BILL MOYERS: Every day people from all walks of life make their way up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to pay their respects to the martyred president. From here Lincoln broods over the city he imagined would become the seat of government of, by, and for the people. But this is no longer their city. Or Lincoln's. This is an occupied city, a company town, whose population of lobbyists constitute the permanent government. The number of lobbyists registered to do business in Washington has more than doubled since the year 2000. There are now twenty-five lobbyists for every member of Congress.
This is where you start if you want to know how it is that some truly awful regimes around the world keep on winning favors from our government. I mean regimes ruled by dictators, despots, and tyrants of every kind — governments that send their critics to prison, torture dissidents, steal from their own people, control the press, and make a mockery of human rights, yet still wind up with trade agreements, U.S. tax dollars, business deals blessed on high, and a hearty welcome in Congress and the White House.
If you've ever asked yourself, why are we helping those guys, you are about to meet a tour guide of our nation's capital who can show you what dirty little secrets lie behind some of Washington's fanciest addresses and prominent letterheads.
Our guide is Ken Silverstein, one of the few journalists who has made lobbying his beat. He's now the Washington Editor of Harper’s magazine. He's written two books of a ferret's life in the dark corners of politics and government: this one Washington on $10 Million Dollars a Day and this one Private Warriors.
His latest exposé appears in the current issue of Harper’s. To find out what Washington lobbyists do for foreign governments, Silverstein goes underground, creates a fictional name — Ken Case — with a fictional business card for a fictional company in London that wants a Washington lobbying firm to help it improve the image of a real country: Turkmenistan — in central Asia — with an oppressive regime notorious for abusing its people and lots of energy reserves. To find someone who will sell Turkmenistan to Washington, Silverstein calls on two big lobbying firms. APCO Associates, with over 400 clients including seven of the top ten companies on Fortune’s Global 500. And Cassidy & Associates, perhaps, says Silverstein, "the most prominent of all the Washington lobby shops." Both firms boasted to Silverstein of their roster of former public servants who would help the cause. APCO's team includes 10 former ambassadors, 17 former elected politicians, 26 former business leaders, 54 former journalists, 41 former government officials and 90 former political advisers. Cassidy & Associates claims that its team has served on Capitol Hill as members of Congress and Congressional staff, in the White House and in the Pentagon as flag-rank military officers. In Harper’s this month, Ken Silverstein's story reports on the influence he can buy if the price is right.
BILL MOYERS:[interviewing] Here's the lead. You posed as the representative of a business group working for the country of Turkmenistan, and you got two top Washington lobbying firms to propose a campaign to clean up the country's image. Now that sounds like something out of Borat.
KEN SILVERSTEIN: We toyed with the Borat type approach. But we really felt that that would be counter-productive because we wanted to make a political point, which was that the rules that apply to these firms are too weak, that they are able to manipulate political and public opinion too easily. And we wanted to highlight that. And so we thought we better do it straight as opposed to doing it as a comedy routine.
BILL MOYERS: So, you pose as a consultant named?
KEN SILVERSTEIN: Kenneth Case of the Maldon Group.
BILL MOYERS: The Maldon Group. What's the Maldon Group?
KEN SILVERSTEIN: The Maldon Group was modeled on — it's a real life situation. I described the firm as having a stake in the natural gas sector in Turkmenistan. That we were involved in the export of natural gas from Turkmenistan to Eastern European markets. That we were a group of private investors from the Middle East and Eastern Europe. If I can point out that this is not an uncommon situation, this is a situation that you will find time and time again, where there's a cutout firm that actually does the hiring, so that it doesn't quite look so bad. And then they can say we're not working for Turkmenistan. We're working for the Maldon Group. But if you look at the plans they laid out for me, it was clear they knew exactly what they were doing and who they were working for, and what the goal was. And that goal was to improve the image of one of the world's worst dictatorships.
KEN SILVERSTEIN: So, we picked Turkmenistan, which —
BILL MOYERS: It really is?
KEN SILVERSTEIN: It's scraping the bottom of the barrel.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
KEN SILVERSTEIN: Well, I mean, North Korea might be a little bit worse in terms of just being an absolutely reprehensible dictatorship. But North Korea was over the top. It's illegal to lobby for the government of North Korea. We thought Turkmenistan was about as close as you could get. Until last year the country was ruled by a — the self-described Turkmenbashi, the great ruler of the Turkmen. He was a notorious dictator. He built monuments to himself. He renamed the month of January after himself. Another month was named for his mother. Vodka and salt were named after the Turkmenbashi. There's a sort of comical side, if you don't realize that in addition to this sort of stuff it was a dungeon. I mean, there was no political opposition allowed. Any opposition to the government is considered treason in Turkmenistan.
BILL MOYERS: So, you wanted to see if there was an American lobbying firm that would work for that kind of government?
KEN SILVERSTEIN: Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: You went to two firms, APCO and Cassidy Associates. What did you know about APCO?
KEN SILVERSTEIN: Well, these firms weren't picked entirely by chance. I mean, APCO — we wanted to pick firms that had a reputation of working for dictatorships, and also firms that had a history of somewhat duplicitous practices. And also firms that had some experience in the Caspian Region, where Turkmenistan is located.
BILL MOYERS: The big oil region of the world. The new — yeah.
KEN SILVERSTEIN: The new big energy region.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah. Right.
KEN SILVERSTEIN: So, APCO in the 1990s worked for the Sani Abacha dictatorship in Nigeria. This was at that time one of the world's worst regimes.
BILL MOYERS: That used to hang democratic dissidents, right?
KEN SILVERSTEIN: And, in fact, APCO was working for them as they were preparing the execution of these nine pro-democracy activists that were hung in 1995. They also have worked for Kazakhstan, where the President recently effectively declared himself President for life. They've worked in Azerbaijan, which is another energy rich dictatorial regime in the Caspian Region.
BILL MOYERS: The details are all in Harper’s, but let me read you one of the e-mails that came to you from Barry Schumacher. Who is Barry Schumacher?
KEN SILVERSTEIN: He's an Executive Vice President of APCO Associates.
BILL MOYERS: He says we're a public affairs and strategic communicate firm specializing in country representation in particular. We've worked on image, policy, foreign investment and reputation issues for a host of governments, including Israel, Romania, Singapore, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, all legitimate governments.
We've also worked for private sector interests. One of our professionals is former Ambassador Elizabeth Jones, who had been the Ambassador to Kazakhstan. Other key people include former Senator Don Riegle, former Congressman Don Bonker, former Ambassador Marc Ginsberg.
We also have strengths in the communications world having on staff the former Deputy Press Secretary to President George H.W. Bush, former Communications Director for the Office of Management and Budget, and the head of Public Affairs for the CIA. I mean, they were wooing you with their connections.
KEN SILVERSTEIN: This was one of their big selling points. Both the firms bragged about how well connected they were. And they each talked about how, you know, other firms might boast about their connections, but nobody could really do it the way they could. And they talked about having connections across the board in Congress at — with key staffers, with administration officials at the State Department.
And they kept trotting out these names of former government officials, and former members of Congress, who could open doors for me, because of, you know, their past experience on Capitol Hill or in the administration.
BILL MOYERS: You describe an interesting meeting at APCO when one of the other lobbyist brags about the ties of one of the people in the room to the Republican Party.
KEN SILVERSTEIN: Yeah, because they had been laying out how, you know, we've got all these people on staff, and they were listing a number of Democrats. And I said, well, that's great, but don't we have — need ties to the Republican Party as well? And the — Barry Schumacher said to me that — Jennifer, Jennifer Dyck, who was a former spokeswoman for the CIA, and for Vice President Cheney, he joked, she's so well connected with the Republicans that she's worth six of our Democrats. Ha, ha.
So, yeah, this was all, you know, a big game. They had connections across the board, and they could open doors for me. No problem.
BILL MOYERS: And they say they could ar — they would seek to arrange events highlighting Turkmenistan with leading U.S. think tanks. And they said we would target Heritage Foundation, conservative, Center for Strategic and International Studies, which is a centrist to right group, Council Foreign Relations, an establishment group, Brookings, liberal group, Carnegie Endowment, a very respected institution there in Washington. I mean, are they just making this up, do you think?
KEN SILVERSTEIN: No. That I don't think they are making up. I think lots of — based on, you know, reporting I've done in the past, I think these lobbyist have pretty good relationships with a variety of think tanks around town. They were very clear to me. They said that they could utilize some academics and think tank experts. Not only, you know, the — they would be able to sort of put together op-eds — and recruit op-eds from these folks, I think that is true. They're — I mean, I live in Washington. Everyday there are events held around town.
And now I wonder, is this put together by a lobbying firm? Or is this something that really grew spontaneously out of the interest of the think tank? You just don't know. It's the same with the op-eds. Who really wrote it?
BILL MOYERS: In their PowerPoint presentation the APCO team told Silverstein that now is Turkmenistan's most important moment since independence. And there are only about ten members of Congress who could find Turkmenistan on a map. And that no one is looking for perfection on democracy and human rights reforms.
KEN SILVERSTEIN: With APCO Associates I went in and, you know, we sat in a conference room and they made the introductions and they said, let's go through this PowerPoint presentation, and they showed it on the screen. And, you know, they went through — first, again, how well connected they were.
They trotted out the big heavy hitters at the firm. The listed some of the governments that they had worked for in the past. And then they stated to — you know, talking about what they could do on behalf of the Maldon Group. And, you know, they said, setting up a meeting with a government official from — a visiting official from Turkmenistan. No problem. We can arrange that.
We can get them in the door, and get high-level meetings for that official in Washington. We'll do a media campaign. We'll create media events. And we'll put — you know, we'll write and find signatories for, and plant these op-eds in the newspaper. Then they also said that they would hold events on Capitol Hill or in Washington for me where they would promote the government of Turkmenistan. And they said, though, that, you know, they didn't want it really to look like paid advertising. So, they would find the imprimatur of a respected third party, they said, so it would look like an independent event.
BILL MOYERS: And why were you drawn to Cassidy & Associates?
KEN SILVERSTEIN: Well, you know, we didn't want to choose sort of fly by night firms. We didn't want to say, "oh, we went to sort of these, you know, firms that could be expected to take any client, because they're so hard up for money." Cassidy is maybe the biggest lobby shop in town. It's generated more lobbying revenue than any other firm. So, that was one thing.
BILL MOYERS: Founded by a former assistant to Senator George McGovern, the Democrat, liberal Democratic candidate for President in 1972.
KEN SILVERSTEIN: Right. And like all good lobbying firms, though, they've sort of — I mean, actually they said to me, 'cause I asked them, do you have connections on both sides of the aisle? And they said, "sure, we mirror the power structure." So, in recent years the firm — it started as a Democratic firm. It's become much more of a Republican firm, because it's been mirroring the power structure.
BILL MOYERS: You met Gregg Hartley, who's the Vice Chair of Cassidy.
KEN SILVERSTEIN: He —
BILL MOYERS: Tell me about him.
KEN SILVERSTEIN: He was the leader of the team. No doubt about it. I mean, he came in and he was definitely the group leader. He worked until a few years ago for Roy Blunt.
BILL MOYERS: Very powerful member of Congress.
KEN SILVERSTEIN: A very powerful member of Congress. He had worked for him for many years. And Hartley, you know, talked to me about how close his ties were with the Republican leadership. And, in fact, in that proposal they sent to me, after my meeting, they contacted me. They were so eager to do the work that they wanted to have another conference call. And then they said we'd like to send you a proposal. And I said —
BILL MOYERS: So, they were eager for the business?
KEN SILVERSTEIN: They were very eager for the business.
BILL MOYERS: They knew it was Turkmenistan?
KEN SILVERSTEIN: There is no question about it.
BILL MOYERS: They knew about Turkmenistan. Corrupt, repressive, but they were eager?
KEN SILVERSTEIN: They were very eager. Both of these firms were very eager. And if you look at their proposals, and if you look at the e-mails that they sent me after our meetings, where they kept saying, well, are you gonna hire us or not? We'd like to see you again. APCO Associates' Barry Schumacher said, "I'm coming to London. I'd like to meet you before you make a decision, and talk to you more about our firm." Cassidy contacted me and said, "we wanna send you this proposal." They were very eager to do the work. And I think anybody who looks at the e-mails and the proposals will not have any doubt about that.
BILL MOYERS: Cassidy & Associates boasted of their success in ending the U.S. embargo of Vietnam.
KEN SILVERSTEIN: Yeah. I mean, this — they gave me about eight, or nine, or ten case studies of some of their past achievements. With Vietnam, you know, for a long time obviously following the war, the relationship with Vietnam was very tense. There was no relationship to speak of for many years.
And in their materials to me, and in our meetings they talked about how they had successfully ended the embargo on Vietnam. They had put together a coalition of business groups that wanted to invest in Vietnam, and they were able to end the embargo. And they —
BILL MOYERS: Not a bad thing is it?
KEN SILVERSTEIN: You know — I mean, I'll leave that for others to decide. I mean, you know, whether we should have trade with Vietnam or not, I mean, that's a policy question. But what I did find interesting about it was that they talked about how there was opposition to this, but they were able to overcome the opposition. They said the families of MIAs and POWs didn't want this to happen, but they were able to muster a coalition that could get Congress to do what the business community wanted.
BILL MOYERS: They said we changed that policy, ended the embargo, and opened Vietnam up to U.S. economic exchange. A lot of people going to like that. I mean, business with Vietnam, a Communist country.
KEN SILVERSTEIN: Sure. I mean, you know, I — again, this is a policy decision. I mean, there are other instances of — for example, when I wanted to talk to Cassidy, another reason was Equatorial Guinea. I mean, this is one of their clients.
BILL MOYERS: African country.
KEN SILVERSTEIN: An African country that pays Cassidy & Associates about $2.4 million a year, they told me. Now this is one of the world's rat hole regimes. This is — again, this is getting pretty close to Turkmenistan level. The President has been in power since he executed his uncle. He's been caught exporting millions of dollars of revenue — generated by American oil companies. For — you know, he had like $500 million at Riggs Bank in Washington DC under his effective control. I first wrote about that when I was at The Los Angeles Times.
BILL MOYERS: I remember that.
KEN SILVERSTEIN: And the Senate investigation confirmed it.
BILL MOYERS: And Cassidy represents it?
KEN SILVERSTEIN: And Cassidy represents them.
BILL MOYERS: The government, or investors groups?
KEN SILVERSTEIN: No. In this case it's working directly for the government of Equatorial Guinea.
BILL MOYERS: Did you ask them about that?
KEN SILVERSTEIN: Yeah. I mean, they offered it. I mean, they were proud of it. They were — I mean, they saw it as a selling point — you know, look what we were able to do for Equatorial Guinea, they bragged.
BILL MOYERS: What did they do?
KEN SILVERSTEIN: Well, they told me that for years Equatorial Guinea had been on Parade Magazine's list of the ten worst governments in the world, the ten worst dictators. And Gregg Hartley told me this, and he actually grimaced as he said the word dictator. I think it pained him to acknowledge this. So, he said, "we got 'em off that list." And then I went home and checked Parade’s list, and I saw that, yeah, it's true. They were off the list. They were all the way down to number 11. So, it's not as if — you know, I mean, and this is image management.
BILL MOYERS: They moved them off the ten worst countries down to number 11 on that —
KEN SILVERSTEIN: Down to number 11. So no, I mean, there's no dispute that it is an absolutely awful, corrupt, thuggish government. And Cassidy has been able to win it a little favor in Washington. I mean, they were able to arrange a meeting between President Obiang and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
BILL MOYERS: I remember the photograph.
KEN SILVERSTEIN: Yeah. There was a picture of Obiang with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. And I can assure you that that picture was shown all over state media in Equatorial Guinea. There's nothing but state media, incidentally, in Equatorial Guinea. There is no free press.
BILL MOYERS: So, a visit by a dictator with members of Congress, or the President, or the Secretary of State gets big play at home? It's worth lots of money back there?
KEN SILVERSTEIN: It is worth a lot of money. It's legitimation. And that's the thing about this. These, you know, these lobbyists, I've talked to lobbyists before about this. And they'll say, well, every defendant is entitled to a lawyer in court. But they're not representing these people in court. They are representing them in the court of public opinion and the court of political opinion. And by representing them and trying to improve their image and to increase their — or improve their relationship with the United States, they're giving them legitimacy. They're strengthening their hold on power. They are empowering dictators. That's the problem with what they do.
BILL MOYERS: If they had taken you on as a client, what would it have cost you?
KEN SILVERSTEIN: Well, APCO said that it would cost me about $600,000 for the first year. Now, Cassidy said that it would cost me about — they said, you know, with Turkmenistan, there are no quick easy solutions. I mean, this is gonna require major PR effort.
BILL MOYERS: It's not exactly a model of democracy and human rights.
KEN SILVERSTEIN: No. You're not gonna turn the image around overnight. So they proposed a three-year deal, $1.2 million to $1.5 million per year. And then there'd be expenses there, too. And they even said and by the way, you know, if one of these — you know, they said that if one of these do-gooder groups, say, a human rights group targeted the government of Turkmenistan and maybe issued a report saying that, you know, there was no economic or political reform and the human rights situation remain terrible, it might actually cost us more money because then they'd require intensified spin control by the Cassidy people. So we were looking at at least $5 million over three years.
BILL MOYERS: As a potential client — we have to be honest here — you had to lie to these lobbyists.
KEN SILVERSTEIN: I understand that people will have questions about the undercover tactic. And I agree that it needs to be used sparingly. We felt in this case that it was an absolutely valid use of the undercover tactic. We felt there was a public interest at stake. We felt that these firms are able to really, you know, very easily get away with manipulating political and public opinion on behalf of these dictatorships and that the rules need to be tightened. So we thought it was important to make that political point. There's absolutely no way as well that we could have done this story by simply asking them questions. If you go ask them, oh, do you, you know, do you set up bogus third-party events that look to be independent but, in fact, are paid advertising for your clients? What? Are they gonna tell you about it? Oh, yeah, there's one scheduled next week? No. We could not have gotten the sort of information we got, we could not have shed the light on this story unless we did it in the way that we did it.
BILL MOYERS: I often remind myself that investigative journalism is not a collaboration between the journalist and the source.
KEN SILVERSTEIN: Exactly. I mean, there was no other way to do it. I mean, we could not simply — you know, we were not partners on this investigation. We did trick them. No doubt about it. That was the whole point of the story, though. And I will also say we did trick them. We didn't trick our readers. We were very transparent about what we did and how we did it. And if the readers feel that they're not comfortable with it, I guess they're free to dismiss the findings. But we were not — you know, we were completely upfront with the readers about how we did this story.
BILL MOYERS: The lobbyists have said that you represented yourself as representing an investor group, not the government. And if they had, you know, — that's a legitimate operation, to represent an investor group. If they had had more conversations with you, discovered you were talking about the government, they wouldn't have touched you.
KEN SILVERSTEIN: Well, that's preposterous. I mean APCO Associates and Cassidy both laid out plans for me that were completely focused on making the government of Turkmenistan look better and improving it's relationship with the United States. In fact, the proposal of the PowerPoint presentation that APCO showed me was a plan for Turkmenistan. They knew exactly who they were working for.
BILL MOYERS: You're no innocent. You've been around Washington a long time since you came back from covering Brazil for the Associated Press. Anything surprise you?
KEN SILVERSTEIN: I can't say that I was entirely shocked. I expect in some ways that the firms who we approached in particular, because we did pick specific firms to go to, to see if they'd take the bait, it didn't surprise me entirely that they were willing to work for a dictatorship. It surprised me a little that I, you know, we pushed it so far. I wouldn't even tell them the name of the man I worked for. No problem. So I was a little surprised that, you know, given how far we pushed it that neither of these firms decided, you know what? We better take a second look at this. And I really think that those firms were blinded by greed. I think if they had not viewed me as a big, glowing sack of money, and had stopped to think about, should we be doing this? And maybe we better check this out. They would have discovered that there was something wrong, and that they wouldn't have gotten in as deep as they did.
BILL MOYERS: I can hear the sighs of despair out there from people watching. Okay, it's an old story. I mean, we've lost our democracy. It — what's the bottom line here? What do people do?
KEN SILVERSTEIN: Well, that's why we wrote this story. And that's why we think this story serves the public interest and why it justifies the undercover technique that we used, which I do know is controversial. We think the rules need to be tightened up. We don't think these firms should have such an easy time making a mockery of the law. They don't — I'm not accusing them of breaking the law. But they certainly break the spirit of the law. They talked to me repeatedly about how the disclosure requirements are so weak that you don't have to worry about any undue publicity. Well, in the post-Abramoff climate, they said it might be difficult to arrange a trip to Turkmenistan by members of Congress, but we can probably swing it. APCO told me you know, I think there's a loophole in the law where we can use a Turkmen university to sponsor the trip. You wouldn't sponsor it directly 'cause that would raise questions. But we'll get a Turkmen university to front for the trip, and we'll be able to send a delegation over there. They didn't say, "we'll break the law." But it was clear to me from talking to them that the law was so weak and it was so easy for them to evade the spirit of the law that they could get away with this sort of stuff. So that's the point. Tighten the law.
BILL MOYERS: But if you're Congressman Silverstein instead of journalist Silverstein and you think that you may be leaving Congress voluntarily or involuntarily in 2008, are you gonna strengthen the law that will put a handcuff on how much you can do when you leave as a lobbyist?
KEN SILVERSTEIN: Well, that's a very good question. And I'd like to be able to say, yes, they should, they'll be willing to do this. I don't know. I mean, after the uproar over the Abramoff scandal and some of these other lobbying scandals of the past few years, Congress did feel compelled to take action. I don't think Congress acts unless it feels that it's just too embarrassing to do nothing. Now, as it turned out, the whole reform effort did sort of fizzle away precisely for the reasons you raised. Because Congress doesn't want to regulate itself. They don't want to limit their financial options. But if people get mad enough, and it's too embarrassing not to take action, then I think you get movement. They did pass some reforms in the aftermath of the Abramoff scandal. I don't think they went far enough.
BILL MOYERS: I hope a lot of people read your story in Harper’s and online at PBS.org. Ken Silverstein thank you very much.
KEN SILVERSTEIN: Thank you.