Fed up after years of relentless National Guard deployments in undeclared wars, state lawmakers across the country are pushing legislation that would prohibit the use of Guard units in combat zones without a formal declaration of war by Congress.
The bills are being promoted by BringOurTroopsHome.US, a self-described organization of “right-of-center” veterans working to end American involvement in “endless wars” and restore congressional authority over war-making. The libertarian 10th Amendment Center is also backing the cause.
The proposed laws would require governors to determine the constitutionality of orders that place Guard units on federal active duty; where they’re deemed unconstitutional, the governor is required to take action to prevent the unit from being surrendered to federal control and sent into harm’s way.
The first “Defend the Guard” bill was conceived and introduced by Air Force veteran and West Virginia state legislator Pat McGeehan. While no state has enacted the law yet, interest is spreading widely, with legislators now pushing the measure in 31 states.
Conservative Veterans Taking Point
BringOurTroopsHome.US is led by Dan McKnight, a 13-year veteran of the Marine Corps Reserve, active duty Army and Idaho Army National Guard whose military service ended after he was injured in Afghanistan.
McKnight and many other veterans leading the drive against the War on Terror are from the right side of the political spectrum. That’s a sharp contrast to the typical antiwar veteran of the Vietnam era, but McKnight says vets from both wars share a common experience.
Today’s veterans “are coming home and saying the same thing (Vietnam vets did): ‘What was the point of that? What was our mission? We have no mission, we have no definition of success, we have no clear path to victory, we have no idea what victory means and we’re there without a constitutional authority to send us there’,” he says.
“Every one of us raised our hands and swore an oath to the Constitution…and when it says Congress shall be the only body to declare war, we take that to heart. And when Congress doesn’t do it, we understand bad things can happen: long, endless foreign misadventures,” says McKnight.
In a 2019 Pew Research poll, 64% of veterans said the war in Iraq wasn’t worth fighting; 58% said the same of Afghanistan. A January Concerned Veterans for America/YouGov poll found two-thirds or more of veterans support full withdrawals from both countries.
“The right-of-center veterans are now echoing the message of left-of-center veterans, and it’s hard to ignore when veterans from the entire political spectrum are saying the same thing: Enough already—if you want us to go and bleed and die and spend our lives and your treasure in a foreign land, then Congress should put their name on the line before we put our boots on the ground,” McKnight says.
That’s what the Constitution demands. In an impassioned speech at the West Virginia legislature last month, McGeehan quoted James Madison: “The Constitution supposes what the history of all governments demonstrates, that the executive is the branch of power most interested in war and most prone to it. It has accordingly, with studied care, vested the question of war in the legislature.”
Deployments’ Steep Toll
The National Guard has played a major role in America’s post-9/11 militarism: As recently as December, more than 57,000 Guard members were deployed around the world.
The federal government’s reliance on the National Guard makes state legislatures an intriguing second front in the drive to curtail the War on Terror. “Defend the Guard” laws also give state lawmakers a rare chance to influence foreign policy—and to impose consequences for the executive branch’s usurpation of war powers.
The heavy reliance on the Guard takes a toll on soldiers, families, neighborhoods and states. The intense pace of National Guard deployments was underscored at a recent Defend the Guard hearing in South Dakota: While opposing “Defend the Guard,” the state adjutant general acknowledged that, during the entire Global War on Terrorism to date, the state has had all its troops home for just 42 days.
McKnight has friends who’ve done a staggering 12 or 13 overseas National Guard deployments. Beyond the risk to life and limb, and the hardships imposed on individuals, families and marriages, he says communities also pay a price.
Guard members “are police officers, tradesmen, mechanics, schoolteachers, attorneys. (When) they have to leave that job behind, it puts a burden on the community,” says McKnight. Upon their return, Guard members are generally guaranteed the option to reclaim their jobs—but that sometimes means displacing those who filled their positions while they were away, compounding the disruptive effect.
Deployments also prevent National Guard units from responding to crises at home—their primary reason for existing. For example:
When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005, thousands of the states’ National Guard soldiers were deployed to Iraq. Mississippi’s 223rd Engineer Battalion returned to repair hurricane damage—but was ordered to leave its equipment in Iraq for use by other units.
In 2020, as Oregon endured some of its worst wildfires ever, half the state’s National Guard helicopters were in Afghanistan, including all its CH-47 Chinooks—dual-rotor choppers capable of carrying 26,000-pound payloads and ideal for use in firefighting. The Oregon Guard did what it could with Blackhawk helicopters that have one tenth the lifting power.
The Empire Strikes Back
When Defend the Guard measures are introduced in state legislatures, the national security establishment and its allies emerge to defend the status quo—by hook or by crook.
In South Dakota, McKnight says, “the military-industrial complex…sent a two-star general to testify…and made all kinds of threats, and insinuated the state would lose their National Guard if they passed this bill, which is simply not true.”
Weeks ago, Republican Idaho Representative Joe Palmer, who chairs the state’s Transportation & Defense Committee, seemed to resort to underhanded tactics to kill a Defend the Guard bill.
He put the measure to an initial procedural vote in the committee, and declared it to have failed by voice vote. Video of the proceedings, however, shows the result of the voice vote to be unclear at best, and McKnight says his group’s post-vote polling of members suggests the measure would have advanced had Palmer taken a recorded vote.
If Palmer didn’t already know he should play fair with veterans who are trying to prevent fellow citizen-soldiers from dying in unconstitutional wars, he may be learning that lesson now: McKnight says his group facilitated an emergency meeting of the GOP committee in Palmer’s home town, which is now considering a resolution censuring Palmer for his conduct.
“If you want to play parliamentary tricks and the price of your tricks is the blood of my brothers and sisters who (deploy) over and over again, then we’re going to take some blood of our own, and we’re going to do that the way politicians understand, and that’s with voters in the primary and the general election,” says McKnight.
Sometimes, the establishment’s machinations are done away from cameras. In a 2015 interview, West Virginia’s McGeehan said he was summoned to a meeting in the Speaker’s office with the commander of the state National Guard. The general said he’d received a call from the Pentagon, threatening that, if Defend the Guard became law, West Virginia bases would find their way onto the list of installations targeted for closure.
Liz Cheney Intervenes to Thwart Wyoming Bill
McKnight says “the most offensive opposition that we’ve faced” came from U.S. Congresswoman Liz Cheney, daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney.
“When we pushed the Defend the Guard bill in Wyoming last year, she or her staff contacted members of the Wyoming legislature and said, ‘If this passes in Wyoming, I will personally see to it that two C-130 aircraft are stripped from Wyoming and sent to Texas’,” says McKnight, who was in Cheyenne to support the bill, along with U.S. Senator Rand Paul.
Bethany Baldes, Wyoming state director of BringOurTroopsHome.US, was also on hand. She too says lawmakers told her they received calls from Cheney’s office that included threats to send new C-130 cargo planes to Texas. (Cheney’s communications director has not replied to an invitation to comment on this story.)
The measure failed, 35-22. A statement signed by a group of Wyoming senators opposing the measure seemed to turn logic on its head by claiming the bill “calls into question Wyoming’s support for our soldiers and airmen in the National Guard.”
That episode was McKnight’s second jarring encounter with Cheney, whom he describes as a “warmonger heiress of a military-industrial fortune.” Months before, he and other veterans met with Cheney in Washington to urge her to support the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
“We went into Liz Cheney’s office and we asked her, ‘What conditions must be met on the ground for you to support ending the war in Afghanistan and bringing our troops home?’ And she said, ‘I don’t think I could ever support that position’.”
Pressing the issue, the veterans asked Cheney how long troops should remain. “She looked us stone-faced in the eye and said, ‘Forever. American troops will be in Afghanistan forever’,” says McKnight. “That’s when we decided it was time to step away from the swamp and work in the states, and force the states to force Congress’s hand.”
This article was originally featured at Stark Realities and is republished with permission.
If you’ve felt the media has heavily emphasized bad news throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, your judgment now has some scholarly corroboration.
Dartmouth College and Brown University researchers have analyzed tens of thousands of Covid-19 articles and found major U.S. media outlets have overwhelmingly pushed negative narratives about the virus.
“The most striking fact is that 87 percent of the U.S. stories are classified as negative, whereas 51 percent of the non-U.S. stories are classified as negative,” according to the study by Dartmouth economics professor Bruce Sacerdote, Dartmouth’s Ranjan Sehgal and Brown University’s Molly Cook.
Thwarting Public Clarity About COVID-19
Though the study doesn’t delve deep into the societal implications, there’s little doubt excessive media negativity has contributed to public misunderstanding of the nature of the disease and the risk it poses to various segments of society.
Consider one of study’s most glaring findings: Even when COVID-19 cases were falling nationally between April 24 and June 27, major media discussed rising caseloads 5.3 times as frequently as falling ones.
The impact was evident: A June CBS News poll found a record number of Americans felt the fight against coronavirus was going badly. Of course, news of the poll was itself another negative story, feeding a media-facilitated vicious circle of fear.
In July, a Franklin Templeton-Gallup poll found Americans had a poor understanding of the risk of Covid-19 death for different age cohorts:
Participants said people aged 55+ accounted for a little over half of the deaths, when the actual share was 92%.
Those under age 25 accounted for just 0.2% of deaths—participants overestimated the share by a factor of 50.
The results aren’t surprising, given the media’s compulsion to accentuate rare occasions when teens and twentysomethings fall victim to the virus.
The many who skimmed the headline received an anecdotal infusion of fearful misinformation. The minority who made it to the tenth paragraph would finally learn that doctors treating the purportedly “healthy” yet visibly obese teen found he had Type 1 diabetes with a blood sugar level 10 times the norm.
Two months earlier, the Centers for Disease Control announced that about 90% of those hospitalized with the virus had one or more underlying conditions. Among the most common were obesity (48%) and diabetes (28%). Rather than using this teen’s grim story to enlighten the public about who is at greatest risk, CNN aggressively pushed a perception that nobody is safe.
The media’s failure to foster understanding of Covid-19 also seems evident in the many people still seen wearing masks while alone outdoors. According to Dr. Muge Cevik, an infectious diseases and virology scientist at the University of St Andrews, “outdoor risk is negligible unless it involves close interaction or you are in a crowded or semi-outdoor environment.”
Perceptions of the Virus Influence Policy Opinions
Overly-negative Covid-19 reporting has implications well beyond individual feelings and practices: Those who’ve been led to an exaggerated perception of their personal risk are more prone to support strict government policies to counter the virus.
A recent Pew Research poll confirms that individuals’ perception of the pandemic heavily influences their opinions about various government interventions.
For example, Pew asked if limiting restaurants to carry-out service has been necessary to counter the virus. Among those who think Covid-19 represents a minor threat to the U.S. population, 21% agreed. Support soared to 66% among those who deem the virus a major threat.
Many are likely opining from a position of ignorance: How many know that a New York contact tracing study attributed less than 2% of Covid-19 case transmission to bars and restaurants?
Negative About Positives
The Dartmouth and Brown researchers found “the negativity of the U.S. major media is notable even in areas with positive developments, including school re-openings and vaccine trials.”
When schools reopen to in-person teaching—a move validated by the experience of European schools—U.S. media has been quick on the scene with a wet blanket: The study found 86% of mainstream media articles about school reopenings are negative.
The easing of government restrictions reliably attracts negative media. Iowa governor Kim Reynolds’s lifting of the state’s mask mandate in early February sparked a wave of negative reporting and opinion pieces, including a Washington Postpiece that was actually titled “Welcome to Iowa: a state that doesn’t care if you live or die.”
In September, similarderision was heaped on Florida governor Ron DeSantis when he lifted major statewide restrictions.
However, when neither Florida nor Iowa experienced negative consequences, there was little media reporting of the good news that government restrictions and mandates may not be worthwhile after all.
We see a similar pattern with the media’s never-ending cycle of warning that various holidays and special events will bring a surge in contagion. From Thanksgiving to Christmas to the Super Bowl and spring break, we’re constantly presented headlines stoking fears these occasions will cause major virus spikes.
When predicted surges don’t happen, the media gives little attention to the happy news that their alarms proved false. Instead, they’re apparently hard at work drafting warnings about whatever’s next on the calendar.
It’s as if mainstream journalists feel duty-bound to stoke Covid-19 fear, while paternalistically shielding us from welcome facts that could lead us to “let our guard down.” In doing so, they negligently disregard the collateral harm they do to mental health and our quality of life.
Hope for Greater Media Balance?
The Dartmouth-Brown study on U.S. media negativity prompted The New York Times’ David Leonhardt to call for introspection: “If we’re constantly telling a negative story, we are not giving our audience the most accurate portrait of reality. We are shading it.”
That’s a welcome acknowledgment: Until recently, Leonhardt’s own Times email newsletter has mirrored the negative slant found across U.S. media.
There are hints of a growing balance. For example, in recent weeks, major outlets have finally started acknowledging that Florida’s post-reopening experience conflicts with the media-reinforced notion that shutdowns are an essential strategy.
Concluding his review of the study, Leonhardt expressed gratitude to researchers Sacerdote, Cook and Sehgal for “holding up a mirror to our work and giving us a chance to do better.” Let’s hope his sentiment proves highly contagious.
This article was originally featured at Stark Realities and is republished with permission.
Efforts to restore American and Iranian compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal—formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—are at an impasse.
President Biden has declared there will be no relaxing of smothering economic sanctions on Iran unless the country first returns to full compliance with the deal. Iran, which began exceeding nuclear enrichment thresholds in response to America’s total withdrawal from the deal under President Trump, wants the United States to begin easing sanctions first.
As that chess game continues, there’s something missing from op-ed pages, network news studios and the House and Senate chambers: a fundamental debate about the morality of economic sanctions.
If we reduce economic sanctions to a general characterization that encompasses both ends and means, we arrive at a truth that is as damning as it is incontrovertible:
Economic sanctions intentionally inflict suffering on civilian populations to force a change in their governments’ policies.
If that has a familiar ring, perhaps it’s because “the intentional use of violence against civilians in order to obtain political aims” is one definition of terrorism.
That’s not to say “sanctions” and “terrorism” are interchangeable terms. However, both practices center on willfully harming civilians to accomplish political goals.
Like Sanctioning Governments, Terrorists Have Political Objectives
Some resist the fact that al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are principally motivated by political goals. That’s understandable, given establishment media grossly underreports terrorist motivations.
The resulting vacuum is filled with reflexive and false assumptions—for example, that Muslim terrorists are principally motivated by religion—or deliberately misleading government claims, like President George W. Bush’s baseless assertion that al Qaeda terrorists “hate our freedoms.”
Through various written and recorded pronouncements, Osama bin Laden made al Qaeda’s political motivations clear. His aims included the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Middle East, and termination of U.S. support of the region’s dictators and the government of Israel.
The political nature of terrorism was particularly apparent in the 2004 Madrid train bombings. The attacks came three days before Spain’s general election, and a video received by Spanish authorities said the attacks were punishment for the country’s participation in the occupation of Iraq.
On election day, the shaken Spanish population gave an upset victory to the Socialist party, and the newly elected prime minister immediately pledged to withdrawal Spanish troops from Iraq.
Those examples focus on al Qaeda and its kin, but terrorists of all religions, ethnicities and nationalities have political aims. An exhaustive study of worldwide suicide bombing by University of Chicago Professor Robert Pape found nearly all such attacks seek “to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.”
Like Terrorists, Sanctioning Governments Intentionally Harm Civilians
In a hearing earlier this month, Senate foreign relations committee chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who has been one of Capitol Hill’s most prolific authors of Iran sanction legislation, praised sanctions as part of “our arsenal of peaceful diplomacy.”
Perhaps it was a Freudian slip that led him to oxymoronically place his supposedly “peaceful” sanctions inside an “arsenal”—in their effect, there’s little difference between imposing economic sanctions and mining Iranian harbors.
Of course, “peaceful” isn’t the favorite adjective of sanction advocates. When boasting about their handiwork, Menendez and others invariably use a far more appropriate descriptor: “crippling.”
VP Biden on Iran: "These are the most crippling sanctions in the history of sanctions. Period."
Officials assure us that sanctions are meant to cripple governments, but any honest observer understands that’s achieved by first crippling the country’s economy.
Since the concept of economic harm is somewhat abstract, it’s easy for Americans to limit their visualization of that harm to a downward slope on a gross domestic product chart, failing to appreciate what economic warfare means to the everyday lives of individual humans.
Occasionally, though, American media provides a window on the harms being visited upon the Iranian people.
While the U.S. sanctions regime provides exceptions for Iran’s import of food and medicine, other limitations on the flow of Iranian money—and vendors’ and bankers’ fears of accidentally running afoul of U.S. restrictions—often render those exceptions meaningless.
As a result, sanctions can have profound consequences for Iran’s sick. Among other observations, a 2019 report by Human Rights Watch found:
Iranian patients with rare diseases were finding it increasingly difficult to access essential, imported medicines
A pediatric cancer treatment center was unable to acquire medications deemed essential by the World Health Organization
Patients with epidermolysis bullosa—a rare disease that causes blistering— had their supply of a special kind of foam dressing cut off when a European producer ceased business in Iran due to U.S. sanctions. The domestic alternative dressing “often gets attached to the blisters, causing excruciating pain for the patients,” according to an attorney representing a health NGO.
The report also noted Iranians were finding it harder to acquire imported eye drops, “causing suffering for the large number of patients affected by chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war.”
Exasperatingly, many of those eye patients are being victimized by the U.S. government for a second time: During the Iran-Iraq War, American intelligence officials provided targeting information to the Iraqi military, fully aware Saddam Hussein’s forces would attack with chemical weapons.
U.S. sanctions also make civilian air travel in Iran riskier. When the 2015 JCPOA eased sanctions, Iranian airlines rushed to update their aging fleets, placing large orders with Boeing, Airbus and ATR.
However, when self-proclaimed “America-first” President Trump later abandoned the JCPOA and restored sanctions, he denied U.S.-based Boeing billions of dollars of business and forced Iranian airlines to continue patching old jets, often unable to buy replacement parts.
Officials Acknowledge Intent to Harm Civilians
Some readers might be tempted to liken civilian suffering under sanctions to so-called “collateral damage” in warfare, as may happen when a missile goes astray or a bomb target is incorrectly selected.
However, the harm to civilians under economic sanctions isn’t incidental, and those who impose sanctions fully understand they inevitably bring misery and sometimes death to innocents.
In occasional moments of candor, U.S. officials confirm economic sanctions are meant to take a toll on civilians. At a 2007 press conference, President George W. Bush said, “The whole strategy is that, you know, at some point in time leaders orresponsible folks inside of Iran may get tired of isolation and say, ‘This isn’t worth it’” (emphasis mine).
When Congressman Tony Cardenas (D-CA) voiced his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, he argued that “lessening sanctions…would economically reward the Iranian people for supporting those who enslave them.”
If the withdraw of sanctions is an improper reward of Iranian civilians, it logically follows that Cardenas views the imposition of sanctions and their accompanying misery as rightful punishment.
Cardenas’s rationalization of civilian harm is indistinguishable from bin Laden’s. In a 2002 “Letter to America,” bin Laden offered this justification of aggression against civilians:
“The American people are the ones who choose their government by way of their own free will; a choice which stems from their agreement to its policies. Thus the American people have chosen, consented to, and affirmed their support for the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, the occupation and usurpation of their land, and its continuous killing, torture, punishment and expulsion of the Palestinians. The American people have the ability and choice to refuse the policies of their Government and even to change it if they want.”
Current Biden deputy Iran envoy and former Obama sanctions coordinator Richard Nephew wrote the book on sanctions—literally. At The Grayzone this week, Max Blumenthal explored various passages from Nephew’s 2017 book, “The Art of Sanctions: A View from the Field.”
Nephew celebrated the tripling of chicken prices “during important Iranian holiday periods,” admitted to having targeted manufacturing jobs, and boasted of having purposefully intensified wealth inequality by devaluing Iran’s currency, thus “depriving most people of the practical benefit of being able to purchase” humanitarian, consumer or luxury goods.
“The Price is Worth It”
When it comes to cold, calculating acceptance of civilian suffering under sanctions in pursuit of political goals, the most infamous example is Madeleine Albright’s 1996 interview on 60 Minutes.
At the time, Albright was ambassador to the United Nations in the Clinton administration, and surveyors had recently estimated that upwards of 576,000 Iraqi children had died because of malnutrition and deterioration of water and sanitation systems caused or exacerbated by UN sanctions promoted by the United States.
Lesley Stahl: We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And…you know..is the price worth it?
Madeleine Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.
It’s important to note the survey’s particular child-death estimate has been credibly disputed. A subsequent study placed the combined toll of the Gulf War and subsequent sanctions between 100,000 and 227,000, with the majority attributed to sanctions.
It’s telling that Albright didn’t object to the premise of Stahl’s question. That’s not to say she was validating the “half million” number, but rather that she was stipulating that sanctions did inflict some ghastly toll on Iraqi children that was “worth it” to the U.S. government.
Notably, in a 2004 video, bin Laden listed Iraq sanctions among al Qaeda’s motivating grievances, claiming they inflicted “the greatest mass slaughter of children mankind has ever known.”
On 9/11, Bin Laden was party to killing nearly 3,000 civilians in an effort to alter U.S. policy in the Middle East. Even by many of the lower estimates, Albright was party to killing a far higher number—of children alone—in a purported effort to ensure Iraq had no chemical or biological weapons.
In both bin Laden and Albright, we see a calculated acceptance of civilian deaths to achieve political aims. While Bin Laden is rightly reviled for that calculus, Albright is wrongly revered.
For example, when my alma mater, Bucknell University, announced her as its 2019 commencement speaker, it lauded her for having “advocated for…human rights.” University president John Bravman said she led a “life of courageous service” that “left an indelible mark on the world.”
I suppose the tombs of Iraqi children do count as indelible marking.
Sanctions Are Fundamentally Immoral
Like terrorism, economic sanctions intentionally inflict suffering on innocent individuals in pursuit of political objectives. Americans should take no comfort in the fact that this suffering is neatly arranged by government officials using legislation, executive orders, UN resolutions and Treasury regulations.
After all, is it less villainous to kill someone by depriving them of cancer medicine, food or aircraft parts via economic restraints, as compared to blowing them up with a car bomb?
The difference is in the means, not the ends: Instead of using explosives, sanction-enforcing bureaucrats at the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) inflict their harms using phones and computer keyboards.
True, most harms imposed by sanctions aren’t lethal. However, that fact does nothing to buttress their moral standing or absolve their advocates and implementers from guilt.
By unjustly violating innocent individuals’ rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, economic sanctions are not only inhuman, they’re fundamentally un-American. It’s time for citizens and legislators across the political spectrum to demand their immediate, unconditional and universal termination.
This article was originally featured on Stark Realities and is republished with permission.
In March 2017, a group of 9/11 families presented the Department of Justice with 17 pages of detailed allegations that Qorvis Communications had, on behalf of Saudi Arabia, conducted a lobbying campaign against the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) characterized by extensive violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
In the worst instance, veterans who were flown to Washington to lobby against the measure say Qorvis withheld the fact that it was bringing them to Capitol Hill to advance the Saudi agenda, and that the kingdom was paying for their airfare, lodging and meals.
Eighteen months after 9/11 families filed their formal complaint, there’s no indication any investigation ever took place. “It’s one of the most deceptive campaigns that any foreign lobbying operation has ever done, and yet there’s been no punishment whatsoever,” says Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative.
Justice Department national security spokesman Marc Raimondi declined to comment.
Meanwhile, a recent revelation by a retired FBI counterintelligence agent offers yet another indication of a systemic DOJ tendency to put protection of the kingdom’s reputation ahead of the pursuit of justice.
Veterans Tricked into Lobbying for the Kingdom
In September 2016, Congress enacted JASTA by overriding President Obama’s veto. Saudi Arabia then unleashed a massive campaign aimed at amending the law, which cleared the way for 9/11 victims to sue the kingdom for financial and logistical support allegedly provided by government officials.
That campaign tapped many firms in Saudi Arabia’s formidable influence arsenal, but the claims of misconduct focus on the kingdom’s flagship lobbying and public relations firm: Qorvis Communications, a subsidiary of MSLGROUP.
Facing Americans’ deep sympathy for 9/11 families, Saudi Arabia and Qorvis sought a sympathetic face of their own for their campaign to weaken JASTA, and found it in U.S. military veterans.
Saudi Arabia, Qorvis and the kingdom’s allies in U.S. government–most notably, senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham—pushed a coordinated campaign built on the claim that, if JASTA were allowed to stand, U.S. service members and veterans going back as far as the Vietnam War would be exposed to lawsuits abroad.
That’s false, according to William S. Dodge, former counselor on international law at the State Department. “JASTA poses no risk of exposing U.S. service members to lawsuits in foreign courts. JASTA deals only with the immunity of foreign states, not individuals,” Dodge told28Pages.org last year.
Though empty, the claim proved all too effective in creating alarm among well-intentioned veterans recruited via a grassroots campaign carried out by scores of political consultants across the country.
Many were persuaded to sign group letters to Congress or send individual messages of their own. Some agreed to put their names on op-ed pieces printed in newspapers around the country that used identical language.
Qorvis appears to have used a bounty system, with the highest reward given for persuading veterans to travel to Washington. In an email pitch to veterans, Saudi agent Shelbi Lewark wrote, “You don’t have to know anything about JASTA…They will be putting you in the Trump hotel, which is incredibly nice…It’s an awesome trip and basically like a 5 star vacation.”
Offered the chance for a free trip to the nation’s capital to work alongside fellow veterans for a cause they believed to be noble, upwards of two hundred or more leapt at the opportunity over a period of months.
Many were in for a terrible surprise, telling28Pages.org they didn’t find out the kingdom was pulling the strings until they’d already started making the rounds on Capitol Hill. Several say organizers didn’t merely conceal Saudi Arabia’s role, but actively denied it.
Victimized Veterans Ask: Where’s the Investigation?
Now, well over a year after they spoke out about the Saudi-Qorvis scam, three of the veterans lured into the Saudi web want to know why the Justice Department hasn’t contacted them or taken any other discernible action.
“The government not in some way looking into this just raises all kinds of red flags as to where their loyalties are,” says T.J. Hermesman, a Marine veteran who deployed to Afghanistan.
“One part of me feels like it’s fucking crazy. The other part of me says it’s business as usual,” says David Casler, a former Marine who deployed to Iraq. “Our geopolitical relationship with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is such that they can pretty much get away with anything and everything.”
Hermesman says the DOJ is sending the wrong message to Saudi Arabia and other foreign governments. “If there’s no response whatsoever, it’s going to show the door’s wide open,” he says.
Noting that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was charged under FARA in the Mueller probe while the sprawling Saudi lobbying scandal has gone completely uninvestigated, lawyer and retired Army officer Lorraine Barlett says selective prosecution “politicizes the legal system, undermines the rule of law nationwide and promotes disobedience.”
“To me, it falls on the hands of senators and Congress,” says Casler. “Why aren’t they asking for an investigation into this? We walked up on their doorstep and they were pretty much blatantly lied to. You would figure they would be the most pissed off and say ‘Ok, we have an American company operating as pretty much a rogue agent for a foreign government. Why aren’t we investigating them, penalizing them, making sure this doesn’t happen again?’”
The veterans remain indignant over their treatment at the hands of Qorvis, which is on a $279,500 monthly Saudi retainer and received $6.2 million from the kingdom during the six-month period that encompassed most of the veterans lobbying program.
“Where do they come from to think that’s an OK idea to use veterans like that?” asks Hermesman.
While Saudi Arabia has a well-established reputation for ruthlessness, the veterans find Qorvis’s conduct all the more galling considering most or all of the firm’s executives and employees are their fellow Americans.
If he met the architects of the Qorvis scam, Hermesman says he’d ask, “How does it feel to completely lose your loyalty and not only go against your own country but go so far as to use young war veterans? It’s a pretty crazy level of disrespect and disloyalty.”
“It’s absolutely reprehensible,” says Barlett, who was brought to Washington by Qorvis-affiliated Capitol Media Group. “It’s unbelievable that they would stoop that low. They obviously have no shame and they’re willing to push the envelope as far as they can push it. They have no moral compunction about exploiting a group of citizens who would otherwise be deemed worthy of respect.”
Campaign Used Unregistered Agents
If the DOJ were to investigate the Qorvis campaign, they would likely find the firm ran roughshod over a variety of FARA requirements.
For starters, those working on behalf of a foreign government are required to register with the DOJ as agents of that government; many involved in the sprawling campaign against JASTA did not. Failure to register can trigger fines of up to $10,000 and prison terms of up to five years.
To take one apparent example of an unregistered agent on the Qorvis campaign, consider political consultant Elliott Schwartz. A partner at QE Intelligence, Schwartz previously ran the war room for Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign and was director of research for the anti-Trump Our Principles PAC.
According to Army veteran Barlett, Schwartz made travel arrangements, emailed an itinerary of activities, met veterans at their hotel and accompanied them to Capitol Hill. However, he does not appear in a search of the DOJ database of foreign agents.
Similarly, veterans have identified three individuals—Daniel Tinsley, Dustin Tinsley and Cole Azare—who helped organize and lead a veterans lobbying operation led by registered agent Jason Johns. None of the three registered with the Justice Department.
FARA’s registration requirement applies regardless of whether one’s efforts are compensated. Thus, had the campaign been operated with required transparency, it would seem that each of the hundreds of volunteer veterans should have registered too. Of course, had Qorvis told them they’d have to register as an agent of Saudi Arabia, the program’s true objectives would have been revealed and most wouldn’t have signed on in the first place.
The Justice Department also seems to have tolerated non-compliance that should be readily apparent to its staff: Capitol Media Group has failed to file the twice-yearly supplemental reports required under its status as a “primary registrant,” and the firm’s owner, Scott Wheeler, himself appears to have never registered as an individual agent despite having disclosed his role in the veterans lobbying scheme in his firm’s filing.
Recruiting Materials Lacked Required Disclosures
FARA requires that written materials used to advance the agenda of a foreign government include a conspicuous disclosure that the material is being distributed for that government.
Not only was the disclosure lacking on some materials—it appears to have been removed from a flyer used to persuade veterans that JASTA posed a risk to service members.
Qorvis filed the flyer with the Justice Department on October 26, 2016. Titled “The Real Impact of JASTA,” it included the required disclosure.
A nearly-identical version was later used to recruit veterans to the cause—on social media, as a printed handout and as a PDF attached to emails.
The only difference: The FARA-required disclosure had gone missing.
Upon their arrival in Washington, veterans who lobbied in the Jason Johns operation received a detailed, six-page set of instructions and guidance modeled after a military operations order. It disclosed that Qorvis and Advocacy Group, Inc were supporting the undertaking, but did not disclose that the two organizations and Jason Johns were working for Saudi Arabia.
Some Saudi agents, such as former Maryland GOP communications director Chevy Weiss, used Facebook as a recruiting tool, but failed to disclose their Saudi sponsorship on their posts or their profiles—another FARA violation.
A federal investigation may uncover still more. For example, were the veterans listed on three group letters to Congress (pages 6, 12 and 19 here) urging that JASTA be amended told that their names were being solicited on behalf of Saudi Arabia?
Some Qorvis Victims Likely Remain in the Dark
Importantly, an investigation would also be a means of enlightening participating veterans who still haven’t found out the real reason they were flown to Washington to oppose JASTA.
When Capitol Media Group filed its months-late registration, it declared that it had brought scores of veterans to Washington to lobby and offered to provide “individual names if requested.”
28Pages.org made repeated requests to the Justice Department’s FARA section requesting it to direct Capitol Media Group to produce the names via a supplementary disclosure filing. Though an aide to Senate majority whip and judiciary committee member John Cornyn also followed up on the request, no names have been disclosed by Capitol Media Group or Qorvis.
FBI Tells Retired Agent Not to Aid 9/11 Case: Saudi Relations Come First
Inattention to the Saudi-Qorvis scandal isn’t the only indication that the Justice Department puts the interests of Saudi Arabia above those of American citizens.
As 28Pages.org was first to report in August, retired FBI counterintelligence agent Kenneth Williams said the FBI’s Office of the General Counsel told him not to cooperate with 9/11 victims’ attorneys pursuing the civil suit against Saudi Arabia enabled by JASTA.
According to Williams, an FBI attorney “said they didn’t want me to cooperate with the plaintiffs’ attorneys because it could impact other pending litigation involving the United States government…and because…the Trump administration was trying to develop good relations with the Saudi government.”
It’s not clear what “other pending litigation” the FBI attorney was referring to; Williams considers the possibility it may have been a bluff. If not, it seems a likely reference to Freedom of Information Act suits filed by investigative news outlet Florida Bulldog, seeking documents relating to FBI investigations of Saudi links to the 9/11 attacks.
After several guilt-ridden months of complying with the FBI’s directive, Williams decided to follow his conscience and began communicating with the attorneys. Former Senate intelligence committee chair Bob Graham called the FBI’s attempted intervention “a fundamental assault on the principle of democracy.”
Enabling Bad Saudi Behavior
Reflecting on the Justice Department’s action with Ken Williams and inaction regarding Qorvis, the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative’s Freeman says, “It’s part of this larger pattern of enabling Saudi bad behavior, whether it’s from the government of Saudi Arabia or its lobbyists here. They continue to do things that are harmful to Americans and not get punished for it and, ultimately, we see a Saudi Arabia that feels emboldened enough to kill a Washington Post journalist on foreign soil.”
For Saudi-victimized veteran and attorney Barlett, the Justice Department’s conduct is cause for alarm among all Americans: “If you don’t enforce the law, you destroy the rule of law writ large. The DOJ is supposed to be the top federal agency for law enforcement, supporting the rule of law and the Constitution. When a body like that is corrupted, the fish rots from the head down, and therefore it’s going to impact the entire legal system.”
As the world marks the seventeenth anniversary of 9/11, legislators have introduced resolutions in both the House and Senate urging the broad declassification of U.S. government documents relating to the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.
As with the successful drive to declassify 28 pages on Saudi government links to the 9/11 attacks, this latest effort has support on both sides of the aisle.
At a press conference announcing the Senate effort, Senator Richard Blumenthal, flanked by 9/11 families, said, “This is a nonpartisan issue. Forget about if you’re a Republican, if you’re a Democrat, if you’re independent—this is a humanity issue. These are human beings that got savagely murdered on September 11 and there should be no partisan politics involved in this at all.”
Among others joining the Connecticut Democrat on the Senate resolution are two senior Republicans: majority whip John Cornyn of Texas and Chuck Grassley of Iowa.
Secrecy is an Impediment to Justice
The continued classification 9/11 documents is a headwind for a civil suit by victims of the attacks seeking to prove that Saudi government officials provided financial and other assistance to hijackers and others closely associated with them.
Brett Eagleson, whose father was killed at the World Trade Center, has been actively involved in building congressional support for additional declassification. “It seems to us that the rights of enemies and terrorists are coming before the rights of U.S. citizens,” he said at the Blumenthal press conference. “There are literally thousands and thousands of documents that are still redacted for no reason whatsoever.”
A retired FBI counterterrorism agent with a notable role in the story of 9/11 says the FBI’s Office of the General Counsel told him not to cooperate with attorneys representing 9/11 victims in their suit against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, because it could harm U.S.-Saudi relations.
In an exclusive interview with 28Pages.org, Kenneth Williams, author of an ignored July 2001 memo warning that Osama bin Laden may be training pilots in the United States, explains why he has now decided to ignore the FBI’s instructions, and illustrates how the failure to share critical information continued into the 9/11 investigation—possibly to the benefit of the kingdom.
FBI Priority: Protecting U.S.-Saudi Relationship
The 9/11 plaintiffs—family members, survivors and insurers—allege that officials of the Saudi government provided financial, logistical and other support to the perpetrators of the attacks.
After being contacted by their attorneys in October of last year, Williams notified the FBI legal counsel in Phoenix, where he spent his career. Days later, he received a call from an attorney at the Office of the General Counsel whose name he does not recall.
Ethics board to investigate Kim and Connie Schmett’s work for Saudi Arabia while they served in Iowa government
Iowa governor Kim Reynolds yesterday announced that her office has asked the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board to review the case of two current state officials who did political work for Saudi Arabia at the same time they held important government positions.
Connie Schmett and her husband Kim Schmett earned $101,500 working for Saudi Arabia against a federal law that cleared the way for 9/11 victims to sue the kingdom for its alleged support of the September 11 plot.
The governor’s move follows original reporting by 28Pages.org, followed by Associated Press, that Connie Schmett allegedly used deceit to persuade Air Force veteran Dustin DeMoss to travel to Washington and lobby for changes to the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA).
At a press conference, Reynolds told reporters she didn’t think state employees should be permitted to work for foreign governments. “If you’re working for the state, or a public official, it would be a conflict of interest to serve in that capacity,” she said. “I think it’s something that the legislature needs to look at. It appears that it’s possibly a loophole in the statute.”
Asked if she was “ok” with what the Schmetts did, Reynolds said she had no power to immediately remove the Schmetts from their posts. “The Schmetts don’t serve at the pleasure of the governor. They serve a set term and that’s determined by statute,” she said.
The Schmetts, who are powerful players in Iowa Republican politics, hosted a $75 per person fundraiser for Reynolds on Sept. 20. A reporter asked if Reynolds had been aware of their work for Saudi Arabia at the time. “No, I was not,” she replied.
The governor acknowledged having received a $100 donation from the couple. Reynolds said she would forego a decision on possibly returning the money until after she’s received the results of the ethics investigation.
Reynolds distanced herself from what Saudi Arabia was seeking to accomplish in its massive lobbying effort: preventing 9/11 families from proceeding with their suit. “I don’t agree with that,” she said.
Yesterday, Bleeding Heartland reported that Kim Schmett failed to make a required disclosure of political contributions when he registered with the Department of Justice as a Saudi agent.
Attempting to defend his work against 9/11 victims and for a dictatorial monarchy that is far and away the world’s principal exporter of terror, Schmett told Bleeding Heartland, “I’m not representing someone who’s un-American.”
Meanwhile, Ryan Foley of Associated Press reported that Kim Schmett failed to disclose his Iowa government position on the same registration. Earlier, we learned that Connie Schmett failed to reveal her work for the kingdom on her 2016 Iowa financial disclosure.
When I called Connie Schmett in September before publishing the story that would ultimately lead to this week’s announcement of an ethics investigation, she attempted to prevent my reporting through intimidation—specifically, with threats of baseless litigation. She told me, “I do not give you permission to write an article about me and if you do, you will hear from my lawyer. You’ll be sued!”
“I’ll be in BIG trouble!”
Veteran DeMoss said Schmett never informed him that she was working on behalf of the Saudi government, nor that that kingdom would be paying for his airfare and lodging at the pricey Trump International DC. “I understand the reason she couldn’t be honest and upfront, because if she had been, I wouldn’t have gone on (the trip),” said DeMoss.
He didn’t learn that Saudi Arabia was orchestrating the entire effort until he was in Washington, where he and dozens of other veterans had been brought to lobby members of Congress.
When DeMoss later confronted Schmett with new-found knowledge of her registration as a foreign agent, she begged him to keep it secret. “PLEASE don’t share it. I’ll be in BIG trouble!” she wrote in a Facebook message.
With this week’s developments, it appears “big trouble” has arrived.
A Strange Twist of Fate?
That trouble may have all started with a bizarre case of mistaken identity, as Connie Schmett sought military veterans to volunteer for the Saudi-backed campaign to weaken JASTA.
Her recruitment of Air Force veteran Dustin DeMoss began with a Dec. 20, 2016 email that opened with “very good visiting with you yesterday.” DeMoss, who lives in Oklahoma, was perplexed: He said he’d had no previous contact with her.
There is, believe it or not, another veteran named Dustin DeMoss. He’s a retired Army NCO in Knoxville, Iowa and he’s “friends” with Connie Schmett on Facebook. (The Oklahoma DeMoss said Schmett said she was related to DeMoss’s.)
Did Schmett somehow mistype the email address of one Dustin DeMoss and—against all odds—accidentally recruit another Dustin DeMoss who just happened to be a military veteran? If so, at the time she must have thought it a wild stroke of lucrative luck.
Now that the Oklahoman’s disturbing account has directly led to Connie Schmett’s embarrassment of the Republican governor, bad press in local, state and national media, and a high-profile ethics investigation of herself and her spouse, she surely doesn’t think that today.
28Pages.org has uncovered a striking example of lobbyists’ selective disclosure of Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of their work against a law that enables 9/11 victims to sue the kingdom for its alleged support of the al Qaeda hijackers.
Specifically, lobbyists used two versions of a flyer that criticized the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA): An early version filed with the Department of Justice included a required disclosure of Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship; a version later presented to military veterans did not.
The flyers were used in a late 2016 and early 2017 lobbying and public relations campaign managed by QorvisMSLGROUP on behalf of Saudi Arabia, which sought to convince veterans that JASTA puts them and active duty service members in legal peril overseas. (See our detailed analysis of that misleading argument.)
The Qorvis program has triggered accusations of rampant misconduct—including the failure to inform veterans who were flown to Washington that they were brought there at Saudi expense to advance Saudi interests.
Now You See It, Now You Don’t
In March, 28Pages.org reported lobbyists’ use of a flyer titled “The Real Impact of JASTA.” It was used in a variety of formats in the veterans campaign—on social media, as a printed handout, and as a PDF attached to emails.
Version presented to vets
The flyer was noteworthy not for what it said, but for what it didn’t: It lacked a “conspicuous statement” of Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the effort, as required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). In March, the absence of the disclosure appeared to be a possible crime of omission—the failure to add the footnote, perhaps out of carelessness or ignorance of the law.
Earlier Version Filed with Department of Justice
Now, anexamination of Saudi informational materials maintained in paper files at the DOJ’s FARA office in Washington raises questions about that interpretation, with the discovery of an earlier version of the flyer that included the required disclosure.
In accordance with FARA, Qorvis submitted the earlier version to the DOJ on Oct. 26, 2016. It included a prominent footnote with FARA-dictated language: “This is distributed by QorvisMSLGROUP on behalf of the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia. Additional information is available at the Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.”
Several veterans who were flown to Washington as part of the program have said they weren’t told it was orchestrated by Saudi Arabia. Many were outraged by the lack of transparency, and lobbyists’ reported failure to disclose the kingdom’s role was central to a formal complaint submitted to Attorney General Jeff Sessions by a group of 9/11 families and survivors.
Air Force veteran Dustin DeMoss received the disclosure-less version of “The Real Impact of JASTA” via email when he was solicited for a trip to Washington by registered Saudi agent Connie Schmett. In a September interview with 28Pages.org, DeMoss accused Schmett of failing to inform him that she was working on behalf of the kingdom.
“If I’d have seen that (disclosure), I would have known that something is wrong. I would not have gone,” DeMoss says, citing the kingdom’s poor human rights record and suspicions of its involvement in 9/11. “I served for my countrymen in the Air Force, so why would I go and help Saudi Arabia?”
JASTA Opponent Claims Authorship
In an interview that preceded the discovery of the DOJ-filed version, political consultant Cole Azare told 28Pages.org that he wrote “The Real Impact of JASTA” after making his first few Saudi-financed trips to Washington and coming to the realization that they needed-leave behind material for their visits to congressional offices.
On those and subsequent trips, Navy veteran Azare served as a self-described volunteer team leader under the supervision of registered Saudi agent Jason Johns, a veteran who was one of the principal organizers of the Qorvis lobbying effort.
Azare’s first trips took place in November and early December of 2016. The modified “Real Impact of JASTA” flyer that was presented to veterans was clearly created in December: it includes a quote from Dec. 8 remarks by Senator John McCain, and Azare posted it to his personal Facebook page on Dec. 21. The next day, it was posted to Facebook by registered Saudi agent Eric Eisenhammer, who lives in California.
When interviewed again after the discovery of the DOJ-filed version of the flyer, Azare said that, upon further review of his records, he now recalls that he wrote it in September or October. He said a couple of his nearby “graphic arts friends” helped give it its professional appearance.
After creating it, Azare said, he shared it with someone in California who was working on the anti-JASTA campaign who then shared it with higher-ups at Qorvis. He declined to confirm that the Californian was Eisenhammer.
Azare said Qorvis must have decided to use the flyer itself, and to add the Saudi disclosure. He said he felt no obligation to put a disclosure on his work because he created the flyer of his own volition and wasn’t paid to do so.
When asked who created the modified, December version, Azare said, “By the time of Dec. 8, we had about 30 volunteer veterans working on this. One of them probably did it.”
Though now declaring he created the flyer in September or October, Azare stood by his account that it wasn’t used on the early lobbying trips. I asked him why that was so, if he had indeed already gone to the trouble of not only drafting a detailed piece but also engaging graphic designers to polish it.
“I realized I had it afterwards,” he said. “I originally wrote it just to make something up and then I found out that a friend was working on the project and…I sent it to him. And then, when I realized, ‘oh, shit, we need some stuff to bring to offices,’ I remembered that I had the files,” Azare said.
While Azare said he doesn’t know who created the December version, its first known appearance was on his personal Facebook page.
Via a follow-up email to Azare, I explained that some readers may doubt his account, concluding that Qorvis created “The Real Impact of JASTA” in October and that Azare modified it in December and removed the Saudi disclosure. I encouraged him to substantiate both his revised timeline and his claim of original authorship by sending me his original draft and by forwarding me the emails he used to share his work with the graphic designers and the California activist.
Azare replied that he wouldn’t have access to his laptop and its files for about a week. Since Azare uses Gmail and an iPhone, I explained it would be simple to find and forward the emails using the free Gmail app. He has not yet done so. He did, however, write, “You have a copy of a file. That does not negate my version of events; it only shows that a file was used with the disclaimers.”
Lydia Dennett of the Project on Government Oversight
Regardless of who originally wrote and later modified “The Real Impact of JASTA,” one question hangs heavy: If registered Saudi agent Qorvis decided it was appropriate to include the disclosure, why didn’t registered agent Jason Johns make the same decision when the flyer was used to funnel veterans into his operation and to shape their views?
Johns did not acknowledge an invitation to answer that question.
“People are more likely to second-guess something when it’s very clearly something that’s benefitting an interest outside the United States,” says Lydia Dennett, a national security and foreign influence investigator at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO). “Maybe they didn’t want those people second-guessing it.”
Johns’ Wisconsin firm received $825,990 in fees and reimbursements for service to the kingdom.
Contradicted Claims About Use of Lobbying Material
Azare claimed that the Johns operation made it an ongoing practice to use leave-behind material, including “The Real Impact of JASTA”, in their lobbying visits to congressional offices. However, that conflicts with accounts from participating veterans who say no such material was provided to legislators or staffers:
According to former Marine David Casler, organizers said, “We’re not allowed to leave any printed materials because there’s some requirements for that,” which could have been a reference to the FARA disclosure mandates.
Army vet Scott Bartels said, “I remember them saying they didn’t really have the funds to print all this stuff up and hand it out.” He also said Azare actually denied Saudi Arabia was behind the operation on more than one occasion.
Air Force veteran Dustin DeMoss tells 28Pages.org, “(Azare) was my team leader and I never seen him leave anything behind.”
There’s no doubt, however, that “The Real Impact of JASTA” was used to recruit veterans and to shape their views of JASTA and what they said when lobbying. It was provided to many upon their arrival in Washington, and also used to convince others to travel there, according to documents shared by veterans and the recruitment email provided by DeMoss.
To Register or Not to Register
Although Azare served in an ongoing, informal leadership position in a campaign that he knew was being executed on behalf of Saudi Arabia, he maintains he was not obliged to register as a Saudi agent—because he received nothing from the kingdom beyond several free trips to the capital, to include airfare as well as lodging and meals at the Trump International DC.
From left: Dustin Tinsley, Cole Azare, Jason Johns, Daniel Tinsley at the Trump International DC
FARA, however, makes no distinction between voluntary and paid work. “It’s very strictly not about compensation,” says POGO’s Dennett. “It’s specifically about who is controlling or supervising or benefitting from the activities.”
Azare said his messaging on JASTA wasn’t dictated by Saudi Arabia, and that Johns encouraged them to focus on what best served veterans. However, it seems clear that—by ushering veterans around Capitol Hill to sound alarms about JASTA and encourage legislators to open the law to amendments—he was accomplishing precisely what Saudi Arabia intended. (To this point, no amendments have been formally submitted.)
A spontaneous statement reportedly made by one of Azare’s fellow team leaders in the operation, Daniel Tinsley, underscores the notion that the organizers’ thinking was influenced by Saudi Arabia. According to Marine veteran Tim Cord, an intoxicated Tinsley emerged from a late-night discussion with a professional lobbyist at the Trump hotel and told him, “Aw, man I have such amazing news! We have a way to kill this bill! We found a way that if we cap the lawyer’s fees at five percent, no 9/11 victim’s family is ever going to be able to sue.”
Qorvis Quietly Collects
By all indications, neither Azare, Johns nor the other veterans who helped run the Trump hotel operation had prior experience working on a lobbying effort orchestrated by a foreign power, much less a firm command of what FARA required of them. Since they were the most exposed leaders of the veterans effort, however, their actions had far more witnesses and have faced far more direct scrutiny than has the conduct of QorvisMSLGROUP—the firm that drew them into the Saudi web and its accompanying legal risks and moral complications.
Perhaps someday, in a Senate hearing, Qorvis executives will be grilled on their oversight of the scandalous Saudi campaign that exploited military veterans, and specifically on their manifest failure to ensure compliance with foreign lobbying law.
Meanwhile, Qorvis continues to contentedly rake in Saudi cash. Its most recently reported royal payment exceeded $6.2 million.
Boston Herald spotlights Holly Robichaud’s engagement in Saudi effort to amend Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act
On defensive, Robichaud advances misleading argument about JASTA, makes false claim about VFW, American Legion stances
A U.S. Senate campaign faces controversy after the Boston Herald published a story on a key strategist’s participation in a Saudi lobbying campaign against the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA).
Massachusetts state representative Geoffrey Diehl, who is running for the 2018 Republican nomination to oppose incumbent senator Elizabeth Warren, hired Holly Robichaud to serve as a campaign strategist. 28Pages.org previously reported that Robichaud, a political consultant and columnist for the Boston Herald, registered in October 2016 as an agent of the Saudi government.
JASTA cleared the way for 9/11 victims and insurers to sue the kingdom for its alleged support of the September 11 attacks. Robichaud was among some 70 political influencers across the nation pressed into service by Qorvis MSLGroup as the firm scrambled to unleash a broad attack on JASTA on behalf of Saudi Arabia.
A Sensitive Subject
Given Saudi Arabia’s apparent goal of preventing 9/11 families from presenting evidence against the kingdom in a court of law, Robichaud’s work could be an especially sensitive topic in Massachusetts: The two planes that terrorists used to strike the World Trade Center departed from Boston’s Logan Airport, and more than 200 Massachusetts residents died that day.
In the most controversial aspect of the Saudi lobbying campaign, veterans were given expenses-paid trips to Washington to lobby against JASTA. Many say they weren’t told Saudi Arabia was orchestrating their participation; some were outraged to learn they had become unwitting agents of the kingdom in its effort to thwart the lawsuit filed by 9/11 victims.
When asked by the Herald about her participation in the Saudi campaign, Robichaud said she did not keep veterans in the dark about the kingdom’s sponsorship of her work. (If you’re a veteran and were solicited by Holly Robichaud or anyone else to pressure Congress to amend JASTA, we want to hear from you: email@example.com)
Senate candidate Diehl seemed to gloss over the specific nature of Robichaud’s work for Saudi Arabia. “She’s worked on many campaigns in the past,” Diehl told the Herald’s Jack Encarnacao. “The work that I’ve done with her…makes her someone who I trust to help in this campaign, and I think that’s where my focus is.”
Defending her participation, Robichaud told the Herald that JASTA “opens the door for our military members…being sued.”
That claim of peril to service members and veterans was central to the Saudi-Qorvis campaign—and according to a former counselor on international law at the State Department, it’s false.
“JASTA poses no risk of exposing U.S. service members to lawsuits in foreign courts. JASTA deals only with the immunity of foreign states, not individuals,” said William S. Dodge, a professor at the University of California, Davis School of Law in a February interview with 28Pages.org.
Baseless Claim of VFW, American Legion Stances on JASTA
The Herald also quoted Robichaud as saying “the work was strictly on the same position as the American Legion and VFW.”
Asked by 28Pages.org if Veterans of Foreign Wars supported changes to JASTA, VFW spokesperson Randi Law says, “No. The VFW did not take an official stance on this.”
The American Legion’s Joe Plenzer tells 28Pages.org that when his organization takes a position on an issue, it usually does so through a formal resolution. “I checked our resolutions and found no resolution on JASTA,” he says. “I also checked with our legislative director and we have no letters of support on file for this issue.”
Update: Appearing on Boston’s WRKO radio on Thursday, Robichaud repeated the false claim about the VFW and American Legion, as did host Jeff Kuhner.
Saudi Campaign Faces Allegations of Criminal Acts
The Herald story noted that “some vets who were active on the bill went on to complain publicly that they weren’t told who was paying the political consultants who were helping them exert the Congressional pressure.”
Allegations about the Saudi lobbying effort, however, are even more serious than the Herald indicated, and include a wide range of possible criminal violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), punishable by prison terms of up to five years and fines of up to $10,000.
In March, a group of 9/11 families and survivors filed a formal complaint with the Department of Justice, seeking a national security investigation into the Saudi campaign. The complaint identified many apparent FARA violations, including:
The failure to add disclosures of Saudi sponsorship to informational materials and recruiting communications
The failure of people working on behalf of Saudi Arabia to register as foreign agents
The failure to fully disclose to the DOJ all expenditures made on behalf of Saudi Arabia
The failure to submit reports outlining specific lobbying activities
The failure to file informational materials used in the campaign
The Herald reported that Robichaud earned $12,000 in the campaign. However, that’s the amount she wrote on the form she used to initially register with the DOJ as an agent of the kingdom last October. A post-campaign report filed by Qorvis shows that many participants received far more than they’d projected on their registrations; some earned less.
It appears agents’ compensation was transactional—for example, awarding a certain amount for persuading a veteran to write a letter to Congress and a higher reward for convincing one to travel to Washington.
Robichaud’s name is not on that Qorvis disclosure. That could indicate she was paid by an intermediary firm that was paid by Qorvis and Saudi Arabia.
There’s no indication yet of what specific actions Robichaud performed in the Saudi lobbying drive. In addition to recruiting veterans to fly to Washington, others in similar roles urged veterans to email or phone legislators or to add their names to “open letters” to Congress.
Veteran’s claim: Connie Schmett recruited him to lobby for changes to JASTA, but didn’t disclose Saudi sponsorship of the effort
A gubernatorial appointee to two state boards, Schmett’s endorsement is sought by national presidential candidates
Schmett registered with the DOJ as an agent of the kingdom; Schmett & Associates received $101,500 for services rendered
Connie Schmett, a notable figure in Iowa GOP politics and an appointee to two state government boards, recruited a military veteran to travel to Washington to lobby for changes to the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA)—and he says she withheld the fact that Saudi Arabia was behind the campaign.
In October 2016, Schmett and her husband, Kim, registered with the Department of Justice as agents of the Saudi government working for changes to JASTA under the supervision of lobbying firm Qorvis MSLGROUP. According to a Qorvis disclosure filing, Schmett & Associates received $101,500 for service to the kingdom.
Connie Schmett (Facebook photo)
In an interview with 28Pages.org, Air Force veteran Dustin DeMoss of Tulsa, Oklahoma also says Schmett counseled him against revealing his involvement via social media or talking to journalists and, after DeMoss learned of her status as a registered agent of the Saudi government, asked him not to share that information because she would “be in big trouble.”
Saudi Campaign Against Anti-Terror Law
Enacted in September 2016 over President Obama’s veto, JASTA modified the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act to allow U.S. victims of terror attacks on American soil to sue foreign governments for aiding the perpetrators. The change removed a barrier that had prevented 9/11 families, survivors and insurers from suing Saudi Arabia for its alleged support of the hijackers.
Facing enormous liability claims and potential embarrassment, the Saudi government waged a furious lobbying effort to prevent JASTA’s passage, followed by an even more intense—but, thus far, fruitless—campaign to alter the law through amendments championed by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham.
The Schmetts were among more than 70 political influencers from across the nation urgently pressed into service by Qorvis, one of many firms engaged by the kingdom to execute a multi-pronged lobbying and public relations attack on the new law.
The Pentagon on 9/11
The most extraordinary facet of the campaign was a Qorvis-led program that turned some military veterans into unwitting agents of the Saudi government, as lobbyists provided an estimated 150 to 250 veterans with all-expenses-paid trips to Washington to lobby in person, without always disclosing who was behind it.
To recruit veterans to the anti-JASTA cause, lobbyists told them U.S. service members and veterans—even those who served in Vietnam—could face lawsuits in foreign courts if other countries retaliated with their own versions of JASTA.
Though that argument was also embraced by President Obama and a variety of establishment officials keen on preserving the status quo in U.S.-Saudi relations, it’s at odds with JASTA’s actual language, according to William S. Dodge, a professor at the University of California, Davis School of Law and a former counselor on international law at the State Department
In a February interview, Dodge told 28Pages.org that “JASTA poses no risk of exposing U.S. service members to lawsuits in foreign courts. JASTA deals only with the immunity of foreign states, not individuals.”
Excerpt from Connie Schmett’s FARA Registration
DeMoss says Schmett presented the troops-in-peril rationale, and that he didn’t find out until he’d been flown to Washington that the kingdom was orchestrating the campaign. Many other veterans recruited by other Saudi agents have provided similar accounts.
In March, a group of 9/11 family members and survivors lodged a complaint with the Department of Justice, seeking a criminal investigation of Qorvis and its scores of foreign agents for a variety of possible violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), including the failure to disclose Saudi Arabia’s hand in the campaign and the failure of many involved in the effort to register as agents of the kingdom.
Texas Senator John Cornyn used a July hearing of the Senate judiciary committee to condemn the campaign, saying, “This kind of conduct should gall every member of the Senate.”
A Center of Influence in Iowa Politics
In Des Moines, the Schmetts provide lobbying services under the brand of Schmett & Associates. According to Kim Schmett’s LinkedIn page, the firm “specializes in high level grass roots and grass tops public advocacy services as well as federal lobbying activities.”
Connie Schmett (center), Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (left) and Iowa Governor Terry Branstad (Facebook)
Schmett was a member of the Iowa leadership team for Scott Walker’s 2016 presidential campaign. When Walker withdrew, Schmett endorsed Chris Christie after the New Jersey governor tenaciously courted her and her husband with phone calls and a 45-minute meeting in his hotel room.
Last year, Schmett organized one of the largest caucuses in the state, an event that drew some 1,000 participants and personal appearances by Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum and Ben Carson.
On Facebook, Schmett is “friends” with two other figures linked to the Saudi lobbying campaign: Wes Farno of Minster, Ohio and David Niffenegger of Des Moines. Farno registered as a Saudi agent and received $76,800.
In a search of the FARA database, Niffenegger does not appear as a registered Saudi agent, despite the fact that Marine veterans Daniel and Tim Cord say he recruited them to lobby on Capitol Hill. Along with fellow Marine David Casler, the Cords were first to reveal that some vets who were flown to Washington to lobby against JASTA were kept in the dark about Saudi Arabia’s role.
A larger Des Moines firm, LS2group, also worked for the Saudi-Qorvis campaign against JASTA, earning $76,500. Though it’s unclear if Schmett coordinated her Saudi work with the firm, Schmett is friends on Facebook with LS2group partner Charles Larson, who was appointed as ambassador to Latvia by President George W. Bush.
“She didn’t tell me who was behind it”
Air Force veteran DeMoss, who performed maintenance on F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter jets, says Schmett first contacted him on December 20 via email.
DeMoss (3rd from Left) and Other Veterans with Tennessee Representative Marsha Blackburn
Though it began with “very good visiting with you yesterday,” DeMoss says he’d had no previous discussion with her and theorizes that she’d confused him with another veteran who has the same name. (He says Schmett told him she has relatives named DeMoss and she repeatedly emphasized their supposed kinship in building rapport with him.) He’s still unsure how she obtained his email address.
DeMoss shared the email with 28Pages.org. In it, Schmett said she “attached information about our project in protecting our military as well as other Americans on foreign soil.” The attached documents were titled “The Plan to Fix JASTA” and “The Real Impact of JASTA.” FARA requires that informational materials used to advance the agenda of a foreign government have a conspicuous statement that names the country behind the effort. Neither document had such a notice.
Schmett with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (left) and Iowa Congressman Steve King (Facebook)
In addition to offering him a choice of dates for a free trip to Washington to lobby against JASTA, Schmett also used the message to urge DeMoss to send emails to “five or six” legislators, and to blind copy her when he did so.
DeMoss says something was missing, though, from this and other communications from Schmett. “She didn’t tell me who was behind it or anything like that,” he says.
“I understand the reason she couldn’t be honest and upfront, because if she had been, I wouldn’t have gone on it,” DeMoss says.
On a phone call from Schmett that followed her email, DeMoss says Schmett assured him, “You’ll have fun! You’ll fly first class and stay at the Trump hotel.”
Using Twitter to research JASTA, DeMoss says he noticed many tweets on the topic were written in Arabic, which led him to wonder what he was becoming involved in.
“I knew something was up, but I didn’t know what it was. I couldn’t connect all the dots,” says DeMoss. Despite his suspicions, he decided to proceed with the trip. “I thought, if this is really bad, I can help out the other side.”
DeMoss signed up for a Jan. 10 to 13 “fly-in”—the term organizers used to describe trips that brought dozens of veterans at a time to Washington, where they stayed at the Trump International DC.
A few days before his travel, DeMoss received an email from Jason Johns, a veteran and registered Saudi agent who has been identified as the principal leader of the Trump hotel operation (as distinguished from a similar Qorvis veterans operation run by Scott Wheeler). Attached was a five-page, military-style “operations order” that exhaustingly laid out every detail of the week’s activities—except for any disclosure of Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship.
The document indicated that approximately 50 veterans would target, among others, “House & Senate Leadership, Chairs and Ranking Members of Armed Services, Foreign Affairs/Relations, Intelligence and Judiciary Committees.”
The section on “Friendly Forces” did not include the Saudi government. Legislators, meanwhile, were categorized as “Enemy Forces.”
“We don’t want any leaks coming out”
DeMoss says Schmett urged him to maintain secrecy about the trip. In a Facebook message he captured and provided to 28Pages.org, she wrote,
“Please be careful what you post on FB. You’re doing security work and we don’t want any leaks coming out.”
“I guess she thought she would get found out if I got found out,” he says.
Similar to observations by others, DeMoss says the on-site leaders of the veterans lobbying effort were Jason Johns, Cole Azare and brothers Dustin and Daniel Tinsley, all of whom are veterans.
From Left: Dustin DeMoss, Oklahoma Senator James Lankford, Frank Vassar
DeMoss says Azare was a participant in an eyebrow-raising exchange he observed during an Uber ride to Capitol Hill with another Oklahoma veteran, Frank Vassar.
Paraphrasing the conversation, DeMoss says Vassar asked, “Hey, Cole, you know who’s paying for this, right?” He says Azare replied, “Yeah, we’ve got to keep it on the down-low.”
As they arrived at their destination, DeMoss says he asked for clarity: “I said something like, ‘Why don’t you tell me who it is? I can keep things on the down low.” He says the question went unanswered.
Vassar did not respond to an invitation to comment on DeMoss’s description of the conversation. Azare, a political consultant and veterans advocate in Reno, did. “I would say the statement is patently false,” he says.
“I would remember something like that,” he continues. “I remember that Vassar and him, we were working together that day. There was no conversation where Frank Vassar asked who was paying for it or anything like that. And there was no conversation where I would say keep something on the down-low when (the Saudi role) was publicly stated to him.”
Azare says Johns always made it a point to tell veterans at a dinner on the opening night—which served as an orientation to the week’s activities—that Qorvis had organized the operation on behalf of Saudi Arabia, just in case they hadn’t been told earlier in their recruitment. He claims it was repeated at other times as an extra measure of caution.
Other veterans, however, have previously told28Pages.org that Johns and Azare each went beyond merely withholding information about Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of their venture to actively denying it. According to four veterans, one of those denials from Johns occurred during that opening night dinner.
DeMoss says he missed the initial gathering, but that Azare and Dustin Tinsley came to his room to brief him and did not mention Saudi Arabia. Azare agrees that the two-on-one briefing took place, but says, “I felt that we were extremely thorough…I would have reiterated everything that Jason put out at the dinner.”
Azare emphasizes that his participation was purely voluntary and uncompensated, and says he viewed the Saudi sponsorship as “a relationship of convenience for the veterans,” one that gave them the resources to lobby for a cause they believed in. He says Johns impressed upon him and others that, as they advocated for changes to JASTA, “if you find a solution that will work for veterans but is not going to make the Saudi Arabian government happy, go with the solution.”
When asked what he thought Saudi Arabia was seeking to to accomplish with its JASTA lobbying campaign, Azare says, “I really don’t know. I’ve never met anybody who was actually from Saudi Arabia.”
Lankford Staffer Pushes Back
DeMoss says that most of the legislators and staffers they called on during the week were politely attentive yet non-committal. An exception was the office of Senator James Lankford of DeMoss’s home state of Oklahoma. Legislative counsel Brittany Sadler “was very adamant that what we were trying to do was not good…I think she knew the Saudis were funding it,” he says.
As the week progressed, DeMoss says, word of the Saudi role spread among the veterans, and he received confirmation on either the last night or the last morning. During an informal conversation among veterans in the hotel lobby, he says, “Daniel Tinsley told us.”
The Trump International DC
DeMoss says he consoled a younger veteran who was particularly distraught at the news. “He probably had a lot of moral questioning. ‘Why did I do this?’ He didn’t feel right about it and didn’t know what to do,” he says.
DeMoss says that while he had doubts going in, he wasn’t at all happy to have them confirmed. “I felt like it was disgusting what they were doing,” says DeMoss—all the more so given whose interest was being served. “I don’t like the Saudis. Nobody that’s an American should like the Saudis, shouldn’t work for them or anything. Even though they’re our ‘ally,’ they sponsor terrorism all over the globe,” he says.
“All I can say is, I hope (the organizers) can get some good sleep at night, because I wouldn’t be able to if I was them,” he adds.
“Please don’t share it”
After returning home to Oklahoma and learning more about the Saudi lobbying effort, DeMoss contacted Schmett, asking if he should be concerned about what he was involved in. He says she counseled him to stay silent, telling him, “I’m telling all my veterans to stay away from the media. They’re calling us.”
Using Facebook, DeMoss sent Schmett a link to the publicly-available registration form she completed when notifying the DOJ about her relationship with the kingdom. In a screenshot DeMoss shared with 28Pages.org, Schmett replied, “PLEASE don’t share it. I’ll be in BIG trouble!” It’s not clear what kind of trouble she anticipated.
Seeking to inform those on the other side of the JASTA debate, DeMoss contacted 9/11 widow Terry Strada, who was deeply involved in working for JASTA’s passage, and related his experience to her.
DeMoss says he purposefully ingratiated himself with Johns and other organizers so he could monitor their activities. Azare says DeMoss repeatedly contacted him via Facebook messaging and “begged” to be invited back, and sees an inconsistency between that enthusiasm and his statements of dismay to 28Pages.org.
“I realized these people were fucking over veterans and I wanted to get more information on what they were doing and how far up I could go in the organization,” says DeMoss.
DeMoss found himself among a smaller group of veterans invited to conference calls and included in emails focused on the continuing drive to amend JASTA—and on responding to the controversy over their work.
Dustin DeMoss at Sheppard Air Force Base
DeMoss shared several of those emails with 28Pages.org. In one, Johns characterized the reporting at this site as part of a “coordinated and completely unnecessary character assassination effort” conducted in concert with 9/11 families. In another, Johns shared a link to an article in which a Saudi energy minister expressed confidence that Trump would reverse his stance on JASTA and help overturn it. His subject line was “This will make you smile :)”
An email from Azare provided suggested talking points to use in the event a veteran was “unexpectedly cornered” by a reporter, encouraging them to declare that “I was never ‘duped,’ ‘misled’ or otherwise lied to about who was paying for my travel to D.C.” That statement seems credible enough when it’s coming from Azare and others close to the top of pyramid. As for the rank and file, DeMoss is now the ninth veteran brought to Washington by the Jason Johns operation to say he wasn’t informed in timely fashion.
In his interview for this story, Azare acknowledges a possibility that some veterans didn’t find out about Saudi Arabia’s role until they first arrived in Washington. In an operation with multiple levels, he says, “eventually, the further you get from the main operation…you’re going to see things slip through the cracks. Do I believe it might have happened? Yes. Do I believe it was intentional by these people? No. At least not the people that I dealt with.”
Schmett: Saudi Arabia did not pay for trip
28Pages.org contacted Schmett to give her an opportunity to provide her own account. When presented with DeMoss’s claim that she didn’t tell him Saudi Arabia was paying for his trip, Schmett asserted that Saudi Arabia did not pay for it—that “the client” did. Presumably, she was referring to Qorvis.
Hearing that, DeMoss says, “It seems like it’s just a way for her to get out of stating that Saudi Arabia paid for it when they did. Everybody knows that Saudi Arabia paid for it. So basically, Saudi Arabia paid Qorvis, and Qorvis paid her, and then Qorvis paid for my airfare. So where did the money come from? It came from Saudi Arabia, right?”
Excerpt from Qorvis Disclosure Filing Detailing Disbursements on Behalf of Saudi Arabia
Schmett praised DeMoss as “a very, very nice man” who “served his country very well.” On the other hand, she said 28Pages.org is “attempting to discredit the veterans and the effort to help the veterans” by amending JASTA.
“Qorvis and her and Johns discredited the veterans by not telling them that Saudi Arabia paid for it,” counters DeMoss. “And then by trying to withhold the factsregarding the actual (JASTA) law, they made us look like fools. Ifanybody discredited us, it’s them. We went up there and we talked to these congressmen and senators and they must have been thinking, ‘these guys are getting played.’ And so we looked like idiots on Capitol Hill.”
DeMoss says Schmett and the other lobbyists also put veterans in potential legal jeopardy. “Connie put me at risk by not giving me the full story and then not telling me that I should register (with the DOJ as an agent of Saudi Arabia). She put me at risk. That’s my name on the record.”
Senator Cornyn made a similar point about veterans being placed in legal jeopardy in the July judiciary hearing on FARA. Note that even voluntary work on behalf of a foreign government must be reported: According to an overview of FARA from the global law firm Holland & Knight, “there is no FARA de minimis rule—registration is required even if the work is done on a pro bono basis.”
I’d liked to have asked Schmett about this and many other aspects of her participation in the Saudi lobbying campaign. Before I could, she terminated the interview, declaring, “I do not give you permission to write an article about me and if you do, you will hear from my lawyer. You’ll be sued.”
According to a Qorvis filing with the DOJ, the Schmetts’ engagement to provide services to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia ended on March 30 of this year.
Justice Delayed…and Denied?
Months after 9/11 families and survivors filed their complaint urging a federal investigation of the Saudi lobbying campaign against JASTA, there’s been no indication yet of action by the DOJ. Willful violations of FARA are punishable by prison terms of up to five years and fines of up to $10,000. However, there’s an awful lot hanging on the word “willful,” and FARA prosecutions are exceedingly rare—only seven cases in 50 years.
DeMoss, though, says there should be some consequence for those who he says failed to inform him and other veterans that Saudi Arabia was paying their way to Washington with a goal of derailing the 9/11 lawsuit: “If they’re doing that to veterans, there should be some kind of justice.”
If you’re a veteran or anyone else who can shed light on the Saudi-sponsored campaign against JASTA, contact us: firstname.lastname@example.org
Stephen Flanagan, founder of Long Island-based Conservative Society for Action, says he didn’t know it was a Saudi operation
Stephen Flanagan, a Long Island Tea Party leader who chaired a 2010 Republican Senate campaign, used his organization’s platform to aid a Saudi-led drive to alter the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA)—but says he wasn’t told he was doing so on behalf of the kingdom accused of facilitating the 9/11 attacks.
In addition to inviting veterans to accept free trips to Washington to lobby for changes to JASTA, Flanagan solicited signatories for a letter to Congress and also traveled to Capitol Hill himself.
His activities appear to have been coordinated within a Saudi lobbying operation led by Scott Wheeler. As first reported by 28Pages.org, on March 31, Wheeler’s firm, Capitol Media Group, registered with the Department of Justice as an agent of Saudi Arabia and declared that the kingdom paid $90,000 for Wheeler to bring veterans to Washington to press for changes to JASTA. Saudi Arabia also reimbursed $275,000 in travel expenses for participating veterans.
Flanagan says he had no idea that Wheeler, who also runs the National Republican Trust PAC, was working for the Saudis.
“I know nothing about Mr. Wheeler’s dealings with Saudi Arabia. The issue never came up. I was not asked by Mr. Wheeler to become involved so had no reason to query him. The request for me to be involved came from another individual,” says Flanagan via an email responding to an interview request. “I am in communication with that person to see what they knew.”
Another Apparent Victim of Non-Disclosure
While Flanagan has not identified that individual or responded to subsequent inquiries, his claim of ignorance is consistent with the experience of many others who have fallen prey to lobbyists cultivating grassroots opposition to JASTA without disclosing that they are doing so for Saudi Arabia.
The American Conservativereported that Wheeler was working under the umbrella of Qorvis MSLGROUP. Others recruited to the cause by Wheeler and by another Qorvis agent, Jason Johns, say they weren’t told the kingdom was pulling the strings.
JASTA cleared the way for 9/11 families, survivors and insurers to sue Saudi Arabia for the support allegedly provided by Saudi officials to al Qaeda and the September 11 hijackers.
After JASTA was enacted in September 2016 by an override of President Obama’s veto, lobbyists for Saudi Arabia launched an aggressive campaign to convince veterans that the law posed a danger to service members and to recruit them into serving the kingdom’s interest by pushing Congress to change it.
In March, a group of 9/11 families and survivors filed a complaint with the Department of Justice pointing to 10 different types of apparent criminal violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) by Qorvis and individuals working on the firm’s behalf. There is no indication yet of DOJ action.
Advancing a Misleading Argument
To garner support from veterans, Saudi lobbyists told them that, if other countries reciprocated with their own versions of JASTA, individual service members and veterans would be exposed to lawsuits abroad. However, JASTA only enables suits against governments, not individuals. The misleading argument has been embraced by many current and former government officials.
The argument was also advanced by Flanagan and Conservative Society for Action in a series of four Facebook posts last year.
On Nov. 30, Flanagan declared, “I’m off to Capital (sic) Hill,” and urged followers to help “stop or alter this legislation because it puts our military personnel in danger!”
The next day, Flanagan said he would be meeting with Senator Ted Cruz and urged followers to call their representatives on the issue.
Also on that day, Flanagan appeared in a group photo taken in a congressional office and posted to Facebook by an individual who had traveled to Washington as part of Wheeler’s Saudi-funded lobbying program.
Solicitations to Sign Letter to Congress, Travel to D.C.
On Dec. 6, CSA solicited veterans to join an open letter to Congress that endorsed efforts by Saudi-friendly Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain to alter JASTA. The language Flanagan posted is essentially identical to language found in a letter included in a Dec. 7 disclosure filing by Qorvis detailing its work for Saudi Arabia (side-by-side comparison).
On New Years Day, Flanagan invited veterans to travel to Washington on Jan. 4 to lobby for changes to JASTA, adding “your expenses will be paid.” He didn’t say by whom. (This post appears to have now been deleted from the group’s timeline.)
FARA requires that informational materials used to advance the agenda of a foreign power include a “conspicuous statement” alerting the audience to the role of the foreign government. There were no such disclosures on Flanagan’s posts. “Informational materials” is broadly defined to encompass social media.
As 28Pages.org has reported extensively, offering veterans free travel to lobby against JASTA has been a cornerstone of Saudi Arabia’s campaign.
Flanagan and Wheeler appear to have crossed paths as early as 2010, when Flanagan chaired former CIA officer Gary Bernsten’s unsuccessful Senate campaign. According to a campaign update, Flanagan and Bernsten had an August 2010 meeting with Wheeler in his capacity as director of the National Republican Trust PAC.
In 2010, Wheeler used the PAC to oppose the construction of an Islamic community center and mosque in lower Manhattan, and circulated an incendiary video that portrayed developers as jihadists who wanted to build “a monument to their victory” on 9/11 and “celebrate (the) murder of 3,000 Americans.” To bring its divisive message to a boil, Wheeler’s video included footage of a victim falling from the towers. (You can watch it here.)
The attention-getting campaign was likely a fundraising bonanza for Wheeler’s PAC—and perhaps for Wheeler himself. As previously reported by 28Pages.org, Wheeler’s PAC distributes a high percentage of its revenue to Capitol Media Group, much of which is for “PAC management consulting.” According to the firm’s FARA filing, “Capitol Media Group is owned, controlled and operated by Scott Wheeler as sole proprietor.”
National Republican Trust PAC donors who were drawn in by Wheeler’s exploitation of 9/11 might be surprised to find that he would go on to accept $90,000 from the Saudi government in exchange for helping its campaign to weaken JASTA and deny 9/11 families their day in court.
Meanwhile, Flanagan’s participation in the anti-JASTA effort may be particularly troubling to those 9/11 families who—like Conservative Society for Action—call Long Island their home.
According to Newsday, nearly 500 Long Islanders died in the 9/11 attacks. Many of their family members are plaintiffs in the lawsuit that seeks to prove Saudi officials abetted the murderers of their loved ones—the suit the kingdom is seeking to derail with the anti-JASTA effort that Flanagan aided, without, apparently, knowing who was behind it.
One of those Long Island plaintiffs is Kathy Owens. Her husband, Peter J. Owens, was a government bond trader for Cantor Fitzgerald and worked on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower.
“The whole thing is very distressing to me,” says Owens, who lives in Mineola. “I can’t wait for the day that the Saudis are completely exposed for not only their hand in 9/11, but this extraordinary, desperate effort to avoid accountability.”
If you have information about Scott Wheeler’s, Stephen Flanagan’s or anyone else’s recruitment of veterans to lobby against JASTA, please contact us: email@example.com.
I come not to praise Zbigniew Brzezinski, but to bury him beneath a damning fact omitted from his New York Times and Washington Post obituaries: He bears enormous responsibility for the rise of the Taliban, al Qaeda and ISIS.
In 1979, serving as national security advisor, Brzezinski convinced President Jimmy Carter to approve a plan to provide covert CIA aid to opponents of the pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan.
Carter signed the secret and deeply fateful directive on July 3 of that year. In launching the effort, “we knowingly increased the probability” of a Soviet invasion, said Brzezinski in a 1998 interview.
When that invasion occurred months later, Brzezinski told Carter, “We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.”
To accomplish that goal, the Carter and Reagan administrations, along with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, funded, organized, transported, armed and trained Salafist extremists to fight the Red Army in a holy war on behalf of Islam. Among those who joined the cause were future al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad.
The enduring global impact of this 10-year program bears emphasis: The CIA and Saudi GID recruited jihadists from all around the Muslim world, creating relationships and networks that would evolve into not only into al Qaeda, but also ISIS and many other Salafist terrorist groups across several continents.
In 1998, Brzezinski was asked if had any regrets about launching the program. He replied, “Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it?”
By some estimates, one million Afghan civilians were killed in the conflict.
The same journalist asked Brzezinski if he regretted arming and training future terrorists. He countered with his own questions: “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”
That response came three years before 9/11. However, in 2006, even after “stirred-up Muslims” had hijacked four U.S. passenger jets, destroyed the World Trade Center and killed nearly 3,000 people, Brzezinski was still unrepentant. In an interview for the documentary “Our Own Private Bin Laden,” he deflected blame for the rise of organized international jihadism to the Soviet invasion—the one he knowingly made more probable—and said those who link him to the phenomenon “live in a world of paranoia.”
Brzezinski’s Afghan strategy is a case study in the unintended consequences of U.S. interventionism, one that exposes the cold conceit of those who contentedly sacrifice the lives of innocents to the pursuit of grand geopolitical objectives.
In his willingness to make that trade, Zbigniew Brzezinski was much like Osama bin Laden. They may well share the same afterlife.
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