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Holding the Government Accountable

Saudi Arabia Lobbying Efforts in the Spotlight

Last week POGO Investigator Lydia Dennett spoke on Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson regarding the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s recent lobbying efforts. Their investigation found that weak enforcement of foreign lobbying laws left US military veterans lobbying on behalf of Saudi Arabia in 2016 and 2017 unaware they were doing so. Their multi-million dollar lobbying effort included 22 different lobbying firms.

Under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), lobbyists working for foreign governments must disclose information about their activities to the Department of Justice. The law is intended to provide transparency into how federal policies are made and how foreign influence plays a part. FARA registration and disclosure requirements are a good first step, but Full Measure’s investigation shows that without adequate enforcement it’s impossible to know if we’re getting the whole story.

The Full Measure investigation focused on lobbyists working to stop the passage of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), a bill that would allow family members of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia for any involvement in the terrorist attacks. In the weeks following the introduction of the bill in fall 2016, Saudi Arabia added 12 US lobbying firms to their roster in attempt to prevent its passage.

Part of the Saudi lobbying strategy, detailed by Full Measure, was to offer all-expense paid trips to Washington DC for veterans willing to meet with Members of Congress and urge them not to vote for the bill. But the veterans claimed they were not aware that these trips were funded by the Saudi government, which likely violated FARA rules that require lobbyists to disclose when they’re working on behalf of a foreign government in any communications they make to two or more people. Although the bill ultimately passed, and was signed into law, the Saudi lobbying campaign demonstrates that compliance with FARA is spotty and the law is rarely enforced.

Conversely, Saudi Arabia’s lobbying effort for a $1.15 billion arms deal was far more subtle than their efforts to kill JASTA. POGO found the informational materials distributed by the lobbyists describe Saudi Arabia’s successful efforts to combat terrorism in the Middle East, and the dangers of a Yemen militant group called the Houthis. Despite a joint resolution introduced by Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) to prevent the transfer, the Senate voted overwhelmingly in support of the deal, which included 130 tanks, 20 armored recovery vehicles, and other military equipment.

This lobbying likely also laid the groundwork for a $110 billion arms deal President Trump signed with Saudi Arabia last week. Senators Paul, Murphy, and Al Franken (D-MN) recently introduced another joint resolution to prevent the sale, which the Senate will take up in June.

“Around the edges there’s a lot of loosey-goosey stuff going on. People representing foreign interests and not reporting.” Toby Moffett, a former Member of Congress who is now a registered foreign lobbyist, told POGO in 2014. When it comes to 9/11 victims’ families and billion dollar arms deals, loosey-goosey isn’t going to cut it.

Efforts by foreign governments to influence U.S. policy could have far-reaching effects on everything from arms deals and foreign aid to specific legislative policies, and the public should be able to know exactly what forces are at work behind the scenes to create that policy.