While U.S. media focuses on alleged Russian election meddling, reporter and author Jonathan Marshall says influence-peddling from other foreign governments has been ignored
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AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Since Donald Trump’s election, US media has devoted extensive time to his alleged ties to Russia. My next guest says other forms of foreign influence on US politics are equally, if not more worthy of attention. Jonathan Marshall is an award-winning reporter and author. Jonathan, welcome. JOHN MARSHALL: Thank you. Glad to be here. AARON MATE: You’ve written a series up at the website consortiumnews.com about different countries and how they lobby for their respective political ends in the US. But before we get into some examples, can you lay out for us your approach to this issue of foreign influence on US politics, especially in the context of so much focus, as I mentioned, on Russia? JOHN MARSHALL: It’s a huge and legitimate issue in that allegations of Russian interference in the US election, if true, would be, if not entirely unprecedented, highly unusual and very worrisome. I’m not one of those who thinks we should just discount it all because we don’t trust the Intelligence Community. We should have a serious investigation into those charges, but it shouldn’t be so uniquely focused on Russia as if that’s the only country seeking to influence American politics, sometimes covertly. We have a much broader issue. Given the extraordinary importance of the United States internationally in terms of military affairs, economics, foreign aid, lots and lots of countries have a very strong interest in influencing American policy, either through Congress, through the president, through public opinion. We have very little transparency into these operations and their effects on our political system. I think the Russia investigation should give us the impetus to take a much broader and more balanced look at this problem. It really comes down to an issue of national sovereignty. We spend something like $600 billion a year on the military, supposedly to protect our national sovereignty, but if foreign governments, whether through hacking or lobbying or influence peddling or financing of think tanks, can influence our policy, then we don’t have the kind of sovereignty and democratic processes that we like to imagine we do. AARON MATE: I think “supposedly” is a very key word when talking about whether $600 billion in the military goes toward that end. So let me ask you then, if you could determine what the focus on foreign influence would be, which countries concern you most? And talk about them for us. JOHN MARSHALL: Sure. The ones I looked at in the series, I purposely excluded Russia because that’s of course the focus of millions of inches of attention in major print media and obviously lots in the broadcast as well. So I looked at Taiwan, sometimes known as the Republic of China, and I looked at that in a historical sense because one of the most powerful lobbies of all time is the so-called China lobby. In the 1950s, it pretty much had a stranglehold over US policy towards China, prevented the US from recognizing the People’s Republic of China, the most populous country on Earth, and had a mission to root out suspected liberals from the State Department to enforce a kind of strong, right-wing ideological bent on US foreign policy. It was quite infamous for its use of bribes to try to influence political campaigns. Thousands and thousands of dollars of cash were hand delivered to a first-time Senate candidate in California in 1950 whose name was Richard Nixon. Many other Republican candidates got cash as well, and there were Democrats who were in the thrall of that lobby as well. That infamous lobby, according to William Safire, the late pundit and columnist, was what gave the name to the Israel lobby and started a whole kind of chain reaction of naming these foreign lobbies. The ones I look at in the series besides the China lobby are the pro-Israel lobby, the Saudi lobby, the Turkish lobby, and the Ukraine lobby. AARON MATE: Okay- JOHN MARSHALL: These are- AARON MATE: Yeah, go ahead. JOHN MARSHALL: These are examples of very powerful foreign interest groups that use large amounts of money to try to influence our policy. AARON MATE: Since Saudi Arabia is a big issue right now in terms of this new campaign against Qatar and President Trump’s recent visit to the Saudi Kingdom, let’s talk about the Saudi lobby because it certainly does not get nearly as much attention as, say, the Israel lobby does. JOHN MARSHALL: Sure. Think about it for a minute, that a lot of Americans, they may or may not like Saudi Arabia or its policies, but they sort of take it for granted that it’s a sort of quasi-ally. Think for a minute. Here’s a country that beheads more people than ISIS, that denies the most basic human rights to half its population, namely women, that has zero religious freedom. It basically violates every kind of human rights doctrine we could possibly care about, and yet we carry on about countries … We should be concerned about human rights in Russia, but the situation in Saudi Arabia is 100 times worse. How come Saudi Arabia gets a free pass? One reason, not the only reason, is that it spends millions and millions of dollars a year currying favor with US politicians. It does so in a variety of ways. It spends well over $1 million a month on hired lobbyists in Washington to go from office to office in Congress pressing its case. Most recently, it hired something like 100 different agents to try to press its case against a bill in Congress that would allow victims of terrorism to sue foreign governments who were responsible. Of course, given the concern that Saudi Arabia may have been behind al-Qaeda and some other terrorists, Saudi Arabia wanted to kill that bill if at all possible. It also gives millions of dollars to up-and-coming politicians like the Clintons. Back in the early ’90s when Bill Clinton was first running for president, they showered money on the University of Arkansas, later gave millions to The Clinton Foundation. They gave even more money to the Bush family in terms of investments and oil deals and so forth, currying favor. The Saudi ambassador boasted about, basically, he said if you buy friends early, they’ll be friends for life. We see that over and over again. It’s a lobby that has basically no intrinsic domestic base of support unlike, say, the pro-Israel lobby, but it has ample amounts of money to try to make its influence felt. AARON MATE: The issue of think tanks and think tank funding is very important because so many experts that the media relies on for analysis of geopolitical issues that affect countries like Saudi Arabia, it’s very seldom disclosed that many of these think tanks are funded by countries like Saudi Arabia. JOHN MARSHALL: Exactly. We take it now for granted in the modern age that, say, academics should disclose potential conflicts of interest when they’re writing papers. There was a big scandal a few years ago that economists were taking money from major banks and not disclosing it, and that caused a big stink in the profession and so forth. But it’s routine for think tank experts to publish op-ed pieces in The Washington Post and The New York Times without any reader knowing how much money is going into that think tank from governments like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Turkey. So think tanks like Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Atlantic Council, which are just constantly pumping messages out into the American media, it’s almost never disclosed who their funding sources are. Of course, I want to add, many of the people working for these institutions, they’re honest and try their best to reach informed opinions, but it’s hard to imagine that these institutions are entirely unswayed by the millions and millions of dollars that prop them up from these foreign governments. I think it’s very important to have full disclosure. In fact, the fundamental thesis of my piece was not that we should try to shut down all foreign money in the United States but that we need far, far greater transparency, so Americans can understand the influences on both our government and our media and so forth so that we can make informed judgments and basically regain control of our own policies. AARON MATE: Okay. You mentioned earlier also the Ukraine lobby, which is interesting because we don’t hear about that very often either. One critique of US policy towards Ukraine is that, in this effort to confront Russia, the US has overlooked the fact that there are far-right elements inside the new Ukraine government that came to power in 2014. Up at Alternet, at the Grayzone Project, there’s a recent piece by Ben Norton and Max Blumenthal that talks about John McCain and Paul Ryan meeting with a veteran Ukrainian Nazi demagogue, Andriy Parubiy. Can you talk about the Ukraine lobby in the US? JOHN MARSHALL: Sure. I’ve written about some of the far right connections myself. Ukraine is right now in the process of resurrecting the image and memory of people who during World War II were out-and-out Nazi collaborators and killers of Ukrainian Jews, so it’s a very ugly situation. Ukraine, as one Washington insider put it, who I quoted in the piece, is becoming basically a gravy train for lobbyists. It’s a little unusual. The other ones I write about, there’s generally one, the government-sponsored lobby. In the Ukraine, you have Paul Manafort who was Donald Trump’s campaign chief last year until he was resigned once there were press revelations about his work in Ukraine. He had been a long-time Republican campaign consultant for many presidential candidates. He had represented many notorious foreign dictatorships like the Marcos regime in the Philippines and Mobutu of Zaire, really some of the ugliest dictators in the world. He got involved with President Yanukovych in the Ukraine a few years ago. According to some reports, and we don’t necessarily have the full story, he may have made millions of dollars based on providing campaign consulting and other image making for Yanukovych, who ironically was the candidate who ended up being somewhat more favorable to Russia. He was not a Russian stooge, but he was more favorable to Russia and ended up being ousted in a kind of coup in 2014 and had to flee to Russia, which is basically what triggered the entire crisis. Meantime, you had one of Yanukovych’s opponents who was in jail, who there were lobbyists hired for nearly $1 million to help promote US efforts to get her out of jail. The new Ukrainian government, which is anti-Yanukovych, now has hired one of the biggest Republican lobbying firms in Washington to promote greater US aid, including military aid, to help oppose Russian influence in Eastern Ukraine. And you have Ukraine oligarchs, these billionaire industrialists who are hiring their own lobbyists to promote whatever cause they happen to believe in. So you have money just swishing back and forth and, again, very little visibility into it. Some of these think tanks are also taking money from major Ukrainian interests. So it’s a real mess, and it doesn’t, I think, help sound policy to be formed about Ukraine, which is one of the really flashpoint areas between the United States and Russia right now. AARON MATE: Jonathan, adding to this mess is the fact that this lobbying bonanza is bi-partisan. You had the Podesta Group founded by the brother of John Podesta, who was the chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, the Podesta Group also did some lobbying on behalf of pro-Russian interests- JOHN MARSHALL: Actually, John Podesta [inaudible 00:14:25]- AARON MATE: Yeah. JOHN MARSHALL: I was just saying John Podesta was a co-founder with his brother. So, yes, it’s one of the pre-eminent Democratic-Party-linked lobbying firm, and it was working with Paul Manafort. It also represents the Saudi government. So it’s in the thick of lobbying for all sorts of foreign governments, many of whom would be considered somewhat distasteful by the average Democrat. AARON MATE: Jon, briefly, what political or legal efforts have been attempted to try to curb the influence of foreign lobbying in the US? JOHN MARSHALL: A good question. The real impetus for control of foreign lobbying started back in the 1930s when there was a perception that, with the rise of fascism in Europe and in Japan, there was a growing threat, and also the rise of totalitarianism in Soviet Union, that there was a rising threat of influence on our political system. Congress, in 1938, passed the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires foreign lobbyists and those engaged in, say, public relations activities for foreign governments to register with the Justice Department to disclose their activities and their income and spending. Unfortunately, since World War II, that act has been largely allowed to lie fallow. There have been very, very few prosecutions. According to the Justice Department’s own Inspector General, many, many foreign lobbyists either don’t register or they register late, they don’t disclose full information. So there’s terribly lax enforcement. This law does not stop all foreign lobbying, but it does give us the kind of transparency we need to understand what’s going on in our political system. We really need, I think, a Congressional investigation. The last such investigation took place in 1963, so we’re talking half a century ago. We need a Congressional investigation, and we need much stricter enforcement of the law by the Justice Department to make sure that all the parameters of foreign influence pedaling are fully disclosed and understood. AARON MATE: Jonathan Marshall, award-winning reporter and author. His series on foreign lobbying in the US is up at consortiumnews.com. Jonathan, thank you. JOHN MARSHALL: Thank you. AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.