International

Saudis have lobbying muscle for 9/11 fight

Saudi Arabia has an army of Washington lobbyists to deploy as it tries to stop Congress from passing legislation that could expose the country to litigation over the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The kingdom employs a total of eight American firms that perform lobbying, consulting, public relations and legal work.

Five of the firms work for the Saudi Arabia Embassy, while another two - Podesta Group and BGR Group - have registered to represent the Center for Studies and Media Affairs at the Saudi Royal Court, an arm of the government. PR giant Edelman, meanwhile, is working for the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority to encourage international investment.

The hiring spree began early last year, when Saudi Arabia signed six K Street firms. It added BGR to its roster last month.

For all of 2015, the country spent more than $9.4 million on advocacy in Washington, according to disclosure records filed to the Justice Department. One of its U.S. oil subsidiaries, meanwhile, is responsible for external relations such as throwing or sponsoring events on behalf of the kingdom.

None of the disclosure forms mentioned efforts to combat the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which was introduced last September by Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas). But that is likely to change now that a Senate committee has approved the measure.

Saudi Arabia has threatened to sell off $750 billion in Treasury securities and other assets it holds in the United States if the bill passes Congress, according to The New York Times, which also mentions a fierce lobbying campaign by the country. The selling of assets would prevent them from being frozen by U.S. courts if American victims are able to sue.

The terrorism bill, which President Obama is threatening to veto, would weaken legal immunity of foreign governments in cases "arising from a terrorist attack that kills an American on American soil."

The language could cause problems for Saudi Arabia if the country is found to have links to 9/11, when hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon outside of Washington. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were of Saudi Arabian descent.

Separate from the legislative push, members of Congress are discussing the declassification of 28 pages from the 2002 congressional inquiry that reportedly examined the link between forces in Saudi Arabia and 9/11. The Saudi Arabian government supports the declassification and release of the unredacted document.

While the Saudi Arabian government vehemently denies any involvement in the 9/11 attacks, which were carried out by al Qaeda, some have speculated that language in the classified report could implicate lower-level Saudi government officials.

The dispute is causing a diplomatic storm for the Obama administration; Saudi Arabia has long been an ally of the U.S. despite the country's history of abusing human rights.

The country has some top-flight representation in Washington - at a hefty price tag.

The Podesta Group is billing Saudi Arabia $140,000 a month for its public relations services. During the last few months of 2015, it sent 27 emails, had two phone calls and one meeting with lawmakers and staffers, journalists, and organizations including Human Rights Watch and the Center for American Progress, disclosure forms show.

Meanwhile, Pillsbury

Winthrop Shaw Pittman, with a contract is worth $15,000 per month, most recently advised Saudi Arabia on the Iranian nuclear agreement. But the country also consults on legal issues concerning U.S.-Middle Eastern relations.

DLA Piper receives $50,000 a month from the kingdom and sent hundreds of emails to top congressional staffers between September and the end of February regarding meeting requests and, more generally, "issues affecting U.S.-Saudi Arabia national security interests."

Only one meeting appears to have occurred, between the firm and a counsel with the House Judiciary Committee. There were also several phone calls with staffers, forms show.

The law and lobby firm Hogan Lovells, which includes former Rep. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) on its $60,000-per-month Saudi Arabia contract, scored meetings with Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), as well as Reps. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), from September to February, in addition to numerous phone calls and emails with members and senior staffers.

The disclosure forms do not provide specifics of the issues discussed beyond "Middle East regional security, counterterrorism, Iran sanctions, and related issues." Hogan Lovells did not respond to a request for comment.

The bulk of Saudi Arabia's advocacy spending goes to MSL Group, a PR and consulting firm, which took in more than $7.9 million from the country last year, according to a tally of disclosure records.

The firm, which has had the kingdom as a client since 2002, has been working with Saudi Arabia to create a positive image for its military strikes in Yemen, according to news website The Intercept, as well as a more positive image for the U.S. ally overall.

One of the firms working through MSL Group, Targeted Victory, ran Mitt Romney's digital operation during his 2012 run for the White House. Its subcontract was worth $340,000 from April to September of last year.

A subsidiary of Saudi Aramco, the Saudi Arabian Oil Company, has also registered as a foreign agent to represent its oil interests and the government of Saudi Arabia.

In September, it shelled out almost $1 million to host an event in Washington during King Salman's visit.

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