DC think tank addresses undisclosed conflicts of interest
Washington-based think tanks have been notoriously slow to implement the same conflict of interest policies and disclosures commonly implemented by journalists, academics, and scientists. But a rush of retroactive disclosures of conflicts of interest in written materials published by Atlantic Council CEO and President Frederick Kempe, another Council staffer, and an un-bylined column published by the Council over the past week, raises questions about whether the Council and other think tanks are poised to more vigilantly disclose potential conflicts of interest between their funders and work products.
The Atlantic Council receives funding from foreign countries — including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Japan, and South Korea — and weapons manufacturers — including Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Boeing — which poses numerous potential conflicts of interest for a think tank that characterizes itself as “a nonpartisan organization that galvanizes US leadership and engagement in the world.”
Disclosing some of those conflicts of interest appeared to become an institutional priority for the Atlantic Council starting on January 16.
On January 14, Kempe published a column heaping praise on Abu Dhabi National Oil Company’s CEO Sultan Al Jaber who was appointed president-designate of the COP28 Climate Summit to be hosted by the UAE from November 30 to December 12. Al Jaber’s appointment was met with concern by climate activists, including ActionAid’s Teresa Anderson who told CNBC, “This appointment goes beyond putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.”
“Like last year’s summit, we’re increasingly seeing fossil fuel interests taking control of the process and shaping it to meet their own needs,” she added.
Kempe pushed back on Anderson’s criticisms in his column on the 14th, writing, “What that overlooks is that Al Jaber’s rich background in both renewables and fossil fuels makes him an ideal choice at a time when efforts to address climate change have been far too slow, lacking the inclusivity to produce more transformative results.”
Two days later, the Council updated his article with an editor’s note at the top that read, “This article was updated on January 16 to reflect the fact that the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and Masdar, where Sultan Al Jaber serves as CEO and chairman, respectively, are sponsors of the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Forum.”
Also on the 16th, an article by Council Deputy Managing Editor Daniel Malloy highlighting remarks made by Al Juber at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Forum, received a similar update two days after its January 14 publication date. “This article was updated on January 16 to reflect the fact that the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, where Sultan Al Jaber serves as CEO, is a sponsor of the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Forum,” said the update.
Yet another article on the Council’s Global Energy Forum published on January 14, this one without a byline, was updated on January 18 with 10 editor’s notes retroactively disclosing to readers that numerous panel participants were also sponsors of the event.
While the three updates on the Council’s website were relatively short and simply provided the relevant information that had been withheld from readers, a January 14 column by Kempe on CNBC.com titled, “Making the case for oil CEO Sultan Al Jaber to lead the UN Climate conference this year,” received a far harsher correction by CNBC after the network became aware of financial conflicts between Kempe and the recipient of his praise.
A January 17th update said:
Editor’s note: This article and headline were updated to reflect the fact that the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and Masdar are major sponsors of the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Forum. Sultan Al Jaber is CEO of ADNOC and chairman of renewable energy investing firm Masdar. The financial relationship between the companies and Atlantic Council as well as the obvious conflict of interest were not disclosed to CNBC prior to publication of this column and does not meet our standards of transparency.
When reached for comment, the Council’s director of strategic communications, Richard Davidson, told Responsible Statecraft:
We’ve been transparent about our donors on our website, annual report and in Global Energy Forum collateral and signage at the event. No effort to conceal — the opposite.
Along with our rigorous intellectual independence and editorial standards, our financial transparency has been consistently recognized with the industry’s highest four-star-rating in Charity Navigator. Like everyone, we make mistakes, and when we do we correct them.
Transparency into funding, however, is not a requirement for a four-star rating on Charity Navigator. Many nonprofits achieve four-star ratings on Charity Navigator while revealing no information about their donors. For example, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research reveal no donor information to the public but hold four star ratings.
The Atlantic Council, for its part, is less than completely transparent about its sources of funding. The think tank’s 2021 “honor roll of contributors” list three “anonymous” $250,000-$499,999 contributions, two “anonymous” $50,000-$99,999 contributions, one “anonymous” $10,000-$24,999 contribution, one “anonymous” $5,000-$9,999 contribution, and two “anonymous” contributions less than $1,000.