Life Undercover as One of DC's
by Ken Silverstein, Harper's
www.alternet.org, June 23, 2007
In March, when the U.S. State Department
announced its new global survey of human rights, Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice declared that the report demonstrated America's
commitment to civil liberties, the rule of law, and a free press.
"We are recommitting ourselves to
stand with those courageous men and women who struggle for their
freedom and their rights," she said. "And we are recommitting
ourselves to call every government to account that still treats
the basic rights of its citizens as options rather than, in President
Bush's words, the non-negotiable demands of human dignity."
Flipping through the report, however,
one cannot help but notice how many of the countries that flout
"the non-negotiable demands of human dignity" seem to
have negotiated themselves significant support from the U.S. government,
whether military assistance (Egypt, Colombia), development aid
(Azerbaijan, Nigeria), expanded trade opportunities (Angola, Cameroon),
or official Washington visits for their leaders (Equatorial Guinea,
Kazakhstan). The granting of favorable concessions to dictatorial
regimes is a practice hardly limited to the current administration:
Bill Clinton came into office having said that China's access
to American markets should be tied to improved human rights --
specifically its willingness to "recognize the legitimacy
of those kids that were carrying the Statue of Liberty" at
Tiananmen Square -- but left having helped Beijing attain its
long-cherished goal of Permanent Most Favored Nation trade status.
Jimmy Carter put the promotion of human rights at the heart of
his foreign policy, yet he cut deals for South American generals
and Persian Gulf monarchs in much the same fashion as his successor,
How is it that regimes widely acknowledged
to be the world's most oppressive nevertheless continually win
favors in Washington? In part, it is because they often have something
highly desired by the United States that can be leveraged to their
advantage, be it natural resources, vast markets for trade and
investment, or general geostrategic importance. But even the best-endowed
regimes need help navigating the shoals of Washington, and it
is their great fortune that, for the right price, countless lobbyists
are willing to steer even the foulest of ships.
American lobbyists have worked for dictators
since at least the 1930s, when the Nazi government used a proxy
firm called the German Dye Trust to retain the public-relations
specialist Ivy Lee. Exposure of Lee's deal led Congress to pass
the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 (FARA), which required
foreign lobbyists to register their contracts with the Justice
Department. The idea seemed to be that with disclosure, lobbyists
would be too embarrassed to take on immoral or corrupt clients,
but this assumption predictably proved to be naive. Edward J.
von Kloberg III, now deceased, for years made quite a comfortable
living by representing men such as Saddam Hussein of Iraq (whose
government's gassing of its Kurdish population he sought to justify)
and Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (for whose notoriously crooked regime
he helped win American foreign aid). Two other von Kloberg contracts
-- for Nicolae Ceauscescu of Romania and Samuel Doe of Liberia
-- were terminated, quite literally, when each was murdered by
his own citizens. In the 1990s, after Burma's military government
arrested the future Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi
and cracked down on the pro-democracy movement she led, the firm
of Jefferson Waterman International signed on to freshen up the
Although there are distinct limits to
what they can achieve, lobbyists are the crucial conduit through
which pariah regimes advance their interests in Washington. "It's
like the secret handshake that gets you into the lodge,"
as one former lobbyist told me. Occasionally, firms will achieve
spectacular successes for a client: one particularly remarkable
piece of lobbyist image management, for example, occurred in the
mid-1980s, when the firm of Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly
helped refashion Jonas Savimbi, a murderous, demented Angolan
rebel leader backed by the apartheid regime in South Africa, as
a valiant anti-communist "freedom fighter." Savimbi
visited Washington on numerous occasions, where the lobby shop
had him ferried about by limousine to meetings with top political
leaders, conservative groups, and TV networks. Black, Manafort
checked repeated threats by members of Congress to cut off aid
to Savimbi's rebel group, which was burning and raping its way
through Angola with the help of American taxpayers.
Generally, though, lobbyists' victories
are more discreet. In 2004 six former members of Congress served
as "election observers" in Cameroon and offered an upbeat
assessment of President Paul Biya's overwhelming reelection victory,
which a local Roman Catholic cardinal described as "surrounded
by fraud." It turned out that the firm of Patton Boggs, which
worked for the Cameroonian government, had arranged the trip of
allegedly independent observers, whose expenses were paid by the
Biya regime. Between 1999 and 2000, the Carmen Group received
more than $1 million from the government of Kazakhstan to help
"establish President [Nursultan] Nazarbayev as one of the
foremost emerging leaders of the New World." The lobby shop
sent four writers -- syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer,
Providence Journal associate editor Philip Terzian, R.
Emmett Tyrrell Jr. of The American Spectator, and Scott
Hogenson of the Conservative News Service -- on all-expenses-paid
trips to Kazakhstan, and upon their return all wrote stories,
ranging from critical but sympathetic to slavishly fawning, which
the Carmen Group circulated on Capitol Hill.
The U.S. General Accounting Office estimated
in 1990 that less than half of foreign lobbyists who should register
under FARA actually do so, and there is no evidence that matters
have improved. In theory, violators can be heavily fined and even
sent to prison, but almost no one has been prosecuted for ignoring
the act, so there are few risks for non-compliance. Those firms
that do register generally reveal little information beyond the
names of their clients, the fees they pay, and limited information
about whom they contact. Because disclosure requirements are so
lax, it is nearly impossible to monitor the activities of foreign
lobbyists. What little knowledge we do have of lobbyist-orchestrated
diplomacy -- including most of the projects discussed above --
has been gleaned not from FARA filings but from serendipitous
revelations or investigative reporting.
Which leaves Americans to wonder: Exactly
what sorts of promises do these firms make to foreign governments?
What kind of scrutiny, if any, do they apply to potential clients?
How do they orchestrate support for their clients? And how much
of their work is visible to Congress and the public, and hence
subject to oversight? To shed light on these questions, I decided
to approach some top Washington lobbying firms myself, as a potential
client, to see whether they would be willing to burnish the public
image of a particularly reprehensible regime.
The first step was to select a suitably
distasteful would-be client. Given that my first pick, North Korea,
seemed too reviled to be credible, I settled on the only slightly
less Stalinist regime of Turkmenistan. Until his sudden death
last December, President-for-Life Saparmurat Niyazov built a personality
cult that outdid that of any modern leader except possibly Kim
Jong Il. High school students were required to study The Ruhnama,
Niyazov's book of personal and spiritual wisdom, described on
its official website as being "on par with the Bible and
the Koran." The self-declared "Turkmenbashi," or
"Leader of all Ethnic Turkmens," Niyazov had his image
plastered on billboards and buildings across the country, as well
as on the national currency, salt packets, and vodka bottles.
He named after himself not only a town but an entire month of
the year (the one we unenlightened non-Turkmen still call January).
Any opposition to the Turkmen government is considered to be treason,
and thousands of political dissidents have been imprisoned. In
2004 a man seeking permission to hold a peaceful demonstration
was sent to a psychiatric hospital for two years.
Following Niyazov's demise, Minister of
Health Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, the Turkmenbashi's personal
dentist, became acting president. He had been responsible, according
to the BBC, for implementing Niyazov's 2004 reform of the health
service, "which many observers have blamed for its near collapse."
Berdymukhamedov was confirmed as president in an election held
in February -- he ran against five other candidates, all from
the ruling party, and won 89 percent of the vote -- in a balloting
that he described as being held "on a democratic basis that
has been laid by the great [late] leader," but which just
about everyone else deemed to be a sham. ("[H]is victory
was always certain . . . and all official structures worked to
ensure the outcome," the International Crisis Group said
of Berdymukhamedov's triumph at the polls.) In an early interview
after becoming president, he said that Niyazov was his role model;
as for democracy, he said, "This tender substance cannot
be imposed by applying ready imported models.
It can be only carefully nurtured by using
the wise national experience and traditions of previous generations."
He has allowed two new Internet cafés to open in Ashgabat,
but business has reportedly been poor, perhaps due to the soldiers
posted at the doorways or to the hourly fee, which runs about
$10, more than the average Turkmen's daily income. I would have
difficulty passing for Turkmen, I knew, so rather than approaching
the firms as a representative of the government itself, I instead
would be a consultant for "The Maldon Group," a mysterious
(and fictitious) firm that claimed to have a financial stake in
improving Turkmenistan's public image. We were, my story ran,
a group of private investors involved in the export of natural
gas from Turkmenistan to Ukrainian and other Eastern European
markets. We felt it would strengthen our business position in
Turkmenistan if we could convey to American policymakers and journalists
just how heady were the reforms being plotted by the Berdymukhamedov
If flacking for Turkmenistan did not in
itself trouble the lobbying firms, my description of The Maldon
Group was designed to raise a number of bright red flags. Turkmenistan
has vast reserves of natural gas, from which it earns about $2
billion per year in export revenues, but the whole business has
been marked by flagrant corruption -- as can be ascertained very
quickly by anyone who cares to perform a Google search. A 2006
study by London-based Global Witness reported that Niyazov kept
billions of dollars in gas revenues under his effective control
in overseas accounts. "Perhaps the murkiest and most complex
aspect of the Turkmen-Ukraine gas trade," the report went
on to say, is the role of the intermediary companies that have
inserted themselves for more than a decade between Turkmenistan,
Russia, Ukraine and Europe. These companies have often come out
of nowhere, parlaying tiny amounts of start-up capital into billion-dollar
deals. Their ultimate beneficial ownership has been hidden behind
complex networks of trusts, holding companies and nominee directors
and there is almost no public information about where their profits
Before approaching the lobbying firms,
I made a few minimal preparations. I printed up some Maldon Group
business cards, giving myself the name "Kenneth Case"
and giving the firm an address at a large office building in London,
on Cavendish Square. I purchased a cell phone with a London number.
I had a website created for The Maldon Group -- just a home page
with contact information -- and an email account for myself. Then,
in mid-February, soon after Berdymukhamedov's ascent, I began
contacting various lobbying firms by email, introducing my firm
and explaining that we were eager to improve relations between
the "newly-elected government of Turkmenistan" and the
United States. We required the services of a firm, I said, that
could quickly enact a "strategic communications" plan
to help us. I hoped that the firms might be willing to meet with
me at the end of the month, during a trip I had planned to Washington.
At around three on a pleasantly warm February
afternoon, Barry Schumacher, a senior vice president at APCO Associates,
ushered me into a conference room at the firm's downtown Washington
office, near the intersection of 12th and H Streets N.W. Accompanying
me was "Ricardo," a Spanish-born Maldon Group consultant
(in actuality, a friend I had recruited to come along, since it
seemed unlikely that a firm like mine would send a single associate
to meet with potential lobbying firms). APCO was the first firm
I had contacted, because it was such a natural candidate to represent
Turkmenistan: it has experience working not just on behalf of
authoritarian regimes in general -- the dictatorship of General
Sani Abacha in Nigeria, for example, which employed the firm in
1995, the same year it hanged nine democracy activists -- but
for Caspian regimes in particular, having done P.R. work for the
oil-rich kleptocracy of Azerbaijan.
APCO, Schumacher had written eagerly to
me by email, had "worked on image, policy, foreign investment
and reputation issues for a host of governments." He touted
the firm's "key professionals," among them former members
of Congress and former administration officials. In a follow-up
note, he did ask if I might provide a bit more information about
The Maldon Group, since, for obvious reasons, he hadn't been able
to discover anything about it. "We prefer to be discreet
due to the sensitivity of our business," I replied. Schumacher
understood; he even volunteered that APCO would be "more
than willing to sign a confidentiality agreement." I assured
him that if we were to proceed to the stage of contract negotiations,
The Maldon Group would "certainly be able to satisfy any
reasonable concerns" about our ability to pay, but until
then, I wrote, "we're not prepared to share much more than
what I've already told you at the level of preliminary conversations."
To which Schumacher promptly replied, "I understand, and
this is not unusual for us."
Now, as Ricardo and I entered the meeting
room, three of Schumacher's colleagues rose from their seats around
a conference table to greet us. There was Elizabeth Jones, a former
assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia until 2005
and an ex-ambassador to Kazakhstan; Robert Downen, a professorial
type in a shirt and tie who had previously served as a senior
aide to Senator Robert Dole and was a fellow at the Center for
Strategic & International Studies; and, in a pinstriped suit,
Jennifer Millerwise Dyck, a former spokeswoman for the CIA (where,
I later read in her biography I received that day, she "initiated
the agency's first coordinated corporate branding and advertising
strategy") and for Vice President Dick Cheney.
The conference room, located just past
the reception desk, was bland and sparsely decorated. A coffeepot
and a black plastic tray of cookies lay on a countertop just across
from where I sat. After offering us refreshments, Schumacher commenced
with a PowerPoint slide show, which he projected onto a wall.
One of the first slides was called "Soft Soundings,"
and it ran through what Schumacher described as a "vox populi
of policymakers" on the subject of Turkmenistan, gleaned
from interviews conducted by him and his colleagues in preparing
for the meeting with The Maldon Group. Now is "Turkmenistan's
most important moment since independence," read one quote,
attributed to an unnamed foundation fellow. "No one is looking
for perfection on democracy and human rights reforms," read
a second sounding, this one from an administration official. I
wagged my head, encouraged by this welcome news.
"This really is an opportunity to
define the new government of Turkmenistan," Schumacher said,
and at this point Jones took over. After speaking with her former
colleagues at the State Department, she said, she had concluded
that the Bush Administration was hoping to improve relations with
the Berdymukhamedov government. Her contacts at State weren't
expecting "miracles" in terms of political reform; even
a few small steps, like the new Internet cafés, would provide
some "good hooks" APCO could use to promote the regime.
"People like Beth can call up these policymakers," Schumacher
said with a shake of the head, as if he himself were in awe of
Jones's access. "Getting information like that with a couple
of phone calls is priceless." Schumacher said he had made
calls of his own and had learned from a staff director at "a
key committee" that hearings on the topic of energy security
were coming up. "Turkmenistan has a role to play here and
[that] helps us talk about it in a positive way," he said.
"It's another hook."
In addition to the core team around the
table, Schumacher stressed, APCO had on hand a number of other
heavies who could be called upon to assist the Turkmenistan campaign.
These included former Senator Don Riegle, who, Schumacher said,
was tight with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid; and former Congressman
Don Bonker, who had close ties with Tom Lantos, the new Democratic
chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. But what about
the Republican side? I asked with concern. Schumacher assured
me that the firm had access to people in both parties, "not
because we've contributed money" (though APCO employees,
I subsequently discovered, had contributed more than $100,000
during the last three election cycles) but because of the high
esteem in which the firm's stable of former officials was generally
held. And, he added with a grin, Dyck had such strong ties to
the GOP that she alone was "worth six" of APCO's Democratic
"What can I say?" Dyck crowed,
throwing her arms out.
Turning to media strategy, Schumacher
presented APCO's broad review of the coverage. The bad news: almost
all mentions of Turkmenistan were negative. On the upside, there
wasn't very much coverage to speak of. Now was the time to strike.
Wasn't he worried, I asked, that the Turkmen regime would be held
to impossibly high human-rights standards? Schumacher sought to
put my mind at ease. With any PR campaign there were bound to
be "isolated incidents that look bad, and it's up to the
communications company to figure out a way to be honest about
them, to react and to put them in proper perspective, to make
sure they don't derail the campaign." On the other hand,
he allowed that something "really terrible" -- the words
dangled in the air -- would be hard to overcome.
There was also the nagging question of
public disclosure. Yes, Schumacher said, APCO would have to register
and The Maldon Group would need to provide some additional information
at that time, but there was no need to lose sleep about that.
"We live up to the spirit and letter of the law, but we would
provide minimal information," he said. "[We'd] say we're
working for The Maldon Group on behalf of the government and would
file semi-annual reports. And that's it."
But what if we get calls from journalists?
"If they call you," Jones said
with a big smile, "refer them to us."
Later in the presentation, a slide revealed
the proposed budget for APCO's Turkmenistan operation: $40,000
per month, plus expenses (estimated at about 10 percent of fees),
and more for any travel outside of Washington. Paid advertising
and special events would cost extra, and Schumacher proposed that
we set up a new website for the Turkmen Embassy in Washington,
which would cost The Maldon Group another $35,000. In total, getting
out our message about a new and improved Turkmenistan would require
about $600,000 over the first year.
What would we get for our money? APCO's
strategy was laid out on a slide entitled "Elements of a
Communications Program," of which there were four. The first
was "policy maker outreach," and thanks to its political
contacts, APCO would have no problem here. "Anyone who tells
you they can get a congressman to do what you want ought not to
be believed, but we can get in the door and make the case,"
APCO would easily be able to arrange meetings
between Turkmen officials and key members of Congress, and might
be able to organize a fact-finding trip to the country as well.
Given the recent scandal surrounding the lobbyist Jack Abramoff,
it would be difficult and even unwise for The Maldon Group to
sponsor a congressional trip directly, Schumacher said, but there
would surely be official delegations traveling to the region,
and "we have the contacts to urge them to stop there."
Downen stepped in here, suggesting it
was premature to rule out the possibility of organizing a private
junket to Turkmenistan for a crew from Congress. True, The Maldon
Group shouldn't organize it directly, but he'd had personal experience
with academic groups sponsoring trips. "Maybe Turkmenistan
has a think tank or university," he offered. "Under
the old rules, any bona fide academic institution could sponsor
[travel]. Under the new rules I'm not sure, but I can check."
The second element of the strategy was
a "media campaign." In a slide entitled "Core Media
Relations Activities," APCO promised to "create news
items and news outflow," organize media events, and identify
and work with "key reporters." As this was her field
of expertise, Dyck presented this slide. The media would be receptive
to stories about Turkmenistan with the change of government, she
said, plus "energy security is an additional hook. We can
also bring things like Internet cafés to their attention."
In addition to influencing news reports,
Downen added, the firm could drum up positive op-eds in newspapers.
"We can utilize some of the think-tank experts who would
say, 'On the one hand this and the other hand that,' and we place
it as a guest editorial." Indeed, Schumacher said, APCO had
someone on staff who "does nothing but that" and had
succeeded in placing thousands of opinion pieces.
Discussion about the strategy's third
item -- building "coalition support," which meant developing
seemingly independent and therefore more credible allies to offer
favorable views about Turkmenistan -- was brief. As a slide on
the topic put it, we would need to start small, given that the
"closed nature of country has inhibited investment and exchanges."
For now, the best coalition partners would be current and potential
corporate investors in Turkmenistan, as well as "think tank
experts and academics." How could we use think tanks and
academics? I wondered. "I'm glad you asked," Schumacher
said with a chuckle. He flipped to the next slide, which discussed
the fourth element of the campaign: "events." One possibility,
Downen said, would be to hold a forum on U.S.-Turkmen relations,
preferably built around a visit to the United States by a Turkmen
official. Possible hosts would include The Heritage Foundation,
the Center for Strategic & International Studies, and the
Council on Foreign Relations. "Last week I contacted a number
of colleagues at think tanks," Downen went on. "Some
real experts could easily be engaged to sponsor or host a public
forum or panel that would bring in congressional staff and journalists."
The only cost would be refreshments and room rental -- Schumacher
joked that APCO would bake the cookies to save The Maldon Group
a little money -- and could yield a tremendous payoff. "If
we can get a paper published or a speech at a conference, we can
get a friendly member of Congress to insert that in the Congressional
Record and get that printed and send it out," Schumacher
said. "So you take one event and get it multiplied."
Another option, he explained, would be
to pay Roll Call and The Economist to host a Turkmenistan
event. It would be costlier than the think-tank route, perhaps
around $25,000, but in compensation we would have tighter control
over the proceedings, plus gain "the imprimatur of a respected
third party." In order that the event not seem like paid
advertising, the title for the event should be "bigger than
your theme," Schumacher explained, even as it would be put
together in a way "that you get your message across."
So we wouldn't call it "Turkmenistan Day"? I asked.
No, Schumacher replied. "Energy Security"
would be a better theme.
"Or 'Caspian Basin Pipelines,'"
"That's how you do it," Schumacher
said. The Maldon Group wouldn't have its own speaker on the dais,
but APCO would line up a few people -- possibilities included
an administration official or an executive from an American firm
involved in Turkmenistan -- to speak for us. While promising reform
was important, we would probably want to focus on matters like
energy and regional security. "In a world where the administration
wants some realism, there may be ways to get positive messages
out," Schumacher said. A concluding slide laid out the broad
benefits that The Maldon Group could expect to see for our $600,000.
These included raising Turkmenistan's profile "as a nation
important to the United States," building a "broader
base of support" for the country, and improving media coverage.
After a series of firm handshakes, I promised I would be back
in touch as soon as I had consulted with my superiors in London.
The following morning, Ricardo and I headed
to the offices of Cassidy & Associates, perhaps the most prominent
of all the Washington lobby shops. It was founded thirty-two years
ago by Gerald Cassidy, a former staffer for George McGovern, and
for much of its existence was known as a strongly Democratic firm.
Cassidy pioneered the practice of lobbying for earmarks -- the
polite term for pork -- but also represents Fortune 500 corporations
as well as foreign countries and businesses. Its current clients
include Teodoro Obiang, who has ruled the small African nation
of Equatorial Guinea since 1979, when he executed his uncle. Between
1998 and 2006, Cassidy was paid more than $235 million in lobbying
fees, more than any other firm in Washington.
Cassidy's headquarters are just a block
away from APCO's but are far more elegant. The firm occupies the
entire fourth floor of its building, so that one enters the offices
upon exiting the elevator. A receptionist walked Ricardo and me
into a large conference room with a beautiful wood table polished
to a bright sheen. There were about twenty seats around the table,
and eight settings had been laid out with a glass, each set atop
a paper coaster embossed with the firm's name. The table held
an assortment of canned soft drinks, a pitcher of ice water with
lemon slices, a cup of sharpened pencils, and a pile of yellow
A phalanx of six Cassidy officials soon
entered the conference room, all dressed in elegant business attire
of varying shades of black, gray, and navy blue. There was Chuck
Dolan, a former senior P.R. consultant for the Kerry-Edwards campaign;
Gordon Speed, the firm's pudgy, baby-faced director of business
development; tall, thin Gerald Warburg, a former Hill staffer
and company vice president; Christy Moran, who during the meeting
told me she had previously worked for Saudi Arabia and helped
boost its image with an "allies program" that sent visitors
to the country; and David Bartlett, another P.R. specialist whose
firm biography said he had helped corporate CEOs "face the
nation's toughest journalists."
The sixth member of the Cassidy team,
and its clear leader, was firm vice chairman Gregg Hartley, who
with his crew cut and serious manner initially reminded me of
a drill sergeant; but soon he loosened up and proved to possess
a certain folksy appeal. Until 2003 he had been a top aide to
then House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, and he maintains close ties
to top Republicans in Congress. When Hartley quit his Hill job
and decided to become a lobbyist, a "bidding war for his
services ensued," the Washington Post later reported. "Cassidy
... won it with an offer of just under $1 million a year,"
plus a "substantial percentage" of the lobbying fees
Hartley generated. Hartley's hiring marked a key moment in Cassidy
& Associates' transformation during the past decade into a
lobbying enterprise that is increasingly identified with the Republican
As was the case with APCO, Cassidy had
immediately offered to meet with me. In an initial phone conversation
with Speed, Hartley, and Dolan, the three had asked only a few
softball questions about The Maldon Group (and, like APCO, offered
to sign a confidentiality agreement) before they began their sales
pitch. Hartley pointed out that Cassidy's work for Equatorial
Guinea was "a very similar sort of representation to what
you're talking about" with Turkmenistan. The Obiang regime
had received a bit of bad publicity -- he mentioned here a banking
scandal involving the government -- and Cassidy's first job had
been "to identify inaccurate or biased stories and try to
correct them." Hartley also boasted about Cassidy's political
contacts, saying, "We strongly believe in a bipartisan [approach]
and mirroring the power structure. ... You have to find champions
on both sides."
Hartley returned to that theme during
the meeting at Cassidy's office. His firm, he said after passing
Ricardo and me copies of a corporate brochure, had "strong
personal relationships" with policymakers, and not just to
a committee chairman here and there, as was the case with some
of its competitors. Cassidy had ties across the board -- at the
staff level, the committee level, the Republican and Democratic
leadership, and the administration.
"We know you're talking to other
firms," Hartley said pointedly. "You're going to have
a hard time matching ... [the] types of successes" his firm
had racked up. For example, thanks to Cassidy's aggressive media
strategy and trips it had organized to Equatorial Guinea for congressional
staffers, things were now looking up for the government there.
The proof: three years ago, Hartley said, Parade Magazine
had ranked Obiang as "the world's sixth worst dictator,"
grimacing as he stated that last word. "He's still not a
great guy," he went on, "but he's not in the top ten
anymore, and we can take some credit for helping them figure out
how to work down that list. Is he going to win the U.N. humanitarian
award next year? No, he's not, but we're making progress."
Now Warburg took over the meeting. He
talked with some passion about two "remarkable lobbying campaigns"
that the firm had been involved with, both of which had succeeded
in getting the U.S. government to move "against its express
will." The first was eliminating a longtime trade embargo
against Vietnam, which the firm had achieved over the opposition
of the families of POWs and MIAs. The key to success was assembling
an outside pressure group called the Multinational Business Development
Coalition, which was made up of major American corporations seeking
business in Vietnam. "The U.S. had no relations," Warburg
said. "We changed that policy, ended the embargo, and opened
Vietnam up to U.S. economic exchange."
The second campaign, Warburg said, involved
winning permission in 1995 for President Lee Teng-hui of Taiwan
to make a private visit to the United States "over the express
opposition of the executive branch." At the time, Taiwan's
embassy wasn't even allowed to lobby in Washington without permission
from the State Department. Evading that obstacle was simple: since
the government couldn't retain Cassidy, a Taiwanese think tank
fronting for it did. President Bill Clinton had said he wouldn't
allow Lee to come to the United States, so Cassidy, Warburg recounted,
began a campaign to lobby Congress. After both chambers passed
resolutions in support of a visit by Lee, the White House caved.
"The president of the United States reversed policy,"
said Warburg. The campaign had been so brilliant, in fact, that
graduate students had written theses on it.
Warburg also mentioned his past work for
Merhav, an Israeli firm with major interests in Turkmenistan,
for which Cassidy had obtained Export-Import Bank financing for
a trans-Caspian pipeline. Unlike the case with other lobbying
firms The Maldon Group might hire, "We really know Turkmenistan.
It wouldn't be on-the-job training for us."
When Warburg had represented Merhav, he
met a number of Turkmen officials. "Unfortunately, the previous
government had a history of shuffling ministers," he said.
"I won't pursue the metaphor." To which Hartley added,
"We won't ask where all of them were shuffled!" There
was general merriment, which seemed inappropriate, given that
sixteen ministers were jailed or sent into internal exile last
year, one of whom is believed to have died in prison.
Hartley announced that he and his colleagues
had a few questions about The Maldon Group. I would be as helpful
as I could, I replied, but discretion was our firm's lifeblood;
while it pained me "to look like I'm being evasive,"
there wasn't much I could say.
"We're going to ask questions, and
you may have to throw the wall up," Hartley said. "Don't
mention names if you can't mention names."
The questions were quite easy to handle:
I did little more than toss out the same scraps of information
I had given them before. We were a small group of British, Middle
Eastern, and Eastern European investors; we had a close relationship
to the government, but there were no Turkmen officials involved
in The Maldon Group. I reiterated my concerns about public-disclosure
requirements, and Hartley assured me I could rest easy. "We
have to disclose who we represent, but there doesn't have to be
great detail," he said. "The way we would handle this,
there'd be very little about you and virtually none about your
When it was time for the hard sell, Warburg
began by giving me a piece of intelligence he had picked up --
something, he said, for me to share "with your friends and
investors back in England." The previous week, he claimed,
there had been a meeting on Turkmenistan at the highest level
of the U.S. government. "We'd like to make sure you're on
the agenda for the next such meeting," he said pointedly.
"We'd like to be involved in prepping the individuals before
such a meeting, and we'd like to be involved in interpreting the
outcome to your investors, and through you to the government in
a way that really empowers you in that market." Hartley,
too, sought to emphasize how interested Cassidy was in winning
the contract. "This is the sort of thing we do extremely
well," he said at one point. "It's the kind of stuff
that gets our juices flowing."
Of course, there was the question of money,
specifically how much of it The Maldon Group would need to hire
Cassidy. For Turkmenistan, Hartley said, there could be no quick,
easy solutions; hence, he proposed a three-year effort at from
$1.2 million to $1.5 million annually -- and that could run higher,
he warned, if a do-gooder organization like a human-rights group
targeted the regime, necessitating intensified spin control by
the firm's lobbyists. "You've looked at our bios," he
said. "Look at our track record and what we've charged for
other representations ... and you'll see you're not being gouged."
While insisting that I didn't write the checks, I said the figure
seemed reasonable to me. "Others will do it for less, but
you won't get people with our experience, our knowledge of Turkmenistan,
our ties to [the] State [Department], National Security Council,
and some parts of the intelligence community," Warburg said.
Cassidy saw its strategy as having two
central prongs, one targeting policymakers and the other targeting
the media. Among the questions I'd asked had been whether it was
advisable to arrange a trip to Turkmenistan for members of Congress.
Hartley said that it was, but it would be critical to pick "the
right members of Congress," which he defined as those with
"a leaning that will be instrumental in us making progress
on our representation." As at APCO, the Cassidy team said
that the post-Abramoff climate would make it harder to arrange
a private trip for members of Congress -- "but not impossible,"
in Hartley's words. In the meantime, a less visible trip for Hill
staffers could be more easily accomplished.
Bringing Turkmen officials to Washington
was also a must, though we needed to be realistic. If The Maldon
Group said it wanted Berdymukhamedov to address a joint session
of Congress, Cassidy would tell you that's not possible, Warburg
said. On the other hand, might Cassidy be able to arrange "a
coffee in the Senate Foreign Relations hearing room of the U.S.
Capitol where the foreign minister is warmly received?" Yes,
it very well might.
Also, The Maldon Group should not underestimate
the value of arranging a trip to Turkmenistan for journalists
and think-tank analysts, which was something Dolan said he had
done for the Valdai International Discussion Club, a group funded
by Russian interests that offers all-expenses-paid trips to Russia.
Amid the general pampering, the Western academics and reporters
who attend are granted audiences with senior Russian political
figures. During the meeting, Dolan simply described it as a way
to give people "firsthand information" and mentioned
that past attendees had included Ariel Cohen of The Heritage Foundation,
Marshall Goldman of Harvard, and Jim Hoagland of the Washington
Post. A similar program might work for Turkmenistan, he suggested.
Two weeks after the meeting, Cassidy laid out more of its strategic
thinking in a 12-page proposal that it sent to me by email.
The firm's lobbyists would educate senior
government officials and opinion makers "on positive developments
taking place in Turkmenistan," and would sell the country
on the basis of its "strategic importance in Central Asia"
and the "critical role" it could play in American energy
security. Cassidy's preliminary research already had determined
that there was "accelerated interest" in Turkmenistan
"at the highest levels of the U.S. government." This
was a great opportunity, since it would make it easier to reach
out to government officials as well as the media, but it also
presented a challenge, as "greater attention can bring greater
Of course, "attention" and "scrutiny"
are essentially synonymous; the only reason that more of it posed
a challenge to Cassidy's proposed lobbying campaign was that in
the case of Turkmenistan, the truth was almost never good. Cassidy
had, in fact, already uncovered troubling news: "We have
become aware," the proposal said ominously, "of U.S.
determination to aggressively push an agenda of human rights and
democratic reforms in exchange for greater engagement with Ashgabat."
(This supposed discovery was surely a scare tactic. The Bush Administration
has openly prioritized trade and business promotion, not human
rights, with other major Caspian energy producers. According to
a well-placed source, State Department officials have made it
very clear that the Bush Administration's major policy goal in
Turkmenistan is opening the country to investment by U.S. energy
firms.) To deal with the threat of scrutiny, Cassidy would seek
to drive "the story being told about Turkmenistan by the
media, rather than merely reacting to it. By engaging with correspondents,
we will coordinate a global message about political, social and
As part of this initiative, the firm would
plant pro-Turkmenistan op-eds from friendly authors it recruited.
Cassidy would also put together "a list of potential vulnerabilities,
such as humanitarian issues, social conditions and otherwise.
... With these issues in mind, we will conduct 'worst-case' scenario
planning and response development by anticipating crises, preparing
spokespeople, [and] drafting statements." In other words,
Cassidy would have an emergency-response network in place should,
for example, opposition members happen to be mowed down by government
guns. "We will be your eyes and ears in Washington, D.C.,"
the proposal said.
In the weeks after my meetings, both APCO
and Cassidy contacted me, eager to carry out the Turkmen campaign.
I replied with notes of regret, explaining that The Maldon Group
was unsure about how to proceed but that for the time being, at
least, their services would not be required. Still, it was hard
not to daydream about what might have been accomplished for the
"newly elected government of Turkmenistan" if I'd actually
had the few million dollars to spare. In May, I attended "Angola
Day," an all-day conference that had been organized on behalf
of the regime of President José Eduardo Dos Santos, which,
while not equaling the Turkmen rulers in flair, is nevertheless
one of the most crooked and predatory in the world. Angola Day's
sponsors included the Woodrow Wilson International Center for
Scholars, which hosted the event at its downtown headquarters,
the Angolan government, and the U.S.-Angola Chamber of Commerce,
which receives financial support from American oil companies.
It was impossible to say whether a lobbying
firm was directly involved in orchestrating the event. But other
than its unfortunate title -- had APCO been running the show,
it would have been something like "Africa and American Energy
Security: Partners in Prosperity" -- Angola Day was straight
out of the playbooks laid out for Turkmenistan: it had the imprimatur
of a respected third party (the Wilson Center), a coalition of
corporate allies, and a smattering of pliant academics and officials
who seemed more than willing to pen a friendly op-ed if need be.
The keynote speaker was Joaquim David,
Angola's elegantly tailored industry minister, and as I watched
him deliver his address, it was hard not to think of a Turkmen
official on that same dais, giving voice to the same empty slogans
and catchwords, speaking (as David did) of his government's commitment
to sustainable development, environmental protection, and social
justice -- despite the fact that Dos Santos has done absolutely
nothing to demonstrate these commitments. I was especially wistful
during the coffee break, when I could see the real business of
the conference being conducted. Here was Witney Schneidman, a
former State Department official and member of the U.S.-Angola
Chamber, approaching every Angolan official he saw with an unctuous
ear-to-ear grin on his face; Hank Cohen, a former assistant secretary
of state and former lobbyist for Angola, chatting up the diamond
magnate Maurice Tempelsman; a Chevron executive and an official
from the U.S. Agency for International Development, greeting each
other like long-lost friends.
It was a vision of just how regimes like
Angola and Azerbaijan, Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea, the serial
abrogators of "human dignity," can make and keep their
wealthy American friends. Someday soon, perhaps, the same will
happen for Turkmenistan -- God and lobbyists willing.
Global Secrets and Lies