The Q Anon saga has been without a doubt the most effective and fascinating conspiracy theory in recent history, incorporating many aspects of information warfare that have become commonplace since the political upheavals of 2016. The theory, which posits that a group of benevolent government insiders are waging a war against evil "deep state" plotters attempting to overthrow President Donald Trump, is a Frankenstein of various themes that have pervaded conspiracy circles in recent years. Although some such as Wikileaks have speculated that intelligence organizations invented the conspiracy and other media outlets have delved into the identities of the individuals who first promoted it online the wider responsible group was never investigated.
New research reveals that a loose network including an organization known as Joint Task Force - Make America Great Again (JTFMAGA) made up of intelligence whistleblowers, alternative media figures and individuals with a known history of virally spreading information online was most likely responsible for inventing "Q Anon."
The front page of JTFMAGA's website describes them as a group of "White Hat Deep State Patriots from the Intelligence, Military, Law Enforcement and Judicial Communities" who have formed a "supergroup of MAGA Counterstrike Patriots" to go after what they label as the "Black Hat Deep State." A bizarre "Oath" calls for "Patriots" to defend the Constitution and contains a requirement for new recruits to defend Judeo-Christian values and vow to prevent atheism from becoming the "national religion." Similarities between the Q Anon movement and 19th century religious end-times movements have been noted in the past after large numbers of Evangelical Christians were attracted to the conspiracy theory.
The group lists San Diego-based One America News (OAN) and the Gateway Pundit in a section of their front page labeled "Press." They have interacted in the past with a number of media and online personalities known for promoting Q Anon including Jerome Corsi, Tracy Beanz (real name Tracy Diaz), Lisa Mei Crowley and YourVoice America.
Forum posters have openly wondered in the past if JTFMAGA is "team Q." If they were not directly involved with creating the Q Anon concept, they certainly did everything they could to appeal to that specific demographic. What the entire enterprise appears to be is an attempt to fulfill Q's prophecies about a secret team of insiders taking the fight to the enemies of Donald Trump and his followers.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of JTFMAGA is the large number of high profile individuals they have claimed an affiliation with since their emergence. The front and "Team" pages of the website state that their membership includes NSA whistleblowers William Binney, J. Kirk Wiebe and former Republican House staffer Diane Roark. The claimed involvement of Roark in a pro-Trump movement is strange given that she is known as a more establishment-prone supporter of Dick Cheney. All three were propelled to national attention in 2007 when their homes were all raided by the FBI as part of an investigation into leaks to the New York Times regarding illegal surveillance. Another NSA whistleblower arrested as part of the probe was Thomas Drake, who at one point was also listed on JTFMAGA's website as a member. Ultimately the government's case collapsed and the only charge that stuck was a single misdemeanor against Drake for “exceeding authorized use of a computer.”
Despite the fancy webpage and tale of a grand behind-the-scenes war against the deep state, JTFMAGA's Twitter has not been active since February 2019 and the group does not appear to have followed through with their plans. So what went wrong? Examining a timeline of developments since their rollout in early 2018 provides some clues.
II. Emergence And Promotion
JTFMAGA burst onto the scene in March 2018. Their introduction to the world relied on initial exposure from alternative media outlets. On March 20, One America News ran an interview with JTFMAGA spokesperson Robert Caron where he announced the formation of the team and their intention to distribute the first in a series of reports outlining what was described as illegal surveillance and other abuses which occurred during the 2016 US Presidential elections. The next day on March 21, OAN ran a second report where William Binney was represented as the leader of JTFMAGA. The clip stated that there were over 100 members in the group and said their focus would largely be what was described as the Obama administration's targeting of the Trump presidential campaign for surveillance.
On March 24, Gateway Pundit reporter Joshua Caplan posted an article covering OAN's interview with Binney, again representing him as the leader of JTFMAGA. A second report run on the same day by Caplan centered around recently-hired National Security Advisor John Bolton's intent to target "Obama holdovers" in the White House. Caplan has since departed Gateway Pundit and now works as the home page editor for Breitbart News.
During the same timeframe, OAN Host Jack Posobiec made a now-deleted tweet sometime in March 2018 where he implied his association with JTFMAGA and also stated that William Binney was working with the group. Screenshots taken of JTFMAGA's website in 2018 showed that Posobiec's photo was once included on the "Meet the Team" page.
It seems that JTFMAGA was in the planning stages some time before their emergence or the advent of Q Anon. Ex-CIA officer Kevin Shipp stated in a September 15, 2017 interview that he was working on a project with Binney, although he did not specify the nature of the project. Q Anon's first post on the 4chan imageboard did not occur until early November 2017. Shipp went on to appear in a now-deleted press conference with Binney and Robert Caron that was posted sometime around May 2018. He has also previously given his opinion that the individuals behind Q Anon "appear legitimate" and spoken positively about the conspiracy to early Q Anon promoter Jerome Corsi.
III. Attacks Against "Q Anon" After JTFMAGA Rollout
As summer 2018 began, the Q Anon conspiracy was increasingly targeted and criticized due to its dramatic growth in popularity and the content it promoted. On May 27, Wikileaks endorsed the view of activist and Julian Assange supporter Suzie Dawson that Q Anon was a "pied piper" operation.
Dawson stated that she believed "Q Anon" was likely being run by a group with ties to intelligence services and noted the operation's similarity to known playbooks employed by agencies which cooperate under the UKUSA Agreement popularly known as Five Eyes. She also noted that a previously disclosed NSA task force known as "Q Group" was responsible for targeting whistleblower Edward Snowden. The general consensus was that Q Anon has served as an effort to pacify and mislead the elements of the American right wing who supported Trump and might pose a threat to various government and non-state entities. This theory appeared to be confirmed when Q Anon began directing supporters to back US intervention in Iran around June 2018.
Wikileaks' denouncement was followed by similar statements from other Trump supporters and administration officials denying that the Q Anon movement was legitimate. Individuals claiming inspiration from "Q" were involved in dangerous incidents like armed standoffs and arsons. Mainstream media outlets began to attack the conspiracy theory. By August 2018, NBC News ran an exposé where they identified a number of individuals who helped run the Q Anon persona on the 4chan and 8chan imageboards while reaching out to Youtubers for help generating initial publicity.
IV. Collapse Of JTFMAGA
Post-August 2018, JTFMAGA went through what appears to have been a fatal implosion.
On September 4, Jack Posobiec published an interview and article on OAN where he identified notorious far-right online troll Microchip as one of the parties behind Q. Microchip claimed that he had worked on the Q Anon project along with another troll who goes by the moniker of Dreamcatcher. The two left over disagreements with others involved regarding the direction of the project. He confirmed that the group named by NBC News had taken over some of the responsibilities for Q Anon and was likely still managing the online persona from the 8chan imageboard. Posobiec continued his campaign to debunk Q Anon from Twitter in the aftermath of his initial report.
This event triggered a storm of online scrutiny, some of which began to be directed towards JTFMAGA. Concerns were raised about the financial history of Robert Caron as well as fellow member and Veterans for Trump chairman Joshua Macias. Caron and Macias had formed a sister organization to JTFMAGA called Report for the President where they "collated evidence of obstruction and treason" in the form of reports to ostensibly present to Trump. A good number of the reports are hidden behind paywalls as the group does not appear to have sufficient funding. To promote the new launch, Caron and Macias had begun making appearances in early September 2018 on YourVoice America with host Ann Vandersteel, who was recently disavowed by Trump's re-election committee that she claimed to be working for as an advisor. Vandersteel and YourVoice America are notorious for their promotion of Q Anon. The September 4 interview was also promoted by Tracy Beanz on Twitter.
On September 8, Thomas Drake took to Twitter to disavow any connection to JTFMAGA or Report for the President, calling their integrity into question. Drake has periodically denied the beliefs of Q Anon supporters that he is "Q" due his trademark Q lapel pin which he says stands for "questioning authority." Q Anon posted links to Drake's denials in an apparent attempt to discredit JTFMAGA.
The same day, Kevin Shipp issued a statement on Twitter asking if JTFMAGA was "legitimate." He also appears to have responded to email inquiries about his affiliation with the group with denials that he was involved. He has since deleted the tweet, likely because of the openly available evidence that he participated in a press conference for JTFMAGA and interviews such as one he gave in April 2018 where he represented himself as involved with the group and plugged their website.
On September 9, media figures who had promoted JTFMAGA or their members began to disassociate. Jack Posobiec tweeted that he was not a member of the group or one of their sources despite the fact that he had strongly implied otherwise in March 2018 when OAN was covering the creation of JTFMAGA. Tracy Beanz also attempted to distance herself from Caron and Macias.
William Binney seemed to double down. On September 9 he appeared in a video with Macias posted by Report for the President where he affirmed his support for initiatives like JTFMAGA. He additionally participated the following day in an interview with Ann Vandersteel on YourVoice America. A link to the YourVoice interview was posted by Q Anon to 8chan hours after it aired.
The apparent mass exodus from JTFMAGA seems to have potentially created a noticeable effect on the development of already shoddy narratives being pushed by Q Anon. By mid September 2018 the group continuing to run the operation was reduced to claiming that aliens are real for lack of better subject matter.
V. What Caused JTFMAGA's Implosion?
The simplest answer to questions about why the Q movement fell apart is that infighting over direction and messaging widened ideological rifts. These disagreements were aggravated by increasing criticism of the broader movement and misgivings after individuals claiming inspiration from "Q" engaged in violent acts.
The testimony given to OAN by Microchip detailing conflict between the various figures helping to run the operation is plausible and backed up by information available online. A document uploaded by Report for the President mentions a number of internal conflicts they had dealt with. One section appears to complain about Posobiec, labeled as "Subject 2," for his attacks against Q Anon. It also states that these attacks came due to pressure for OAN while claiming that the network owed their members financial restitution for investigative work they performed on OAN's behalf.
Interestingly, the document also implies that JTFMAGA and Report for the President were connected to a loose network of up to eight groups. It seems that "Q Anon" was in fact the product of a wider operation made up of senior figures providing ideological input and operational oversight, media assets for promotion and individuals on the ground level who were adept at weaponizing and pushing information online. Given his extensive experience with the use of bots to promote topics on social media it makes perfect sense that an individual like Microchip would have been tapped to help former intelligence community members who had been retired for many years and were not adept at making a message go viral.
It also explains why the group apparently dissolved due to infighting. Such a broad coalition would have no doubt necessitated the participation of a large number of individuals from all over the political spectrum. Microchip's social media postings reveal that he is philosophically a nihilist whose long term objective is to cause chaos and collapse the United States. Early media promoter Tracy Beanz has in the past made appearances alongside anarchists and members of the American far right. It isn't hard to see how the operation fell apart amid spats over issues such as support for Donald Trump once pressure grew.
VI. Wider Implications Of Q Anon For The Whistleblowing Community
The implications of JTFMAGA's involvement in the Q Anon conspiracy will undoubtedly have broader repercussions due to fact that some of these individuals are involved with high profile whistleblower organizations. The Q movement emerged during what could be described as a shadow civil war occurring in the whistleblowing community over a number of different fissures which began to form after the 2016 US Presidential election.
Both William Binney and Thomas Drake are listed as members of the Advisory Board for the Courage Foundation, a trust originally founded by Wikileaks that raises funds for the legal defense of journalists and whistleblowers. In August 2018, one month before the implosion of JTFMAGA, the Courage Foundation terminated their support for journalist Barrett Brown over his criticisms of Wikileaks and Julian Assange for what he described as collaboration with the nationalist right in America and the implication that murdered DNC staffer Seth Rich was the source of the DNC leaks published by Wikileaks in 2016. Courage Foundation's director Naomi Colvin resigned in protest of the decision. The incident may not have been directly related to quarrels in the Q Anon operation, but does show how general unrest has been boiling over in recent months.
Binney and Drake are also both members of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), a group of former US intelligence officers who have over the years issued a number of memorandums to American Presidents on various topics. In July 2017, VIPS released a memo arguing in support of independent analysis that indicated the Democratic National Committee (DNC) was not hacked but instead suffered an internal leak. The memo created division at VIPS, with a faction that included Drake disagreeing with the DNC leak theory and another including Binney and Kirk Wiebe who supported the contention. Since this rift began almost immediately after the publication of the memo it is strange that JTFMAGA, which was reportedly being lead by Binney, would be working with Drake due to their disagreements on this topic.
Given the strife that has affected the international whistleblower world in recent years, it no surprise to see that JTFMAGA suffered similar conflicts which would eventually prove fatal. The Q Anon movement made a clear attempt to carve out their own niche in the hierarchy of the anti-establishment but was unable to escape political infighting.
The significance of Q Anon was not merely the success of its spread, but the fact that it was a test run for new information warfare strategies seeking to cause information overload by mixing innaccurate propaganda with fact. This approach will likely prove an effective psychological warfare tool, but give censorship proponents strong arguments in their drive to ban "fake news." Knowing that US intelligence figures may have been involved in creating and promoting the Q Anon persona should give observers extra food for thought as they study this phenomena in the future.
This entire chapter serves as a lesson to news consumers that separating fact from fiction can be difficult. Disinformation proponents are not always shadowy figures but sometimes can be trusted individuals who hold prominent positions with strong credentials. The damage wreaked by Q Anon has already been done. Going forward we must all be more vigilant to avoid allowing similar events to occur.
Editor's Note: Joshua Macias and Robert Caron are the original founders of JTFMAGA. It was Caron and Macias who were responsible for JTFMAGA's creation as well as courting other individuals to lend legitimacy to the organization.