Response to "Outlandish" James O'Keefe Cleveland Terror Threat Video


I think the first thing that we need to make clear here, (as, to your credit, you do in your piece) is that James O'Keefe is a complete and utter huckster.

His entire career is predicated on videotaping people in staged settings under false pretenses, then blatantly editing the videos to remove any relevant context so that he can push his preconceived agenda forward.

Let's not forget that he has plead guilty to entering federal premises under false pretenses (he was originally charged with phone tampering as well) or that he tried to lure a CNN reporter onto a boat full of porn and sex toys so he could fake "seduce" her on camera. He is a sleazeball of the highest level.

(Then there's the fact that there was "no there there," if you will, in his ACORN videos; multiple prosecutors cleared the now defunct group of wrongdoing, but the damage was done).

Now that all of that is out of the way, I wanted to actually delve into the substance - if you can call it that - of the video he released this week. There are a number of clear issues with the video; here are a few that I noticed:

  1. As Sabrina Eaton pointed out in The Plain Dealer's coverage, neither O'Keefe nor his faux-ISIS actor ever entered Canadian waters. Rather, according to the person from whom they rented the boats, they went a few miles offshore but remained in American waters. I'm not saying that the Coast Guard or Border Patrol have every inch of Lake Erie covered - it's a big body of water - but insinuating that you actually entered from Canadian waters without drawing a tail, when that's patently false, in order to make a point about border security is the definition of being disingenuous.

  2. In the video, both O'Keefe and his "terrorist" state that the incubation period for Ebola is 21 days; the insinuation is, because this "terrorist" took approximately 21 days to get from Liberia to Cleveland, he should be ready to infect Clevelanders at will. This is simply inaccurate. According to the CDC, 21 days is the absolute maximum incubation period for the disease. In reality, CDC says the average incubation period is roughly 8-10 days, while NIH found that the median incubation period was 12.7 days for an outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1995. The reason that 21 days is used as the baseline metric stems from standard practice for infectious diseases that present with a fever; because symptoms for febrile illnesses typically show up around 7 days, medical professionals recommend monitoring patients for 21 days, which is three times the standard incubation period. So if this "terrorist" had not yet begun displaying symptoms of Ebola by the time he arrived in Cleveland, he almost certainly would never have contracted the illness. Furthermore, he wouldn't be contagious until he began displaying the symptoms, so there is virtually zero chance that he could have infected a single person in the Rock Hall, provided he actually had the virus in his system.

  3. O'Keefe actually expects us to believe the absurd circumstances he outlines in this video? Talk about suspending your disbelief. A British ISIS member just happens to travel to Liberia and confiscate Ebola-contaminated materials, then get onto plane to Canada carrying these materials — marked as biohazards, no less — with no one the wiser? And the virus is supposed to remain viable from the time that he gets from Monrovia to Cleveland, despite the fact that it is highly unstable outside of human hosts? At most, under closely controlled conditions, the virus could survive on infected media for perhaps a few days. But I don't recall seeing a freezer or dried ice in that bag so that the infected media could remain at a closely monitored 4°C at all times. In fact, a 2010 study found that "no virus could be recovered from any substrate stored at room temperature." And don't get me started on the ricin bit. This sole terrorist has the capacity to synthesize and smuggle that quantity of ricin into Canada without anyone finding out?! And the idea that dumping ricin into Lake Erie is going to cause widespread mortality is quite a leap of faith. As the Department of Homeland Security has stated, "Although contaminants (e.g., Ricin) could be readily added to the wastewater stream at many locations in the collector system, such attacks would not produce significant impacts because of subsequent downstream treatment, large dilution by the receiving body of water, and lack of an immediate user." Seems like James has been watching too much Breaking Bad. 

  4. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, on a weekday afternoon, is not exactly the prime spot to launch an Ebola epidemic. First of all, have you ever been there at 2 p.m. on a weekday? There's like 20 people, unless it's a holiday of some sort. Secondly, I don't know about James O'Keefe, but I don't typically handle the bodily fluids of random British guys wearing balaclavas. Seeing as the only way to contract Ebola is to come into direct contact with an infected, contagious person's bodily fluids, I'm going to go ahead and call bullshit on this transmission scenario.

  5. There is absolutely no comparison between the rapid spread of Ebola that has occurred in West Africa (Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia) and what could occur in Northeast Ohio if the infinitesimally small quantity of Ebola that arrived here came to fruition. All three are least developed countries. Liberia and Sierra Leone experienced brutal civil wars in recent memory (peace agreements were signed in 2003 and 2001, respectively), while Guinea entered 2014 as the country most likely to experience a coup. The healthcare systems in all three countries are incredibly weak, if they exist at all in certain areas. Before the outbreak, Liberia had fewer than 50 doctors serving a country of 4 million people. Cleveland, while it is highly impoverished, is light years ahead of these states, where the GDPs per capita (adjusted for purchase power parity) are currently $1,255 (Guinea), $878 (Liberia), and $1,927 (Sierra Leone). Cleveland has many, many problems, but access to quality healthcare is not one of them. The city was recently rated as the best in the country for access to healthcare. The city has a primary care physician for every 92 residents. Based on 2013 estimates, that would mean there are 4,240 doctors in the city of Cleveland proper and 22,481 in the metro area. This latter number indicates there are 450 times as many doctors for half as many residents as in Liberia.

  6. Lastly, in the video, O’Keefe proudly states that ISIS used the ridiculous video of him crossing the Rio Grande as a presumably resurrected Osama bin Laden to encourage potential terrorists to enter the US across the Southern border. In other words, James O’Keefe is giving an organization he thinks is likely to try attacking the US homeland ideas on how to do it. But given the fact that nothing he does is ever depicted correctly, maybe this is all an elaborate rouse intended to get potential terrorists caught. Would that were the case.
I could go on, but I really don't want to. All of this is simply to say that you should ask a simple question to test the veracity of these sorts of videos: is the purported investigation from James O'Keefe? If so, it's not valid.

Tim Kovach is a Cleveland native who writes about energy and environment issues at He received an MA in Global Environmental Policy from the American University School of International Service. He has researched environmental peace and conflict for the Environmental Law Institute and the British government and serves on the Executive Committee of the Northeast Ohio Sierra Club.

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