WASHINGTON—The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and significant political capital trying to kill a brand-new law that would allow 9/11 survivors to sue the longstanding U.S. ally for its alleged connections to the terror attacks in domestic court. But the latest Saudi tactic—recruiting unaware American veterans to lobby their cause on Capitol Hill—crosses a line and may have run afoul of the law, say critics who have helped to expose the scheme in recent months.
“Lobbying by a foreign government is not necessarily illegal, but it is unethical and underhanded to use our nation’s heroes, our combat veterans, and turn them against the very families that you take an oath to protect,” charged Edward Vento, a Persian Gulf vet from Reno, Nev., who said he was asked “by a friend of a friend” to join a lobbying trip to Washington this winter. He declined.
According to records kept under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), multiple U.S. lobbying firms and individuals have disclosed contracts with the Saudi government to recruit veterans to spread the message on the Hill about the 2016 Justice Against State Sponsored Terrorism Act (JASTA) and its “unintended consequences,” including “potential liabilities arising for U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic personnel.”
Veterans contacted by TAC—even those who went on the fully paid trips to DC involving free hotel rooms (many at the now-legendary Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue), meals, and nights out on the town—say recruits in many cases were misinformed about what JASTA really does, and furthermore, not told at all that Saudi Arabia, the country that would currently have the most to lose if JASTA remains intact, was behind it all.
“I was blatantly lied to,” said Lorraine Barlett, a retired Army JAG officer, who said she was told “several entities” were paying for the trips she took. Barlett said the events were billed as “come support your local service members” in a notice passed along by a friend who was recruiting veterans in Augusta, Ga. She was not told Saudi Arabia was footing most if not all of the bills.
Dave Casler, an Iraq War vet from Sacramento, Calif., said something felt a bit off, but he went on a February trip anyway to “see what I could find out.” He called the experience “bat-shit crazy” with seemingly limitless funds for elaborate dinners and free booze. He told TAC the organizer of his trip, Jason Johns, told participants, unsolicited, that “this was not at all funded by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” Later, Casler recalled another coordinator, clearly intoxicated after a night of indulging, bragging that “the Kingdom” was behind it all.
Casler and others felt they were kept in the dark the whole time. “It’s multiple veterans on multiple trips who have said, ‘I wasn’t told the truth about who was paying for this,’” he said. “People don’t like being lied to or being used.” So far reporters have pieced together six or seven trips with 25–50 vets each.
9/11 Victims’ Families and Survivors United for Justice Against Terrorism—the main group pushing for JASTA legislation in hope of getting their day in court against Saudi Arabia—has formally asked the Department of Justice to investigate violations of FARA. The law, which monitors foreign lobbying, requires that American agents working on behalf of “foreign principles,” disclose all monies, missions, and materials associated with their work. The group claims there might have been hundreds of people lobbying on behalf of the Saudi Royal Family or government, including the volunteer veterans, who should have reported their activities. They said any materials given to volunteers or left with members of Congress did not disclose who paid for them. In short, they cite some 10 violations of U.S. code.
“They are going into these offices in Congress and none of them tell members of Congress that they are working on behalf of the Kingdom,” said Terry Strada, who heads the 9/11 Families organization and the Pass JASTA campaign. Her husband Thomas was a senior bond trader at Cantor Fitzgerald when he perished in the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers, leaving behind three children then aged 7, 4, and four days old.
“They had high-ranking, older vets, young vets, purple heart vets—all were misled. It’s one of the most disgusting things I’ve witnessed since 9/11.”
The complaint, sent to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, was dated March 29. When reached by TAC, the Department of Justice press office declined comment.
Meanwhile, the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington did not return a request for comment on this story. One of the Washington-based organizers for the trips, Scott Wheeler, whose FARA disclosure says his Capitol Media Group received some $365,000 from the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia to organize three veterans’ trips at a base fee of $30,000 each plus expenses to lobby against JASTA, spoke with TAC about the allegations by the 9/11 families and others.
“All of this is being turned into something that it is not,” he said. “We gave the material to the veterans to look at and they made their own determination. We did not tell them what to say. No one was misled. This is not a story.”
Wheeler, who is a veteran and longtime Republican media operative and journalist, said he never took the funds directly by the Saudi embassy, but via a Washington firm that recruited him. That firm, Qorvis MSLGroup, is one of over a dozen U.S. lobbying outfits currently on the Saudi payroll to the tune of $1.3 million a month, ostensibly to kill JASTA or at the very least render it harmless to the Kingdom. In 2004, according to reports at the time, the FBI raided Qorvis’s offices during an investigation of its lobbying campaign for Saudi Arabia, which was trying to burnish its image after 9/11.
Qorvis did not return a request for comment on this story. A spokesman for the firm told the Daily Caller, which broke the first story about this issue on February 7, that everything they were doing with the vets was “totally out in the open. This is totally transparent.” In a follow-up story on the DOJ complaint, Qorvis managing director Mike Petruzzello told Yahoo! News reporter Mike Isikoff that the veterans’ complaints that they did not know about Saudi Arabia’s backing of the project “rings hollow to me.”
Retired Air Force Col. George Risse of O’Fallon, Ill., told TAC that he was informed ahead of time that Saudi Arabia was footing the bill. The information led him to do more research on JASTA before he went to DC.
“My only concern was whether they were going to tell me what to say and they said absolutely not,” Risse said of his contacts. He ultimately went on a trip with Johns, a Purple Heart veteran and head of the No Man Left Behind Advocacy Group. Johns received a $100,000 fee from Qorvis to engage in outreach to the media, elected officials, and “influencers” against JASTA. (His memo to vets ahead of the February trip is here.)
“My experience has been they were very up front,” Risse said. “None of our allies thinks JASTA is a good idea.” Like others, he believes the trial lawyers are the only ones benefitting from it. As for Saudi Arabia being behind the trip, “I don’t consider that a problem as long as our interests are aligned.”
Do Saudis and Vets Have the Same Interests?
The Kingdom has been dogged by at least 9,000 lawsuits since 9/11 because survivors like Strada believe they can prove that elements of the government provided material support to the hijackers—15 out of 19 were Saudi—and that the state for years funded the spread the extremist ideology fueling al-Qaeda. While the U.S. government has held that there is “no smoking gun,” lawyers for the survivors believe they have identified enough evidence to let this play out in court, and the Saudis have done everything to avoid that day of reckoning.
In other words, say critics, this anti-JASTA campaign has nothing to do with troops, and everything to do with saving Saudi skins. “There are many layers of deception here, starting with giving veterans a false description of what JASTA is,” said Brian McGlinchey, who publishes the 28Pages.org website, which plumbed FARA records showing the big money trail from the Saudis to dozens of Americans working on their behalf. He has also reached out to veterans via social media to get their stories. “That U.S. veterans could be sued and hauled into foreign courts because of JASTA is just false on the face of it.”
According to Vento, the Reno veteran who declined to participate, recruiters have been setting up shop at trade shows and other events popular with veterans across the country in states as far flung from DC as Nevada, Oklahoma, and Colorado. The pitch is simple: Help your fellow service members. In one photo snapped of a booth at a trade show a banner declares, “Protect our troops from JASTA backlash.” Recruits were told that JASTA could result in service members being sued for war crimes. Leaders tell them the bill is a creature of trial lawyers looking to cash in—that it’s about money, not justice.
“You can see what they are doing—trying to turn [veterans] against the 9/11 families. You’re taking victims of terror and what is perceived as the nation’s heroes, and turning them against each other,” said Vento.
While JASTA passed both the House and Senate last year with large, bipartisan majorities, critics—even those who voted for it—worry the principle of state sovereign immunity is now at risk. JASTA now makes it easier for terrorism-related civil suits against foreign states in domestic courts whether or not they are not on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, which Saudi Arabia is not.
Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain, as well as a slew of skeptics from both sides of the aisle, warned of a backlash from other countries that could pass their own laws allowing them to drag the U.S. into court over perceived crimes. Barlett, the former Army lawyer, believes it is “a poorly written law” that could result in “a wing ding” of legislation by other countries in the future, “but there was no merit to the argument that it could hurt military servicemembers”—and she told that to Wheeler, the chief organizer of her two trips. She said the group continued to mislead the other veterans about the impact of the bill, which Wheeler strongly denies.
Barlett also charges that when she asked who was funding the trip, Wheeler would not give her a straight answer. She only found out the truth when the stories broke out in the news.
She said she is “embarrassed” for trusting her friend and going along. “Had I been told on the front end I would have never gone.”
Meanwhile, Tim Cord, speaking with McGlinchey for 28Pages.org, said his entire outlook changed when he was told about the Saudis. To him, their interests are not aligned.
“I’m sitting in the Trump hotel having the time of my life, and I get to the realization that, goddamn, I owe them now, and that is not a cool feeling to have. Not the Saudis, dude,” Tim Cord told McGlinchey.
A heated conversation has since ensued on Facebook, with veterans angered by the campaign arguing with those who felt their time in Washington was well spent—no matter who was paying.
“All efforts were made to be sure that the veterans knew up front that Saudi Arabia was funding the trips,” insisted Johns, a Purple Heart veteran who says he was never paid directly by the Saudis. He even disputes Casler’s recollection of events. “It is not true that I made any such unsolicited announcement about Saudi Arabia not funding the trip.”
He said his own concerns that JASTA would be harmful to the U.S. military led to his involvement in the campaign, and he doesn’t trust that bigger interests on the other side aren’t fueling these attacks on him and other vets involved. “I see trial lawyers in this.”
“Make no mistake, this has been and is all about the MONEY,” Johns wrote in an email, questioning why it’s “somehow scandalous and shady for an an ally, who has never been found culpable in the 9/11 attacks (is all conspiracy based allegations and scenarios) to facilitate honorable veterans speaking to Congress simply because our interests align?”
Vento says if it is a choice of between defending the 9/11 families or the Saudi Kingdom, the choice is clear. “I stand on the side of the 9/11 families. Period.”
Kelley Vlahos is a freelance reporter in Washington.