Lobby firm registers as foreign agent for Saudi group

Lobby firm registers as foreign agent for Saudi group
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The Podesta Group has registered as a foreign agent for a U.S.-based Saudi group that has been running advertisements attacking Qatar for its alleged terrorism ties.

The Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee (SAPRAC), an organization established in Delaware and based in Washington, D.C., has been a large part of the public discourse in the fight between the two Middle Eastern countries.

It has produced television ads, conducted Twitter-based advocacy campaigns, launched a website called The Qatar Insider touting itself as the primary source for information relating to Qatar’s alleged terrorism ties, and purchased advertising space with news outlets.

But the association with Podesta Group was unknown until last week, when the Daily Beast first reported it.

The registration with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) popped up on Thursday.

“SAPRAC is conducting a PR campaign building on the president’s calls for Qatar to stop financing terrorism,” said David Marin, head of Podesta’s PR and strategic communications practice. 

“Because this is a U.S.-based entity, Podesta Group did not initially register its work under FARA,” he told The Hill. “After conferring with outside counsel and reaching out to [the Justice Department’s] FARA unit staff, the Podesta Group has registered its work under FARA out of an abundance of caution, pending the outcome of continuing consultation with the FARA unit staff about FARA’s application to this representation.”

The organization is paying the Podesta Group $50,000 per month, in addition to any fees for the production or placement of advertisements and other expenses, for the contract that began near the end of June.

“Through SAPRAC, [the Podesta Group will] research and analyze issues of interest to the principal; counsel the principal on issues of interest; [and] assist in communicating issues of interest to the principal to relevant audiences,” according to paperwork filed with the Justice Department.

Earlier this year, President Trump said the United States would maintain a relationship with Qatar, a country with the largest American military base in the region, but alleged it had been responsible for funding terrorism.

“The nation of Qatar has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level,” Trump said at a press conference in June. "I decided, along with Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonOvernight Defense: Trump recognizes Jerusalem as Israel's capital | Mattis, Tillerson reportedly opposed move | Pentagon admits 2,000 US troops are in Syria | Trump calls on Saudis to 'immediately' lift Yemen blockade Trump has yet to name ambassadors to key nations in Mideast Mattis, Tillerson warned Trump of security concerns in Israel embassy move MORE, our great generals and military people, the time had come to call on Qatar to end its funding, they have to end that funding and its extremist ideology."

Podesta Group also represents the government of Saudi Arabia.

While SAPRAC says its funding comes from member organizations and events and emphasizes that the group is “a product of a citizen not a state,” it has been largely echoing the rhetoric of Saudi leaders in the spat with Qatar.

The organization did not return a request for comment, including about whether it would also be registering with the Justice Department.

Avenue Strategies Global, a firm with ties to Trump that represents Qatar, on Friday submitted a complaint to the Justice Department, alleging that the group was violating the law by not registering itself as a foreign agent under FARA. 

“While SAPRAC is a domestic entity, owned and operated by a foreign individual, all of SAPRAC’s activities clearly and directly benefit a foreign principal,” reads the complaint, written by former Trump campaign adviser Barry Bennett, now at Avenue Strategies. “It is difficult if not impossible to meaningfully distinguish SAPRAC from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in this instance. In fact, if the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia were to establish a foreign agent for the purpose of producing and disseminating propaganda on behalf of itself, it would look exactly like SAPRAC.”

The complaint urges the Justice Department to probe into any potential relationship between the group and the Saudi government. The FARA Unit, within the Justice Department's National Security Division, does not have any subpoena powers and solely relies on voluntary compliance from foreign agents.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar both accuse the other of funding terrorism, and a Saudi Arabian-led group of nations in the Gulf have cut some ties with Qatar. Leaders in Doha call the terrorism charges “baseless.”

The countries have also both hired an army of Washington lobbyists and public relations firms to tout their work in helping the United States combat terrorism in the Middle East.

Firms and individuals must register with the Justice Department within 10 days of signing a contract with a client that is either funded or influenced by a foreign government or foreign government official.

Qatar has nearly a dozen Washington firms on retainer, including a firm run by former Attorney General John Ashcroft and public affairs firms Mercury and Levick.

 

— This post was updated at 3:53 p.m.