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In New Exposé, Ken Silverstein of Harper’s Magazine Goes Undercover to Find Out What U.S. Lobbyists Do for Dictators

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Ken Silverstein of Harper’s magazine visited Washington’s top lobbying firms posing as a representative of a fictitious investment firm with a financial stake in Turkmenistan. He claimed that he was eager to bolster the image of a regime widely described as one of the most authoritarian in the world. Two prominent firms fell for the bait, promising unparalleled access to Washington’s decision makers and improved media coverage — for a fee of up to $1.2 million. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: “Foreign agents — what U.S. lobbyists do for dictators,” all it takes is the right amount of money and a little help from the skilled lobbying firms in Washington, D.C. That’s according to an article in this month’s edition of Harper’s magazine by Washington editor, Ken Silverstein. In February, Silverstein visited Washington’s top lobbying firms posing as a representative of a fictitious investment firm with a financial stake in Turkmenistan. He claimed that he was eager to bolster the image of a regime widely described as one of the most authoritarian in the world.

Silverstein’s exposé is titled “Their men in Washington: Undercover with D.C.’s Lobbyists for Hire.” It focuses on two prominent firms, APCO and Cassidy & Associates, that fell for Silverstein’s bait and were soon vying for a lucrative contract to remake Turkmenistan’s tarnished image. For $600,000 to $1.2 million a year, they promised unparalleled access to Washington’s decision makers and improved media coverage.

AMY GOODMAN: Ken Silverstein joins us now from Washington, D.C. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Ken.


AMY GOODMAN: So describe how you did it, your M.O.

KEN SILVERSTEIN: Well, it was actually a very flimsy cover story, and I think the firms, if they hadn’t been blinded by their own greed, would have seen through it. I mean, I put together — I had business cards made. I bought a London cellphone, so I could make and receive phone calls allegedly in London while I was in Washington, D.C. We at Harper’s put together a website, really just a web page. It was a cover page with the name of my fake company, the Maldon Group, and an address in Cavendish Square in London. And that was pretty much it. We had an email account, as well — and, you know, for me, Kenneth Case, the Maldon Group consultant.

And then we started contacting the lobbying firms and saying that we, you know, needed a strategic communication plan that could convey the exciting winds of change emanating from Turkmenistan now that the new president, the newly elected president, had taken power. Now, the newly elected president is the former dentist to the great Turkmenbashi, who died last December, the longtime dictator of Turkmenistan. And, you know, he had taken office in February, shortly before I called, or he won election shortly before I had called, in a vote in which he ran against five other candidates, all from the ruling party, because any dissent in Turkmenistan is considered treason and you go to jail for it. And he won, I think, 90 percent of the vote or something like that. So, you know, it was a very flimsy cover story, and we started approaching the firms to see what they’d do for us.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Ken, I was stunned by the lack of even rudimentary investigation by these firms of your company before they met with you. I think one of them — was it APCO? — actually, you mentioned in your article, said, “Oh, by the way, we don’t have much information on your firm, on your website,” or they were looking for your website, but yet you managed to calm them?

KEN SILVERSTEIN: Well, they said to me that, you know, “Yeah, can you tell us a little bit more about the Maldon Group? We just can’t find anything out about you,” which, of course, was understandable, since the firm didn’t exist. And I said, “No, actually, I can’t really tell you anything more about me or the firm. Discretion is the very hallmark of our operation. It’s our lifeblood. You know, it’s a sensitive business. We just don’t want any attention, and I’m just not really prepared to tell you much more at all.”

I said that we were involved in the natural gas sector in Turkmenistan, which incidentally is —- you know, if you do a Google search, you’ll discover very quickly that that’s completely corrupt and that billions have been exported offshore by intermediary firms just like the Maldon Group. I mean, I modeled the Maldon Group on real-life firms that have been exporting money offshore for the Turkmen authorities. And I said, “No, you know, I just can’t tell you anything more about us.” And APCO actually said, “No problem. We’d be perfectly happy to sign a confidentiality agreement.” I hadn’t even thought of that. I hadn’t thought of asking for one. They volunteered. And after they did that, I demanded the same of Cassidy & Associates, and they said, “No problem. We’re perfectly happy to do that.” So, no, absolutely -—

AMY GOODMAN: Ken, we weren’t able to get APCO on the broadcast, but they did respond to your Harper’s article with a statement on their website. It reads, in part, “Regarding Mr. Silverstein’s ethics, he lied about who he was, presented phony business cards, a false website, a concocted story about nonexistent clients. In return, we were open and transparent in our discussions with him. We afforded him the courtesy of an initial meeting. He never revealed his true identity, nor did he call us to comment at all before publishing his story. We have been doing business for nearly twenty-five years. We are proud of our record and how we deal with our clients and potential clients. We do it with respect and honesty.”

KEN SILVERSTEIN: Oh, they do. They’re perfectly open and transparent. They were open and transparent with me about how willing they were to work for a Stalinist dictatorship. I mean, if they’re proud of that, I think that’s just wonderful.

In terms of their record, I would note that in the mid-'90s they represented the Sani Abacha dictatorship in Nigeria as it was preparing the execution of nine pro-democracy activists. It's worked for two other corrupt Caspian regimes: Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. It also in the past has set up a fake front group for Philip Morris, the tobacco company. They set up a front group called Contributions Watch, which was allegedly an independent campaign finance watchdog group, but in reality was set up specifically to tar the trial lawyers, which are the great enemies of the tobacco industry. So, you know, yeah, that’s a record to be proud of, I guess.

In terms of my ethics, I will match my ethics up against their ethics any day of the week. I feel that the undercover tactics should be used sparingly, but in this case it was justified. I feel there was an important public interest issue here, which is that the law that regulates foreign lobbyists simply is not up to the task. I mean, this law is not able to really rein in the ability of lobbyists to manipulate public and political opinion. And we wanted to make that point. It wasn’t just to, you know, poke fun at lobbyists or to show that lobbyists don’t have strong ethics and that they’re willing to work for anybody who throws them money, because in a sense, of course, that’s not news. We wanted to show not only that they were willing to work for these regimes, but exactly how they would work for these regimes and how they can operate under the radar screen. So, you know, as I said, I’m happy to match my ethics against theirs any day of the week.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Ken, can you talk to us a little bit about what they offered to do for you once they believed that you were representing this repressive government?

KEN SILVERSTEIN: Well, you know, they said there was a wide variety of things they could do. Both of the firms talked about how it would be very, very easy for them to open doors on Capitol Hill and in the administration for visiting Turkmen officials. They would get them a hearing here in Washington to talk about, you know, what was happening, the new exciting changes in Turkmenistan. They told me that they would, since they — you know, they can’t really talk about democracy in Turkmenistan, since there isn’t any, and they don’t want to talk about human rights, because the situation there is so ghastly. They talked about hooks that they could use to sell the government, like energy security. That’s a good hook, APCO told me, because, you know, we’ll talk about how important it is for the United States to have sources of energy imports and, you know, diversifying away from the Middle East towards the Caspian region. So they could use that hook to sell the regime.

They told me that they could manipulate the media, although I’m paraphrasing here, but it was very clear that that’s what they intended to do. They said that they would set up bogus events around Washington that would allegedly be independent, but in fact we would pay — if I paid them $25,000, they would set up an event with the imprimatur of a respected third party, so it would look independent, but we would have complete control over the agenda. And then we would invite members of Congress or Hill staffers and journalists and hope that they would pick up on this event and treat it respectfully as, you know, an event — and by the way, we wouldn’t call it something like Turkmenistan Day, because it would be too obvious that that was paid advertising for the regime. So we’d give it a name like “Energy Security Day” or “Caspian Pipeline,” something so it wouldn’t look too obvious. They also said that they can plant op-eds in the newspapers no problem. APCO told me they have someone on staff that does nothing but —- all day, the nine-to-five job for this person is to write and find signatories for and plant op-eds in the newspaper. So, you know, it was a fairly far -—

AMY GOODMAN: Ken, you talk very specifically, saying one of the options presented was to pay Roll Call, you know, the Hill newspaper, and The Economist to host a Turkmenistan event. And then you talk about the possible hosts, the think tanks: the Heritage Foundation, the Center for Strategic & International Studies, the Council on Foreign Relations, where the event could be held.

KEN SILVERSTEIN: It was clear that the firms had contacts with think tanks. I mean, you know, they had contacted think tank officials in preparation for the meetings, and APCO again told me, you know, that it would be very easy to find think tank figures and academics that they could utilize in their campaign to sell the government of Turkmenistan.

Yes, and in terms of Roll Call and The Economist, they do sponsor events around town, and if you pay them, they will set up an event. And so, you have in the background, you’ll have the Roll Call banner behind the podium, so it looks like — again, APCO said it’s the imprimatur of a respected third party, but we’ll have total control over the agenda. So, yeah, I mean, they were quite open about their ability to sort of create news items and manipulate the media and that there were journalists that they could reach out to and try to spin the regime.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And you were quite specific in your article about the individuals that you met with, the teams that initially met with you. In APCO, I think, it was a former U.S. ambassador or a former senior aide to Senator Bob Dole and a former CIA employee.

KEN SILVERSTEIN: Yeah, they had very, very high-level people at both of the firms. We had Jennifer Millerwise Dyck at APCO, who used to be a spokeswoman for Dick Cheney and for the CIA, Elizabeth Jones, the former ambassador to Kazakhstan. Over at Cassidy, I met with Greg Hartley. He was the leader of the team. He was, until recently, a top aide to Roy Blunt, the Missouri congressman who, until the Republicans lost control of Congress, was the House Majority whip.

In a proposal that Cassidy sent to me after I met with them — both of the firms, you know, badgered me with emails asking, “Gee, are you going to hire us?” and “We want to tell you more about what we can do.” APCO offered to come — they had Barry Schumacher, the leader APCO team, said he was coming to London, and he wanted to have a follow-up meeting. Cassidy sent me a 12-page proposal saying that, you know, “We really want the contract.” And in that proposal, Hartley said that there was no one in Washington who had better contacts to the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill than he did. They all bragged about their access across the board with the administration, with Congress, with think tanks, with academics. They could open doors all over town.

AMY GOODMAN: Interesting that the second firm, Cassidy & Associates, was founded by Gerald Cassidy, a former staffer for George McGovern.

KEN SILVERSTEIN: Yeah, I mean, it started off as a liberal Democratic firm. But Hartley told me that — I said to him, “Well, gee, do you have help on both sides? I mean, do you have advocates on both sides of the aisle?” And he said, “Oh, yeah. We mirror the power structure. You know, you have to have champions on both sides for your causes.” So Cassidy, you know, was founded over a quarter century ago. At the time, Democrats controlled Congress. Democrats were the more powerful party. But as the Republicans took over Congress, Cassidy shifted along with Congress, so that they could, again, mirror the power structure, in the words of Hartley. So, yes, I mean, it’s a firm that is very opportunistic. It’s seen that it’s now more useful to have Republicans on staff. I suspect if the Democrats keep Congress it may swing back toward the Democratic side.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And among the boasts that the Cassidy team gave to you was that they were instrumental in changing U.S. policy toward Vietnam?

KEN SILVERSTEIN: Yes. They said that — both the firms talked about their past achievements for some of their clients. And in terms of Vietnam, they said that they had put together, you know, a third party coalition, a business coalition, and that business coalition that they had constructed led for the lifting of the trade embargo on Vietnam. And they actually boasted to me that they had accomplished this over the opposition of the families of MIAs and POWs. “They had been opposed, but we were able to put together a coalition that won the day.”

You know, both the firms had plenty of past achievements that they boasted about. Another one that I thought was sort of amusing from Cassidy & Associates, they told me that they represented President Obiang — or Dictator Obiang, I should be more clear here — from Equatorial Guinea, who has been in power since 1978 after he executed his uncle, and he has held several sham elections ever since. You know, he’s been in power with his 99 percent of the vote. And they told me that they had gotten him off Parade magazine’s list of the 10 worst dictators in the world. This was one of their big accomplishments. I went home after my meeting with Cassidy and did a Google search and found that Obiang was all the way down to number 11. So now he’s the 11th worst dictator, according to Parade magazine. So this didn’t seem like a really remarkable achievement.

AMY GOODMAN: Ken Silverstein, you also write about the companies that you didn’t get represented by or offers of representation. For example, you talk about Patton Boggs and Cameroon.

KEN SILVERSTEIN: Well, that was a — I mean, I talked about Patton Boggs as just being another lobbying firm around town. I didn’t approach Patton Boggs. I did approach several other firms. But Patton Boggs had in the past done some work for the government of Cameroon, where they sent a team of former members of Congress over to Cameroon, allegedly independent observers, to be there for a presidential election in which the longstanding ruler of Cameroon won 80 percent of the vote. So Patton Boggs — and its team incidentally was led by a former member of Congress, as well — goes over there, sets up the agenda for a group of members of Congress, former members, who go over and issue sort of uplifting statements about the election being democratic and a step forward, all the usual sort of boilerplate language that they could use to sell this sham election as legitimate. And I was able to discover that, in fact, the whole thing had been set up by Patton Boggs, and it was paid — you know, the expenses of the delegation were paid for by the government of Cameroon.

AMY GOODMAN: And very quickly, the reporters who went on the all-expenses-paid trip to Kazakhstan, care of Carmen Group? We have 40 seconds.

KEN SILVERSTEIN: That was another firm — well, that, you know, R. Emmett Tyrrell — you know, boy, this was such a [inaudible] in the story.

AMY GOODMAN: Georgie Anne Geyer, the syndicated columnist, Providence Journal editor Philip Terzian, Scott Hogenson of the Conservative News Service?

KEN SILVERSTEIN: Thank you. I confess that it’s been a while since I reported that part of the story. And they went over to Kazakhstan, paid for by a lobbying firm, and they all came back and wrote about Kazakhstan. Two of them wrote extremely favorable pieces. Tyrrell was just glowing in his praise for Kazakhstan. And he didn’t, of course, reveal that his trip had been paid for by lobbyists. Two of them were a little bit more measured, but still, when you’re dealing with a regime like Kazakhstan, a sort of balanced piece is actually good news. So I think Carmen Group got good money for its investment with these four journalists.

AMY GOODMAN: Ken Silverstein, we’ll have to leave it there, Washington editor of Harper’s magazine. His piece is the cover story, “Foreign Agents: What US Lobbyists Do for Dictators, An Undercover Report”: “Their Men in Washington: Undercover with D.C.’s Lobbyists for Hire.”

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