You’ve heard about the recent controversy over Saudi Arabia being accused in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey. What you might not know is how an event like that sets off behind the scenes lobbying here in the U.S. -- with foreign governments paying big money to spin the press and influence our Congress. Lydia Dennett with the watchdog Project on Government Oversight has been looking into Saudi Lobbying.
Sharyl: What are you finding out about Saudi Arabia?
Lydia Dennett: So Saudi Arabia is one of the more prolific spenders when it comes to foreign lobbying and foreign influence more generally, which does include, extensive PR campaigns and attempts to influence public opinion here in the US. They currently have about 37 different firms and individuals representing their interests here in the US. That's about fifteen more than they had at this time last year. And two were just added this month, in the last couple weeks.
Sharyl: The two that were added— was that since the controversy with the journalist?
Lydia Dennett: Yes.
Sharyl: Is it accurate to say the product of their efforts, the press that they pay for in essence, or the PR, is not always disclosed, in other words, we may read something, or a member of Congress may get a report that favors them in some way but not know that they in essence funded it?
Lydia Dennett: Yeah, absolutely.
Sharyl: When you're looking at some of the specific activity Saudi Arabia has done, how do so called think tanks figure in?
Lydia Dennett: So Saudi Arabia back in about 2014 or so was one of the biggest funders for a number of prominent DC think tanks. Millions of millions of dollars a year in grants to do work and reporting on the Middle East. These think tanks are considered experts in the topic of Middle East policy, and they are often invited to meet with policy makers, or testify on The Hill, and share their policy recommendations, and because think tanks are not required to disclose who funds them, it can be difficult to know if products that they are promoting are as unbiased as they may seem.
Sharyl: In terms of cash, how does Saudi Arabia figure compare to other foreign countries that are putting a lot of money into influencing our opinion here?
Lydia Dennett: So Saudi Arabia is one of the biggest spenders when it comes to foreign lobbying. According to documents filed with the Department of Justice, they are in the top ten of countries that spend the most on foreign influence here. I believe they are number seven. And this year alone, they've spent at least eight million dollars trying to influence US policy makers and public opinion.
Sharyl: In looking at the documents that they've seen so far, are there any interesting stories to be told in there for Americans who don't even understand how all this works?
Lydia Dennett: Yeah, absolutely. So a lot of the documents that are filed with the Department of Justice are very kind of PR focused on the issues that are the most prominent for Saudi Arabia today. So a lot of that is op-eds, or news releases, or pamphlets on how great of an ally they are to the US in the Middle East, how necessary these arms deals are to protect our interests in the region, and how great a job they're doing in Yemen and how great that is for us.
Sharyl: What should Americans keep in mind in the coming month or so as they hear rhetoric about Saudi Arabia?
Lydia Dennett: If an article, or a pamphlet or news release, is sort of painting a certain narrative, it might be worth taking a look at the bottom and seeing if it includes a disclosure statement saying that this was paid for by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and more information is available at the Department of Justice. But even then, the documents don't always include that required disclosure statement, and so I think that a healthy dose of skepticism is always required.
Congress allows U.S. Citizens and PR firms to act as paid agents of foreign governments as long as they register with the Department of Justice.