Exclusive: Turkey has built one of the premier foreign lobbies in Washington by paying powerful politicians, spreading around money to arms manufacturers, and teaming up with the Israel Lobby, writes Jonathan Marshall.
By Jonathan Marshall (This is the fifth in a series on foreign lobbying.)
For all the furor over retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia, which got him fired after just 24 days on the job as President Trump’s first national security adviser, his biggest legal risks may relate to his unregistered lobbying for agents of the Turkish government. A federal grand jury has subpoenaed all records of that work as part of a major ongoing investigation of Flynn’s foreign ties.
Although details of Flynn’s work on the account remain murky, and his own story has characteristically shifted over time, his job put him in crowded company. The Turkish lobby has long been one of the most active and unrestrained in Washington. An article in Politico last fall called Turkey “the poster child when it comes to foreign lobbying opportunities for former members of both parties.”
In the past few years, the article noted, “the country’s increasingly autocratic government has employed an army of lobbyists, including [former Missouri Democrat and House Minority Leader Richard] Gephardt, [former Mississippi Republican and Senate Majority Leader Trent] Lott, [former Louisiana Democrat and Senator John] Breaux, former House Speaker-elect Bob Livingston (R-La.), the late Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-N.Y.), former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), former CIA director and longtime House member Porter Goss (R-Fla.) and former Reps. Albert Wynn (D-Md.) and Jim McCrery (R-La.).”
Turkey has also multiplied its lobbying clout by allying with various “defense contractors, finance and energy corporations, trade groups . . . and a well-financed network of domestic advocacy nonprofits,” according to the Sunlight Foundation.
Cognizant of Turkey’s importance as a major NATO arms market, for example, the Aerospace Industries Association helped coordinate lobbying by major military contractors such as Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Textron on issues important to Turkey.
The American Turkish Council, which promotes “stronger U.S.-Turkey relations,” is chaired by retired Gen. James L. Jones, former U.S. national security adviser and commander of NATO. Its board members have included representatives of Lockheed Martin, PepsiCo., Pfizer, Boeing, General Electric, Raytheon, and Bechtel.
Another friend in Washington is the Atlantic Council, a widely quoted, pro-NATO think tank, whose vice chairman, Stephen Hadley, was national security adviser to President George W. Bush. The Atlantic Council’s top financial supporters include no fewer than five major Turkish government and business organizations, along with Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and other large military contractors.
The Atlantic Council’s annual Istanbul Summit drew fire this year for allegedly excluding critical journalists and opposition politicians, at the request of the Erdogan regime. The council’s CEO said that it supported Turkey in today’s turbulent times, adding, “the Atlantic Council is not a fair weather friend.”
Fighting the Armenian Genocide Resolution
One longstanding issue for Turkey has been fighting perennial efforts in Congress to adopt a resolution condemning as genocide the mass killing of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire, starting in 1915. A study published in 2009 by ProPublica and the Sunlight Foundation reported that Turkey was the fifth biggest spender on foreign lobbying, at more than $3.5 million. Turkey ranked number one in contacts with members of Congress, as a result of its ongoing fight to block the genocide resolution.
A big chunk of the $1.7 million raked in by former Rep. Gephardt from the Turkish government in 2015 was dedicated to that end. Buying his services was a real coup for Ankara. During his long career in Congress, Gephardt had been a champion of the Armenian-American community’s campaign to officially recognize the genocide of their ancestors.
Turkey found a powerful ally for its genocide denial campaign in the Israel Lobby, which backed Ankara out of gratitude for the Muslim state’s recognition of Israel. In 2007, as they had for many years, the American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International, and Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs joined Turkey in opposing the congressional genocide resolution.
Abraham Foxman, longtime head of the Anti-Defamation League, told one reporter bluntly, “Our focus is Israel. If helping Turkey helps Israel, then that’s what we’re in the business of doing.”
“Since the 1990s, Turkey has turned into a key strategic ally,” explained Jerusalem Post writer Herb Keinon. “What Israel gets from Turkey is clear: a friendly Muslim face in a sea of hostility; a geographical asset; a huge market for military wares and other products. . . . And what do the Turks get? Firstly, they benefit from our geography, just as we do from theirs. Both countries box in Syria for the other, and Syrian-Turkish relations, put mildly, have known their ups and downs. Secondly, they buy our arms. . . .
“And the final thing the Turks ‘get’ from Israel is access to the Jewish lobby in Washington. . . . Turkey looks to these organizations to put in a good word in Congress or with the administration when issues of importance to Ankara – such as issues regarding the Armenians or Cyprus – make their way to those bodies.”
Years of genocide denial by major American Jewish organizations finally caused a furor in 2007, not only among Armenian-Americans but among many progressive Jews who decried the cynicism of their community leaders.
Rep. Adam Schiff, a Jewish Democrat from California and lead sponsor of the genocide resolution, condemned Israel’s interference and said, “I cannot see how major Jewish American organizations can in good conscience and in any way support efforts to deny the undeniable.” (Today Schiff is the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation of possible Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.)
Leaders of conservative Jewish groups began changing their tune in 2010 — after Ankara condemned Israel for killing nine Turkish citizens aboard a flotilla bound for Gaza. In 2016, under more progressive new leadership, the Anti-Defamation League finally officially recognized the 1915 massacre of Armenians as “unequivocally genocide.”
The Sibel Edmonds Affair
The Turkish lobby hasn’t always played by the rules, according to former FBI-translator-turned-whistleblower Sibel Edmonds. She testified that over the years 1996 to 2002, she had access to FBI counterintelligence wiretaps that implicated former House Speaker Dennis Hastert in taking “large sums” of cash — roughly half a million dollars in bribes — “to do certain favors . . . (for the) Turkish government’s interest.”
It is a matter of record that after leaving Congress in 2007, Hastert went on the payroll of the Turkish government as a registered lobbyist, earning $35,000 a month. In 2016, he was convicted of bank fraud relating to allegations that years earlier he sexually abused boys he coached in high school wrestling.
Edmonds also claimed that former Rep. Stephen Solarz, who also became a registered lobbyist for Turkey, “acted as conduit to deliver or launder contributions and other bribe(s) to certain members of Congress.” She accused Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat, of “bribe(ry)” and “disclosing [the] highest level protected U.S. intelligence and weapons technology information both to Israel and to Turkey [and] other very serious criminal conduct.” And she alleged that Turkish agents filmed a member of the House Intelligence Committee who was lured into a sexual affair.
Most explosively, Edmonds told a reporter that former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey and Deputy Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman sold nuclear technology to Turkish agents acting for Pakistani military intelligence, and that he revealed to Turkish diplomats the identify of a CIA front company engaged in gathering intelligence on nuclear proliferation.
Grossman strongly denied her claims, but the London Sunday Times found them credible enough to run a major story in 2008 (without identifying Grossman by name). Former FBI counterintelligence and counterespionage manager John Cole later went on the record, saying, “I am fully aware of the FBI’s decade-long investigation of . . . Marc Grossman, which ultimately was buried and covered up. It is long past time to investigate this case and bring about accountability.”
Evidently other officials in Washington did not find her allegations credible, however. In 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appointed Grossman to replace Richard Holbrooke as special U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
It should also be noted that Edmonds’s initial allegations, given some credence by the Department of Justice’s inspector general and “60 Minutes,” concerned mainly potential espionage by a co-worker and general incompetence in the FBI’s translation department, not the much more explosive charges against major politicians. Nor is it clear how she would have had access to so many highly sensitive investigative files involving members of Congress.
The Michael Flynn Affair
President Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, is reportedly under investigation by at least two congressional committees, the Pentagon’s inspector general, and a federal grand jury not only for his relations with Russia, but also about his payments from a Turkish organization while he was a top foreign policy adviser to Trump’s campaign.
Investigators say they have found no evidence that Flynn sought permission from the Departments of Defense or State for his foreign payments. Flynn’s consulting firm, Flynn Intel Group, did not register as a foreign lobbyist until last September, a month past the start of its work for Turkish interests.
The subject of Flynn’s work was well disguised. His client was an obscure Dutch firm. An enterprising reporter who checked Dutch records discovered that its founder was military contractor and real estate magnate Ekim Alptekin, “an ally of Erdogan’s who is director of the Turkey-U.S. Business Council, a non-profit arm of Turkey’s Foreign Economic Relations Board. . . . In the role, Alptekin helped coordinate [President] Erdogan’s visit to the U.S. [in 2016].”
Three months after signing with Alptekin’s firm — on Election Day 2016, no less — Flynn published an opinion column in The Hill lauding Turkey as “vital to U.S. interests” and “our strongest ally” against ISIS. He denounced the coup attempt that summer, which he had once praised, and supported Turkey’s controversial request for the extradition of exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara accuses of inspiring the coup.
In March 2017, a month after Flynn resigned as national security adviser for lying about his contacts with Russian officials, the White House finally admitted, in the words of CNN, that “President Donald Trump’s transition team was aware that retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn engaged in work that would likely require him to register his consulting firm as a foreign agent before Flynn was tapped to serve as national security adviser.”
A few days later, the Wall Street Journal reported that back in September, Flynn had met with senior Turkish government officials to discuss “the political climate in Turkey.” One attendee, former CIA Director James Woolsey, claimed that when he walked into the meeting, they were reviewing options for kidnapping Gulen to avoid the extradition process. Woolsey said he “found the topic startling and the actions being discussed possibly illegal.”
Flynn denied Woolsey’s account. But he did belatedly file foreign agent registration papers with the Justice Department this March, acknowledging that the $530,000 his firm received from August to mi-November “could be construed to have principally benefitted the Republic of Turkey.”
Members of the House Oversight Committee from both parties have since said that Flynn’s failure to get permission for those payments from Turkey could subject him to criminal prosecution for violating a constitutional ban on retired military officers taking payments from foreign governments.
Trump and Turkey
Something of Flynn’s support for Turkey seems to have rubbed off on Donald Trump. The U.S. President called Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan to congratulate him after the success of April’s controversial national referendum, which greatly expanded the powers of the Turkish presidency. Trump was apparently oblivious to allegations of electoral fraud, warnings about the death of Turkish democracy, and the fate of more than 113,000 people detained since last year’s coup attempt.
Critics of Trump’s embrace of Erdogan recalled what Trump had to say on Steve Bannon’s radio show, Breitbart News Daily, on Dec. 1, 2015: “I have a little conflict of interest ‘cause I have a major, major building in Istanbul. It’s a tremendously successful job. It’s called Trump Towers — two towers, instead of one, not the usual one, it’s two.” Trump was no doubt grateful to Erdogan for presiding over the opening of Trump Towers in 2012.
In mid-May, President Trump also honored Erdogan as one of the first foreign leaders received this year at the White House. But while Trump lauded Turkey’s “legendary” courage in wartime, and Erdogan hailed Trump’s “legendary triumph” in the 2016 election, no one was fooled. The two countries have grave differences over how to handle the military campaign against ISIS in Syria and Turkey’s request to extradite Gulen.
In short, Turkey’s millions of dollars have bought it a few seats at the table, not a guarantee of winning its case in either Congress or the White House. But every seat counts in politics, and as the international stakes keep rising, so will Turkey’s investment in shaping policies in Washington.