Just World Podcasts

Story-Backstory ep. 10: The UAE and Gulf Arab state influence-buying in Washington

April 26, 2019 Season 1 Episode 10
Just World Podcasts
Story-Backstory ep. 10: The UAE and Gulf Arab state influence-buying in Washington
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Just World Podcasts
Story-Backstory ep. 10: The UAE and Gulf Arab state influence-buying in Washington
Apr 26, 2019 Season 1 Episode 10
Helena Cobban
Show Notes Transcript

This episode in the "Story-Backstory" series is a complement to the article that Helena Cobban published on Mondoweiss on April 25, exploring a small window that the Mueller Report provided into the world of the influence-buying operations undertaken by the UAE and other rich Arab Gulf states in Washington DC.

In this episode, Ms. Cobban interviews Ben Freeman of the Center for International Policy, to discuss the extensive influence operations undertaken in Washington by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Israel. At one key point, Freeman notes that the same lobbying and p.r. firms that work for many of those actors also work for major US arms manufacturers!

(Please note that there was no Episode 9 in this series, as we concentrated on producing online materials for last week's topic, instead.)

Helena Cobban:
0:13
Today on Just World Podcasts: Gulf Arab states intervening in US politics.
Helena Cobban:
0:19
Hi, I'm Helena Cobban, the President of Just World Educational. This week's podcast is the tenth in our "Story-Backstory" project, which explores Washington's current policies in the Middle East and the Middle East itself, in a broader historical perspective. Most of the weekly podcasts in this series are linked to written opinion columns that get published a couple of days earlier.
Helena Cobban:
0:46
This week's column ran April 25th on the Mondoweiss website under the title, "The UAE's seedy influence operations, A footnote in the Mueller Report." It jumped off from the portion of Robert Mueller's recently completed report that described how a shady, Lebanese-American wheeler-dealer called George Nader had been working in the periods before and after Donald Trump's 2016 election to establish a back channel between the Trump team and one of Vladimir Putin's close associates... And also how when Nader was doing that, he was doing it largely at the behest of the man he has worked for for several years now, the powerful Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Mohammed bin Zayed more often called MBZ.
Helena Cobban:
1:44
I urge you to read the whole of that article which reveals quite a lot about the role that MBZ has played in Middle Eastern politics over the past dozen years, often in coordination with his better known counterpart in Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman known as MBS. In the article, I also started to delve into the way that the United Arab Emirates uses a portion of its massive oil wealth to conduct a range of influence operations here in the United States.
Helena Cobban:
2:18
When I started doing the online research into the influence operations that the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other super-wealthy Gulf Arab states have been conducting here in the United States in recent years, the name of one researcher and writer kept coming up. That is Ben Freeman, who now heads up a project called the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at a small, much respected research institution here in Washington DC called the Center for International Policy.
Helena Cobban:
2:50
If you're interested in this topic, I urge you to go visit their website, which is www.international policy.org. If you click on the publications tab there, you can find links to some excellent short reports that Ben has published recently about Saudi Arabia's influence-buying projects here in Washington, including one that spells out the effect that Jamal Khashoggi's killing in Istanbul last October had on those projects, plus another compelling recent report by one of his colleagues about the US-UAE alliance and its impact on the war in Yemen. So who better to be my guest on today's podcast than Ben Freeman himself?
Helena Cobban:
3:39
We started out our conversation with a quick discussion of the history and role of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, FARA (which I had been wrongly pronouncing all this time.) FARA is the key piece of us legislation that regulates exactly what people and companies here in the US who are doing business on behalf of foreign governments or other foreign entities can do in terms of influencing US policy and its making.
Helena Cobban:
4:11
Then in our conversation we quickly surveyed the big four actors from the Middle East in terms of such influence buying, including the roles of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and Israel. Then Ben got into the details of exactly how all this influence buying works. He also made the key point that many of the same lobbying and PR firms here in Washington that are working for these Big Four governments are also working at the same time for the big US arms manufacturing companies. Surprise, surprise.
Helena Cobban:
4:47
Anyway, we packed a lot of really fascinating information into our 35-minute conversation. I hope you can listen to it or just before I head to the interview itself. Let me also remind you that you can find a lot of great resources on our website, www.justworldeducational.org. On the homepage there you'll see a prominent button that will send you to all the content we've now produced in this multi-week "Story-Backstory" project and you'll find a handy tab on the website too that tells you how you can donate to support our work. Please consider doing so.
Helena Cobban:
5:29
I urge you to explore all the resources that we make available at no cost online through the website and through our lively just world ed accounts on Twitter and Facebook. So now, my conversation with Ben Freeman. Enjoy.
Helena Cobban:
5:46
Okay. I'm sitting here with Ben Freeman. Ben Freeman, Hi, how are you?
Ben Freeman:
5:51
Pretty good.
Helena Cobban:
5:52
Quite a beautiful day here in Washington DC, but lots of nefarious things are going on in town. So that's what we're going to talk about a little bit today. So I'm going to dive right in. There's this thing here in US legislation, a longstanding thing-- you'd just told me it dates back to 1938-- called the Foreign Agents Registration...What does the last A stand for?
Ben Freeman:
6:21
Act.
Helena Cobban:
6:22
Of course! So, FARA: could you just briefly-- I know we could have a whole seminar on this--briefly, tell us what does FARA do and what does it not do to protect the American public and the American discourse from nefarious foreign influence?
Ben Freeman:
6:42
Yeah, that's a great question. And I think it's important when we talk about FARA to remember why it was enacted in the first place. So, it was enacted in 1938, literally because of Adolf Hitler. And I know people like to throw around Hitler hyperbolically in today's political discourse, but this is one of the few things that literally is because of Hitler and the Nazi party, which was spreading propaganda in the US in the lead-up to World War Two. And they were trying to create Nazi sympathizers here in the US then. They were spreading pro-Nazi propaganda here and they were effectively trying to get the US on the Nazi side, going into World War II or at the very least, try to keep the US on the sidelines in World War II, trying to not make an enemy out of us.
Ben Freeman:
7:34
Fortunately, some folks in in Congress recognize this. They did an investigation of what was going on and they found out that indeed there was this Nazi propaganda being spread rampantly in the US and their solution to that was what ultimately became the Foreign Agents Registration Act and what that required-- The interesting thing about FARA sort of one of the misnomers about it is that it stifles speech in no way, shape or fashion does FARA stifle speech. If you are a foreign agent working in the US and this was the case for the Nazis and you want to just say that Adolf Hitler was wonderful, you could say that under FARA. What FARA does require you is if you're going to say something like that, you at the very least have to tell folks that you are working on behalf of the German government, you are working on behalf of the Nazi party.
Ben Freeman:
8:29
And you have to publicly disclose that to people when you're spreading the propaganda or when you're just, you know, out on the street corner yelling it. And so in that way, FARA at its core is a transparency statute. And still to this day, we've had some revisions to FARA. FARA does not, even to this day, it does not stifle any speec, not for any government that's out there right now. It still remains by in large a disclosure statute that gives the American public the opportunity to know when foreign governments are trying to influence public opinion to influence US policymakers or to influence policy directly. And so from FARA, we're able to get information on who's doing this influence pedaling, you know, who are these, who are these foreign agents operating in the US.
Helena Cobban:
9:28
These would be American corporations or individuals who are taking money from foreign governments or foreign government-supported entities. Is that correct?
Ben Freeman:
9:40
Yeah, that's exactly right. And another key fact about FARA is, you mentioned foreign governments, the interesting thing about FARA is it's not just about foreign governments and the way the statute is written, it's very broad. It can't, it can include foreign governments, foreign political parties, and those closely connected to them. But it can also include just a foreign national in a country, if that person has the explicit intent of hiring somebody here, to influence US foreign policy or the policymaking process in this country. And that's a key fact that I think a lot of folks miss. And I think a lot of folks who are getting in trouble for not registering under FARAmiss just because the person that hires you isn't Vladimir Putin, let's say, even if it's just a private Russian citizen for example, and they hire you to influence US foreign policy in favor of Russia, that's would still require you to register under FARA.
Helena Cobban:
10:44
Okay. So, we've been looking at some of the Middle East actors, foreign entities, mainly governments, but also government-supported entities in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Qatar, which I think are the four big Middle Eastern governments that seek to influence policy in this country. Have I missed any?
Ben Freeman:
11:17
No, I'd say that's fairly accurate. I might throw Egypt in there. I might throw Turkey in there. But I definitely think you easily have the top four there.
Helena Cobban:
11:30
Yeah, I was looking at the figures from-- it's the Center for Responsive Politics that has that wonderful new sort of web interface where you can see how much each foreign government, and they've only been doing it since 2017, but it's really a fairly handy online tool to seeing how much each foreign government has been investing. And some of these four bad actors or actors, actually all of them, probably have direct government money going into like let's say, lobbying firms, PR firms, and think-tanks here in Washington, DC, all of which should be registering under FARA for those foreign subventions.
Helena Cobban:
11:30
Some of them also have nongovernmental entities. I think there's something called the Emirates Center for Strategic Analysis or something like that, and that's the entity that gave $20 million to the Middle East Institute, allegedly not the government of the Emirates. And then in the Emirates, each of the little Emirates has its own government, so called, so you got to have the government of Abu Dhabi or the government of Dubai. So sometimes it gets a little murky but still you can see quite a lot of things going on. What kind of-- When you look at these figures and these records for these governments, what leaps out at you? What do you think is the most damaging for US society and US policymaking? And how do these four actors act differently from each other? I know those are very, very broad questions.
Ben Freeman:
13:23
No, I think there's great questions. Before I answer, I'll just give a shameless plug to folks listening out there to the Center for Responsive Politics and that wonderful data set that they have. You can find that at opensecrets.org and it truly is wonderful.
Helena Cobban:
13:44
I think you should also give a really good plug to your own recent publication, which is called "The Saudi Lobby in 2018" and that's Ben Freeman from the Center for International Policy-- a great new study that has just come out. So that's why I'm really thrilled to be here talking to you. Let's start with a Saudi lobby. Why not?
Ben Freeman:
14:08
Let's do, the interesting thing to me about the Saudi lobby is that despite so many things that they have done or Saudi foreign nationals have done on the international stage, Saudi Arabia has consistently been seen as this stalwart US ally. And it's, if you walk around the streets of DC, you know, you go to some of these think tanks, it's very much the conventional wisdom that, you know, Saudi Arabia, is one of our greatest allies. But then if you take even a casual look at even recent US history with Saudi Arabia, you only have to go as far back as 9/11. And you realize 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were from Saudi Arabia. And yet, you fast forward to this year and early in 2018, President Trump said US-Saudi relations were better than they had ever been.
Ben Freeman:
14:08
So how is that possible? The simple explanation for that is money and money in a variety of ways. People look to towards oil and say, you know, we need the oil, so we have to maintain these good relationships, which may be true. but a lot of other countries have oil--
Helena Cobban:
15:36
Actually oil is a lot less of a factor right now because of, you know, fracking.
Ben Freeman:
15:41
Fracking, yeah, absolutely. And so, you know, if you consider fracking, if you consider that the US has become a lot less dependent on Middle East oil... So that explanation kind of goes by the wayside. But the one permanent in Saudi influence has been the amount of money they're willing to dedicate to their influence operation in America. That has, in my eyes, that has at least three major components to it. That's the significant amount of money that they spend on lobbying and public relations firms to do very direct influence, to do image management. For example, when Muhammad bin Salman came on his grand tour of the U S in early 2018, you might've seen the candid shots with him and The Rock or with Oprah.
Helena Cobban:
15:41
Or with Mark Zuckerberg.
Ben Freeman:
15:41
Yeah
Helena Cobban:
16:35
-- and Silicon Valley and somebody set all that up!
Ben Freeman:
16:38
Somebody set all that up and, a lot of that was set up by these public relations firms. And one of the big players for them is a firm called Qorvis Communications, which was recently bought out by the MSL Group and their relationship with Qorvis, is nothing new. In fact, just two months after 9/11 happened, the Saudis hired Qorvis Communications to be their spinmasters. And then in the 18 years since, Qorvis has done, frankly, a spectacular job of taking what is in all aspects an authoritarian regime that does a lot of things that are very contrary to US interests, and Qorvis has effectively helped to convince the US that, despite all of that, that Saudi Arabia is our best friend in the Middle East. It's extraordinary to me what they've done.
Helena Cobban:
17:36
Have they also done like actual organizing donations to political campaigns? That kind of direct lobbying, you know, where you're going to meet with somebody and then suddenly a bundle of donations appears.
Ben Freeman:
17:51
Yeah. That's a great question. And this is where the sort of, our weak system of lobbying oversight meets our weak system of campaign finance oversight. This is exactly that intersection because the way campaign finance law works, the Federal Election Commission has a prohibition on campaign contributions coming from foreign nationals. So, you say, okay, no foreign money in elections, right? But now let's talk about all the different ways that foreign money can get into our elections. And through lobbyists, there's a very direct way, while if I'm the government of Saudi Arabia or the government of the UAE, I cannot make a direct campaign contribution. When I can do though is hire a lobbying or a PR firm to work for me in the US and then those individuals, those US citizens working at those firms, they can make campaign contributions to whomever they choose.
Ben Freeman:
18:53
Money is speech now, right? So we can't infringe upon that.
Helena Cobban:
18:59
And corporations are people!
Ben Freeman:
19:00
Exactly. So if I'm Saudi Arabia, I hire one of these firms and you know, I pay them lucratively the individual lobbyists at those firms, they can make campaign contributions, they can hold fundraisers, they can engage in bundling activity. And what we found, what we try to do here at the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative is to connect some of those dots. And we ask very basic questions. We know from the FARA documents who you're contacting on behalf of Saudi Arabia and we know who you're making campaign contributions to: I wonder if those two things are at all related? And we find a very strong correlation between who you speak with on behalf of the Saudis and who you're giving campaign contributions to.
Helena Cobban:
19:51
Just as a sort of footnote, I'm interested in when you say we ask them, do you actually go to Qorvis Communications and ask them if there's a connection? That would be a fascinating conversation.
Ben Freeman:
20:04
What typically happens in our reporting process is we, one of the things we do when we're looking at a country, and we've looked at Saudi Arabia and the UAE, we have country specific reports coming out now. We code every single one of their reported political activities, for Saudi Arabia in the last two years, for example, that's over 4,000 political activities that we've identified in just the last two years. And we also go to the campaign contributions and for Saudi Arabia, again, for the last two years, that's over $4 million worth of campaign contributions that we're tracking. And then we put the pieces together and we see, you know, what's the overlap here? And in more than a dozen cases, we found on the exact same day a Saudi lobbyist met with a member of Congress, they made a campaign contribution to them on that exact same day.
Ben Freeman:
20:53
If you stretch it out to a couple of days, a few dozen more, stretch it out to a week, and we've got dozens and dozens of these examples. And so what we do, we identify those and then we do try to get comment from the firms about it and we say, you know, this is all according to their FARA files, it's nothing beyond what they've already publicly reported. And we try to get them to explain what happened. And we see on this day, you said you met with-- Senator Inhofe was one of the examples in our most recently released report, and the McKeon Group contacted him, I think it was ten days before a key vote on Yemen. And they contacted him about US-Saudi relations that same day.
Ben Freeman:
21:39
They made, I believe it was $1,000 campaign contribution to him. And so we asked these folks then, you know, "Care to explain?" What we've universally found so far, we've been woefully unsuccessful in getting a response. And by that I mean literally none of them has responded.
Ben Freeman:
21:39
In my previous career, I worked at an organization called the Project on Government Oversight, which is a wonderful organization that work with whistle-blowers. (It's POGO.org. )And there we did a report on FARA and I actually did get one of these. I got a member of Congress on the phone and I said, "Sir, you know, thank you for taking the time. I identified a lobbyist met with you on this day, and you also received a campaign contribution on that same day from that same lobbyist, can you recall this?"
Ben Freeman:
22:31
And he was like, when, where? He was like, I don't remember that whatsoever. And then, he sort of scolded me and it was telling, what he said: "Do you know how many campaign contributions I get? Do you know how many meetings I take?" He's like, "I can't possibly be expected to remember one from two or three years ago." He was out of office at this point. And so he's like, "I can't possibly be expected to remember that. So if you're asking did that have any impact on me? The answer is no."
Ben Freeman:
22:31
You know, we reported on that and I think that's fair of him to say. But I think on the other hand, if you're a member of Congress and you know that somebody from this lobbying firm has just held a fundraiser in your honor, let's say, or somebody from his lobbying firm, you know, they've regularly contribute 10, 20, $30,000 collectively, you're probably going to be more likely to take that meeting. And so at the very least, I think the campaign contributions, they're going to open the door for the members of Congress.
Helena Cobban:
23:35
So rather than go through each of these four actors and how they work, I mean, I would assume in general, that the Emirates and Qatar do roughly the same. They have scads of money, they hire lobbying firms, they create think-tanks, they infiltrate and capture existing think-tanks and so on. I think Israel is probably a little different because a lot of their influence comes from actual American citizens who are big donors and big movers and shakers. So what the government of Israel has to do is in a sense a lot less than what the government of Saudi Arabia has to do. Is that right?
Ben Freeman:
24:22
Yeah, I'd say that's very accurate. And really with Israel, when we're talking about Israel's influence, we're talking about AIPAC, and let's be honest. And AIPAC is very interesting. And there are folks out there who call for AIPAC to register under FARA, and folks who bemoan AIPAC's influence and I'm not going to comment on their influence. But the simple fact about AIPAC is that they are not, the way the law is written right now, they are not required to register under FARA because the money in the control of AIPAC is entirely US-based.
Ben Freeman:
24:22
I know folks who have done fundraising work for AIPAC and it's all here and it's raised by Israeli Americans, and there's a reason it's called the American Israeli (PAC), because these folks are American citizens. And so, the money's coming from here. So, I think, you know, folks can critique the influence of AIPAC, but the money is here and so they don't have to register under FARA. The problem that poses for a pesky little person like me who wants to, you know, talk about the influence is that, because they're not registered under FARA, we don't know as much about what they're doing. We don't know who they're meeting with. We can't--
Helena Cobban:
25:48
You don't have the transparency that you actually get with FARA.
Ben Freeman:
25:51
Exactly. Right. And so for all these other countries: for Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar, they don't have those domestic constituencies here. And so, whenever they are hiring a lobbying or PR firm, they do have to register under FARA. We get great transparency and you know, we can really follow the money there in a way we just can't with Israel.
Helena Cobban:
26:11
Having said that though, I was surprised when I went to that website-- Why do I keep blanking on the name? Anyway, the government of Israel does do some nontrivial funding in addition to what domestically AIPAC does. And one of the big recipients is some kind of a media company. So clearly, they are concerned about shaping the discourse and that's coming out of Government of Israel funding. So, like this is different between Israel and those other three actors. We actually, you know, as US taxpayers, give a huge chunk of money to Israel every year. And then some of that the Government of Israel uses to come back and-- I mean, am I wrong there?
Ben Freeman:
26:57
I think technically that money that we provide Israel every year cannot be used and you know, hire lobbying and PR firms. But the question is always to me whenever, whenever something like that happens is like, how do we really separate this money--
Helena Cobban:
26:57
Yes, money is fungible! That's the function of money, to be fungible!
Ben Freeman:
26:57
Yeah. I think money is very fungible. So, could that happen? You know, it possibly, it certainly could. But there's significant overlap, too, I think with the other three countries you mentioned, because they're all big buyers of US arms. And so this is where you get this fascinating alliance of these foreign lobbies, these lobbying and PR firms that are working for these foreign governments.
Helena Cobban:
27:47
And also working for Raytheon.
Ben Freeman:
27:47
Exactly right.
Helena Cobban:
27:47
Got it! So it's the military-industrial-foreign-policy complex.
Ben Freeman:
27:55
Exactly. Yeah and they work together. This is not just a conspiracy theory type thing. I can tell you over ten firms who both work for one of these countries and work for at least one of the defense contractors. And one of my favorite examples, and I keep going back to the McKeon Group, I know. But it checks so many cronyism boxes. Number one, the McKeon Group works for the government of Saudi Arabia, but they also work for a handful of big defense contractors who sell arms and weapons and training in some cases to Saudi Arabia. Also, the McKeon Group was founded by the former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Buck McKeon. That's the firm's namesake. So when Buck McKeon or a lobbyist working for him goes into an office and they say, don't worry about the Yemen war, but do let Saudi Arabia have this arms sale. They're checking the box for so many clients for the government of Saudi Arabia and every single one of those defense contracts.
Helena Cobban:
29:06
And they probably double-bill all of them.
Ben Freeman:
29:08
And they probably double-bill all of them!
Helena Cobban:
29:10
Plus somebody who's in the House, you know, who was maybe a junior member of the House when, Buck McKeon was, you know, a powerful committee chair, is going to take that call is going to take that meeting.
Ben Freeman:
29:21
Yeah. Because he's your former boss and this is the guy who probably, you know, when he was chairman, maybe he doled out some favors and so he leaves office and maybe, those junior members or even it's not just even members, it's the staffers--
Helena Cobban:
29:21
The staffers, who remember his aura--
Ben Freeman:
29:21
This is the chairman, this is the guy! And so, I think they're going to be much more likely to take a meeting from somebody like that.
Helena Cobban:
29:21
No question about it, really.
Helena Cobban:
29:48
I want to come on to three instances where things may be getting a little bit better, or you know, the old mold getting broken. Let's first of all talk about Yemen 'cause that's very current. And, we did get the Senate supporting the act that would rein in or end US military support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen, and then last week President Trump decided to veto that. And now there's the question of can you get it an override for the veto that is, you need to get more votes in the Senate in order to override the veto. But the fact that the Yemen issue came up at all was in a sense a setback for the Saudi lobbying industry just as back in 2016 the JASTA Act was. That was the act that enables US citizens to actually sue the government of Saudi Arabia in relation to 9/11. And I mean, that was a massive setback, the JASTA Act, and so presumably has been the Yemen Act. So, things are maybe getting a little bit better in terms of Saudi Arabia's influence waning?
Ben Freeman:
31:21
The optimist in me would love to agree with that. But I think in this case, instead of, you know, the glass being half full or the glass being half empty, there's just half right now. But I don't know if it's half full or if it's half empty. The reason I say that is, after-- with JASTA of course you have this overwhelmingly popular bill, you know, 9/11 victims’ families, it's going to allow them to seek financial redress for a crime we know was committed by these Saudi nationals. So that should have been a no-brainer. And it was for Congress. The interesting thing about it was it went through Congress almost unanimously. And yet, what people often forget is that Obama issued one of his few vetoes to override Congress on JASTA!
Ben Freeman:
31:21
And we can talk about the politics of that. You know, some folks said he was doing it as, to sort of compensate them for passing the Iran Deal despite Saudi objections to it. But eventually, you know, Congress overrides the veto. But I think the process for why that took so long is still a testament to the power of the Saudi lobbying. This should have been a no-brainer.
Helena Cobban:
32:49
In fact, the US military should never have been supporting the US, no, the Saudi war in Yemen at all. I mean, that's kind of what I was saying in my article. Like it took four years to get to where we are on Yemen and it was Obama who actually signed off on supporting MBS's military adventure in Yemen in March 2015 that MBS and everybody else assumed would be, you know, one of those classic cakewalks like we we're gonna go in and it'll be done in three weeks.
Ben Freeman:
32:49
Right.
Helena Cobban:
32:49
And here we are, four years later, 70,000 Yemeni civilians having been killed. Cholera, mass starvation, the country, you know, vast areas of it devastated. And the Saudis and the UAE very active in all of these atrocities, including the UAE, doing just horrendous tortures in the south of Yemen.
Ben Freeman:
33:45
On the ground! I completely agree with that. I would only add that we also know about US complicity in all of this. We know they're, there have been enough reports coming out from CNN for example, which had a great expose series towards the end of last year called "Made in America", where it talks about all these different Saudi and UAE airstrikes that killed civilians where the remnants of US bombs were found, right? And so we know for a fact that some of the weapons that we are selling them are being used to perpetuate the atrocities in this war.
Helena Cobban:
34:33
And US naval support in the blockade of Yemeni ports which is the cause of a lot of the humanitarian disaster.
Ben Freeman:
34:42
Exactly. And another thing we know too is that some of the weapons that we've provided to the Saudis and the Emiratis have made their hands into al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in Yemen now is getting their hands on some of these US weapons. And now, let's be honest, from the US point of view about the Yemen war: The Yemen war is not a direct threat to America. There's no sort of base of operations for a group that, you know, could attack the US from Yemen. But who can attack the US who has proven they can do it? Al-Qaeda. And so our involvement in this, at the very least, this conflict has helped to fuel al-Qaeda's resurgence in Yemen. So, I think based on that metric alone, even if you're a hawk, even if you're in, you know, you're not somebody if you're not like us, who really cares about these human rights issues. Even if you're just looking at this from purely, you know, a realist per, you know, hawk perspective.
Helena Cobban:
35:45
-- Or I'm a director of Raytheon, or one of the big arms corporations, I mean. I don't know, I suppose they care because they want to make profits.
Ben Freeman:
35:58
Yeah. I think it's a good question to ask them, you know, "How do you feel that weapon you made is now in the hands of the terrorist organization that was responsible for 9/11?" That for me would, you know, keep me up at night. But I guess that's why I'm not the president of Raytheon.
Helena Cobban:
36:18
So let's move to the Kashoggi killing, which obviously was very shocking for deep sections of the US political elite here in Washington DC. You know, it goes beyond your kind of rank and file, some foreigner somewhere commits a human rights abuse-- but here was a guy who was a columnist for the Washington Post who was almost certainly killed in the most gruesome way, dismembered by officials of the Saudi government. Is that a fair characterization? I think it is.
Ben Freeman:
36:59
I think it is, according to our intelligence stories.
Helena Cobban:
37:04
So that did cause a setback to Saudi Arabia's influence operation. I haven't had the chance yet to read your report on the effects, but can you summarize what happened?
Ben Freeman:
37:20
Yeah, absolutely. After the brutal murder of Jamal Kashoggi that again, according to our intelligence authorities was authorized by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, so that's at the very highest levels of the Saudi government, their influence operation in America unquestionably was weakened and unquestionably took a hit. It became something of a toxic label if you were working with the Saudis. And so, we saw this sort of trickle effect work through their influence operation. You had sort of the most obvious where the lobbying and PR shops, their FARA registrants that had been working with the Saudis: several of them dropped the Saudis as a client, you know, in the immediate aftermath.
Helena Cobban:
38:15
Can you do that under the terms of a contract like termination or you have to carry on... ?
Ben Freeman:
38:22
Most FARA contracts have provisions in them to do exactly that, to leave for cause. And I think a lot of these big firms who work for clients like this, they sort of know on one level who they're getting into bed with here. And so they know that these regimes might be capable of something like this and so you build in the clause--
Helena Cobban:
38:22
You put the clause in the contract--
Ben Freeman:
38:22
Yeah, that says you can get the heck out of there. For a lot of these, not all, but a lot of them that I've seen have that clause. And so you see, some of the biggest firms, the Harbor Group, BGR, they leave them very quickly, and so right there, you take some of your biggest lobbying firms off the table. Then at think tanks you see a similar effect there. The Brookings Institution was the first think tank to come out and say, "We're not going to take any Saudi money anymore. You know, it's very heinous, what happened."
Helena Cobban:
39:19
Did they say "We're going to give back the Saudi money we took over the last three years?"
Ben Freeman:
39:23
Unfortunately, no, because they had basically already used up the money, and that's a whole other issue, but at least they were the first to come out and say, you know, we're going to do the right thing. We're not going to take any Saudi money going forward. Other think tanks who we know to take a lot of Saudi money were a little more nuanced in their response. Like the Middle East Institute for example, said "We're carefully reviewing this. In the interim, we are not going to take any more money from the government of Saudi Arabia." They didn't put a sort of blanket statement that we're not going to take Saudi money.
Helena Cobban:
39:59
And then they held a little panel discussion, a seminar on the role of foreign governments and think tanks. That was very, very bold of them to do that!
Ben Freeman:
40:12
It was! It was amazing to me when they held that event, they were advocating for the role of think tanks in helping to guide US foreign policy. And what really struck me about that event was they completely left out how the funding of those think tanks can affect the work those think tanks do. Then when somebody in the Q and A-- it wasn't me for the record-- somebody in the Q and A asked them about that. They of course gave the completely naive explanation that, "You know, our funding does not affect us at all. In fact, our research independence is critical." I've worked at think tanks before. I have many friends who do. I think anybody who is really honest with you about that will tell you that the funding of the think tank absolutely matters. And if it didn't, your funders would be crazy.
Helena Cobban:
41:13
I mean, I've certainly experienced that with the Middle East Institute with their work on Syria and definitely skewing the whole conversation on Syria very very intentionally directing it toward only supporting regime change, only supporting the overthrow of the government. So, yeah. And I also look to see what kind of programs they'd had recently on Yemen. And: very very few!
Ben Freeman:
41:13
Very, very few.
Helena Cobban:
41:13
Like why? Yemen is a big thing. Anyway, there is a lot more we could talk about, and maybe we'll come back and talk about it later, but thank you so much for giving the listeners this really informed view into how this all this influence peddling works here in Washington DC.
Ben Freeman:
41:13
Thank you very much for having me.
Helena Cobban:
41:13
Okay. Bye, bye then.
Ben Freeman:
41:13
Bye, bye.