Anwar Gargash, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs talks to the media during a press conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, June 24, 2017. The top United Arab Emirates official says the Arab countries isolating Qatar do not seek to force out the country’s leadership but are willing to cut ties with it if it does not agree to their demands. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)
From March through May of 2018, a tranche of emails purporting to belong to GOP fundraiser Elliott Broidy began appearing in major national publications. To say that the purloined emails damaged Broidy’s reputation is sort of like saying the Dresden fire-bombing singed a few items. Because of the publication of the emails, Broidy, then Republican National Committee finance chairman with alleged close ties to President Trump, was forced to resign from the RNC and became a target of a federal investigation (see a sampling here).
Broidy is known to be not friendly to Qatar and its interests and so suspicion for the strike against him fell on the Qatari government and the distribution of his emails looked like they came from Qatar’s deeply entrenched network of influencers in the US. Broidy filed a series of lawsuits, and while all of them were dismissed on technical grounds, the discovery process has helped unravel what happened. Now Broidy has filed a new lawsuit that names some interesting names and gives a glimpse into how Qatar works and how an information operation like that the Washington Post launched against the US government’s Middle East policy using the death of Jamal Khashoggi gets traction.
A complaint filed in federal court last Thursday names the alleged ringleader in the Qatari government’s orchestration of Broidy’s email account hack as Gregory Howard, vice president of Mercury Public Affairs and former Democratic Party apparatchik. Mercury Public Affairs has been in the news because of its links, which are purely coincidence, to a famous client of Fusion GPS:
Mercury is a prominent Washington lobbying firm whose powerful clients include the conglomerate controlled by Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, on behalf of which Mercury lobbied the Trump administration to ease U.S. sanctions. Mercury also came under Mueller’s scrutiny for lobbying work arranged by former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort for a front group linked to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
According to the complaint, three guys, Nicolas Muzin, Joey Allaham, and Howard were paid millions of dollars by Qatar to improve the emirate’s image in America and to target Qatar’s critics, including US citizens. This part of the allegation is factual as Muzin and Allaham were registered agents of Qatar. Allaham, however, didn’t register as a foreign agent until after Broidy filed one of his lawsuits, so the Qatar relationship wasn’t overly transparent…not that anyone in the US media would have cared. That, as we’ll see, was a feature, not a bug.
Keeping in mind that anyone can allege most anything they want in a lawsuit, the facts Broidy lays out, if substantiated, are pretty damning. According to the complaint, these guys targeted Broidy because he was an opponent of Qatari influence and had him hacked. They, then, took receipt of the hacked email trove and “carefully curated”–that is, they picked out the newsworthy and salacious parts–the illicitly obtained information so that it could be pitched to journalists; and they did this with the goal of “damaging his business relationships and public standing.” The suit further claims, “they used shell companies to mask payments and transactions that crossed international and state lines, they covered their tracks with incomplete, untimely and at times false federal lobbying disclosures, and they engaged in a pattern of cyber hacking and disinformation schemes against numerous political opponents that continues today.” I wonder who they were paying.
From January 18 through May 22, 2018 — a period during which Howard’s Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filings listed no Qatar-related media contacts — Broidy alleges Howard conducted more than 200 phone calls with reporters who went on to write stories regarding Broidy, Qatar, or who regularly covered Qatari-related issues. This outreach allegedly included nearly 100 calls with now-former Associated Press reporter Tom LoBianco, who authored several negative stories on Broidy in March and May 2018 based on the contents of his hacked emails, as well as dozens of calls with The New York Times, McClatchy, and The Washington Post.
In some instances, according to the complaint, Howard communicated with members of the media weeks before they published exclusive articles based on the hacked information — suggesting that Howard supplied journalists with information derived from the Qatari-orchestrated cyberattack before news of the hacking operation was publicly known. Also alleged is that during this same period, Howard closely communicated with public relations experts, research groups, and registered agents of Qatar to coordinate the “media disinformation campaign” against Broidy.
As I said, this is all in the form of a lawsuit filed by Broidy against some people who, if he’s correct, really f***ed him over. Though some of it may be overstated, what we know is not overstated is the way Qatar has cemented its political relationship with the United States by, if not, outright purchasing think tanks, like Brookings, then at least renting them. We also know that Qatari money reaches deep into US media. During the Khashoggi kerfuffle, the Washington Post allowed articles written/edited by an agent of Qatar to be published under Khashoggi’s byline.
This kind of pernicious influence peddling is much more damaging to America’s interests than $100,000 in Facebook ads and some Twitter bot accounts, and yet, the Department of Justice seems strangely uninterested in it all.