In early spring 2011 it seemed as though Bahrain was going to blow. The Shia minority, ruled for two centuries by the Sunni Al Khalifa royal family, much like the House of Saud in neighboring Saudi Arabia — had heeded the call of the Arab Spring and was literally risking life and limb in the streets to demand social and economic reforms.
The largely peaceful February protests were tolerated at first, but then government security forces engaged in what has been widely described by journalists, health workers and human rights groups alike as a brutal crackdown — shooting, jailing and torturing protesters, raiding and spraying gunfire into Shia neighborhoods at night, “disappearing” countless numbers of activists and even doctors who dared to tend to the wounded. Saudi troops were called in to do the dirty work, and, as reports mounted that tear gas canisters used to suppress crowds in both Egypt and Bahrain were made in America by Combined Systems, Inc., U.S. leaders were conspicuously muted in their criticism, if not awkwardly supportive of the loyal royals. In fact, Adm. Mike Mullen, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was effusive when he reaffirmed U.S. support for the crown prince during a visit shortly after security forces were accused of killing protesters in the Pearl Roundabout, Bahrain’s “Tahrir Square,” in February 2011.
A year later, promises of dialogue were marred by reports of continued violence and the systematic arrest of people within Bahrain’s active Shiite communities, including eight popular organizers who were sentenced to life in prison (this week, protests broke out again when a Bahraini civilian court upheld the jail terms). While news coverage resumed briefly for protests surrounding the international Bahrain Grand Prix Formula One race this April, media attention has long turned elsewhere, even though on a gut level it never felt quite right that America — so driven by the spirit of revolution and the struggle for “democracy” — seemed to be picking and choosing which people-powered transformations warranted our backing: Libya? Right on! Bahrain? Not so much.
On the surface, it would appear that a cynical element of the fabled “smart power” was at work: the royal family is one of our strongest Arab allies, they harbor the U.S Navy’s Fifth Fleet, they assist us in our wars and act, along with Saudi Arabia, as a strategic bulwark against Shia regimes we consider a threat in the Middle East — Iran and Syria especially. Calling them out might have been “too dumb,” at least geo-strategically.
But there’s much more to this than Cold War chess. Let’s just say Don Draper has had as much to do with “maintaining Bahrain” as any cold Foggy Bottom diplomat or calculating White House policy counsel.
This was the interesting nugget that came out of Glenn Greenwald’s piece on CNN investigative correspondent Amber Lyon, who found herself out of a job and wondering why her extraordinary efforts at capturing the on-the-ground intensity of the 2011 protest movement in this riveting documentary segment weres left by the network in a corporate office dustbin (here is Greenwald’s thorough account). He notes that the Bahraini royal family has spent $32 million dollars on a Western public relations and lobbying campaign to whitewash the reported brutality — which at times included the widespread burning of Shiite mosques and the raiding of girls’ schools — to keep the world’s scrutiny of the protests at bay, while also pressuring media outlets like CNN to cover the stories a certain way. While London firms enjoyed most of the lucrative work, Washington’s K Street and at least one Madison Avenue house (Hill & Knowlton Strategies), shared nearly $2 million in contracts — most of the them ongoing, by the way, to lobby on Capitol Hill on behalf of the monarchy and to burnish the kingdom’s image (full list of U.S firms with Bahraini contracts can be found here at Bahrain Watch).
Among the most active on the list are contracts connected to Democratic mastermind Joe Trippi, whom many of us have seen on Fox News offering color commentary on the party conventions across from Karl Rove.
According to Bahrain Watch and the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) search engine, Trippi’s firm was hired in 2011 under two agreements, both with the kingdom’s Informational Affairs Authority. One was “to provide strategic counsel and advice for their outreach efforts to US media and non-governmental organizations,” the other was to “provide advice and counsel on ongoing social and political reform measures and implementation of the recommendations made by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry.” That BICI implementation, by the way, has been largely criticized as a farce by human rights groups. The revenues to Trippi: $93,000. His firm also profited from a reputation-polishing contract for the kingdom subcontracted to Sanitas International. The price tag for that work: $194,694.
Qorvis Communications came away as the biggest winner in the monarchy’s PR sweepstakes, signing a contract for $40,000 a month in April 2011 to “provide press and public relations services.” A longtime retinue of the Saudi government, Qorvis, run by a former State Department official, not only blasted out press releases justifying things like the July 2011 raid on Doctors without Borders, but also developed pro-government websites, held briefings with journalists, government officials and think-tankers on Capitol Hill, and even penned op-eds, to promote what is essentially, pro-monarchy propaganda. Qorvis, and the others, are simply mercenaries, though they must see themselves as the Sultans of Spin.
This isn’t new of course. In this case, Bahrain is paying our media mercenaries to keep the U.S and other Western nations from getting involved in their human rights crisis, while in April 2011, Libyan rebels brought on the U.S-based Harbor Group to generate support for a U.S intervention against dictator Moammar Gadhafi. The firm worked “pro bono” because it said it was “the right thing to do.” Well, all we can say is, it worked.
Not all stories follow the same music but they carry a similar tune, indicating that ambitious information hucksters and influence peddlers play no small role in America’s meddling in the rest of the world. For the right price, a flack in Washington can sway an election in the Ukraine, or push us towards war in Iraq. Twice. They are connected politically, and continue to work on political campaigns when they are not propping up greasy leaders overseas. This assures steady access on Capitol Hill with which to win over new clients in the future.
I wrote about this phenomenon for TAC in October 2008 on the eve of the last election. I focused on Charlie Black, a legendary GOP operator who was then serving as John McCain’s top policy adviser. He now serves as one of Mitt Romney’s advisers. Back in the day, Black’s PR firm, Black, Kelly, Scruggs & Healey (BKSH), represented some truly shady characters across the globe. One of the more recent was Ahmad Chalabi, who along with BKSH, won the hearts and minds of our political elite, leading ultimately to the 2003 pre-emptive strike on Baghdad (years before, the aforementioned Hill & Knowlton helped spread the story about Iraqi soldiers yanking babies out of incubators, ginning up support for the first Gulf War).
Previous clients of Black’s include U.S.-backed kleptocrats such as Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire, brutal military rulers like Siad Barre in Somalia, and Jonas Savimbi, the guerilla leader who for years laid Angola with land mines, crippling a generation of Africa’s children. The pitch must be that if Black could make these guys human, then he can make any Republican presidential candidate palatable in the minds of American voters.
Democrats have their sellswords, too. Strategist Mark Penn has worked for the former Suharto regime in Indonesia and joins a long list of both Democratic and Republicans who have worked for years to whitewash and lobby on behalf of the repressive Saudi government. More recently, Democratic strategist Mark Penn helped advise former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko. Republican strategist Paul Manafort — a close colleague of Black — worked with current President Viktor Yanukovych. The firm founded by David Axelrod, president Obama’s longtime aide and campaign strategist, has partnered with former Ukranian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Didn’t know we had so much interest in the Ukraine?
Amber Lyon certainly couldn’t figure out why CNN had so much interest in keeping some of her critical Bahrain reporting off the air.
Greenwald has some ideas. In addition to the PR machine protecting the kingdom, Greenwald exposes many of the “sponsorship” deals and business partnerships between CNN International and the the Gulf states — including Bahrain — in a detailed follow-up report in The Guardian this week. This relationship, Greenwald contends, pretty much obliterates the line between advertising and news on the network and creates a vested interest for CNNi to ensure the government of Bahrain is kept in the best light. Greenwald:
At the same time as CNN was covering the regime, Bahrain was an aggressive participant in CNN’s various “sponsorship” opportunities, with official agencies of the regime often boasting of how their extensive involvement with CNN was improving the nation’s image around the world. Beyond that, there are multiple examples of CNN International producing plainly propagandistic coverage of the regime, often without any minimal disclosure of the vested interests of its sources.
CNNi has denied that any of this colored their coverage of the Bahrian protests. It has issued a detailed point-for-point response to both of Greenwald’s pieces, emphasizing that much of Lyon’s other reporting in Bahrain has been broadcast widely and often, and that as a whole, the network has not “pulled its punches” in reporting the uprising, at all.
But the fact remains that the documentary “iRevolution” which included Lyon’s segment, was aired only once on domestic CNN and never on CNN International. CNN says it was never intended to air worldwide. Nevertheless, according to Greenwald’s sources, there a were a lot of complaints from the kingdom’s “press officers” about Lyon’s segment.
What do you want to bet they were delivered in perfect English? We may never know the entire story, but there is reason to believe now that K Street and Madison Avenue are more than just bit players in this Gulf State drama.