How our seedy, corrupt Washington establishment operates

The undisclosed lobbying efforts to depose Prime Minister Maliki by influential Bush associates shine light on how filthy the Beltway is.

Published August 24, 2007 12:21PM (EDT)

(Updated below - Update II - Update III)

***** Update IV - with statement from ABC News re: Zelikow

Update V - Response from Zelikow)

Over the past several weeks, there has arisen a palpable and coordinated shift among the Washington establishment to blame Iraq's problems on Prime Minister Maliki and to suggest that salvation lies in his replacement. The only real alternative ever identified is former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

Fred Hiatt turned his Op-Ed page over to Allawi two weeks ago to argue -- in the most establishment-pleasing tones -- that "Responsibility for the current mess in Iraq rests primarily with the Iraqi government" and that "Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has failed to take advantage of the Iraqi people's desire for peaceful and productive lives and of the enormous commitment and sacrifices made by the United States and other nations." In other words, our wise Washington Leaders have done the Right and Good thing in Iraq, but that scoundrel Maliki is the key impediment preventing Success.

In a solid piece of reporting, CNN yesterday disclosed that the most powerful GOP lobbying firm, run founded by former GOP Party Chair and current Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour and staffed by key former Bush national security officials, is being paid by Allawi to coordinate these anti-Maliki, pro-Allawi efforts:

A powerhouse Republican lobbying firm with close ties to the White House has begun a public campaign to undermine the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, CNN has confirmed. . . .

A senior Bush administration official told CNN the White House is aware of the lobbying campaign by Barbour Griffith & Rogers because the firm is "blasting e-mails all over town" criticizing al-Maliki and promoting the firm's client, former interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, as an alternative to the current Iraqi leader. . . .

Allawi hires the most powerful GOP firm in the country, with former top Bush officials as partners, and almost immediately, the key Op-Ed pages of our nation's newspapers open up to him and all of official Washington, beginning with the President, changes course. Suddenly, key figures in both parties begin calling for Maliki to be replaced.

Most extraordinary of all is how deceitful this whole process is. As CNN reports: "The lobbying firm boasts the services of two onetime foreign policy hands of President Bush: Ambassador Robert Blackwill, the former Deputy National Security Adviser, and Philip Zelikow, former counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

But currently, Zelikow in particular runs around Washington holding himself out -- and being held out -- as an Expert on the Future of Iraq while concealing that his firm is being paid by Allawi to undermine Maliki. As but one example, Zelikow was a featured Iraq Expert on ABC News with Charles Gibson three nights ago, on Monday Tuesday.

Reporter Martha Raddatz narrated the story which began (via LEXIS): "today, for the first time, President Bush said Maliki could be replaced." The story then flashed to Michael O'Hanlon, who said: "I think Mr. Bush made a very significant change in his policy today. He made it clear that his support for al-Maliki is on very thin ice."

Shortly thereafter, Raddatz said: "The former counselor to Secretary of State Rice says a plan B is now likely being considered," and then showed Zelikow -- identified on-screen only as a "Former Counselor to the State Department" -- who said:

I can confidently guess that our government is quietly speculating about a lot of different options knowing how much concern Iraqis have about their leadership.

So Zelikow, an Extremely Respected Washington Leader, strongly insinuates that the Bush administration is working to depose Maliki and warns the country of "how much concern Iraqis have about their leadership" without disclosing that his lobbying firm is being paid to achieve that result and that the prime beneficiary is his client. This is fraud and deceit of the highest order. How can this not, by itself, destroy Zelikow's credibility on every level? Just fathom the reams of pious journalistic condemantion if a blogger did something like this.

But the fraud seems even deeper than that. The CNN article yesterday, citing an anonymous Bush source, claimed that "White House officials are not privately involved or blessing the lobbying campaign to undermine al-Maliki." CNN quoted the official: "There's just no connection whatsoever. There's absolutely no involvement."

But Zelikow, at least, now seems to have some official role in forming Bush policy on Iraq. Zelikow was originally scheduled to testify about the Future of Iraq at a July 18 hearing of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, but on the day of the hearing, the Subcommittee's Chairman, Vic Snyder, announced (via LEXIS):

We also had originally scheduled Dr. Philip Zelikow, who had worked with Secretary Rice I think from 1905 -- I'm sorry, 2005 to 2007. I want to just touch on these details for a minute. A very smart guy, we were looking forward to him being here. He had finalized his written statement with the staff on late Monday afternoon. It was distributed to all our members on Tuesday morning and sometime in mid-morning, we received a call from his assistant that he would have to cancel.

I put in a call to him to try to get him to change his mind. It turned out he called back later that day and informed us that somewhere in that intervening time the administration had approached him about being a consultant with the administration and work on Iraq war policy. And he didn't think it was appropriate for him to be testifying publicly.

At least according to what Zelikow told Chairman Snyder, "the administration had approached him about being a consultant with the administration and work on Iraq war policy." Although it is unclear if he accepted, one can presume that he did, since he cited that formal consulting relationship with the Bush administration as the reason why it was now inappropriate for him to testify in public about Iraq. Is Zelikow formally working with his old administration colleagues to form Iraq policy while being paid by Ayad Allawi to restore him back to power?

It really is very strange how all of Official Washington, seemingly at the same time, collectively decided to turn on Prime Minister Maliki -- who, after all, was elected democratically and was the leader in whom we were placing all of our hopes for progress in Iraq. Obviously, there is a very potent and well-funded effort to induce exactly that policy change at the highest levels of Republican power. The CNN article stated the obvious:

Pressed on why allies of the White House would be contradicting the president so publicly, the senior administration official said of the lobbyists, "They're making a lot of money."

In his great undercover article in Harper's on the seedy lobbyist industry (which many fake Beltway journalists revealingly condemned), Real Journalist Ken Silverstein documented how easily the best-paid lobbyists can single-handedly change Beltway media coverage, ensure the placement in key Editorial spaces (such as Hiatt's Washington Post) of positive Op-Eds, and even "develop[] seemingly independent and therefore more credible allies to offer favorable views about" their clients. That is obviously exactly what is going on here. Our Very Serious People are making Serious Decisions about our war policy influenced, at least, by people with all sorts of financial incentives that are undisclosed.

The whole media/Beltway edifice is built on this rotating, interconnected filth. But this case is so egregious. One of Washington's Most Respected National Security Experts, key Rice advisor (and 9/11 Commission Executive Director) Philip Zelikow, is running around Washington trying to engineer the fall of the Iraqi government -- testifying at Congressional hearings and appearing on network news programs, perhaps even working officially again for the Bush administration -- all while being fraudulently held out as an objective expert and concealing that he is being paid by the prime beneficiary of these policies.

In a political culture with even the most minimal amounts of integrity, this would be a major scandal. But in our political culture, it is simply a vivid exhibit illustrating how our political system works.

UPDATE: Joan Walsh has the excerpt where White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe, when asked why GOP lobbyists would be undermining Maliki, said: "Maybe it's a really good contract."

But, as Walsh notes, that is not really the main issue here. That is just garden-variety Beltway corruption -- top government officials leave and then immediately collect large amounts of money to influence their former colleagues to obtain favorable governmental policies. Numerous top Clinton officials have spent the last six years getting rich doing exactly that. That this happens even when it comes to our war policies is striking, but still par for the Beltway course.

But what is extraordinary is Zelikow's deceitful pretense that he is a neutral Iraq commentator -- both while testifying before Congress and pontificating on our network news programs. That really is just outright fraud.

Moreover, the strident denials by Bush officials that the administration is involved in any way in these efforts appears to be contradicted by what Zelikow told Rep. Snyder about his new formal relationship with the administration -- something that is, at the very least, worth looking further into.

UPDATE II: According to TPM's Spencer Ackerman, the story of BG&R's lobbying work for Allawi was first broken not by CNN, but by Christina Davidson at IraqSlogger, who reported yesterday morning that "Republican lobbyists with close ties to the Bush administration are aiding and supporting the efforts of an Iraqi opposition leader who is calling for the ouster of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki." Actually, as Davidson noted, two days earlier, Congressional aide Daniel McAdams reported on Lew Rockwell's site that he had received an email from BG&R promoting Allawi and attacking Maliki (an e-mail packet which included press accounts of Sen. Levin's call for Maliki to resign).

Davidson reported that BG&R failed to return her telephone calls. I have placed several calls to BG&R today as well, and they claim that nobody responsible for answering press inquiries is available and they do not return messages. For any intrepid journalists who can obtain information from them, among the key questions are:

(1) Does Zelikow, as indicated by Chairman Snyder, have a formal consulting relationship with the Bush administration itself to shape Iraq policy?;

(2) Did Zelikow disclose to ABC News that his firm was being paid by Allawi before agreeing to be interviewed about Iraq's future, in which he insinuated that the Bush administration was working to oust Maliki?

(3) Did BG&R have any role to play in having Fred Hiatt publish Allawi's Op-Ed two weeks ago, proclaiming Maliki to be the cause of Iraq's problems?

All of this is patently slimy. And ABC News should offer some explanation to its viewers as to why it offered commentary from Zelikow without disclosing that his firm was being paid by Allawi (if Zelikow concealed that fact from them, then they ought to say so).

UPDATE III: I spoke this afternoon with Rep. Snyder, who confirmed that Zelikow had originally agreed to testify before his Subcommittee, but then cancelled and told Rep. Snyder he was cancelling because he had been retained to do consulting work for the Bush administration specifically on Iraq policy, and therefore concluded it would be inappropriate to testify in public.

Clearly, Zelikow's efforts on behalf of Allawi, as well as to undermine Prime Minister Maliki, are not, as the White House emphatically claimed, completely separate from the administration. To the contrary, Zelikow is working on Iraq policy with the administration. Moreover, it is only reasonable to assume that when Zelikow says -- as he did on ABC News on Tuesday night -- that "our government is quietly speculating about a lot of different options knowing how much concern Iraqis have about their leadership," he is not merely guessing but speaking with inside information, perhaps even on behalf of the administration.

It is self-evidently improper for someone working on Iraq policy for the administration to be simultaneously paid by someone who has a vested interest in working against the administration's policy. It really is tantamount to Awad Allawi paying a Bush official (or, in this case, a Bush consultant and former Bush official) to obtain changes in our war policies designed to push Maliki out of office and return Allawi to power.

UPDATE IV: I received the following e-mail from Natalie Raabe of ABC News' Media Relations Department:

I saw your column and wanted to pass along the following statement from ABC News -- can you update your post to reflect this info?
When ABC News interviewed Philip Zelikow on August 21, he did not disclose that he was working for Barbour Griffith & Rogers; this information did not become public until several days later. We are deeply disappointed that Mr. Zelikow did not disclose his lobbying relationship to us. As a former advisor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and now a professor at the University of Virginia, we believe that his statement to us accurately reflects ongoing, internal discussions at the State Department. Nevertheless, his statement is sullied by the fact that he did not disclose his relationship with Barbour Griffith & Rogers.

One of the things I intended to do today as part of this story but never was able to find the time was e-mail ABC News and ask (a) if they were aware at the time they put Zelikow on the air to talk about Iraq's future that BG&R had been retained by Allawi and (if, as I suspected, they were not aware, then) (b) if they thought it was proper for Zelikow to opine on these matters without disclosing that obviously relevant fact. ABC News e-mailed this on their own, and it is a good statement. I would hope, and expect, that they would also tell their viewers about Zelikow's deceit.

UPDATE V: Zelikow has responded to this post. His response and my analysis of it is here.

By Glenn Greenwald

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