WASHINGTON DC – While many consider the pro-Israel lobby to be the most powerful foreign influence bloc in U.S. politics, others have long argued that the lobbying power of Saudi Arabia is more powerful and the key driver of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and beyond. However, those who have asserted the Saudis’ influence in Washington DC is the strongest of all were understandably surprised when Congress went against the wishes of the oil-rich Gulf Kingdom and passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, commonly referred to by its acronym JASTA or simply as the “9/11” bill.
JASTA was understandably reviled by the Saudis as it grants American citizens the ability to sue Saudi Arabia as well as any other nations with proven links to terror attacks that occurred on U.S. soil and resulted in American causalities. However, the legislation did more to just upset the Saudis as evidenced by their massive expenditures on expanding its lobbying efforts in DC with the sole intent of preventing the bill from becoming law. The same month that JASTA was introduced, the Saudis recruited both Edelman PR, the largest privately owned public relations agency in the world, and the Podesta Group, the lobbying firm founded by Tony and John Podesta – offering them $16,500 and $200,000 respectively for their services. Yet, these powerful lobbying groups were only the latest additions to the Saudis’ small army of lobbying firms including DLA Piper and Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman.
Despite thousands of dollars spent and threats to sell up to $750 billion of US treasury assets, the Saudis failed to successfully lobby Congress to not support the bill. While then-President Obama vetoed the bill, it proved to politically inconvenient to ask US Congressmen to veto a bill pushed by 9/11 survivors and victims’ families just months prior to a major election.
While JASTA is officially on the books as U.S. law, that hasn’t discouraged the Saudis from lobbying to have it amended in their favor. Senator John McCain, who had received $1 million from the Saudi government earlier in the year, promptly co-introduced an amendment to JASTA in November 2016 that would only allow foreign governments to be sued if they “knowingly engage with a terrorist organization directly or indirectly, including financing.” However, this effort too failed to gain traction despite the fact that Saudi payments to American lobbying and public relations firms had reached $1.3 million per month.
Then, a month later, Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, began an “extended trip” in the U.S. capitol, later telling reporters that he was working “to persuade [US lawmakers] that there needs to be an amendment of the law” as it “represents a grave danger to the international system” by curtailing sovereign immunity.
With most of their trusted tactics having proven unsuccessful, the Saudis have recently been trying a different approach to convince Congressmen to revoke or amend JASTA – paying U.S. veterans to go the nation’s capitol and personally ask politicians to change their stance. According to a Daily Caller report published in February, the Saudis have been paying at least one public relations firm, Qorvis MSLGROUP, to recruit military veterans to lobby on behalf of the Saudis by offering luxurious, all-expenses-paid trips that – interestingly enough – include stays at the $500-per-night Trump International Hotel.
Veterans contacted by the initiative told the Caller that they were kept in the dark about who was funding the trip and what they expected to tell to Congress. Evidence also emerged that veterans were told that if other countries passed laws similar to JASTA, individual military service members would be sued in foreign courts, a false claim that allegedly helped Qorvis successfully recruit veterans for its lobbying campaign.
Now, new proof has emerged that Qorvis was not the only PR firm involved in the Saudi latest lobbying efforts thanks to the recent disclosure of documents recently filed with the Department of Justice. According to the documents, Capitol Media Group – a lobbying firm owned by conservative “reporter” and executive director of the National Republican Trust PAC, Scott Wheeler – was paid $90,000 “to bring three groups of 25 to 35 military veterans to Washington to lobby for changes” to JASTA. The documents also show that Wheeler took direction directly from the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Prince Abdullah bin Faisal.
The registration of the group’s agreement to work as a foreign agent for the Saudis was months late after its lobbying efforts on behalf of the Saudis began last year – a “mistake” which is technically illegal as the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires registration within 10 days of agreeing to become an agent of a foreign government and before beginning such work. The registration, however, was conveniently filed just two days after a group of 9/11 families and survivors filed a complaint with the Department of Justice against the failure of lobbyists working for the Saudis to register.
Wheeler’s involvement in the Saudi veteran lobbying scandal is noteworthy as Wheeler, a veteran himself, once ardently supported JASTA and accused then-President Obama of “selling out” to the Saudi royal family. It’s amazing how convincing $90,000 can be.