Scott interviews Ben Freeman about his report, “The Qatar Lobby in Washington D.C.” Freeman goes over the recent history of Qatar’s efforts to influence U.S. policy, including their apparent success in winning over the Trump administration to their side in a dispute with Saudi Arabia. In this case and in others, Freeman is astounded by how easy it is for lobbyists representing foreign governments to buy off American politicians. Small campaign donations of a few thousand dollars can be enough to buy a senator’s vote. Equally shocking, this is perfectly legal.
Discussed on the show:
- “Report: The Qatar Lobby in Washington” (Center for International Policy)
- “Report: Foreign Funding of Think Tanks in America” (Center for International Policy)
Ben Freeman is director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative with the Center for International Policy. Read his work at AntiWar.com and follow him on Twitter @BenFreemanDC.
This episode of the Scott Horton Show is sponsored by: NoDev NoOps NoIT, by Hussein Badakhchani; The War State, by Mike Swanson; WallStreetWindow.com; Tom Woods’ Liberty Classroom; ExpandDesigns.com/Scott; Listen and Think Audio; TheBumperSticker.com; and LibertyStickers.com.
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The following is an automatically generated transcript.
Scott Horton 0:10
All right, y’all welcome it’s Scott Horton Show. I am the director of the Libertarian Institute editorial director of antiwar.com, author of the book Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan. And I’ve recorded more than 5000 interviews going back to 2003, all of which are available at ScottHorton.org. You can also sign up to the podcast feed. The full archive is also available at youtube.com/ScottHortonShow.
Okay, guys, introducing Ben Freeman. He is the director of the foreign influence Transparency Initiative over there at the Center for International Policy, and they have a brand new study out the cutter lobby in Washington. Welcome back to the show, Ben. How are you? Doing.
Ben Freeman 1:01
I’m doing great, Scott. Thanks for having me.
Scott Horton 1:03
Great. Well, really happy to have you here and you do such great work. I’m glad I get a chance to interview you about all of it. So, cutter, tiny little island barely Island right off the coast of the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf. They call it the Arabian Gulf. Now, when they’re pro Saudi partisans. That’s right. But then, so your, your article begins here. You mentioned that America, of course, has a massive airbase there in Qatar and have for a long time. But you start with the story of the dust up between Saudi Arabia and the UAE and their blockade against Qatar back in the summer of 2017. So can you please remind us what was going on there and then talk about the results?
Ben Freeman 1:57
Yeah, absolutely. So in In 2017, if folks remember, Donald Trump, the newly elected as president, and he makes the decision to go to Saudi Arabia as his first trip abroad, you know, has a good trip and everything and then meets with a lot of Middle East powers, it comes back to the US. And within a couple weeks, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and a bunch of other countries in the Middle East, they launched this blockade against Qatar. And they’re, they’re accusing Qatar of effectively funding terrorism, which to me was, you know, supremely ironic coming from Saudi Arabia, which of course, most of the hijackers on 911 came from Saudi Arabia. So the fact that they’re slinging mud about terrorism financing is ironic to say the least. But but the accusation from them was that Qatar was financing terrorist groups Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood And others and so they launched this blockade against Qatar, initially Trump, Trump sides with them and as Trump is prone to do, he tweets about it. He said when he was in Saudi Arabia, they were talking about terrorism financing. And all signs were pointing to Qatar, is what he tweeted. So it seems like Trump’s you know, decidedly on the Saudi side and in the Saudis, as we’ve talked about before, Scott, the the Saudis made a very concerted effort to court, Trump and, you know, get him on their side early in the administration. And the Qataris frankly didn’t. They were really caught flat footed when the blockade started. And so when this all happened, and Trump comes out on the Saudi side, the Qataris knew they had a problem. They knew they had a big international crisis. And so the Qatari is did what a lot of countries are doing now, when faced with a big international crisis involving the US. They hired an army of lobbyists. But within a year after that, This blockade breaking out. The guitar has ended up with more than two dozen lobbying and PR firms on their payroll. They spent almost $20 million on this influence operation. And not surprisingly, it worked. Within a year the Emir of Qatar is sitting in the Oval Office, shaking hands with Donald Trump, who described him as a true gentleman. And the Emir thanked Trump for his support of Qatar during the blockade.
Scott Horton 4:33
Awesome. And then, so how exactly did that resolve any way? Did they end up? You know, ending the thing entirely, or where is it?
Ben Freeman 4:42
Yeah, yeah, good question. It the relations had been improving in in late 2019. And that they were actually starting to have dialogue between the Emir of Qatar and the Saudi Royals, and they were sort of in in negotiations to resolve it, unfortunately, there’s negotiations broke down in December of 2019. And didn’t really pick back up in the beginning part of this year. And so and so the blockade is still underway and the spat is still going on. And what we’re seeing now that that’s really interesting is that they’re sort of, you know, vying to buy goodwill related to the Coronavirus and it’s basically the you know, the Saudis and the Qatar is now are trying to play this one upsmanship on sort of who can help the us the most when it comes to Corona virus relief. So we are lobbying thing for these countries to do but I guess you know, in the corona virus you’re a everything’s kind of weird,
Scott Horton 5:45
huh? No, you know, it’s a lot of money to me, but it sounds like $18 million is chump change to go buying off an entire world Empire. But that’s how much it costs. Oh, yeah,
Ben Freeman 5:59
yeah. III, I hate to say it but uh, you know, the the swamp in DC it’s for sale and it’s cheap. You know, everybody can be can be bought off there I for very little, you know some of these, you know if you’re a country like Qatar and you know, they’re they’re sitting on the biggest natural gas reserves anywhere in the world you know worth trillions of dollars and so you’re exactly right $80 million is nothing to them but you know lobbyists and these PR firms you know they they have very little qualms and you know, signing contracts with with autocracies, you know, authoritarian regimes for you know, six, seven figure contracts sometimes, and that’s really all it takes in some cases. You know, for example, kind of get kind of ripped from the headlines. Bob Dole, just two days ago, signed a contract tract to work with a company that, you know, run by the Chinese government. So even somebody of his high profile, you know, if you’re willing to throw six, seven figures his way, you know, he’ll cross over and work for you.
Scott Horton 7:13
Yeah, you know, it’s funny when you write in here, and I guess I’ll ask you to get into specifics of the mechanics of the thing, but we talked about how they just hire these law firms, and then the law firms make the campaign contributions for them, where it’s not even really deniable, right is perfectly plain to see exactly what’s going on there. And so you have these foreign governments buying off, you know, the government in DC for very specific reasons, right to carry out their foreign policies for them. And so in a way, the American people are just extras in this movie, right? Like this government doesn’t even belong to us at all. It’s not these foreign countries have more influence in DC than the American people do. By far.
Ben Freeman 7:57
Oh, by I think absolutely. By far in the I’m really glad you brought this up, because it’s one of those examples to me. People are always, you know, worried about, you know, foreign interference and elections and you know, you know, disinformation on social media and all that. And you know, and all that stuff is definitely happening. And it’s important. But what we try to show in reports like this is that, you know what, a lot of cases, foreign countries don’t have to go through all those machinations, all they really have to do, you can hire a lobbying or PR firm in DC. You can give a lot of money to them. And then the people who work at that firm, those lawyers, those lobbyists, they can make campaign contributions to anybody they want. So it doesn’t, you know, it’s really not like it’s it’s really checkers, it’s not even chess, you know, so you can follow the money pretty clearly, as we do here. So we track this, you know, almost $20 million going from Qatar to these firms. And then we track them more than $1 billion in campaign contributions those firms make, innovating probably won’t shock your listeners to know that most of the people that they’re giving money to are people they’re contacting on behalf of Qatar. In fact, we found three cases in which the very same day a lobbyist met with a member of Congress, that on behalf of guitar, they made a campaign contribution to that very that exact same day. And it might look a lot like bribery. But unfortunately, in our crazy political system, it’s perfectly legal.
Scott Horton 9:35
Hey, guys, just real quick. If you listen to the interviews only feed at the institute or at Scott Horton. org. I just want to make sure you know that I do a q&a show from time to time at Scott Horton. org slash show the old whole show feed. And so if you like that kind of thing, check that out there. Hey, guys, here’s how to support this show. You can donate various amounts at Scott horton.org slash donate. We’ve got some great kickbacks for you there. Shop amazon.com by way of my link at Scott Horton. org, leave a good review for the show and iTunes and Stitcher. Tell a friend. Oh, yeah and buy my books, fool’s errand time to end the war in Afghanistan and the great Ron Paul. The Scott Horton show interviews 2004 through 2019 Thanks. Hey guys, check out listen and think audio books. They’re listening think.com and of course on audible.com and they feature my book fool’s errand time to end the war in Afghanistan as well as brand new out inside Syria by our friend Rhys, Eric, and a lot of other great books, mostly by libertarians there. Reese might be one exception, but essentially, they’re all libertarian audio books. And here’s how you can get a lifetime subscription to listen and think audio books. just donate $100 to the Scott Horton show at Scott Horton. org slash Donate. Okay, so here’s something that in the past we’ve seen with the Turkish lobby and others to that they figure out real quick that you know, who has a lot of influences the Israelis. And what we ought to do is we ought to hitch our wagon to theirs and see if we can get our lobby group to, you know, work with theirs and see if they can help open some doors for us. And I wonder if you’ve seen that kind of thing going on here in the case of Qatar?
Ben Freeman 11:28
Oh, yeah. I’m really glad you brought that up. And we have actually seen exactly that. One of the big strategies that the the Qatari lobby did was to do exactly this to court, the Israel lobby in so what they did, and we’re seeing this from other countries, too, is they hired a firm with ties to some folks in the Israel lobby, and then basically what that firm did was it did a lot of outreach to Israeli figures here in the US, Israeli Americans and reached out to them on behalf of Qatar and offered them paid trips to go to Qatar? And, you know, to sort of see for yourself, you know, here’s what Qatar is, like, you know, they’re, they’re selling that, as you know, being very inclusive, you know, not anti semitic, you know, very open to Israeli influence. And so this firm set up a bunch of these trips for Israeli officials, you know, from prominent Israeli organizations to go over the country. They go over there. And then at the very least, what they bought was silence from Israel, in a lot of the Israel lobby here, if not outright support for Qatar, which was critically important for them, because prior to that, the the Saudis and the Emirati sort of had this weird alliance with with Israel kind of against Iran in Qatar. And so from cutters point of view, if you’re the Qatar Qatar lobby, you can find the Saudis in the Emirati is in the halls of Congress. You sure as heck can’t fight the Israel lobby? And so once they were able to kind of shut down, there’s Israeli voices, I think, then it really even the playing field.
Scott Horton 13:19
Yeah, that’s interesting, you know, well, for a whole lot of reasons, I guess. But, you know, a huge part of the whole narrative against Qatar, right, was that they’re in bed with the Iranians, because they share this natural gas field under the Persian Gulf, and so therefore, by necessity, have more friendly relations than the Saudis do, and all this kind of thing. So you would think, right, that if the Israelis believed any of what they said about Iran, that that would mean that they would have more of a problem with Qatar, but I guess, yeah, he’s money. And at the end of the day, it’s the bottom line that counts more.
Ben Freeman 13:58
Yeah, I mean, into your point, Scott about, you know, our political system being able to be bought off on the cheap. They weren’t even offering folks like that much money to go to Qatar. I remember, for example, they offered a trip to, to Mike Huckabee and you know, common Fox commentator, they were sort of trying to do a bank shot to to influence Trump by you know, you want to influence Trump, you know, influence him, you know, on Twitter are on the phones he sees on Fox. So they offer mike huckabee a trip. They paid him $50,000 which, again, you know, $50,000 to go on a trip, you know, that’s a good bit of money to most folks. But for the Qataris, that’s like, that’s not even you know, it’s a rounding error. You know, it’s nothing to them. But then of course, Huckabee goes on the trip. He comes back any tweets nice things about Qatar, so so for them, you know, it’s a win win and all costume was 50 grand.
Scott Horton 14:56
Yeah. And which, by the way, all other things being equal, you know, it’s better than than being shut out. And the Saudis having the only say about the matter, you know, which is a terrible position for us all to be in here that this is the contest. But they could cause a real problem with a blockade like this. I mean, because, for example, in this case, the Turks went and sent troops to Qatar to tell the Saudis to back off. So now we got, you know, allies facing off with allies on behalf of other allies, you know, across the moat from the dreaded enemy, Iran, and all of this stuff playing out when it’s none of the American people’s interest whatsoever.
Ben Freeman 15:38
That Not at all. I mean, I think the last the last thing the American people need right now is another war in the Middle East. And that’s exactly what, what the Saudis were trying to do here. It’s not at all in American interest for that to happen.
Scott Horton 15:54
Alright, so say bad things about john ashcroft. Now
Ben Freeman 16:00
Yeah. john ashcroft is one of the the, the lobbyists working for Qatar. In you know, he’s obviously you know, he’s very very influential in republican circles and you know for the Qatar he’s It was really a coup getting Ashcroft in his lobbying firm on the payroll, you know, because he you know, somebody like john ashcroft he can open just about any door. Anyways, for, for the Qataris. I think he was a really pivotal figure in you know, really getting their influence operation going. Then another guy too, that the that we highlight in the report is this guy James Gallagher. And, you know, folks might not know that name. But but he’s another, you know, big time operative, who actually has pretty close ties to to Trump himself, and what Gallagher would do, I mean, I as you know, Scott, I look at the For an agent filings every day, and I think, you know, James Gallagher to me is one of the he’s one of the shady characters I think I’ve seen in Pharaoh filings. Because he didn’t. He didn’t meet with that many people on behalf of Qatar. But almost every single member of Congress that he met with, he made a campaign contribution to him. Two of those people, in fact, he made a campaign contribution to them on the exact same day, he met with them on behalf of Qatar. And it was the only campaign contribution he made to them in the 2018 cycle. So in many, many ways, he has a very clear cut example of kind of everything that’s wrong with lobbying on behalf of foreign governments in DC.
Scott Horton 17:44
Is that illegal at all? I mean, even on some old unenforced law, I know you have to register under Farah, supposedly.
Ben Freeman 17:52
Yeah, and unfortunately, as I mentioned, it’s actually perfectly legal if you are a if you are a lobbyist Stand in, you have a meeting with somebody, you can make a campaign contribution in that same day, what you can’t do, you can’t, you know, directly give them a check in their Capitol office building, you know, they’re not allowed to fundraise on official government property. Um, but but all it really takes in one of these cases, you know, you write a check to them, you know, that morning, you can do it online, you know, then you walk into their office, and you can you can remind them that like, Hey, I’m a donor. In fact, I just donated this morning. That as crazy as it sounds, is is perfectly legal in our campaign finance system.
Scott Horton 18:39
Yeah. Wow. So I guess I wondered, I guess that’s really the distinction. Is it perfectly legal or is just kind of sort of legal? No, it’s perfectly legal for them to
Ben Freeman 18:48
act this way. Yeah, yeah. There’s absolutely nothing illegal about it in what what we try to do the most that we can really do is point this out for folks and you know, we spent a lot of time The this report here is almost five months in the making, you know, so we spent a lot of time we go through every single campaign contribution, you know, we try to try to find, you know, if they’ve, if it was the same day contribution, that sort of thing. And what we found here, it’s not just James Gallagher, we found 59 different members of Congress had taken money from one of these Qatari firms that that had contacted them on behalf of Qatar 59. You know, that’s, it’s an it’s just an insane number of folks. But that’s really the way the system’s working right now.
Scott Horton 19:37
And then, so a couple of things, first of all, from there, do you have correlations and causations as to how their votes changed, possibly, or, you know, public statements they made like Huckabee, you know, soon after that kind of thing, or taking their side and some committee meeting or anything kind of important like that. And then also, if you could mention, just how big are these campaign contribute? We’re talking about low, four digit numbers, right?
Ben Freeman 20:03
Oh, yeah, that’s right. Just a couple of
Scott Horton 20:05
thousand bucks. We’ll buy off a senator.
Ben Freeman 20:08
Yeah, yeah. I mean, I mean, it’s cheap again, I think you said it far better than than I could, you know, we’re, we’re for sale in our political systems for sale and it’s cheap. It doesn’t take that much. Well, I mean, we’re talking $1,000 or $2,000 contributions. Again, those are all like within within the legal limits for individual contributions. So there’s nothing and you know, again, there’s nothing illegal about it. And in many cases, what we did track to your question, we track some of these contributions and you know, surrounding key boats related to Qatar. issues for Qatar rain ranging from censoring them for their for their support of terrorism, to arm sales to Qatar, to congressional trips to Qatar. That was an Another really, you know, strong tool that Qatar lobbyists did was that they helped to arrange these, like all inclusive, you know, luxury trips for members of Congress to go to Qatar for completely free. They could bring their spouses even on these, you know, all inclusive, you know, luxury trips to Qatar, in the lobbyists are setting and setting up those trips. Oh, and as an added bonus there, same lobbyists are making campaign contributions to those members of Congress, who then go on those trips and come back and offer further support for Qatar.
Scott Horton 21:38
Yeah, man. All right. So talk about the think tanks. The Council on Foreign Relations is only the biggest and most important one, but there are a lot of them.
Ben Freeman 21:50
Yeah, yeah. I mean, the the guitars are one of the biggest players when it comes to Think Tank funding. I’ll turn in addition to this guitar lobby report, I’ll turn your listeners on to a report that we released in January on foreign governments funding of think tanks and you can find that at our website at international policy.org. In that report, we followed all the money going from foreign governments that think tanks 170 $4 million. We tracked, you go into the nation’s top think tanks, and Qatar was one of the biggest donors to think tanks. One of their the biggest recipients from Qatar is every single year, the Qatari government makes an over over $2 million dollar donation to the Brookings Institution in Brookings, Brookings is you know, arguably the biggest, most influential think tank in DC. And in they have a they have a branch now in in Doha, Qatar, and we were able to track in that report some of what we perceived as pretty, we’ll say soft critiques. Qatar, meaning Brookings was sort of rather uncritical of a lot of what Qatar does. In, you know, on some level, you know, funding, you know, that level of funding to a think tank that really matters. And it can change what the think tank says. Or in a lot of cases, it’s just mainly the think tank to just not critique a, you know, an autocratic government that’s giving in a lot of money in that silence can actually be very powerful in DC too.
Scott Horton 23:31
You know, I wonder about how much of this is kind of grudges over competition between Qatar and Saudi for which terrorist groups to back in Syria?
Ben Freeman 23:43
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, it’s a big proxy war. And I think that that gets to a good point, too. But, you know, thinking about this from the point of view of American interest, you know, the civil war in Syria is certainly not to our interest, you know, a hotbed for terrorist groups to grow there. Then you know it’s a prop becomes a proxy war between these regional rivals Same thing with the war in Yemen to you know, we’ve we’ve certainly critique what Saudi Arabia and the UAE are doing there in terms of civilian casualties. But you know, Iran’s and they’re supporting the the Houthi rebels as well. And so that’s also a proxy war you know, creating fertile space for for terrorist groups to grow. So you know, all of this and in so many ways it’s just antithetical to us interest but yet our politicians are so easily bought off by all of these different governments lobbying operations.
Scott Horton 24:39
Well, and this is the thing of it too, right? When especially when you read report after report after report by you guys over you know how all these how the sausage is made, as they say, how the policy is created here. It seems like nevermind American national interest, it seems like You know, even reason, broadly defined, or just a consistent policy that makes some kind of sense, is really not in play, you know that it really is nothing but a grab bag of different interests competing over what they want to happen without any kind of overarching policy for the region.
Ben Freeman 25:23
Right, right in and I really think I think that’s exactly right. And I really think the key here in why I personally spend so much time looking at lobbying by these foreign governments is that, that there’s no us constituency here, right, we might, you know, be Mone special interest groups here in the US and, you know, outside power of some groups, but but at least those groups are representing, you know, the the interests of American citizens. In this case, you know, these are these are autocratic foreign governments, none of which are US citizens that are lobbying our government and getting our government to change its policies as they see fit. I mean, American interests in many ways for these foreign lobbying operations, American interests are an afterthought at best, and if American interest gets served in many cases, it’s purely coincidental. Yeah, that’s a good way to put it.
Scott Horton 26:23
All right. Well, listen, I’m sorry, I’m out of time here. But this is such a great piece. I hope everyone will go and look at it. It’s called the Qatar lobby in Washington. And it’s put out by Ben Freeman. He is the director of the foreign influence Transparency Initiative city, at the Center for International Policy. Thank you very much again, Ben.
Ben Freeman 26:43
Thanks for having me. Scott. Have a great day. You too, man.
Scott Horton 26:46
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