Early this week President Obama announced that U.S. companies can start selling arms to Vietnam, a move predicated on the belief that allowing American arms manufacturers to sell lethal weapons to the communist government in Vietnam will make the Vietnamese people more free.
And it’s quite a coup for the government, which still rewards bloggers, journalists, priests, labor organizers, and other dissidents with harassment, arrest, and torture. And advocates for human rights in Vietnam suspect at least partial credit for the policy change may be due to the lobbying firm it enlisted -- the Podesta Group, a powerful D.C. agency with close ties to Hillary Clinton and to defense manufacturers.
Clinton has been silent on the president’s decision -- a move which has drawn scorching criticism from human rights groups. But the D.C. lobbying firm most publicly associated with the Clintons raked in more than $1 million by greasing the skids for the despotic government there. Disclosure forms show they reached out to top media outlets and dozens of Hill staffers to improve the perception of Vietnam in the United States and grow its public policy clout. And given that the Vietnamese government got what it wanted, it just might have worked.
Clinton’s team didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on whether or not she supports the president’s decision to let American arms manufacturers sell weaponry to the Vietnamese government. But one of her top former aides at the State Department lobbied for the Vietnamese government for at least two years, during the heat of the debate over the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal -- and his firm has also worked for Boeing and Lockheed Martin, two companies that stand to profit handsomely from the new market.
That former aide is David Adams. According to a 2015 profile of him in The Hill, Adams -- formerly chief legislative advisor to Clinton at the State Department and currently a principal at the Podesta Group -- oversaw the lobbying firm’s work for Vietnam’s communist government.
“It is a lot of running around, to be honest,” he told the publication of his lobbying work.
Adams worked closely with Clinton and Huma Abedin to get the Senate to confirm her nominees. He attended daily staff meetings with the then-secretary of state and communicated with her over the private email address that has caused her campaign so many problems and prompted an FBI investigation.
“Her email came up as H and I knew who that was,” he told the paper of her email set-up. “I never thought about email or whose system it was.”
After ending his time at State, Adams jumped to The Podesta Group, one of D.C.’s most powerful lobbying firms. That firm’s CEO and founder is Tony Podesta, whose brother John -- a co-founder of the firm -- is the chairman of Clinton’s presidential campaign and former chief of staff to then-President Bill Clinton.
Foreign Agents Registration Act filings show the Vietnamese government paid the Podesta Group $30,000 per month from Dec. 2, 2013 through Dec. 31, 2015. In total, that’s about $1.08 million.
Adams and a spokeswoman for the firm didn’t respond to requests for comment on the work their firm did for that client. FARA filings show the Podesta Group set up meetings with dozens of Capitol Hill offices, and also contacted numerous media outlets (including Politico, Roll Call, CNN, The Hill, PBS NewsHour, the Washington Post, National Geographic, The Food Network, The New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal) for the purposes of “Vietnam public relations.”
FARA disclosure forms don’t detail any information on the nature of those meetings phone calls, or emails.
But New Jersey congressman, Chris Smith, told The Daily Beast he believes the firm lobbied against his legislation to protect the human rights of the Vietnamese people. Smith, a conservative, Roman Catholic Republican who focuses on international human rights issues, has introduced a bill called the Vietnam Human Rights Act in five Congresses (2004, 2007, 2012, 2014, and 2015).
Opponents of the legislation, including Sen. John McCain, say normalizing relations with Vietnam will do more to benefit the Vietnamese people than linking U.S. aid to the government’s human rights record.
Every year but this one, it’s passed by comfortable, bipartisan margins. In 2014, only 3 members of Congress voted against the bill. But it always stalls in the Senate.
“They have made it clear, the Podesta Group, that they will kill my bill, the Vietnam Human Rights Act,” he said. “I know that to be a fact.”
“It’s money talking again,” he continued. “It’s very disturbing that they don’t care for the dissidents; they care for the client. In this case, the client is a serial abuser of human rights. If you’re arrested as a political prisoner in Vietnam, you’re tortured.”
Duy Hoang, a spokesman for the Vietnamese human rights group Viet Tan (which the country’s government considers a terrorist group) said Hanoi can use all the PR help it can get.
“It’s clear that the Vietnamese government has a human rights problem, and a bad image as a human rights violator, and so that’s why they have to pay a lot of money for lobbyists,” he said. “And despite all the lobbying they can do, they can’t hide the fact that they have political prisoners, and they beat up peaceful protesters. And that’s something, I think, that human rights groups and people who follow Vietnam are very aware of.”
In Obama’s remarks on Monday May 23, his first day in Vietnam, he did not criticize the government’s human rights abuses, instead praising “modest progress on some of the areas that we’ve identified as a concern” and noting that human rights is an “area where our two governments disagree.” By Tuesday, Obama met with human rights activists there, but the country’s government detained some activists who’d been invited to meet with him.
The government released one jailed human rights activist, 80-year-old Catholic Priest Ft. Thaddeus Nguyen Van Ly, a few days before Obama arrived in the country. But attorney Kate Barth of Freedom Now, whose organization advocates for Ly and other political prisoners, told reporters at a Capitol Hill press conference that his health is poor and he still under house arrest.
Le Quoc Quan, a former prisoner of conscience in Vietnam who works there as a human rights lawyer, emailed The Daily Beast that government police kept him from leaving his home during the president’s visit.
“The Gov only allow the person that they think acceptable, the others will be detained if we try to go out, including me !” he wrote.
Numerous reports indicated increased government harassment, surveillance, and intimidation of Vietnamese human rights activists during Obama’s visit.
Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a California Democrat with a large number of Vietnamese-American constituents, also took a skeptical view of the president’s meetings.
“Most of the people who have been working on human rights and have spoken out and have led protests and tried to assemble and written even short documents with respect to democracy are all jailed,” she said.
Sanchez supports Smith’s legislation and is one of its original co-sponsors. She’s long been an outspoken critic of the Vietnamese government’s treatment of bloggers, labor organizers, and political dissidents -- so much so that it made Hillary Clinton’s team nervous. Before she gave a speech on censorship and the internet on Jan. 21, 2010, Scot Marciel, then the ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, sent Huma Abedin an urgent warning. Sanchez had asked to speak with Clinton about her concerns regarding the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal -- which Clinton was pushing for at the time -- and worried the administration was moving too fast, “even as the human rights situation deteriorates.”
“Sanchez may try to button-hold you at your Internet speech today,” Marciel wrote.
The rest of his email, likely containing background and talking points, is redacted. Abedin forwarded it to Clinton (over that same private email address). In her speech that day, Clinton dinged Vietnam for restricting “access to religious information” and to “popular social networking sites.”
But when an audience member -- an activist with the Boat People SOS activist group -- asked her about the human rights situation in the country, she assured him that things were on the up-and-up.
“Well, we have publicly spoken out against the detention, conviction, and imprisonment of not only the bloggers in Vietnam, but some of the Buddhist monks and nuns and others who have been subjected to harassment,” she said. “Vietnam has made so much progress, and it’s just moving with great alacrity into the future, raising the standard of living of their people.”
Since then, however, Sanchez, Smith, and Vietnamese human rights activists say things have gotten worse.
“Just the fact that there are so many political prisoners in jails right now points to the fact that they promise all sorts of things when they want something, and they don’t follow through,” said Sanchez.
Smith said he thinks lifting the arms embargo may actually worsen the human rights situation in Vietnam.
“Surveillance equipment and lethal weapons of any kind could be a risk,” he said. “But I think the biggest blunder was just absolutely squandering the leverage that we have to say to a dictatorship, a communist dictatorship, that you ease up on and you let the political and religious prisoners go free and then we’ll talk about lifting an arms embargo.”
Jailed political prisoners didn’t stop Clinton and Obama from praising Vietnam’s progress, and they didn’t stop the Podesta Group from profiting off the country.
That said, it’s worth noting that Vietnam isn’t the only Podesta Group client to gun for lifting the arms embargo. The firm has also represented Boeing and Lockheed Martin (it even boasts on its website that one of its top victories is “winning key government projects for a major defense company”). Reuters reported that representatives from both of those companies attended a secret defense symposium earlier this month in Vietnam.
“There has been no mention in state-controlled media and defense reporters are not covering the forum,” Reuters noted. “Efforts by Reuters to gain permission to attend have been unsuccessful and Vietnam’s defense ministry could not be reached for comment.”
The White House’s justification for lifting the arms embargo is that increased economic involvement between that nation and the rest of the world will improve conditions for its citizens.
“The US wants to help Vietnam’s security,” Hoang said. “But ultimately, what would bolster Vietnamese security is respect for human rights and democratic governance.”