How Azerbaijan Manipulates Public Opinion in the US
To see how foreign interests distort reality to steer political debate
and influence American foreign policy, look no further than a Dec. 5,
2012, meeting in the US Congress chaired by then-Rep. Dan Burton,
The meeting was of the House subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia, and the
star witness was Brenda Shaffer, a Ph.D. specialist on the Caucasus and
former research director of Harvard’s Caspian Studies Program.
Burton introduced her as “the prettiest gal at the table.” And she, in
turn, proceeded to warn assembled
that Iran was destabilizing pro-Western countries in that region,
particularly its small but oil-rich neighbor, Azerbaijan.
But Burton and Shaffer both had ties to Azerbaijan they did not tell the
Shortly after this hearing was held, Burton resigned from the House and
started a new job as chairman of the board of the Azerbaijan America
Alliance, a lobby group promoting closer ties between the countries and
apparently funded by a family close to the president of
Shaffer continued to praise Azerbaijan in other Congressional
appearances, in numerous editorials and news articles, and in work with
US think tanks.
Documents filed with the Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents
Registration Act (FARA) less than two months before her 2012 testimony
show that The DCI Group, a lobbying firm then under contract with
Azerbaijan’s embassy in
briefed her before her committee appearance. The firm is noted for
pushing out its clients’ messages via seemingly neutral and independent
third parties in a quest to “dominate the entire intellectual
in which officials make policy decisions”.
This more subtle approach to influencing lawmakers builds on more
traditional methods, such as the all-expense-paid trip to Baku in 2013
for 10 members of Congress and 32 staff
revealed by the Washington Post.
The DCI Group’s contract with the embassy spelled out how for US$
20,000 a month it could craft and place op-eds in major online and
traditional news outlets, develop a core group of think tanks for
outreach, and “define new topics for positive engagement that parallel
Azerbaijan’s strategic goals”.
Call it idea laundering.
Shaffer’s Ties with Azerbaijan and Israel
DCI officials and Shaffer both declined to comment for this story about
their interactions, including whether Shaffer got paid for her testimony
or is being paid still.
“Description: Email to Dr. Brenda Shaffer, Ph.D., Senior Lecturer, University of Haifa and Georgetown University on October 10, 2012, regarding a white paper examining Iran’s footprint in the South Caucasus and its ties to Armenia and the importance of Azerbaijan. Met with her on December 5, 2012, to introduce her to media. Also held meeting with her on February 5, 2013, to discuss possible future writings on Azerbaijan issues.”
Shaffer did write on that topic; the written statement she
to Burton’s subcommittee was entitled: “Iranian Influence in the South
Caucasus and the Surrounding Region”. At the bottom, she portrayed
herself as an independent academic scholar. And in a Congressional
“Truth in Testimony” disclosure form she
before testifying, Shaffer left blank the field “Organization or
organizations you are representing”.
Still, on the same day of her testimony, the DCI Group reported meeting
her “to introduce her to the media”.
Aside from DCI, records show that Shaffer has worked as an advisor to
SOCAR, the state-owned State Oil Company of Azerbaijan.
Neither Shaffer nor SOCAR responded to emails asking for details on
their relationship, including the start date of her contract. She did
not reveal anything of her deal to the congressmen she addressed.
Her work for the notoriously
company closely tied to Azerbaijan’s regime became public knowledge when
the media obtained a copy of her SOCAR business card, and broke the
in September 2014.
Azerbaijan’s and Israel’s interests are so strongly aligned on many
issues that diplomats from the two nations recently conducted a joint
of Jewish communities in the US. During that tour, the Israeli
ambassador to Baku, echoing a standard theme of pro-Baku lobbyists,
praised Azerbaijan as a model of
because its government does not persecute its small Jewish minority.
Shaffer also was silent about her SOCAR ties last July when she
testified before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and gave
urging support for a natural gas pipeline project in Azerbaijan. She
said this project would thwart Moscow, improve the security of Europe’s
energy supply, and provide tens of thousands of jobs.
Weak Disclosure Requirements for Lobbyists
The prime purpose
of the Congressional “Truth in Testimony” form is to disclose federal
grants and contracts rather than broader conflicts of interest, so
Shaffer’s omission of her outside interests probably won’t have legal
Moves to close this loophole for lobbyists have had limited success.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-CA recently
a rule requiring some Congressional witnesses to disclose funding from
foreign governments. “The American people have a reasonable expectation
that these links will be transparent and allow for the appearance of a
conflict of interest to be aired publicly,” she told a House Rules
In early January, the House adopted Speier’s suggestions, but they are
unclear and untested. Under the new rules Shaffer would have to disclose
SOCAR money if she was testifying in “nongovernmental capacity,” that is
as representative of a think tank or an NGO. But if she testified as a
university professor, probably not. As another complication, SOCAR is a
state-owned enterprise, not a government per se.
To really close the loopholes, Bill Allison, editorial director of the
Sunlight Foundation, suggests that witnesses be required to list “all
sources of earned income of more than, say, $10,000 over the last two
Allison, asked whether Shaffer might have violated FARA, said “[T]here
isn’t enough information to say either way. It depends on what she is
doing as an adviser to SOCAR.
“If she’s in any way facilitating meetings between SOCAR employees and U.S. government officials, if she’s writing articles that advance SOCAR’s interests, then she should register with FARA. If she’s just recommending restaurants in Georgetown… That said, the fact that she’s testifying before Congress and no doubt has had many other contacts with congressional staff (you don’t just show up at a hearing), and that she’s paid by SOCAR, either she or SOCAR (since they are registered and are paying her) should disclose her contacts with those
officials. But whether she has to under the law is difficult to say.”
A recent letter from Rep. Frank R. Wolf, R-Virginia, called on the
Justice Department to review its enforcement of FARA this year and
to consider possible changes.
Allison said his group would like to see “electronic filing, better
specific requirements of what has to be reported when making contacts
and how it has to be reported and other improvements to the disclosure
“There’s a noticeable change in Azerbaijan’s lobbying,” comments Gerald
Robbins, a senior fellow at
the Foreign Policy Research Institute who specializes in Turkey, the
Caucasus, and Central Asia. “A new generation, educated in Western
marketing methodology has taken the reins [in Baku]. They understand
that academia and think tanks are important contact points for conveying
Lobbying and idea laundering are slow and gradual processes, political
observers say. Both are intended to change minds and open thinking to
new ideas – those of the lobbyist, of course. Yet it is impossible to
measure exactly the effect of any isolated lobbying effort such as
Shaffer’s or the DCI Group.