Turkmeniscam: How Washington Lobbyists
Fought to Flack for a Stalinist Dictatorship
By Ken Silverstein
Random House, 195 pages, $24
Two years ago, when I was a press officer for the United Nations in Iran, government agents tried to sting us. In an effort to discredit the U.N., every week I was visited by two fat, profoundly bearded and poorly dressed “TV producers”; they offered us unprecedented access to large national audiences on the condition that we weave criticism of the regime into our work. Of course, we turned them away and thus preserved our organization’s ability to remain in the country as a neutral aid rather than a propagandist for regime change.
Ken Silverstein, Washington editor for Harper’s, tells in Turkmeniscam of another sting, one that he concocted to snare four of the capital’s major lobbying firms. He induced these firms to vie for a fake but hefty contract to publicize the “strengths” of the Stalinist dictator of the Central Asian republic of Turkmenistan. Two of the firms, APCO Worldwide and Cassidy & Associates, tripped over themselves in their eagerness to champion one of the world’s most repressive regimes. In so doing, they became would-be accomplices of a demented, plundering despot.
Some of the lobbyists came from careers as high-ranking government insiders from both parties. In earlier life, they might have been Wilsonian idealists, but now, as deceptive denizens of K Street, they’re deeply into realpolitik, hustling for a fat paycheck by trying to make a tyrant palatable to U.S. policy makers.
AFTER CONSIDERING VARIOUS possible “clients,” Mr. Silverstein settled on a corrupt country with a “bloodcurdling” record on political rights and civil liberties—and an interest in rapprochement with the West. Then, with a cover story, business cards, a bogus Web site (that linked to nothing), vague allusions to Middle Eastern players and a sharp new suit from Hugo Boss, he wormed his way into the confidence of top lobbyists. He had the help of a seemingly knowledgeable and elegant-looking sidekick who, in his one verbal contribution to negotiations, blathered on nonsensically. Mr. Silverstein feared the jig was up, but the conferees reacted with sage nods of approval along with offers to build a useful coalition among politicians and the chattering classes.
From these interactions, Mr. Silverstein secretly recorded the particular tactics and inducements that lobbyists deploy to handle advocacy, policy change, damage control, reputation management and investment promotion. One of the prospective lobbyists tempered his pitch with a caveat—“Anyone who tells you they can get a congressman to do what you want ought not to be believed, but we can get in the door and make the case”—and yet, in the absence of rounded information and against a backdrop of longtime interactions, many legislators and other policy actors accept the case as made.
If Mr. Silverstein’s sting came easily, so did the lobbyists’ blandishments—they know how to win earmarks, to craft perceptions and to turn negative images into positive ones. Mr. Silverstein doesn’t make the argument that lobbyists are engaged in something of a carefully orchestrated sting themselves, but their handiwork smacks of swindle. That is, legislators, diplomats and the media are goaded into buying into a varnished depiction of the horrific situation in the “client” country.
GROWING OUT OF AN article last year in Harper’s, Turkmeniscam is a nimble contribution to the literature on the maneuvers of high-priced and impactful wheelers and dealers in the nation’s capital. As such it viably offers a supplement to this year’s important investigation by The Washington Post into Gerald Cassidy of Cassidy & Associates, a kingpin of domestic lobbyists.
With windbags and shills dominating the cast of characters, Mr. Silverstein’s clever exposé has some of the fun of an Elmore Leonard novel. He has an eye for the shady gesture, the persuasive detail and the big picture. The reader may wish that his sting could have been somehow prolonged so that we could see what documents and activities APCO Worldwide and Cassidy & Associates would have hatched for Turkmenistan. But Mr. Silverstein’s budget was small and his timeline short.
And his methods proved controversial: When his article first appeared in Harper’s, other inside-the-Beltway reporters joined lobbyists in criticizing the “unethical” tactics of his master-of-disguise investigative journalism. In rebuttal, Mr. Silverstein points to his field’s long but now largely dormant tradition of undercover reporting. He also is eloquent in criticizing the expectation that reporters merely “repeat the spin from both sides. … ‘Balance’ is not fair. It’s just an easy way of avoiding real reporting … and [of] shirking our responsibility to inform readers.”
Stings are sometimes necessary if you want to get the whole story. The Iranians found them useful in ferreting out our non-subversive intentions; when we didn’t go for the easy critique they tried to plant, they came to quasi-trust us. By the same token, Mr. Silverstein’s trick is most useful and necessary for showing how lobbyists’ gloss can trump context and integrity.
Dorn Townsend is a freelance reporter based in New York City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.