayzone of “providing talking points to the Chinese propaganda machine.” To support this defamatory claim, Coda Story pointed to Chinese diplomats posting a link to The Grayzone’s factual reporting on Twitter.
Turkel, for his part, is a key figure in a network of US government-funded anti-China groups that provide talking points to the Trump administration and corporate media.
Separatist leader Nury Turkel, co-founder of the US government-funded Uyghur Human Rights Project, meets with Mike Pompeo in July 2020
Nury Turkel is a co-founder and chairman of the board of the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), one of the most influential separatist groups in the US. The Grayzone has reported on UHRP’s role in the new cold war on China, documenting how Western corporate media reports on Xinjiang and repression of the Uyghur minority rely overwhelmingly on unsubstantiated, hyperbolic claims made by the organization.
Through the National Endowment for Democracy and other regime-change organs, the US government has poured many millions of dollars into Uyghur separatist groups, who explicitly say that they want to break off China’s western Xinjiang province and turn it into a new state they call East Turkestan.
This is part of Washington’s new cold war strategy against China, which seeks to carve up the country on ethno-sectarian lines, much as the United States and NATO did when they balkanized the former Yugoslavia.
The NED has been bankrolling UHRP since it was founded in 2004. Turkel praised the US government’s regime-change arm in a 2005 press release, which noted that the NED is the UHRP’s main source of funding, providing $126,000 in that year alone.
Since then, US government funding for the Uyghur separatist organization has only increased. A search on the NED grants database shows that the CIA cutout gave UHRP more than $1.2 million in funding in the four years from 2016 to 2019, at an average of approximately $310,000 per year.
The Uyghur Human Rights Project gave its stamp of approval to the Coda Story article attacking The Grayzone by republishing the hatchet job on its website. The UHRP has also reposted other smear pieces against The Grayzone, which never dispute facts and instead rely on baseless insinuations.
As a member of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Turkel is part of an organization notorious for politicizing religion to advance Washington’s geopolitical goals.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has been widely criticized for racism and bias. Its current vice chair, Tony Perkins, is a far-right Christian extremist who, as The Grayzone editor Max Blumenthal first reported, purchased a mailing list from neo-Nazi and former KKK grand wizard David Duke and delivered a speech to the white supremacist Council on Conservative Citizens.
Perkins and other Christian dominionists such as Johnnie Moore and Gary Bauer are seated beside Turkel on this hyper-partisan commission. This July, Turkel hammed it up with Secretary of State and former CIA Director Mike Pompeo – a notorious Islamophobe who once proclaimed that politics is “a never-ending struggle … until the rapture.”
Following his meeting with Pompeo, Turkel lavished praise on the Trump administration for “elevating human rights as a centerpiece on China policy above anything we’ve seen for at least 4 decades.”
Turkel has also actively lobbied for US government sanctions on China. He has published op-eds writing explicitly, “I urge President Donald Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to impose sanctions on [China].”
When the Trump administration did impose sanctions on top Chinese officials under the Global Magnitsky Act, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom quoted Turkel, insisting the new punitive measures “represent a major victory for religious freedom and an important step toward holding Communist China accountable for its crimes against humanity.”
While painting China as a dystopian nightmare, Turkel has celebrated Turkey’s repressive leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose government has jailed more journalists than any country on earth (including more than China, a country 17 times larger than Turkey). In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Turkel portrayed Erdogan as a “rock star,” claiming “Ankara’s concern for the Uighurs has set an example for other democracies.”
Coda Story’s reliance on a right-wing, US-backed separatist figure to attack The Grayzone only proved the point that this outlet elucidated in its reports on Xinjiang: The campaign of new cold war propaganda against China relies almost entirely on opposition groups cultivated and bankrolled by Western governments.
This information warfare is also dependent on a media echo chamber nurtured by Washington, which has been deployed to attack any journalist or public figure that threatens the hostile narrative of the new cold war. Despite its claims of independence, Coda Story is little more than a gear in this vast network.