by Eli Clifton
United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), a group that actively opposed the Iran deal, and the Counter Extremism Project (CEP), which shares staff with UANI and was “formed to combat the growing threat from extremist ideologies,” are no strangers to controversy about their funding.
Emails allegedly originating from the hacked email account of United Arab Emirates Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef Al-Otaiba and sent to LobeLog by “GlobalLeaks” appear to show a close relationship between UANI and CEP principals and the UAE government, raising questions about possible UAE funding of the U.S. based groups, both of which engaged in lobbying and public diplomacy campaigns.
UANI is led by former Sen. Joseph Lieberman and by George W. Bush administration diplomat Mark Wallace (who also leads CEP along with former U.S. Homeland Security Advisor Frances Townsend). UANI, is largely funded by precious metal speculator Thomas Kaplan, who links a number of his investments to instability in the Middle East. The Justice Department named Kaplan’s investment firm, the Electrum Group, as receiving $150 million in laundered funds from Malaysia’s economic development fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a fraud that the Wall Street Journal reports may have also benefited Otaiba and his business partners. (The Journal also based its reporting on emails provided to them by GlobalLeaks.)
The emails provided to LobeLog originated from a Russia-based email account. However, it’s unclear if the hackers or the operator of the email account are based in Russia or are simply trying to disguise their country of origin. The emails were selectively curated, and most emails are provided as standalone fragments of longer email chains that were not included in the cache provided to LobeLog.
The emails appear to show a close relationship among Otaiba, UAE lobbyists, a Saudi lobbyist, and staff at CEP and UANI, activities that would fit with UAE’s reputation as a generous funder of think tanks and employer of lobbyists in Washington. In the past year, the UAE funded think tanks, including the Center for American Progress (full disclosure: I was an employee of the Center for American Progress from 2011 to 2012) and the Center for a New American Security, both of whom published reports favorable to the UAE and the Sunni Gulf states with a particular focus on containing Iran.
An email from Wallace to Otaiba from September 3, 2014, contains a cryptic reference from Wallace regarding “cost estimates” for an upcoming “forum,” suggesting an existing or upcoming financial relationship between Otaiba and Wallace’s event. It’s unclear whether Wallace is referring to a UANI event or CEP’s upcoming launch later that month. Wallace writes:
Forum concept. Was asked for an [sic] included very aggressive meaning high cost estimates and we included that. Believe that this will be self-funding in short order with donors and attendees that we would attract.. Thanks and look forward to actually meeting.
Wallace wrote back again two days later, providing Otaiba with CEP “polling data from May/June in US and Europe and updated US polling just completed now.” Wallace concludes, “Please keep these updates confidential and thank you.”
No attachments were provided to LobeLog, so it is difficult to determine what data was allegedly shared in both emails.
In an email allegedly sent on January 8, 2015, Townsend appears to solicit Otaiba’s assistance in arranging a meeting in Abu Dhabi with “MBZ” (presumably the initials for Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi). Townsend concludes her email, writing:
And many thanks for your and Richard Mintz’ ongoing support of the CEP effort! Given the tragedy in Paris this effort becomes more urgent everyday!
Richard Mintz is managing director of the Harbour Group who, according to his bio, “has advised the Government of the United Arab Emirates for the past seven years.”
Mintz wasn’t the only Gulf lobbyist appearing to be facilitating support for CEP.
Saudi Arabia lobbyist former Senator Norm Coleman appears to have written a message to Otaiba on August 8, 2016 specifying CEP’s tax status on behalf of Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir.
Foreign Minister Al Jubeir recommended that I follow up with you on the attached matter. The Counter Extremism Project is a 501c4. Let me know if you have any questions.
UANI and the CEP have regularly aligned themselves with the anti-Iran and anti-Qatar positions held by the UAE and Otaiba. Following the UAE and Saudi led blockade of Qatar in early June, the CEP urged businesses to avoid doing business with Qatar and echoed Saudi and UAE accusations about Qatar’s ties to terrorism.
“Qatar has a long history of providing support for extremism and terrorism, including but not limited to vast financial and material support to internationally designated terrorist groups and willing accommodation of internationally designated or wanted terrorist leaders and financiers,” Counter Extremism Project CEO Mark Wallace wrote in his letter send to 11 companies and published by Politico on July 3.
CEP’s eagerness to target major companies in what appears to be a campaign to further isolate Qatar stands in stark contrast to the U.S. government calls for an end to the dispute.
Wallace’s accusations are even more noticeable in light of claims by U.S. intelligence officials that the UAE hacked Qatari government news and social media sites to distribute fabricated incendiary quotes attributed to Qatar’s emir in May and the publication on Tuesday of an alleged secret State Department memo (also originating from GlobalLeaks hack of Otaiba’s email account) detailing how the UAE assisted North Korea’s missile program.
If the UAE provided funding to UANI and/or the CEP, additional legal questions could be raised about the groups’ decisions not to disclose the transactions under the Foreign Agent Registration Act. FARA requires “every agent of a foreign principal, not otherwise exempt, to register with the Department of Justice and file forms outlining its agreements with, income from, and expenditures on behalf of the foreign principal,” according to the Justice Department.
UANI also received $500,000 from Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson in 2013. A US government-backed veil of secrecy has obscured a more comprehensive look at UANI’s funding. The group’s donor rolls were among the documents a plaintiff was seeking in a defamation case against UANI until the Justice Department quashed the suit with an invocation of state secrets in 2015.
CEP was also under scrutiny for its funding after Twitter declined to participate in the group’s 2015 conference focused on deterring young people from extremist ideology on the Internet.
A Twitter spokesman told BuzzFeed News that Twitter declined to work with the group when it reached out to the company last year because of concerns over its “undisclosed funding.” Twitter was invited by the State Department to the event on Monday and declined to participate, again due to questions about the CEP’s funding, the spokesman said.
Asked about Twitter’s reasoning in an interview with BuzzFeed News, Wallace said it was “irresponsible” for Twitter to suggest that CEP should disclose its donors. Their being public, he argued, could put them at risk of being threatened. Fran Townsend, for example, has received death threats from ISIS-boosting Twitter accounts, he said. “We keep our donors confidential for security reasons.”
UANI, CEP, Townsend, the UAE Embassy in Washington, and Coleman did not respond to written requests for comments about the email exchanges.