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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 10/4/18

Tomgram: Ben Freeman, The Saudi Lobby Juggernaut

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

If you were sleeping in 2010 when the Supreme Court -- you know, the perfectly reasonable one that didn't yet have Brett Kavanaugh on it -- made political spending a form of free speech with its Citizens United case, you may not yet know that American politics is increasingly a possession of the 1%. In fact, for the first time in American history, there's even a billionaire in the Oval Office showering tax perks on every other billionaire in sight. During the last eight years, not so surprisingly, "outside spending" in election campaigns has headed for the stratosphere. According to Open Secrets, "During the 2016 election cycle, the top 20 individual donors (whose contributions were disclosed) gave more than $500 million combined to political organizations. The 20 largest organizational donors also gave a total of more than $500 million, and more than $1 billion came from the top 40 donors." Think about that for a moment and also consider this: in the 2016 campaign season, hardline pro-Israeli casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, gave millions of dollars to President Trump's campaign and nearly $83 million in all to Republicans. Now, according to the New York Times, Adelson has a "direct line to the president," a reality reflected in The Donald's decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. In addition, in this mid-term election season, the couple has already invested a staggering $55 million in efforts to keep Congress in Republican hands.

And don't think of this new reality as a purely all-American one either. There are some distinctly un-American deep pockets out there on our planet that are also pouring money into this country's politics in order to get their own direct lines buzzing to Washington. In fact, speaking about the Middle East, as TomDispatch's Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy, points out today, right at the top of that list are the royals of Saudi Arabia. That includes, of course, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, now the power behind the throne in that country. He's wooed President Trump with the promise of massive future Saudi arms deals and, earlier this year, reportedly bragged that he had the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a key adviser on the Middle East, "in his pocket." And what a pocket that's proven to be! Given the disastrous Saudi war in Yemen that the prince launched in 2015 and that Washington has supported ever since, believe me, that's no small thing. Today, Freeman offers an unprecedented look at just how a set of foreign Sheldon Adelsons have opened their deep, oil-rich pockets and put American politicians of all sorts in them. It's a story that needs to be told. Tom

The Royal Touch
How Saudi Money Keeps Washington at War in Yemen
By Ben Freeman

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It was May 2017. The Saudis were growing increasingly nervous. For more than two years they had been relying heavily on U.S. military support and bombs to defeat Houthi rebels in Yemen. Now, the Senate was considering a bipartisan resolution to cut off military aid and halt a big sale of American-made bombs to Saudi Arabia. Fortunately for them, despite mounting evidence that the U.S.-backed, supplied, and fueled air campaign in Yemen was targeting civilians, the Saudi government turned out to have just the weapon needed to keep those bombs and other kinds of aid coming their way: an army of lobbyists.

That year, their forces in Washington included members of more than two dozen lobbying and public relations firms. Key among them was Marc Lampkin, managing partner of the Washington office of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck (BHFS), a company that would be paid nearly half a million dollars by the Saudi government in 2017. Records from the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) show that Lampkin contacted Senate offices more than 20 times about that resolution, speaking, for instance, with the legislative director for Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) on May 16, 2017. Perhaps coincidentally, Lampkin reported making a $2,000 contribution to the senator's political action committee that very day. On June 13th, along with a majority of his fellow senators, Scott voted to allow the Saudis to get their bombs. A year later, the type of bomb authorized in that sale has reportedly been used in air strikes that have killed civilians in Yemen.

Little wonder that, for this and his other lobbying work, Lampkin earned a spot on the "Top Lobbyists 2017: Hired Guns" list compiled by the Washington publication the Hill.

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Lampkin's story was anything but exceptional when it comes to lobbyists working on behalf of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It was, in fact, very much the norm. The Saudi government has hired lobbyists in profusion and they, in turn, have effectively helped convince members of Congress and the president to ignore blatant human rights violations and civilian casualties in Yemen. According to a forthcoming report by the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative program, which I direct, at the Center for International Policy, registered foreign agents working on behalf of interests in Saudi Arabia contacted Congressional representatives, the White House, the media, and figures at influential think tanks more than 2,500 times in 2017 alone. In the process, they also managed to contribute nearly $400,000 to the political coffers of senators and House members as they urged them to support the Saudis. Some of those contributions, like Lampkin's, were given on the same day the requests were made to support those arms sales.

The role of Marc Lampkin is just a tiny sub-plot in the expansive and ongoing story of Saudi money in Washington. Think of it as a striking tale of pay-to-play politics that will undoubtedly be revving up again in the coming weeks as the Saudi lobby works to block new Congressional efforts to end U.S. involvement in the disastrous war in Yemen.

A Lobby to Contend With

The roots of that lobby's rise to prominence in Washington lie in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. As you may remember, with 15 of those 19 suicidal hijackers being citizens of Saudi Arabia, it was hardly surprising that American public opinion had soured on the Kingdom. In response, the worried Saudi royals spent around $100 million over the next decade to improve such public perceptions and retain their influence in the U.S. capital. That lobbying facelift proved a success until, in 2015, relations soured with the Obama administration over the Iran nuclear deal. Once Donald Trump won the presidency, however, the Saudis saw an unparalleled opportunity and launched the equivalent of a full-court press, an aggressive campaign to woo the newly elected president and the Republican-led Congress, which, of course, cost real money.

As a result, the growth of Saudi lobbying operations would prove extraordinary. In 2016, according to FARA records, they reported spending just under $10 million on lobbying firms; in 2017, that number had nearly tripled to $27.3 million. And that's just a baseline figure for a far larger operation to buy influence in Washington, since it doesn't include considerable sums given to elite universities or think tanks like the Arab Gulf States Institute, the Middle East Institute, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (to mention just a few of them).

This meteoric rise in spending allowed the Saudis to dramatically increase the number of lobbyists representing their interests on both sides of the aisle. Before President Trump even took office, the Saudi government signed a deal with the McKeon Group, a lobbying firm headed by Howard "Buck" McKeon, the recently retired Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. His firm also represents Lockheed Martin, one of the top providers of military equipment to the Kingdom. On the Democratic side, the Saudis inked a $140,000-per-month deal with the Podesta Group, headed by Tony Podesta, whose brother John, a long-time Democratic Party operative, was the former chairman of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. Tony Podesta later dissolved his firm and has allegedly been investigated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for serving as an unregistered foreign agent.

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And keep in mind that all this new firepower was added to an already formidable arsenal of lobbying outfits and influential power brokers, including former Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who, according to Lee Fang of the Intercept, was "deeply involved in the [Trump] White House hiring process," and former Senator Norm Coleman, chairman of the pro-Republican Super PAC American Action Network. All told, during 2017, Saudi Arabia inked 45 different contracts with FARA-registered firms and more than 100 individuals registered as Saudi foreign agents in the U.S. They proved to be extremely busy. Such activity reveals a clear pattern: Saudi foreign agents are working tirelessly to shape perceptions of that country, its royals, its policies, and especially its grim war in Yemen, while simultaneously working to keep U.S. weapons and military support flowing into the Kingdom.

While the term "foreign agent" is often used as a synonym for lobbyist, part of the work performed by the Kingdom's paid representatives here resembles public relations activity far more than straightforward lobbying. For example, in 2017, Saudi foreign agents reported contacting media outlets more than 500 times, including significant outreach to national ones like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and PBS, which has aired multiple documentaries about the Kingdom. Also included, however, were smaller papers like the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and more specialized outlets, even ESPN, in hopes of encouraging positive stories.

The Kingdom's image in the U.S. clearly concerned those agents. Still, the lion's share of their activity was focused on security issues of importance to that country's royals. For example, Saudi agents contacted officials at the State Department, which oversees most commercial arms transfers and sales, nearly 100 times in 2017, according to FARA filings. Above all, however, their focus was on Congress, especially members with seniority on key committees. As a result, at some point between late 2016 and the end of 2017, Saudi lobbyists contacted more than 200 of them, including every single Senator.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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