US intel report says key gulf ally meddled in American politics
The Washington Post November 12, 2022
U.S. intelligence officials have compiled a classified report detailing extensive efforts to manipulate the American political system by the United Arab Emirates, an influential, oil-rich nation in the Persian Gulf long considered a close and trusted partner.
The activities covered in the report, described to The Washington Post by three people who have read it, include illegal and legal attempts to steer U.S. foreign policy in ways favorable to the Arab autocracy. It reveals the UAE's bid, spanning multiple U.S. administrations, to exploit the vulnerabilities in American governance, including its reliance on campaign contributions, susceptibility to powerful lobbying firms and lax enforcement of disclosure laws intended to guard against interference by foreign governments, these people said. Each spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified information.
The document was compiled by the National Intelligence Council and briefed to top U.S. policymakers in recent weeks to guide their decision-making related to the Middle East and the UAE, which enjoys outsize influence in Washington. The report is remarkable in that it focuses on the influence operations of a friendly nation rather than an adversarial power such as Russia, China or Iran. It is also uncommon for a U.S. intelligence product to closely examine interactions involving U.S. officials given its mandate to focus on foreign threats.
"The U.S. intelligence community generally stays clear of anything that could be interpreted as studying American domestic politics," said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served on the National Intelligence Council in the 1990s.
"Doing something like this on a friendly power is also unique. It's a sign that the U.S. intelligence community is willing to take on new challenges," he said.
Lauren Frost, a spokeswoman at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, declined to comment when asked about the report.
The UAE's ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, said he is "proud of the UAE's influence and good standing in the U.S."
"It has been hard earned and well deserved. It is the product of decades of close UAE-US cooperation and effective diplomacy. It reflects common interests and shared values," he said in a statement.
The relationship is unique. Over the years, the United States has agreed to sell the UAE some of its most sophisticated and lethal military equipment, including MQ-9 Predator drones and advanced F-35 fighter jets, a privilege not bestowed on any other Arab country over concern about diminishing Israel's qualitative military edge.
Some of the influence operations described in the report are known to national security professionals, but such activities have flourished due to Washington's unwillingness to reform foreign-influence laws or provide additional resources to the Department of Justice. Others activities more closely resemble espionage, people familiar with the report said.
The UAE has spent more than $154 million on lobbyists since 2016, according to Justice Department records. It has spent hundreds of millions of dollars more on donations to American universities and think tanks, many that produce policy papers with findings favorable to UAE interests.
There is no prohibition in the United States on lobbyists donating money to political campaigns. One U.S. lawmaker who read the intelligence report told The Post that it illustrates how American democracy is being distorted by foreign money, saying it should serve as a wake-up call.
"A very clear red line needs to be established against the UAE playing in American politics," said the lawmaker. "I'm not convinced we've ever raised this with the Emiratis at a high level."
Both the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the State Department declined to comment on whether they have addressed the issue with senior UAE counterparts.
The U.S. government's muted public response follows President Joe Biden's impassioned pitch to midterm elections voters last week that American democracy is under threat from powerful interests and needs concerted safeguarding. "With democracy on the ballot, we have to remember these first principles: Democracy means the rule of the people - not the rule of monarchs or the moneyed, but the rule of the people," Biden said during a speech in Washington.
The National Intelligence Council, or NIC, is the intelligence community's premier analytic hub. Its products draw on information from the nation's 18 intelligence agencies to speak with one voice on pressing national security issues.
People who shared information about the report declined to provide copy of it. They said the activities attributed to the UAE in the report go well beyond mere influence peddling.
One of the more brazen exploits involved the hiring of three former U.S. intelligence and military officials to help the UAE surveil dissidents, politicians, journalists and U.S. companies. In public legal filings, U.S. prosecutors said the men helped the UAE break into computers in the United States and other countries. Last year, all three admitted in court to providing sophisticated hacking technology to the UAE, agreeing to surrender their security clearances and pay about $1.7 million to resolve criminal charges. The Justice Department touted the settlement as a "first-of-its-kind resolution."
It did not involve prison time, however, and critics viewed the financial penalty as paltry given the substantial payments received by the former U.S. officials for their work, raising concerns it did little to dissuade similar future behavior.
Those seeking reform also note the federal trial of Thomas Barrack, a longtime adviser to former president Donald Trump, who was acquitted this month of charges alleging he worked as an agent of the UAE and lied to federal investigators about it.
U.S. prosecutors accused Barrack of exploiting his access to Trump to benefit the UAE and working a secret back channel for communications that involved passing sensitive information to Emirati officials. The evidence introduced in court included thousands of messages, social media posts and flight records, as well as communications showing that Emirati officials provided him with talking points for media appearances in which he praised the UAE. After one such interview, Barrack emailed a contact saying "I nailed it . . . for the home team," referring to the UAE.
Barrack, who never registered with the U.S. government to lobby for the gulf state, vehemently denied the charges and prosecutors failed to convince a jury that his influence-peddling gave rise to crimes. An assistant of his, Matthew Grimes, was also acquitted. Barrack, though a spokesman, declined to comment.
The UAE is far from alone in using aggressive tactics to try to bend the U.S. political system to its liking. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel, Taiwan and scores of other governments run influence campaigns in the United States in an effort to impact U.S. policy.
But the intelligence community's scrutiny of the UAE indicates a heightened level of concern and a dramatic departure from the laudatory way the country is discussed in public by U.S. secretaries of state, defense and presidents, who routinely emphasize the "importance of further deepening the U.S.-UAE strategic relationship."
The UAE is a federation of sheikhdoms with more than 9 million people including the city-states of Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
Since 2012, it has been the third-biggest purchaser of U.S. weapons and built what many consider the most powerful military in the Arab world by cultivating close ties to the U.S. political, defense and military establishment.
The UAE's armed forces have fought alongside U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The country also hosts 5,000 U.S. military personnel at al-Dhafra Air Base and U.S. warships at the Jebel Ali deep-water port.
Boosters of the gulf state in U.S. think tanks and military circles often hail it as "Little Sparta" for its military prowess while sidestepping its human rights record and ironclad kinship with Saudi Arabia.
There are no elections or political parties in the UAE, and no independent judiciary. Criticism of the government is banned, and trade unions and homosexuality are outlawed. Freedom House ranks the gulf state among the least free countries in the world.
The stifling political environment stands in stark contrast to the country's opulent cosmopolitan offerings, including the world's tallest building, ski slopes inside a shopping mall and Ferrari World, a theme park inspired by the Italian sports car manufacturer. Its largest city, Dubai, is a tax-free business hub with glitzy five-star hotels, nightclubs and DJ concerts that feel incongruous to the nearby religious zeal of Saudi Arabia. In recent years, U.S. officials and independent watchdogs have warned that smuggling and money-laundering in the UAE have allowed criminals and militants to hide their wealth there.
Focus on the UAE's role in Washington grew following the death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey. The CIA concluded his killing was done at the behest of Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, a revelation that caused Washington lobbying firms and think tanks to sever their financial ties to Riyadh. Though the UAE had no involvement, the crown prince's status as a protege of Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the ruler of the United Arab Emirates known as MBZ, invited greater scrutiny.
"MBZ was a big part of the crowd who said the Saudi crown prince would be a reformer, make Saudi Arabia a more normal country, give women the right to vote - all of which crashed when Khashoggi was killed," Riedel said.
Concerns about the UAE among human rights groups grew with its military involvement in the brutal war in Yemen, from which it has since withdrawn. The gulf state also angered U.S. officials after the Defense Department's watchdog said the UAE may have been financing the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary army close to the Kremlin that has been accused of atrocities in Libya, Ukraine and Africa. The UAE denies the charge.
Though the UAE has maintained strong bipartisan support in the United States, it cultivated a particularly close connection to the Trump administration, which approved the $23 billion sale of F-35s, MQ-9s and other munitions to the gulf state. The transfer, which has faced resistance by congressional Democrats, has not moved forward yet but is supported by the Biden administration.
Last month, The Post revealed the UAE's extensive courtship of retired high-ranking U.S. military personnel. The investigation showed that over the past seven years, 280 retired U.S. service members have worked as military contractors and consultants for the UAE, more than for any other country, and that the advisory jobs pay handsomely.
Instrumental to the UAE's success in Washington has been Otaiba, an ambassador who has forged strong connections with powerful politicians and business leaders across the political spectrum.
The intelligence report is careful not to identify specific individuals, according to people who have read it, but it mentions several meetings and conversations involving U.S. and Emirati officials. One passage refers to a meeting of a senior U.S. and senior UAE official who commended each other for "single-handedly" salvaging the U.S.-UAE relationship. One person who read the report said it was an unmistakable reference to Otaiba.
When asked about the intelligence community's findings, Otaiba said he has been "honored to be among a group of serious people with good intentions in both countries that have built a full and lasting partnership that has made the UAE, the U.S. and the region more secure, more prosperous, and more open-minded."
Some U.S. lawmakers in both parties have proposed legislation to curb foreign influence in U.S. politics. A bill introduced last year by Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) would prohibit political campaign committees from accepting money from lobbyists registered with a foreign country. Other reform proposals include increasing disclosure requirements, providing more resources to the Justice Department's foreign influence unit and standardizing filing data, said Anna Massoglia, a foreign-influence expert at OpenSecrets, an organization that tracks political spending,
"While the U.S. does have some disclosure rules in place, there are still a number of loopholes that allow individuals to work on behalf of foreign interests in this country without disclosing their work," Massoglia said.