click for subscription information
by Johan Carlisle
from the Spring 1993 issue of CAQ (Number44)
Public relations and lobbying firms are part of the revolving door between government and business that President Clinton has vowed to close. It is not clear how he will accomplish this goal when so many of his top appointees, including Ron Brown and Howard Paster, are "business as usual" Washington insiders. Ron Brown, who was a lobbyist and attorney for Haiti's "BabyDoc"Duvalier, is Clinton's Secretary of Commerce. Paster, former head of Hill and Knowlton 's Washington office, directed the confirmation process during the transition period and is now Director of Intergovernmental Affairs for the White House. After managing PR for the Gulf War, Hill and Knowlton executive Lauri J. Fitz-Pegado became director of public liaison for the inauguration.
The door swings both ways. Thomas Hoog, who served on Clinton's transition team, has replaced Paster as head of H&K's Washington office.
Hill and Knowlton is one of the world 's largest and most influential corporations. As such, its virtually unregulated status, its longstanding connections to intelligence agencies, its role in shaping policy, and its close relationship to the Clinton administration deserve careful scrutiny.
In Turkey, "in July 1991, the same month President George Bush made an official visit there, the body of human rights worker Vedat Aydin was found along a road. His skull was fractured, his legs were broken, and his body was riddled by more than a dozen bullet wounds. He had been taken from his home by several armed men who identified themselves as police officers. No one was charged with his murder." De- spite hundreds of such "credible reports" acknowledged by the State Department, documenting use of "high-pressure cold water hoses, electric shocks, beating of the genitalia, and hanging by the arms," Turkey reaps the benefits of U.S. friendship and Most Favored Nation status. "Last year Turkey received more than $800 million in U.S. aid, and spent more than $3.8 million on Washington lobbyists to keep that money flowing." Turkey paid for U.S. tolerance of torture with its cooperative role in NATO, and its support for Operation Desert Storm; it bought its relatively benign public image with cold cash. Turkey's favorite Washington public relations and lobbying firm is Hill and Knowlton (H&K), to which it paid $1,200,000 from November 1990 to May 1992. Other chronic human rights abusers, such as China, Peru, Israel, Egypt, and Indonesia, also retained Hill and Knowlton to the tune of $14 million in 1991-92. Hill and Knowlton has also represented the infamously repressive Duvalier regime in Haiti.
On October 10, 1990, as the Bush administration stepped up war preparations against Iraq, H&K, on behalf of the Kuwaiti government, presented 15-year-old "Nayirah" before the House Human Rights Caucus. Passed off as an ordinary Kuwaiti with firsthand knowledge of atrocities committed by the Iraqi army, she testified tearfully before Congress:
"I volunteered at the al-Addan hospital...[where] I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns, and go into the room where 15 babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die."
Supposedly fearing reprisals against her family, Nayirah did not reveal her last name to the press or Congress. Nor did this apparently disinterested witness mention that she was the daughter of Sheikh Saud Nasir al-Sabah, Kuwait's ambassador to the U.S. As Americans were being prepared for war, her story- which turned out to be impossible to corroborate -became the centerpiece of a finely tuned public relations campaign orches- trated by H&K and coordi- nated with the White House on behalf of the government of Kuwait and its front group, Citizens for a Free Kuwait.
In May 1991, CFK was folded into the Washington-based Kuwait-America Foundation. CFK had sprung into action on August 2, the day Iraq invaded Kuwait. By August 10, it had hired H&K, the preeminent U.S. public relations firm. CFK reported to the Justice Department receipts of $17,861 from 78 individual U.S. and Canadian contributors and $11.8 million from the Kuwaiti government. Of those "do- nations," H&K got nearly $10.8 million to wage one of the largest, most effective public relations campaigns in history.
From the streets to the newsrooms, according to author John MacArthur, that money created a benign facade for Kuwait's image:
"The H&K team, headed by former U.S. Information Agency officer Lauri J. Fitz-Pegado, organized a Kuwait Information Day on 20 college campuses on September 12. On Sunday, September 23, churches nationwide observed a national day of prayer for Kuwait. The next day, 13 state governors declared a national Free Kuwait Day. H&K distributed tens of thousands of Free Kuwait bumper stickers and T-shirts, as well as thousands of media kits extolling the alleged virtues of Kuwaiti society and history. Fitz-Pegado's crack press agents put together media events featuring Kuwaiti "resistance fighters" and businessmen and arranged meetings with newspaper editorial boards. H&K's Lew Allison, a former CBS and NBC News producer, created 24 video news releases from the Middle East, some of which purported to depict life in Kuwait under the Iraqi boot. The Wirthlin Group was engaged by H&K to study TV audience reaction to statements on the Gulf crisis by President Bush and Kuwaiti officials. "
All this PR activity helped "educate" Americans about Kuwait-a totalitarian country with a terrible human rights record and no rights for women. Meanwhile, the incubator babies atrocity story inflamed public opinion against Iraq and swung the U.S. Congress in favor of war in the Gulf.
This free market approach to manufacturing public perception raises the issue of:
whether there is something fundamentally wrong when a foreign government can pay a powerful, well-connected lobbying and public relations firm millions of dollars to convince the American people and the American government to support a war halfway around the world. In another age this activity would have caused an explosion of outrage. But something has changed in Washington. Boundaries no longer exist.
One boundary which has been blurred beyond recognition is that between "propaganda"-which conjures up unpleasant images of Goebbels-like fascists-and "public relations," a respectable white collar profession. Taking full advantage of the revolving door, these lobbyists and spinmeisters glide through Congress, the White House, and the major media editorial offices. Their routine manipulations-- like those of their brown shirted predecessors--corrode democracy and government policy. H&K's highly paid agents of influence, such as Vice President Bush's chief of staff Craig Fuller, and Democratic power broker Frank Mankiewicz, have run campaigns against abortion for the Catholic Church, represented the Church of Scientology, and the Moonies. They have made sure that gasoline taxes have been kept low for the American Petroleum Institute; handled flack for Three Mile Island's near-catastrophe; and mishandled the apple growers' assertion that Alar was safe. They meddle in our political life at every turn and apparently are never held accountable. Not only do these PR firms act as foreign propaganda agents, but they work closely with U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies, making covert operations even harder to control.
In the 1930s, Edward Bernays, the "father of public relations," convinced corporate America that changing the public's opinion--using PR techniques--about troublesome social movements such as socialism and labor unions, was more effective than hiring goons to club people. Since then, PR has evolved into an increasingly refined art form of manipulation on behalf of whoever has the large amounts of money required to pay for it. In 1991, the top 50 U.S.-based PR firms billed over $1,700,000,000 in fees. Top firms like Hill and Know- lton charge up to $350 per hour.
PR firms manipulate public and congressional opinion and government policy through media campaigns, congressional hearings, and lobbying. They have the ability and the funds to conduct sophisticated research for their clients and, using inside information, to advise them about policy decisions. They are positioned to sell their clients access and introductions to gov- ernment officials, including those in intelligence agencies. Robert Keith Gray, head of Hill and Knowlton's Washington office for three decades, used to brag about checking major decisions personally with CIA director William Casey, whom he considered a close personal friend.
One of the most important ways public relations firms influence what we think is through the massive distribution of press releases to newspapers and TV newsrooms. One study found that 40 percent of the news content in a typical U.S. newspaper originated with public relations press releases, story memos, or suggestions. The Columbia Journalism Review, which scrutinized a typical issue of the Wall Street Journal, found that more than half the Journal's news stories "were based solely on press releases." Although the releases were reprinted "almost verbatim or in para- phrase," with little additional reporting, many articles were attributed to "a Wall Street Journal staff reporter."
While some PR campaigns are aimed at the general pub- lic, others target leadership, either to persuade them or to provide them with political cover. On November 27, 1990, just two days before the U.N. Security Council was to vote on the use of military force against Iraq, while the U.S. was extorting, bullying, and buying U.N. cooperation, Kuwait was trying to win hearts, minds, and tear ducts. "Walls of the [U.N.] Council chamber were covered with oversized color photographs of Kuwaitis of all ages who reportedly had been killed or tortured by Iraqis. ...A videotape showed Iraqi soldiers apparently firing on unarmed demonstrators, and witnesses who had escaped from Kuwait related tales of horror. A Kuwaiti spokesman was on hand to insist that his nation had been `an oasis of peaceful harmony' before Iraq mounted its invasion." This propaganda extravaganza was orchestrated by Hill and Knowlton for the government of Kuwait. With few exceptions, the event was reported as news by the media, and two days later the Security Council voted to authorize military force against Iraq.
THE INTELLIGENCE CONNECTION The government's use of PR firms in general, and Hill and Knowlton in particular, goes beyond ethically dubious opinion manipulation. It includes potentially illegal proxy spying operations for intelligence agencies. "H&K recruited students to attend teach-ins and demonstrations on college campuses at the height of the Vietnam War, and to file agent-like reports on what they learned," according to author Susan Trento. "The purpose was for H&K to tell its clients that it had the ability to spot new trends in the activist movement, especially regarding environmental issues." Richard Cheney (no relation to former Secretary of Defense Cheney), head of H&K's New York office, denied this allegation. He said that H&K recommends that its clients hire private investigative agencies to conduct surveillance and intelligence work. But, Cheney admitted, "in such a large organization you never know if there's not some sneak operation going on."
Former CIA official Robert T. Crowley, the Agency's long-time liaison with corporations, sees it differently. "Hill and Knowlton's overseas offices," he acknowledged, "were perfect `cover' for the ever-expanding CIA. Unlike other cover jobs, being a public relations specialist did not require technical training for CIA officers." The CIA, Crowley admitted, used its H&K connections "to put out press releases and make media contacts to further its positions. ...H&K employees at the small Washington office and elsewhere, distributed this material through CIA assets working in the United States news media." Since the CIA is prohibited from disseminating propaganda inside the U.S., this type of "blowback"- which former CIA officer John Stockwell and other researchers have often traced to the Agency-is illegal. While the use of U.S. media by the CIA has a long and well-documented history, the covert involvement of PR firms may be news to many. According to Trento:
"Reporters were paid by the CIA, sometimes without their media employers' knowledge, to get the material in print or on the air. But other news organizations ordered their employees to cooperate with the CIA, including the San Diego-based Copley News Service. But Copley was not alone, and the CIA had `tamed' reporters and editors in scores of newspaper and broadcast outlets across the country. To avoid direct relationships with the media, the CIA recruited individuals in public relations firms like H&K to act as middlemen for what the CIA wanted to distribute.
This close association and dependence upon the intelligence community by reporters has created a unique situation which has shielded PR executives and firms from closer scrutiny by the media and Congress. According to Trento, "These longstanding H&K intelligence ties and CIA-linked reporters' fears that Gray might know about them might partially explain why Gray has escaped close media examination, even though he was questioned about his or his associates' roles in one major scandal after another during his long Washington career."
Over the years, Hill and Knowlton and Robert Gray have been implicated in the BCCI scandal, the October Surprise, the House page sex and drug scandal, Debategate, Koreagate, and Iran-Contra. In October 1988, three days after the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) was indicted by a federal grand jury for conspiring with the Medellin Cartel to launder $32,000,000 in illicit drug profits, the bank hired H&K to manage the scandal. Robert Gray also served on the board of directors of First American Bank, the Washington D.C. bank run by Clark Clifford (now facing federal charges) and owned by BCCI. Gray was close to, and helped in various ways, top Reagan officials. When Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger's son needed a job, Gray hired him for $2,000 a month. "And when Gray's clients needed something from the Pentagon, Gray and Co. went right to the top." Gray also helped Attorney General Ed Meese's wife, Ursula, get a lucrative job with a foundation which was created by a wealthy Texas client, solely to employ her.
ROBERT KEITH GRAY- PRIVATE SPOOK? Robert Keith Gray, who set up Hill and Knowlton's important Washington, D.C. office and ran it for most of the time between 1961 and 1992, has had numerous contacts in the national and international intelligence community. The list of his personal and professional associates includes Edwin Wilson, William Casey, Tongsun Park (Korean CIA), Rev. Sun Myung Moon, Anna Chennault (Gray was a board member of World Airways aka Flying Tigers), Neil Livingstone, Ro- bert Owen, and Oliver North.
"Most of the International Division [of Gray & Co.] clients," said Susan Trento, "were right-wing governments tied closely to the intelligence community or businessmen with the same associations."
In 1965, with Gray's help, Tongsun Park, had formed the George Town Club in Washington. According to Trento:
Park put up the money and, with introductions from Gray and others, recruited "founders" for the club like the late Marine Gen. Graves Erskine, who had an active intelligence career. Anna Chennault became a force in the club. Others followed, and most, like Gray, had the same conservative political outlook, connections to the intelligence world, or `congressional overtones.' Gray's ties to right-wing Asians like Chennault and Park had deep roots. Gray had been critical of Eisenhower [when he was appointments secretary for Eisenhower] for never being partisan enough. Perhaps that is why Gray embraced wholeheartedly the powers behind the China Lobby. One reason Gray was attached to the lobby was that they had long been behind the funding of Richard Nixon's various campaigns.
Tongsun Park was an "agent of influence," trained by the Korean intelligence agency, which was created by and is widely regarded as a subsidiary of the CIA. The George Town Club has served as a discrete meeting place where right-wing foreign intelligence agents can socialize and conduct business with U.S. government officials.
Robert Gray has also been linked with former CIA and naval intelligence agent Edwin Wilson, although Gray denies it. In 1971, Wilson left the CIA and set up a series of new front companies for a secret Navy operation-Task Force 157. Wilson says that Robert Gray "was on the Board [of Directors]. We had an agreement that anything that H&K didn't want, they would throw to me so that I could make some money out of it, and Bob and I would share that."
THE GRAY AREA BEHIND HILL & KNOWLTON Gray's connection to Iran-Contra has never been fully examined. Notably, the Tower Commission, Reagan's official 1986 investigation, all but ignored it. In 1983, Texas Senator John Tower had declined to seek reelection thinking he had a deal with Reagan to become Secretary of Defense. After Weinberger decided to stay on in the second Reagan term, Tower found himself without a job. In 1986, his friend Robert Gray offered him a position on the board of directors of Gray and Co. Shortly thereafter, Tower was asked to head the presidential inquiry. Not suprisingly, the Tower Commission kept Gray and Co. out of the investigation, in spite of the facts that several key players in the scandal had worked for Gray and Co., and Gray's Madrid office was suspected of involvement in the secret arms shipments to Iran.
Despite large gaps in the official inquiry, it has been established that Robert Owen, Oliver North's messenger and bagman, worked for Gray and Co. after leaving then-Senator Dan Quayle's staff in 1983. Owen worked primarily with Neil Livingstone, a mysterious figure who claims to be a mover and shaker in the intelligence world but who is described as a "groupie." Livingstone worked with Ed Wilson, Air Panama, and as a front man for business activities sponsored by the CIA and Israeli intelligence. Owen and Livingstone traveled frequently to Central America to meet with the Contras in 1984. An interesting footnote to Iran-Contra is that in 1986, Saudi Arabian arms broker Adnan Khashoggi hired Hill and Knowlton and Gray and Co. to milk maximum publicity out of his major donation to a $20.5 million sports center, named after him, at American University.
THE FOURTH BRANCH OF GOVERNMENT The pattern of influence peddling and insider abuse is clear. The potential for real reform is less obvious. Despite his stated intention to restrict the influence of lobbyists and PR manipulation, Clinton's reforms are viewed with cynical amusement by those in the know. Although newly restricted from directly lobbying their former agencies, retiring government officials can simply take jobs with PR firms, sit at their desks, and instruct others to say "Ron, or Howard, sent me." Nor does the updated Foreign Agents Registration Act have real teeth. The act-legislated in 1938 when U.S. PR firms were discovered working as propagandists and lobbyists for Nazi Germany-is rarely enforced. While it requires agents of governments to register, it omits requirements for agents of foreign corporations, who often serve the same interests.
And if loopholes for lobbying are comfortably large, public relations activities remain totally unregulated and unscrutinized by any government agency. Given the power and scope of PR firms, their track records of manipulation, their collusion with intelligence agencies, and their disregard for the human rights records and corporate misdeeds of many of their clients, this lack of oversight endangers democracy. Careful regulation, stringent reporting requirements, and government and citizen oversight are essential first steps in preventing these giant transnationals from functioning as a virtual fourth branch of government.