How hard is it to con people in Washington, D.C.? Easier than you might think, considering it’s the place where things like nuclear war get decided. The national-security circuit in particular, with its think tank fellowships and massive government contracts, is one of the juiciest rackets around.
There was Wayne Simmons, a longtime Fox News contributor, who got caught this summer lying about a multi-decade job in the CIA—but not before he’d snagged a couple defense contractor jobs. In 2014, there was A.J. Dicken, who also scored a lucrative security contract after lying about his record as a SEAL. In 2013, you had Elizabeth O’Bagy, whose research on the extremely moderate Syrian rebels launched her into foreign policy fame at the age of 26, complete with cable news hits and citations by John Kerry and John McCain on the Senate floor. She turned out to have been lying about her PhD.
Which brings us to the strange case of Robert Caruso, a young, intense, and charismatic wannabe warmaker. He touts an impressive résumé for a 31-year-old: Per his bio at the Guardian and elsewhere, Caruso shops himself as a Navy veteran who “served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense” and “in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security at the Department of State and as a contractor for the Department of the Army.”
These days he lists himself on LinkedIn as a “political consultant” and a “Fellow” with Hillary Clinton’s campaign. He’s a longtime and prolific member of natsec Twitter, well-liked and oft-cited by both “no-fly-zones-can-work” liberals and “let’s-nuke-China” conservatives. Since coming on the scene around 2013, he’s racked up press clips in Reuters, MSNBC, Fox News, Politico, the Boston Globe, BuzzFeed, Business Insider, the Daily Beast, and many more.
People who know Caruso describe him as a smooth talker, a quote-machine eager to brag about his security clearance and access to the political and military elite. Multiple editors recall him aggressively pitching himself as an expert in intelligence, ordnance, and cyberwar, and generally as a top-brass military consigliere. From early on, that attitude got Caruso into the right parties, packed full of young journalists to whom he’d pitch and plant stories.
And what are those stories like? Well, like most anyone looking to get ahead in natsec punditry, the guy is a big fan of going to war. In the Guardian, the Globe, the Beast, and on MSNBC, he urged Obama to ratchet up airstrikes in Iraq. At Business Insider, he explained “Why Boots On The Ground Might Actually Be Obama’s Best Option In Iraq.” He’s less enthusiastic about the Iran deal, and that nation in general. Despite being #WithHer now, last year Caruso favorably quoted Donald Trump’s top Army advocate, Gen. Michael Flynn, in an opinion piece entitled, “If Nuclear Talks Fail, We Must Consider the Military Option.”
Over the past month, he’s graced the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations website, the Atlantic’s Defense One, and blogged regularly for The Huffington Post, zeroing in on the latest obsession of centrist hawks and armchair generals: the Russian bear and its supposed Manchurian Candidate, Trump himself.
Unfortunately for the readers who get jazzed by this kind of stuff, there’s a problem with Caruso’s wunderkind image: His résumé is, at best, exaggerated. He’s not the well-connected operator he presents himself as. He may seem like a frothing parody of a Russia-obsessed centrist national security grifter, dreamed up by a left-wing satirist looking to skewer the dim and dangerous foreign-policy consensus class, but Robert Caruso is very real—even if portions of his impressive-looking author bio aren’t.
Let’s begin with his résumé. Several sources close to Caruso say they never heard of him holding a job that went beyond an administrative assistant. “His opinions should not be taken seriously,” said a onetime military colleague, who requested anonymity to avoid retaliation from Caruso. (As you’ll see, this is not an unreasonable fear). “His opinion on Kit Kat bars should not be taken seriously.”
The Clinton campaign told me they have no record of Caruso ever working as a “fellow” for them. Caruso provided me a reference, an unpaid volunteer in Dade City, Florida, who could not confirm his status as a fellow. A field organizer in Florida said there was no record of him on file as a fellow, and that the position is an informal, unpaid, intern-like gig in any case.
Caruso’s first stop after the Navy, the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), told me they had no employee by that name on file. Caruso told me he worked for SIGAR as a contractor, which SIGAR later confirmed, but neither the Office of the Secretary of Defense nor the State Department would confirm that he worked for them. Caruso told me all his work for those departments was as a contractor—something he does not note in his media bios—and he refused to describe his work, provide any references, or name any companies he worked for, saying he was bound by nondisclosure agreements. Alternatively, he said he was refusing to provide references “because I feel like it.”
A copy of his personal résumé, obtained from a source who was helping Caruso find work earlier this year, is vague about his work for the government from 2009 to 2015, though most of his duties seem secretarial and administrative: “responsible for managing correspondence, scheduling, and travel arrangements,” “[p]rovided administrative support to program and policy support offices” and “ensured travel arrangements for guests, honorariums, expenses, and appropriate administrative support.”
That’s not how Caruso has been selling his “expert” credentials. MSNBC actually introduced him as a “Defense Department official” in a segment about how best to solve the Syrian civil war, as Caruso sat opposite a four-star general. (A screenshot of this TV coup is now his Twitter avatar.) Eli Lake, formerly of the Daily Beast, now at Bloomberg, once quoted him as an “official at the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.”
When asked if these were accurate descriptions of his credentials, Caruso declined to comment.
Business Insider’s Armin Rosen once quoted him as a “former US Navy intelligence officer.” Caruso’s Naval records show he was a yeoman, typically an enlistee in charge of clerical work. His discharge papers show that he began his service in November 15, 2005 and ended up on the the USS Harry S. Truman, attached to Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. His reason for discharge in March 2009 is redacted.
His résumé says he was an “administrative assistant” who “[p]repared correspondence and travel arrangements for a C-level executive, their office, and personal staff.” Two sources familiar with Caruso’s time on the Truman, including an ex-shipmate, Ryan Baxter, say that he was a “paper pusher” who never saw combat, despite his remarks on Twitter about facing danger in “Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gulf, and the Horn [of Africa].”
At first blush, Caruso just seems like latest in a long line of natsec grifters, guilty of embellishing résumés in search of bigger scores. But in looking into Caruso’s background, I learned that his story is bleaker and more disturbing than that of a simple would-be warhawk.
Eventually, Baxter and others say, the yeoman landed in unspecified trouble and got sent to the galleys for menial work. Not long before his discharge Caruso started beefing with a fellow worker down there. Their mutual grudge escalated until one day, Caruso, supposedly having discovered his rival’s shellfish allergy, threw a tray of shrimp on her.
Caruso said his discharge was “under honorable conditions” and that he received an honorable discharge. He denied any fights or any disciplinary action taken against him. Asked specifically about the shrimp incident, he said: “That is not an accurate account and I have no further comment.”
His reputation for volatile and bizarre behavior followed him out of the Navy. A messy breakup in fall of 2015 led his ex-girlfriend to file to a restraining order against him in Loudoun County, Va., which he violated at least six times this year, according to public court documents. Another onetime friend filed an emergency protective order in Alexandria, Va. Yet another person filed a restraining order—which I saw a copy of—this week, while another tells me they are filing a police report for harassment.
Even as his press portfolio grew, people who know him say, things degenerated for Caruso after the breakup. He crashed for months at a time with different friends and acquaintances, often without paying rent, until one by one they asked him to move out. Others tried to help him get on his feet. But once anyone began to question or challenge his behavior, they discovered Caruso’s tendency to call them, stalk them, and make threats on their family.
“They all realized they needed to get away from this guy ASAP,” said a former friend and roommate, including himself in the bunch.
Things took a stranger turn this fall, when several of those former friends say they received emails from a journalist, Marjorie Romeyn-Sanabria, who was ostensibly pitching a critical story on Caruso which would reveal that he had been hired by the Clinton camp with the rather cinematic task of “infiltrating conservative media organizations and progressive political organizations opposed to a Hillary Clinton candidacy.” (It should be reiterated that the Clinton campaign has no record of Caruso doing any work for them.) The author reached out asking for any other dirt on Caruso.
The story never happened, and probably never existed: Romeyn-Sanabria, according to several sources and text messages apparently from her, turned out to be in a personal relationship with Caruso at the time and appeared to be fishing for information as to who was willing to rat him out to the media. When I reached out to her, Romeyn-Sanabria refused to confirm or deny whether she knew Caruso personally at the time. She simply said she began writing the story but never finished it. She eventually denied ever sending the email and abruptly ended the call. Caruso called me about five minutes later.
When I asked him about her article, he repeatedly boasted, “I contacted her editor and I killed the story.” I asked him if he knew Romeyn-Sanabria. “No, I don’t.” In July, an ex-friend alleged over email that Caruso and the reporter were in cahoots; Caruso wrote back, “we are writing the story and now, you will be in it.” In texts apparently sent from Romeyn-Sabanria to one of Caruso’s former friends, she refers to Caruso as her “boyfriend.”
During our phone call, Caruso repeatedly told me that I was being manipulated by unsavory characters connected with a “federal investigation into Russian influence on the US electoral process.” He suggested his ex-girlfriend was at the root of it.
“I’m not following what you’re laying down here,” I said.
“I am not concerned about whatever anybody has told you. What I do know is that at the conclusion of this call, I’m going to contact federal law enforcement and warn them.” He also said that any article I wrote would be perceived as a racially motivated. “I will ensure that that is how it’s perceived.”
Kremlin psyops are the least of it, according to a slew of harassing, paranoid, and bizarre communications from Caruso to his friends and acquaintances that were provided to me while reporting this piece. I have seen screenshots or copies of every text and email quoted in this story, as well as listened to the quoted voicemails, and while it is impossible to completely verify the authenticity of them, and the identity of the sender, without confirmation from Caruso himself, I have no reason to doubt their legitimacy.
In one voicemail I listened to, sent to a Caruso confidant-turned-nemesis, a man who seems to be Caruso informs her that he has been following her around that day and sardonically thanks her for “exposing the treachery” of two of his ex-roommates. He urges her to stop associating with them, convinced they are all part of a conspiracy against him. “You are going to stop, or I am going to go after them, and they don’t have protective orders,” he warns, “and they have families with children.”
“You will cease and desist, immediately,” he goes on. “Or I will commit a crime.” In another voicemail: “You don’t know where I am. Does that make you feel safer? Or less safe?”
In texts to the same woman, appearing to be from Caruso, he repeatedly calls her a “wetback”—an odd choice of slur for someone who publicly lists himself as cofounder of “Keep America Open dba Latino Veterans for America.” In one email, again apparently from Caruso, he actually threatens to turn her family over to ICE: “I’m reporting your entire family to INS. You’ve been a wetback for a long time, so you may not know they changed their name to ICE.” He ends the email in an ominous flourish:
I consider you the enemy and you will pay for what you’ve done. say hi to ____, your cokehead sloppy spy because his day is coming soon too. I have something special and torturous planned for him.
you chose this path. now we play.
oh yeah—we both know this isn’t enough for any police involvement. you lose. again.
Robert Andrew Caruso
all of the above statements are mine, written on this date, and true and accurate.
Caruso also allegedly peppers ex-friends’ inboxes and voicemails with threats to expose a supposed drug ring they all run, according to multiple sources I spoke with. “You are now the target of a Loudoun County and DEA investigation,” he says in one voicemail to the woman above. “If you speak to ____ again, [the DEA] will be provided with more evidence.” One former friend says Caruso threatened to murder his family, and videotape it. For a while he circulated articles about drug busts, implying to friends that his ex-girlfriend and nemeses were connected to the news.
Another choice text, from the same number, once again threatening people’s families:
Good morning traitors! I finally tracked down your family members. So here’s what is going to happen. You will cease and desist. You will cease cooperation with ___. Every action ___ takes, I will punish your families. Both of you know I am willing to break the law … Failure to comply means I go after your family. Very simple. Consider this a sworn statement. I’ve gotten away with much, much worse.
The paranoia reached its apex this May. Caruso apparently wrote a long email to the FBI’s Washington Field office fingering several people, including his ex, as malicious actors in a plot devised by “a hostile foreign intelligence service.” Russia, again. The Jack D. Ripper-style letter goes on to report that he suspects he had been under “physical and technical surveillance” while staying with his roommates-turned-spies. (Caruso forwarded the sent email to his targets, which is how I obtained it.)
Needless to say, this apparently delusional paranoia, whether genuine or exaggerated for effect, is not exactly a reassuring tendency from someone who just published “To Counter Russian Disinformation, Look to Cold War Tactics,” for the Council On Foreign Relations. The apparent vulgar threats to people in his life echo his cigar-chomping swagger about international relations, like now-deleted tweets telling trolls that he will “enjoy seeing your beloved Syria torn apart.” (This kind of sentiment once got him banned as a contributor for citizen-journalist website Bellingcat.)
The question at the heart of all this: how did Caruso get this far? Some hucksterism, for sure; an aggressive, alpha posture; the fact that most of his audience was a collection of pasty, egg-shaped, lanyard-wearing wonks.
But beyond that surface level bravado, Caruso is fluent in the language of natsec tough guys. Plenty of defense reporters will tell you that this crowd’s got a fair dose of paranoia running through their brain chemistry, often compensated by maniac swagger. Some of them end up totally losing the plot, like Caruso. Others stumble into more comedic personal humiliations, like ex-Naval War College and NSA ogre John Schindler, who shares Caruso’s penchant for spy-talk and Twitter bluster, and got in trouble for allegedly sending photos of his junk to young women.
The guys who make it to the very top spout off exactly the kind of deranged bullshit Caruso has thus far built his career on. Look no further than Gen. Flynn, by all accounts a respected military intelligence officer his entire career, overseeing the Trump rally chants, ranting about socialists. There’s a reason Flynn’s words made it into Caruso’s op-eds.
Ultimately, Caruso’s problem is one of degree, not substance. If he had saved the death threats for Iranians, rather than his friends—if he channeled a just little bit more of his pathology into his work, rather than his personal life—who knows how far he could have gone?
Brendan James is a writer in New York and producer of the acclaimed and award-losing podcast Chapo Trap House.