By Abigail Fielding-Smith & Crofton Black of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
A mysterious Turkish organisation gave a former U.S. homeland security adviser a $400,000 contract to improve public perceptions of Turkey, deepening questions about the country’s attempts to influence U.S. politics and the limited transparency surrounding them.
The contract—with a firm run by Douglas Baker, the son of Republican grandee James Baker—forms part of more than $3 million-worth of U.S. lobbying contracts linked to Turkey that have been signed since last summer
Its discovery comes in the wake of revelations that President Donald Trump’s disgraced former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn received more than $500,000 to lobby on behalf of Turkish government interests as recently as November 2016, just before he was appointed.
Unlike Flynn, Baker registered his contract promptly in the Department of Justice’s list of Foreign Agents According to the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), any U.S. citizen doing “political or quasi-political” activity on behalf of a foreign entity is legally obliged to inform the DoJ and disclose details of their work.
But an examination of the contract shows how many questions can remain about a lobbying transaction’s origin and goals even when the lobbyist has fulfilled their obligations under FARA in a timely fashion.
The DoJ filing shows that an Istanbul-based organisation known as the Knowledge Economy Association (KEA) signed a contract with a company called Monte Advisory Group in August 2016. The documents list Douglas Baker—who also jointly runs a private equity firm called Monument Capital—as the “sole and managing member” of Monte Advisory Group.
Baker—who served on George W. Bush’s Homeland Security Council—is the son of James Baker, who for more than a decade was one of the most powerful people in Washington, serving from 1981 to 1993 as chief of staff then Treasury Secretary under Ronald Reagan, and Secretary of State then chief of staff under George Bush senior. James Baker is also on Monument Capital’s advisory Board.
Monte has no active website and the Bureau has been unable to find any other information online relating to its activities other than the filing relating to KEA. The KEA also has very little online presence—its website is blank and its Youtube and Twitter accounts have no postings.
In its DoJ filing Monte states it “engaged in outreach to the Trump Presidential Campaign and Presidential Transition Team” on behalf of its client, who had hired it to “improve the overall relationship and public perceptions between Turkey and the United States.” Monte also made contact with outgoing Obama administration officials, holding meetings with staff from the Department of Defense and emailing Colin Kahl, the National Security Advisor to then Vice-President Joe Biden.
According to Israfil Kahraman, an Istanbul lawyer named in the DoJ filing as the legal representative for the KEA, the purpose of the contract was “to develop friendship and cooperation between Turkey and the United States in the fields of scientific and economic development.”
He told the Bureau that the KEA had been founded “by a group of distinguished scientists with the aim of conducting civil society activities in order to raise awareness in Turkey about developing an economy with high added value.”
Steven Cook, a Turkey expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that it was “odd” for an NGO to be involved in lobbying overseas. “That isn’t what NGOs typically do”, he told the Bureau.
When contacted by the Bureau, Douglas Baker said there had been some concerns the US-Turkey relationship “had soured a little” in the later years of the Obama administration. “There could be opportunities to either strengthen that relationship or see it undergo further harm,” he said. “And that’s the reason that [KEA] retained Monte—to help during that transitional phase.”
Monte’s work for KEA “was never designed to be broad brush public relations campaign,” he added. “It was a “bit more of an opportunity to present their point of view… they felt we were positioned to help them with the necessary introductions”.
The KEA, known in Turkish as the Bilgi Ekonomisi Derneği, opted not to renew the contract with Monte when its initial six-month term expired in February. Only $105,000 of the contracted $400,000 had been paid out by this point, according to the filing.
Concerns about foreign money and influence in the US have been growing since the start of the Trump administration, particularly relating to Russia, whose alleged connections to Flynn ultimately led to the security advisor’s resignation a few weeks after his appointment.
The subsequent revelations of Flynn’s Turkey-related activities—which were first reported in last November but revealed in much more detail last month—have drawn attention to the Turkish government’s lobbying efforts in the U.S.
Turkey has long lobbied internationally against the U.S-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, an exiled rival of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who has been accused of leading the attempted coup (allegations that Gulen denies).
Since the coup, which left 248 people dead, Turkey has been on a major offensive against suspected Gulen supporters. Turkish authorities—in what they argue is a necessary response to a violent attempt to overthrow the government—have detained more than 110,000 people, nearly 50,000 of whom are still in jail. Turkey has also been demanding foreign governments take action on Gulen-affiliated organisations overseas.
Turkey was strongly criticised internationally for alleged human rights abuses during the crackdown, which happened at the same time the civil war in neighbouring Syria was causing Turkey’s alliance with the US to fray, and just as US politics was entering a crucial transition stage.
President Erdogan has been accused of authoritarian behaviour as he has consolidated his grip on power. The Turkish people gave their verdict on Sunday in a referendum on whether the country should switch from a parliamentary democracy into a presidential system, a move that will significantly extend his powers and allow him to stand in two more election cycles.
According to the DoJ filing, Flynn Intel was contracted by a Turkish businessman in September 2016 to carry out investigative research on Gulen.
According to an interview the former CIA director James Woolsey gave to the Wall Street Journal, Flynn was even present in a meeting when the idea was discussed of having someone “whisk” Gulen away to circumvent the legal process (Flynn’s spokesperson has denied the claim).
Baker said that the Monte contract did not involve advocacy on Gulen. “We told them early on that we were not interested in any of the discussions on the Gulen matter,” he said.
Discussions about the contract had begun before the attempted overthrow in Turkey, he pointed out. “I don’t see this as tied to the coup,” he said.
The Bureau has found no evidence that Monte did anything controversial. But it is hard to tell much about the KEA’s interests from the FARA filing. The documents simply state that the KEA was a “Turkish non-governmental organization” whose activities aligned sometimes with the interests of the Turkish government.
The filing also said that at least one member of the KEA leadership was a representative of the Turkish government.
The founding president of the KEA, Davut Kavranoğlu, who holds a PhD from the California Institute of Technology, is now a scientific advisor to President Erdogan. “I have always placed a very high value and importance on Turkish-American friendship,” Kavranoglu told the Bureau.
But he said he had given up his role running the KEA after taking up the position with the president.
In December last year Kavranoğlu tweeted a photograph of himself with James Baker.
Flynn Intel and Monte Advisory Group are just some of many firms that have been been contracted in support of Turkish policy goals since last summer, the Foreign Agents registry shows.
Some of these contracts, like the Flynn Intel and Monte Advisory Group, were brand new. Others were renewals of ongoing relationships.
Details of the filings reveal the breadth of Turkey’s attempts to secure influence in America as concerns about its human rights record grow.
One beneficiary is Signal Group Consulting, which was subcontracted to produce a short video. The video described Gulen’s extensive school network in the US as “a sleeper cell hidden amongst the rolling hills of America’s heartland”.
Others include two companies known as Capitol Counsel and Daschle Group, which were awarded $432,000 each to help carry out a “lobbying and government relations services” contract, according to filings in January 2017.
The brief filed by Capitol Counsel included a commitment to “educate and reeducate elected and appointed policy makers” about the strategic relationship between Turkey and the US.
Lydia Dennett from the non-profit watchdog Project on Government Oversight said that vaguely worded statements about the purpose of lobbying contracts typify filings made with the foreign agents’ registry. Though compliant with the law, such filings “leave the public a little bit in the dark about what exactly they’re doing and what US policies they are trying to influence,” she said.
The law governing the registration process—the Foreign Agents Registration Act—does not require lobbyists to file much information about who is contracting them, she pointed out.
“If the goal of the law is to truly provide transparency, additional information should be required so that the public and those who are being lobbied have an idea of where this message is coming from,” she said.
“I think it’s long past time to review a lot of different aspects of this law.”