THE BLOG
09/22/2014 06:00 pm ET Updated Nov 22, 2014

U.S. Foreign Policy Manipulation via Media Is Systemic, Warns Expert

Foreign policy pundits have had a rough time recently in Washington, D.C.

First, the New York Times slammed a number of high profile think tanks for the nature of their links to foreign donors. A former visiting fellow at the Brookings affiliate located in oil-rich Qatar, Saleem Ali, had reportedly told the newspaper that he was instructed not to take positions critical of Qatar during his job interview, and the Center for Global Development drew fire for allegedly overstepping legal and ethical lines in relation to a grant it received from Norway.

Shortly after, Representative Frank R. Wolf, Republican of Virginia, wrote a strongly worded open letter that called on Brookings to stop accepting funds from foreign governments in general, and from Qatar in particular. He accused Qatar of having "a history of funding terrorist groups, including al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria and Libya, the Taliban and Hamas." The House of Representatives is now considering a rule that would require that think tank scholars testifying on Capitol Hill disclose any support from foreign governments.

(Brookings categorically denied that it ever censored any its scholars. CGD acknowledged that it may have inadvertently violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act, but insisted it had never compromised its integrity or intellectual independence. The New York Times has not retracted any part of its story. A comprehensive summary of all reactions is here.)

Then, The Nation published a hard-hitting piece by Lee Fang suggesting that some prominent retired military figures were publicly advocating military strikes against ISIS, but also hiding the fact that they stood to profit from a potential new war. Jack Keane from the Institute for the Study of War was his prime target.

"To portray Keane as simply a think tank leader and a former military official, as the media have done, obscures a fairly lucrative career in the contracting world," wrote Fang. "For the General Dynamics role alone, Keane has been paid a six-figure salary in cash and stock options since he joined the firm in 2004; last year, General Dynamics paid him $258,006."

Apparently, the retired general had testified to Congress on defense issues, but not declared his potential conflicts of interest. Equally, media outlets featuring Jack Keane's punditry had not informed their viewers of his other activities. Fang singled out the New York Times for criticism, pointing out that it had used six different infographics supplied by Keane's ISW without noting the think tank's multiple financial connections with security and defense companies.

And now, a university professor is coming under fire on Twitter for failing to disclose her relationship with a foreign oil and gas company. Professor Brenda Shaffer is a lecturer at the University of Haifa and visiting scholar at Georgetown University who has over the years clocked up an impressive 26 op-ed pieces in major U.S. newspapers including the Baltimore Sun, Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.

Her writings and testimonials to Congress consistently urge U.S. policy makers to pay more attention to Azerbaijan and to actively support construction of the Southern Gas Corridor pipeline, which will deliver Azerbaijan's gas to Europe via Georgia and Turkey.

For example, a piece by Shaffer published in the influential Foreign Affairs journal in March 2014 discusses the pipeline as follows:

"This week, EU leaders signed a deal with Azerbaijan to build a pipeline for importing gas from Azerbaijan into Europe. All told, the arrangement is expected to bring billions of investment dollars into southern Europe and will, in the construction phase alone, create about 30,000 new jobs in the countries that the pipeline will eventually link... The timing of the Shah Deniz project, as it is called, could not have been better... Helping matters along is Baku's firm belief that cooperation with Europe is the path to security and development... The pipeline deal is also great news for Europe, opening up its first new major source of gas in decades... The interconnecting gas pipelines in Europe, filled with Azerbaijani gas, will ensure that Russia can no longer switch off the heat in eastern Europe and the Caucasus on a whim... The new natural gas supplies will also help Europe reduce its carbon emissions and air pollution, since high electricity prices in recent years have pushed Europe toward cheap U.S. coal."

The readers of the piece were told that "Brenda Shaffer is a Visiting Researcher at the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and Eastern European Studies at Georgetown University". What they were not told is that Shaffer has also worked as "Advisor to the President of SOCAR", the state-owned State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic.

(Neither Professor Shaffer nor SOCAR have responded to emails asking them to clarify this relationship's exact time frame and financial aspects, so it is unclear whether she still works there. However, SOCAR has officially denied any relationship with Shaffer when contacted by Radio Free Europe, which recently covered the story.)

The SOCAR connection only became public knowledge after a reader flagged the issue with the New York Times, which had just published the latest controversial op-ed about Azerbaijan by Shaffer. The Times had originally only identified her as "a professor of political science at the University of Haifa and a visiting researcher at Georgetown", but days later issued a clarification:

"This Op-Ed, about tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, did not disclose that the writer has been an adviser to Azerbaijan's state-run oil company. Like other Op-Ed contributors, the writer, Brenda Shaffer, signed a contract obliging her to disclose conflicts of interest, actual or potential. Had editors been aware of her ties to the company, they would have insisted on disclosure."

Records show that Shaffer had previously also failed to reveal the SOCAR connection when she testified to Congress. Similarly, none of her previous 25 op-eds had mentioned her advisor role with the state-owned company, nor that she had taught at the Azerbaijan diplomatic academy.

Whether Georgetown University and the University of Haifa knew about their employee's relationship with SOCAR remains unclear. (Neither university has responded to repeated emails asking for clarification of this matter.) Also unknown is whether Harvard was aware about her advisor role when it invited Shaffer onto the podium during a public lecture given by SOCAR's Deputy Vice-President at the Kennedy School of Government earlier this year.

Question marks also remain over whether the think tanks that Shaffer has collaborated with over the years have been aware of her advisor role. For example, the Wilson Center, which identifies Shaffer as one of its experts, lists only the Georgetown and Haifa university posts under the section of her webpage titled "affiliation". The Atlantic Council, which itself accepted $50,000 from SOCAR in 2012, invited her to speak at a conference entitled "NATO in the Caucasus: Example of Azerbaijan", but apparently did not identify her as a lobbyist at the event.

(Note to readers: I will collate the reactions from the various media outlets, universities and think tanks involved and discuss them in a follow-on post on this blog.)

Is this a story about a lone rogue professor who duped the world? Richard Kauzlarich, former US Ambassador to Azerbaijan and Adjunct Professor at the School for Policy, Government and International Affairs at George Mason University, does not think so. In an email message, he told me that there is

"a group of US apologists for Azerbaijan -- some academics, some former government officials, some business people, some scholars at think tanks -- whose job it is to place op-ed pieces, organize events designed to promote a positive image of the Azerbaijan, and to build a case for Azerbaijan as a strategic partner for the US... [M]any of the apologists do not disclose their current connections with Azerbaijani entities, including state-owned entities, as they conduct what I would call lobbying efforts on behalf of Azerbaijan. I don't know if other authoritarian regimes are involved in similar activities."

So, is this a story about how oil-rich Azerbaijan is pioneering a new form of clandestine lobbying? The evidence suggests otherwise. For example, Shaffer's fellow policy pundit Dr Lincoln Mitchell, an expert on neighbouring Georgia, last month penned a piece entitled "Saakashvili Doesn't Need a Little Help from His Friends" for Foreign Policy. Mitchell called on U.S. policy makers to stop supporting former president Saakashvili against his domestic adversaries.

(Background: Georgia's new government is investigating Saakashvili for abuses of power allegedly committed during his time in office. Some - though not all - Western officials have publicly voiced concerns that the prosecution may be politically motivated, and have pressured the new rulers to drop the case.)

What Mitchell apparently did not disclose to Foreign Policy is that he had in the past worked as a paid consultant for the coalition that is now in power and seeking to prosecute the ex-president. Mitchell had, in fact, even appeared in one of the then-opposition's campaign commercials. Foreign Policy subsequently posted a clarification beneath the Mitchell's original article:

"Clarification, August 8, 2014: The author of this article, Lincoln Mitchell, consulted for the Georgian Dream coalition in the run-up to the 2012 elections. The previous version of this article did not make that association clear."

During that time, Mitchell was on the faculty of Columbia University's School of International Affairs. His list of publications includes both articles in academic journals and op-ed commentary in the media. At present, he runs a consulting company dedicated to "political development, strategic communication and research".

"Georgian politics have long been clouded by accusations of people working for or lobbying for various interests," Mitchell stated when contacted for comment. He explained via email that

"I am close with a number of people in the Georgian government, but have never been paid to work, write, lobby etc. for the government of Georgia. I was an informal campaign advisor to the Georgian Dream in 2012, but that is about it. I meet with leaders of the Georgian government when they are in NY or when I am in Tbilisi, but so do a lot of people. They seek out my advice, but don't pay me for it."

(Important clarification: There is no evidence to suggest that Mitchell was in the pay of the Georgian Dream or the Georgian government when he wrote his Foreign Policy piece, let alone that it was commissioned by foreign clients. The content of his article can plausibly be assumed to reflect Mitchell's own honest thoughts and beliefs, as he explains here [listen to the follow-up question too]. I have flagged the case only to highlight the fact that the U.S. media's lack of up-front due diligence about contributors' backgrounds and possible conflicts of interest is not limited to the single case of Shaffer.)

Professor Brenda Shaffer herself has warned that attempts by foreign lobbyists to shape U.S. foreign policy through the American media are part of a wider pattern of manipulation that extends beyond the Caucasus. In her testimony to the Senate's Committee on Foreign Relations on July 8, 2014 (see also the video recording), Shaffer warned the assembled lawmakers that:

"Policies should be enacted that would remove the nonprofit status of these groups that collaborate with Russia and legislation similar to that that combats terror financing should bar European organizations from receiving funds from Moscow that are intended to promote Russia's foreign and security policy aims... I think there has been a big disinformation campaign going on in a number of media sources that are trying to break apart the friendship between Israel and Azerbaijan... I think that we have to be very careful with many of these -- the impact of these articles, which we really don't know who is behind them and why."

[Disclaimer: Till Bruckner works as the Advocacy Manager for Transparify, an initiative promoting greater financial disclosure by think tanks. However, he researched and wrote this piece independently. All facts and opinions expressed here are entirely his own. Till Bruckner does not have any financial or family ties in either Armenia or Azerbaijan.]