How Saudi Money Keeps the U.S. at War in Yemen

On the Saudi lobby juggernaut.

Ben Freeman October 4, 2018

President Donald Trump and King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia sign a Joint Strategic Vision Statement for the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, during ceremonies, Saturday, May 20, 2017, at the Royal Court Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Official White House Photo Shealah Craighead)

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

Today, most lobbyists are engaged in a system of bribery, but it’s the legal kind.

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

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

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

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

A Lob­by to Con­tend With

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ones most often dealt with were, not sur­pris­ing­ly, those with the great­est lever­age over U.S. rela­tions with Sau­di Ara­bia. For exam­ple, the office of Sen­a­tor Lind­sey Gra­ham (R‑SC), who sits on both the appro­pri­a­tions and armed ser­vices com­mit­tees, was the most con­tact­ed, while that of Sen­a­tor Chris Coons (D‑DE) was the top Demo­c­ra­t­ic one. (He sits on the appro­pri­a­tions and for­eign rela­tions committees.)

Fol­low­ing the Mon­ey from Sau­di Ara­bia to Cam­paign Coffers

Just as there’s a clear pat­tern when it comes to con­tact­ing con­gres­sion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tives who might help their Sau­di clients, so there’s a clear pat­tern to the lob­by­ing mon­ey flow­ing to those same mem­bers of Congress.

The FARA doc­u­ments that record all for­eign-agent polit­i­cal activ­i­ty also list cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions report­ed by those agents. Just as we did for polit­i­cal activ­i­ties, the For­eign Influ­ence Trans­paren­cy Ini­tia­tive pro­gram con­duct­ed an analy­sis of all cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions report­ed in those 2017 fil­ings by firms that rep­re­sent­ed Sau­di inter­ests. And here’s what we found: more than a third of the mem­bers of Con­gress con­tact­ed by such a firm also received a cam­paign con­tri­bu­tion from a for­eign agent at that firm. In total, accord­ing to their 2017 FARA fil­ings, for­eign agents at firms rep­re­sent­ing Sau­di clients made $390,496 in cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions to con­gres­sion­al fig­ures they, or anoth­er agent at their firm, con­tact­ed on behalf of their Sau­di clients.

This flow of mon­ey is best exem­pli­fied by the 11 sep­a­rate occa­sions we uncov­ered in which a firm report­ed con­tact­ing a con­gres­sion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tive on behalf of Sau­di clients on the same day some­one at the same firm made a cam­paign con­tri­bu­tion to the same sen­a­tor or House mem­ber. In oth­er words, there are 10 oth­er cas­es just like Marc Lampkin’s, involv­ing for­eign agents at Squire Pat­ton Bog­gs, DLA Piper, and Hogan Lovells. For instance, Hogan Lovells report­ed meet­ing with Sen­a­tor Bob Cork­er (R‑TN) on behalf of the Roy­al Embassy of Sau­di Ara­bia on April 26, 2017, and that day an agent at the firm made a $2,700 con­tri­bu­tion to Bob Cork­er for Sen­ate 2018.” (Cork­er would lat­er decide not to seek reelection.)

While some might argue that con­tri­bu­tions like these look a lot like bribery, they turn out to be per­fect­ly legal. No law bars such an act, and while it’s true that for­eign nation­als and for­eign gov­ern­ments are pro­hib­it­ed from mak­ing con­tri­bu­tions to polit­i­cal cam­paigns, there’s a sim­ple work-around for that, one the Saud­is obvi­ous­ly made use of big time. Any for­eign pow­er hop­ing to line the pock­ets of Amer­i­can politi­cians just has to hire a local lob­by­ist to do it for them.

As Jim­my Williams, a for­mer lob­by­ist, wrote: Today, most lob­by­ists are engaged in a sys­tem of bribery, but it’s the legal kind.”

The Sau­di Lob­by Today

Fast for­ward to late 2018 and that very same lob­by is now fight­ing vig­or­ous­ly to defeat a House mea­sure that would end U.S. sup­port for the Sau­di war in Yemen. They’re flood­ing con­gres­sion­al offices with their requests, in effect ask­ing Con­gress to ignore the more than 10,000 civil­ians who have died in Yemen, the U.S. bombs that have been the cause of many of those deaths, and a civ­il war that has led to a resur­gence of al-Qae­da in the Ara­bi­an Penin­su­la, or AQAP. They’ll prob­a­bly men­tion Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent cer­ti­fi­ca­tion” that the Saud­is are now sup­pos­ed­ly tak­ing the nec­es­sary steps to pre­vent more civil­ian casu­al­ties there.

What they’re not like­ly to men­tion is that his deci­sion was report­ed­ly dri­ven by the head of the leg­isla­tive affairs team at the State Depart­ment who just hap­pens to be a for­mer for­eign agent with BGR Gov­ern­ment Affairs, one of 35 FARA reg­is­trants work­ing for Sau­di Ara­bia at this moment. Such lob­by­ists and pub­li­cists are using the deep pock­ets of the Sau­di roy­als to spread their pro­pa­gan­da, high­light­ing the char­i­ta­ble work that gov­ern­ment is doing in Yemen. What they fail to empha­size, of course, are the Sau­di block­ade of the coun­try and the Amer­i­can-backed, armed, and fueled air strikes that are killing civil­ians at wed­dings, funer­als, school bus trips, and oth­er civil­ian events. All of this is, in addi­tion, help­ing to cre­ate a grotesque famine, a poten­tial dis­as­ter of the most extreme sort and the very rea­son such human­i­tar­i­an assis­tance is needed.

In the end, even if the facts aren’t on their side, the dol­lars are. Since Sep­tem­ber 2001, that real­i­ty has proven remark­ably con­vinc­ing in Wash­ing­ton, as copi­ous dol­lars flowed from Sau­di Ara­bia to U.S. mil­i­tary con­trac­tors (who are mak­ing bil­lions sell­ing weapons to that coun­try), to lob­by­ing firms, and via those firms direct­ly into Con­gres­sion­al coffers.

Is this real­ly how U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy should be determined?

This arti­cle first appeard in TomDis­patch.

Ben Free­man is the direc­tor of the For­eign Influ­ence Trans­paren­cy Ini­tia­tive at the Cen­ter for Inter­na­tion­al Pol­i­cy (CIP).
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