Retired general’s pro-Saudi op-eds didn’t disclose financial incentives
Over four years, Ret. Air Force General Charles “Chuck” Wald published a series of op-eds with Reuters, NBC News, The Hill, and Newsweek in which he promoted weapons sales, U.S. security guarantees, and closer military cooperation with Saudi Arabia while simultaneously working as a security consultant for the kingdom’s defense ministry.
Readers were kept in the dark about this potential conflict of interest.
Over 500 retired U.S. military personnel, many of them, like Wald, high-ranking officers, were approved by the State Department to conduct work for foreign governments, according to recently released records obtained as a result of Freedom of Information Act lawsuits by The Washington Post and the Project on Government Oversight, or POGO.
Saudi Arabia, the focus of the Post’s reporting on 15 retired U.S. generals and admirals working as contractors for the kingdom’s defense ministry since 2016, reveals a stark example of how mainstream media outlets provide a platform for foreign policy hawks without disclosing their potential conflicts of interest when publishing op-eds whose arguments appear to benefit their foreign clients.
The State Department approved Wald to work as an independent security consultant for Ironhand Security, LLC, in Saudi Arabia from March 2017 to September 2021.
The Post reported on October 18th that:
Wald, 74, spent 35 years in the Air Force, including as deputy commander of U.S. forces in Europe and as a forward air controller and F-16 pilot who flew in combat in Vietnam and Bosnia. He headed Jones Group International’s business in the Middle East until last year. In an interview, he said he felt it was important to help the Saudis improve their military so the United States didn’t have to act as their primary protector. “It’s time for the U.S. not to be doing all the defense of the Middle East,” he said.
In its account POGO also noted that:
Within months of receiving approval to work for Ironhand, Wald regularly published op-eds for various media outlets such as Politico, The Hill, and The Wall Street Journal, opining on U.S. policy in the Middle East. It is unclear if Ironhand paid Wald, how much he was compensated, or whether he disclosed the Saudi Arabian business relationship to media outlets seeking his opinion on U.S. foreign policy, though a review of his publications seems to suggest Wald was not forthcoming to his readership about this professional relationship. POGO contacted The Wall Street Journal, Politico, and The Hill to ask if these outlets were aware of Wald’s foreign ties, but none replied prior to our publication deadline.
As reviewed by Responsible Statecraft, columns by Wald published by Reuters, NBC News, The Hill, Breaking Defense, and Newsweek appear to pose even more serious ethical issues as he explicitly promoted closer military cooperation and coordination with Saudi Arabia without disclosing his contract work with the kingdom’s defense ministry.
On November 1, 2017, for example, eight months after receiving authorization from the State Department to consult for the ministry, Wald co-authored an op-ed in Reuters with former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelman, which argued that :
…Washington must take the lead in assembling a coherent regional coalition against Iran. This will require more concerted cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to develop robust missile defenses against Iran’s region-wide proliferation of advanced missiles.
A spokesperson for Reuters said that the company stopped publishing opinion pieces in 2018 but it “routinely asked columnists to disclose any conflicts of interest.” The spokesperson added that they have “found no records” for Wald and “no longer have anyone with first-hand knowledge of this at Reuters.”
Wald quickly repeated his calls for missile defense cooperation with Saudi Arabia in a December 6, 2017 oped, co-authored with Edelman and the president of the ultra-hawkish Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, Michael Makovsky in Breaking Defense:
In tandem, the United States should cooperate deeply with Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to interdict Iranian efforts to transfer weapons to Syria and its proxies, as well as build military bases and missile production facilities in Syria. This allied effort should involve integrating missile defense capabilities to counter the rising missile threat from Syria.
And again, in a September 19, 2018 op-ed co-authored with Edelman in The Hill:
The United States, Saudi Arabia and U.A.E. should also pursue integrated missile defense and shared early warning systems, including joint command and control centers, and Washington should articulate explicit military backing for Saudi Arabia and U.A.E. against direct Iranian attack.
Following the October 2018 murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul of Jamal Khashoggi by an assassination squad believed by the CIA to have acted at the behest of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, Wald and Makovsky took to the pages of Newsweek to argue that public and congressional outrage at the murder of the Post columnist risked obscuring the more seroius threat posed by Iran:
Iran’s recent nuclear-capable ballistic missile test exploded three myths popular in Washington: that missile development was forbidden by the 2015 Iran nuclear deal; that Saudi Arabia’s reckless and heinous killing of Jamal Khashoggi represents the most pressing regional threat to the United States; and that U.S. sanctions are addressing Iran’s growing missile threat. The United States should offer a more robust approach to addressing that threat, including developing a regional missile defense capability for our Middle Eastern partners.
And the following year, when Saudi Arabia and the UAE initiated a blockade of neighboring Qatar, Wald offered this advice in an op-ed published by NBC News:
In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt all cut formal relations with Qatar because they recognized that their Gulf neighbor must make the choice that I am urging the U.S. to make as well.” He went on to urge Washington to consider moving U.S. forces based at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar to “other regional partners such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE or even Jordan.
Wald’s hawkish, pro-Saudi views on the U.S. role in the Middle East pre-date the op-eds published during the period when he was working as a contractor for the Saudi military. As early as 2009, Wald published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal urging the U.S. military to attack nuclear facilities in Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional arch-rival.
But the failure by a former top U.S. military officer or by a publication that publishes his opinions about issues of direct interest to the Saudi defense ministry to disclose his relationship as a paid contractor to that ministry would appear to constitute a significant ethical breach and a serious conflict of interest, particularly when the views expressed by the officer are largely consistent with the ministry’s views.
Aside from Reuters, none of the other publications responded to questions about whether Wald had disclosed his work for Saudi Arabia to editors. Wald did not respond to a request for comment submitted to the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs where he serves as a Distinguished Fellow and Senior Advisor.