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Hacked emails from the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the US show the Gulf monarchy has strong ties, including financial, to influential and politically connected Washington think-tanks, says The Intercept’s Zaid Jilani

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Aaron Maté: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. The United Arab Emirates is a major player in the Middle East. It’s a key partner of Saudi Arabia in the war on Yemen, and the campaign to isolate Qatar. At home, it cracks down on dissent and tramples on the rights of migrant workers. But here in the US, we don’t hear about that too often. Now, a series of leaked emails help tell us why. They come from the account of the UAE’s ambassador to the US, Yousef Al Otaiba. And they reveal deep ties, including financial ties, between the UAE and several influential Washington D.C. think tanks. Zaid Jilani is a reporter for the Intercept, and he joins me now. Zaid Jilani, welcome. Zaid Jilani: Great to be here. Aaron Maté: Thanks for joining us. So, you wrote some articles about what these leaked emails contain. And your recent piece starts off with ties between the UAE ambassador and a group called the Center for New American Security. Can you explain? Zaid Jilani: Yes. So, we received a number of emails from Yousef Al Otaiba’s email account. Presumably they’re hacked. The group that organized the hacking … We don’t know a whole lot about them, but we did verify the authenticity of the emails. Basically, what this particular batch of emails showed was very strong ties between Center for New American Security, which is a think tank founded by a number of senior military level veterans, as well as Obama administration veterans like Michele Flournoy, who was one of his top DoD officials. Ties between that think tank and Otaiba, who’s the ambassador from the UAE. And those ties included things like funding certain policy products, funding trips and junkets between the United States and the UAE with business-class travel and lodging, and, in general, very close sort of relationship formed between the two, as if they were kind of working as partners on the same side. Rather than you have an American independent think tank, you had a think tank that was actually being subsidized by a foreign government, and was assisting them in policy. Aaron Maté: Right. Okay. So you mentioned Michele Flournoy, who served in the Pentagon under Obama. Also was rumored to be Hilary Clinton’s pick for Defense Secretary, had she been elected. And one of the materials that you come up with in your piece is an invoice that Flournoy sends to the UAE ambassador for $250,000. What was that for? Zaid Jilani: Yeah. So this is something they discussed. Flournoy had said something to Otaiba to the extent of, “We can produce this for you, but our rate would be something like $250,000.” And basically what they did, is they produced a paper on what’s called the “empty CR,” which is sort of a missile control treaty. That treaty has been sort of a problem for the UAE, because right now it basically regulates drones as missiles. And so the United States has not been transferring a whole lot of drone technology to the UAE. And so, not only did the think tank, CNAS, produce a paper about this “empty CR” for the UAE, but they also produced a public version, later. Which is a little more expansive, which was pressuring the Trump administration to basically loosen some of the restrictions on drone transfers to the UAE. Which, obviously, was something that pleased Otaiba quite a bit when they emailed him about that. Aaron Maté: Now, I’m not too familiar with the cost of policy papers. But did the figure of a quarter of a million dollars for a paper on drone technology and drone laws surprise you? Zaid Jilani: I would say it was somewhat surprising. The CNAS was not up front with us when we asked them about this, as to the duration of the paper, the number of staffers who worked on it. The private version that was sent to the UAE … We were not able to obtain that. So it’s kind of difficult to say without knowing who worked on it, and how long it took. But certainly, I think that sum is … It’s profitable sum for CNAS, right? I don’t think they would just … Sort of reimbursing them for the cost of producing it. I think this was actually a matter of, also, fundraising for them. Which is something that CNAS and other think tanks do, is that they give, particularly private corporations, but sometimes foreign governments, such as this case, a certain level of access to their policy products. A certain level of advisory over what they do. And then they’re usually very healthily reimbursed for it, which is why I think so many think tanks do it. Aaron Maté: So that’s what I’m wondering here, is whether, if you’re charging the UAE a quarter of a million dollars for a policy paper, whether you include in that price, without actually itemizing it, the access that you have to top officials. Zaid Jilani: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s a very fair question. I think that sometimes when we see either foreign governments, corporations, foundations, other big, private donors, sponsor things at think tanks, part of that is they’re actually subsidizing that product. Maybe the development or fundraising team is earmarking it for a particular product. But that also creates an ongoing relationship. And, actually, towards the end of these emails, you actually see Flournoy or the rest of the CNAS staff talking to Otaiba, and basically saying, “We look forward to working with you on future products.” So I think it’s an ongoing relationship, definitely. Aaron Maté: Now, another email from Flournoy to the ambassador has her advocating on behalf of a surveillance technology company. Zaid Jilani: Yeah. So this one, actually … CNAS had nothing to say to us about this, because I think this is something she did in her private capacity. So in addition to being at CNAS, Flournoy also does private consulting on the side. I believe she works with Boston Consulting Group, where her clients are not private. So we don’t exactly know the full extent of what that involves. However, in these emails, what appears to be happening is that she’s setting up a meeting with the executives at Polaris, which is a company that builds surveillance technology. She’s setting up a meeting between them and Otaiba in the UAE, and she’s sort of promoting their business to the UAE as opposed to, perhaps, a rival competitor who they could purchase surveillance technology from. Which, unfortunately, is something you see a number of former top, particularly DoD staff, but other people in the government, as well, doing after they leave the government. Is that they use the contacts they developed … Because, of course, when you are senior at the DoD, you help pick contracts. You develop relationships with executives. And then when you leave, you can leverage that into money for consulting for yourself. Because you can then continue to promote those products as a private citizen, and not necessarily tied to any national interest, which you are presumably doing as a government official. Aaron Maté: Right. Okay. Let’s talk about a different think tank, moving on from the Center for New American Security, and talk about the foundation for the Defense of Democracies. You also write about emails showing a strong link between the UAE and that group. Zaid Jilani: Yeah. So the Foundation for Defense of Democracies is not an Obama-linked think tank at all. Actually, it’s more on the other side of the aisle. It’s primarily staffed by, I would say, former Bush and Reagan officials. It has sort of a neo-conservative leaning. It’s fairly right-wing. And they’ve also been majorly sponsored by Sheldon Adelson in the past. I believe they confirmed with us recently, they’re no longer. Like he hasn’t donated in recent years. But he was a heavy donor at one point. And so, basically, their leaning is very “pro-Israel”, which is something that the Emirates and Saudi Arabia have not wanted to say publicly, so much. Right? We’ve all kind of assumed they’ve had a growing relationship with Israel, and pro-Israel organizations. But they haven’t been super upfront about that, because the publics in their countries don’t generally approve of that political stance. And so what these emails show is that the FDD and UAE are working very, very closely on, for instance … The FDD and UAE produced a list of companies that invest in both Iran and the UAE, with the intention to pressure those companies to stop investing in Iran. They also worked together on public relations exercises related to Qatar, trying to make it portray Qatar as sponsoring terrorism or as being a force for instability. Which is something that certainly aligns with FDD’s ideological worldview, in that they are a very anti-Iran think tank. They’re very much against engagement with Palestinians, and certain Palestinians, and things like that. But the UAE had never been upfront that it was taking these positions, that it was working behind the scenes with a very right-wing, pro-Israel group. And I think that’s what these emails are really exposing. And, of course, the financial relationship is a big part of that. Aaron Maté: All right. Switching quickly back to the other side of the aisle, again. I was surprised to read that the Center for American Progress, which is probably the leading Democratic think tank, known as being liberal, took part in a UAE-sponsored trip, what would call the “fact finding mission”, to the country with all expenses paid. Zaid Jilani: Yeah, so, there were actually two trips detailed in the emails. The more recent one was this year in the spring. And basically, several officials from Center for American Progress, but also from CNAS, from some other think tanks in Washington, went on a trip sponsored by the Embassy. I believe it was $150,000, was budgeted for that trip, and that include First Class/Business Class air travel, included lodging, meals, meetings with many of the senior officials, including, I think, the individuals who are leading the war effort in Yemen. And it was all organized by the Harbor Group, which is a lobbying firm and a public-relations firm that works with the UAE. And I think what really struck me about those emails is that you see, for instance, Brian Katulis, who’s a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, behaving as if he is a public-relations consultant for the UAE. I mean, after the trip, he wrote them a very nice email saying, “I think you really showed your message of tolerance,” and so on, and so forth. And then he gave them a little bit of advice about maybe how it could be a little different. He wasn’t acting as an independent researcher, who goes there, who finds some things good, some things bad, make the independent critique. Rather, instead, he’s writing directly to lobbyists who organized this trip, and helping them actively recruit [inaudible 00:10:27] to the trip, which was the other trip that we talk about in the story, which was in 2015. He actually composed a list of both Democrats and Republicans who he said were advising presidential campaigns, and said, “Hey, we should take all of these on the trip.” So, you kind of get a sense, reading these emails, like, “Who does he work for?” Right? Is he working for an independent American think tank that’s supposed to analyze these things and provide independent research to people? Or is he working for the United Arab Emirates? And I think when you have all this money changing hands, and sponsored trips, that unfortunately the difference can be blurred. Aaron Maté: Finally, Zaid, any sense of who the hackers are who hacked into the email accounts and sent you these messages? Zaid Jilani: Yeah, so, we really have no concrete idea. They did use a [.RU 00:11:13] email address, but from what I’ve been told, that’s like having a Gmail in Russia or Eastern Europe, or something. I think if you want to hide your identity, that’s a pretty smart thing for them to do. So I couldn’t really guess. I think, interest-wise, Qatar’s government would have a lot of incentive to be doing that right now, given that a lot of the recent diplomatic crisis was set off by Emirates-aligned hackers hacking their websites. So I think it may have been tit for tat. But that’s purely speculation. I really have no idea. Aaron Maté: Right. I mean, part of what was said to have started this current row between Qatar and the Gulf States was that there was a statement misattributed to the leader of Qatar, making statements about Iran. It turns out that that was fake news, basically. And then it turned out that that might have been planted by the UAE, right? Zaid Jilani: Right. I think there was some American Intelligence folks who went to the press, and basically said, “Yeah, we have a strong suspicion that UAE was responsible for that hacking.” Aaron Maté: Well, we’ll continue to cover the story as more emails come out. Zaid Jilani, reporter for the Intercept, his latest piece is “Hacked Emails Show UAE Building Close Relationship with D.C. Think Tanks That Push Its Agenda.” Zaid, thank you. Zaid Jilani: Thank you. Aaron Maté: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.

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Zaid Jilaniis a journalist who hails from Atlanta, Georgia. He has previously worked as a reporter-blogger for ThinkProgress, United Republic, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Alternet.

He graduated from the University of Georgia in 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts in international affairs and received his master’s in public administration from Syracuse University in 2014.