Feds accuse Brookings president Gen. Allen of illegally lobbying for Qatar
UPDATE: Brookings placed John Allen on administrative leave following reporting on the search warrant alleging “substantial evidence” that Allen broke foreign lobbying laws, made false statements to federal investigators and withheld “incriminating” documents, reports The Associated Press.
The current president of one of the biggest and most influential think tanks in Washington DC, the Brookings Institution, allegedly conducted illegal lobbying on behalf of Qatar, obstructed the investigation, provided a “false version of events” to federal agents, and utilized his Brookings email account to undertake his secret lobbying work at the height of an economic embargo against Qatar by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, according to federal investigators.
Retired four-star Marine general and former commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan John R. Allen’s role in the alleged illegal lobbying work was detailed in a search warrant, filed in April in Federal District Court in Central California, that was briefly made public late Tuesday.
The filing, which has since been removed from public view but was first reported on by the Associated Press on Tuesday night, claims that Allen participated in an undisclosed and illegal lobbying campaign for Qatar alongside former United States ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan Richard G. Olson and businessperson Imaad Zuberi.
Olson pleaded guilty to participating in the lobbying and violating a one year ban on engaging in such work after leaving the diplomatic corp. Zuberi is currently serving a prison sentence for violating foreign lobbying, campaign finance regulations, tax laws, and obstruction of justice.
There is no allegation that anyone at Brookings, other than Allen, was involved in the campaign. But his alleged use of Brookings’ resources to conduct his work for Qatar, tens of millions of dollars of funding flowing from Qatar to Brookings over 14 years — the funding relationship ended last year — and Allen’s role as a Brookings senior fellow when the alleged crimes were committed raises questions about Brookings’ lucrative relationship with Qatar and the ethical implications of maintaining close ties to a foreign government.
Brookings prominently prohibits the exact activities that its president is now accused of. “The Institution and its personnel, including its scholars, may not engage in activities that constitute lobbying; that require Brookings to register as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act; or that might otherwise call into question the independence and objectivity of the Institution’s research,” says the Brookings website.
The warrant alleges multiple instances of Allen utilizing his position — and discussing his role at Brookings — as well as the institution’s resources and events, to advance his illegal foreign lobbying work for Qatar.
In a June 8, 2017 email that federal investigators claim was withheld by Allen and Olson in response to grand jury subpoenas, Allen wrote to Olson and Zuberi:
I’m prepared to get on a plane tomorrow to travel to and from Doha over the weekend to have discussion with relevant parties there. It is not possible for me to turn a proposal before I get on a plane on FRI, as I have contractual/legal obligations with several companies, as well as Brookings, to submit any employment arrangements, beyond my current relationships with them, for their legal review. I have no reason to believe they shouldn’t ultimately concur with our arrangement, but it’s not possible to do this before tomorrow. What we can do is call and treat my visit to Doha over the weekend as “a speaking engagement”, which I’ve done before, for which I’d be compensated at my standard rate. Then we can work out the fuller arrangement of a longer term relationship over the weekend as I transition back and forth. I’d then take that proposal to my own attorney and the other companies. […] Please let me know with whom I should work on travel arrangements.”
Brookings did not respond to questions about whether Allen notified Brookings of his work, how much in total the Qatar government has contributed to Brookings, whether Qatar’s funding of Brookings played a factor in the institution’s decision to appoint Allen president, or whether Brookings is reviewing any ethical or legal implications of their funding from Qatar.
The filings allege:
According to documents produced to the government by Allen, shortly thereafter, during the lunch hour, Allen attended a Brookings-moderated forum that featured as a speaker H.R. McMaster, who was then the U.S. National Security Advisor. Allen later recounted in an email to McMaster and other officials on the National Security Council (“NSC”) a conversation in a holding room prior to the conference. There, Allen informed McMaster and others that he had “been close to the Qataris for a long time” and that he had the “trust” of their “key leaders.”
Investigators went on to claim, “The next morning, on June 9, Allen emailed McMaster and others at the NSC, using a Brookings email account, to convey Qatar’s perspective on the crisis and to make a request on behalf of that foreign government,” that the White House work to end the blockade.
Just months after this alleged Qatar lobbying campaign began in June 2017, the Brookings Institution announced in October 2017 that General Allen would become its next president. Allen had previously been the Chair for Security and Strategy in Brookings’ Foreign Policy program where, according to the warrant, Allen used his official Brookings email account on multiple occasions for Qatar related communications.
Brookings, for its part, appears to be cooperating with federal investigators seeking access to Allen’s Brookings email account and is providing access to email messages that Allen is accused of withholding.
“John Allen voluntarily cooperated with the government’s investigation into this matter,” Allen spokesperson Beau Phillips told Responsible Statecraft. “John Allen’s efforts with regard to Qatar in 2017 were to protect the interests of the United States and the military personnel stationed in Qatar. John Allen received no fee for his efforts.”
While Allen’s ties to Qatar remain allegations, Brookings’ ties to the oil-rich Gulf power are clear — Brookings has received tens-of-millions of dollars from the Qatari government.
Amongst think tanks, Brookings is one of the top recipients of foreign funding. And, no other country has given more to Brookings in recent years than Qatar. When Allen became Brookings president in 2017, for example, the think tank listed Qatar in the top tier of donors who provide “$2,000,000 and above.” Just how far “above” $2 million Qatar has donated to Brookings is unknown, but based on what has been publicly disclosed Qatar has given at least $10 million to the think tank since 2014. That year The New York Times revealed that Brookings had received a $14.8 million grant to fund a Brookings branch in Doha and a special project on U.S. relations with the Islamic world.
How or if that investment in a U.S. think tank has benefited Qatar remains an open question, but Saleem Ali, who served as a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar explained to the Times that during his job interview he was told he could not be critical of the Qatari government in his work. “If a member of Congress is using the Brookings reports, they should be aware — they are not getting the full story…They may not be getting a false story, but they are not getting the full story,” Ali explained.
Regardless of what, if any, impact Qatar’s funding had on Brookings, these allegations against its President will serve as a cautionary tale to DC think tanks that, collectively, receive tens-of- millions of dollars from foreign countries every year.
Brookings did not respond to multiple requests for comment. This article will be updated if it does.