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How Mideast Autocrats Win Friends And Influence People In Washington

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BAHRAIN RIOTS
AP

NEW YORK -- Shortly after 20 Shiite opposition leaders, including clerics and human rights activists, were arrested on the eve of elections in Bahrain last September, U.S. State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley was asked about the situation, including allegations of police torture, "given the close relations between Bahrain and the United States."

Crowley responded, "We are in touch with Bahraini authorities and have expressed our concern. At the same time, we have confidence as Bahrain evolves that you don't have to make a choice between security and democracy, and that this is the message that we're sending to the government."

When asked whether the State Department believes Bahraini government claims that those opposition figures were plotting a coup against the royal family, Crowley dismissed the allegation, saying, "I don't know that we're aware of any information along those lines..."

Bahrain's state media covered the same press briefing with a slightly altered response from Crowley. Their headline read, "America: Bahrain evolves in security and democracy," with an accompanying story reporting the "spokesman stressed that the United States has confidence that Bahrain is evolving in the fields of development, security and democracy."

Control of the state media is not the only way the oil-rich island kingdom polishes its reputation. A month before the arrests, one of Washington's most powerful lobbying firms began working for Bahrain.

Qorvis, a lobbying and public relations giant with a roster of high-profile clients from Intel and the Washington Post to Saudi Arabia and Equatorial Guinea, began work under a subcontract with Britain's Bell Pottinger. Among its goals: to position Bahrain as a key ally in the war on terror and as an advocate for peace in the Middle East. As part of its work, Qorvis pitched major media outlets, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times, reports O'Dwyer's PR Daily.

One Qorvis staffers working on the account, former State Department Official Matt Lauer, was recently named one of Washington's most influential people under 40.

Lauer did not return several requests for comment. It is unclear what advice Qorvis is offering the government amid Bahrain's current unrest, in which government soldiers have fired live rounds on thousands of protesters and at least six people have been killed and hundreds injured.

One of America's strongest allies in the Middle East, Bahrain houses the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet. The country holds parliamentary elections and women have the right to vote, despite its status as an absolute monarchy.

Qorvis is one of several high-powered lobbyists that have helped the region's autocrats and monarchs win business and smooth relations with the U.S. Patton Boggs, which recently made headlines when President Obama sent of its lawyers, Frank Wisner, to negotiate with Egypt's recently-ousted former president Hosni Mubarak, has long worked with Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Previously, Patton Boggs represented Bahrain, a move that outraged the country's human rights activists who decry the Sunni royal family's discrimination against its Shiite minority. Soon after Patton Boggs was hired, Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, voiced concern over the lobbyist's role in the country. "This action shows us that the government has full intentions to continue with its policies of sectarian discrimination, marginalization and disenfranchisement of a large percentage of the population," he blogged. "Instead of putting money into tackling these problems on a local scale by addressing issues of poverty, the national housing shortage, unemployment and discrimination, the government has chosen to put money into a public relations venture, presumably to cover up these problems in the face of the international community."

Meanwhile, Qorvis has represented Egyptian steel tycoon Ahmed Ezz, a Mubarak ally targeted in Egypt's protests for using his government connections to corner the steel market and hike prices as much as 70 percent in recent years. On its website, Qorvis also touts its work for Saudi Arabia in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks: "Following the tragic events of September 11, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia selected Qorvis to neutralize negative media coverage it received nationwide after it was revealed that 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia."

Qorvis and Patton Boggs were both subpoenaed in 2002 by the House Committee on Government Reform, which was investigating reports of American children kidnapped and held in Saudi Arabia.

Even Libyan strongman Muammar el-Qaddafi has proven attractive to K Street. The spring of 2008 was a stressful time Qaddafi -- despite renouncing WMDs and renewing ties with America in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, he was still being treated like a pariah. Congress had passed a law that allowed victims of state-sponsored terrorism to collect court judgments by seizing foreign assets in the United States, which could cost Libya $3 to $6 billion. U.S. officials and human rights activists were pressuring Qaddafi to release jailed Libyan political activist Fathi al-Jahmi, a 66-year-old provincial governor in ill health and detained since 2002 when he called for free elections and the release of political prisoners. And American and British officials re-emphasized their commitment to having the Lockerbie bomber, former Libyan intelligence officer Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, serve out his sentence in a Scottish jail.

Luckily, Qaddafi had some powerful allies, so the Bush administration requested an exemption for Libya from the compensation law passed by Congress. Then-House Minority Leader John Boehner was the most recent U.S. lawmaker to visit Qaddafi at his tent in the desert for a cordial visit, during which the Libyan leader gifted Boehner with a pair of sunglasses. And one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington was busy working to restore Libya's reputation on Capitol Hill.

Former Louisiana Representative Robert L. Livingston, who left Congress in 1999 amid allegations of marital infidelity and founded a lobbying firm representing a stable of high-profile clients, signed up Libya earlier that year for $2.4 million to help "enhance the relations between Libya and the U.S.," Livingston told the Washington Post. Livingston himself escorted Libya's ambassador to a series of meetings with Congressional leaders and attended the December 2008 swearing-in of the first U.S. ambassador named to Libya since 1972.

The lobbying deal was an important part of Libya's efforts to smooth relations with the U.S., according to a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks. During a meeting with the U.S. Embassy's Charge d'Affaires on May 7, 2008, a top Libya national security official asked about "the effectiveness of the LIVINGSTON Group, a lobbying organization hired to help burnish LIBYA's reputation in Washington" during a discussion about getting an exemption from the tough law on compensation passed by Congress earlier in the year.

A few months later, on the eve of Qaddafi's first-ever visit to the U.S. to address the United Nations, the relationship proved too risky, and the Livingston Group ended its contract with Libya.

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