How to Build Yourself a Stealth Lobbyist, Azerbaijani style
The rise of Brenda Shaffer as a scholar and oft-quoted expert in the
field of energy politics illustrates just how vulnerable the American
foreign policy establishment is to manipulation by foreign agents.
Supported by an overseas regime and an assorted network of overt and
undercover lobbyists, she used oil money to build her academic
credentials, then in turn used those credentials to promote Azerbaijan’s
agendas through Congressional testimony, dozens of newspaper op-eds and
media appearances, countless think tank events, and even scholarly
She’s still doing it.
Shaffer first walked into Congress in 2001 to testify before the House
of Representatives’ Committee on International Relations.
She was introduced as “the director of the Caspian Studies Program and a
post-doctoral fellow in the international security program at the
Belfort [Belfer] Center for Science and International Affairs at
Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government”.
she asked them to repeal a section of the Freedom Support Act that
barred direct US aid to the Azerbaijani government. “They have extended
their hand to the US. They have huge expectations that the policy of
this country is based on some sort of morality and high ideals,” she
told them, and reinforced this in written testimony she also submitted.
Challenged about Azerbaijan’s democratic record, she replied: “There is
a lot of room for improvement in terms of democratization. However,
every six months, every year, things are getting better and better.”
What lawmakers listening to Shaffer didn’t know was that the Caspian
Studies Program she headed at Harvard was set up in 1999 through a $1
million grant from the US Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce and a
consortium of oil and gas companies led by Exxon, Mobil, and Chevron,
all of which had commercial interests in the region. The chamber of
commerce is a pro-Azerbaijan pressure group whose Board of
includes a vice president of SOCAR, the Azerbaijan state-owned energy
company, and top lobbyists for BP and Chevron.
A 1999 press
from the chamber at the launch of the Caspian Studies Program noted its
emphasis on outreach to “help to shape informed policy”. The Kennedy
School of Government’s parallel press
announced that the program would open with a panel presentation and
discussion chaired by Graham T. Allison and featuring Ilham Aliyev, then
the first vice president of SOCAR. Allison was and remains the Director
of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, a prominent
foreign policy think tank based at Harvard. Aliyev in 2003 succeeded his
father as president of Azerbaijan.
Allison appointed Shaffer director of the new program in 1999 on the
basis of merit, according to a Belfer Center spokesman, though the
position was not advertised. The then-primary listserv for academic and
policy-related jobs related to Eurasia, which was hosted at Harvard.edu,
does not list any such
vacancy related to the
Caspian Studies Program.
At an event hosted by the Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce in 2000,
Allison introduced Azerbaijan’s then-President Heydar Aliyev, who told
his listeners that “I
cheer the opening of a new chair at Harvard University relating to
Azerbaijan and (the) Caspian area. I am thankful for the assistance of
American-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce rendered for it.”
Graham Allison listed as a member of the Board of Trustees of the US-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce.
Questioned about the scholar’s relationship with the lobbying group, the
Belfer Center spokesman replied that: “To the best of our knowledge, we
had no awareness that Graham was listed as a member of the Board of
Trustees of the US-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce. After your note
arrived, we contacted the chamber and asked them to remove Graham’s
name. They have agreed to do so. Graham was never compensated for this
apparently in-name-only role and he never, to the best of our knowledge,
did any work on behalf of this organization.”
On the same day, the chamber removed Allison’s name from its website.
As a chamber of commerce, the Azerbaijan organization is incorporated
non-profit, which allows it to
its donors from the public. In its 2011 tax
it reported paying more than US$ 100,000 in “other salaries and wages”,
but without providing a breakdown of who received this money and for
what. Neither its 2011 nor its 2012 filing
any direct expenditures for lobbying by external actors.
The chamber claims in its tax filings that it “makes its governing
documents, and financial statements available to the public upon
request”. Repeated requests for these documents emailed to its executive
director, Susan Sadigova, went
United States-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce Black& White Ball 2011
The Structure and Monitoring of Azerbaijani Lobbying Groups
Other Azerbaijani lobbying groups also prize confidentiality.
Whether these groups need to register as “foreign agents” under US law
is unclear. Azerbaijan America Alliance has formally registered. The
Assembly of Friends has not, but says it
The Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce has not registered, and there are no
indications it plans to.
“Many non-profits are surprised to learn that there is no…exemption for
non-profit, tax-exempt entities,” noted two legal
following a 2010 scandal. “Penalties for failing to comply with…
(lobbyist registration requirements) can include a fine of US$ 10,000
or imprisonment for up to five years.”
However, they hedge that it’s a challenge to figure out exactly what
activities trigger the need to register, and that the Department of
Justice gives little guidance about this.
Asked to comment on the specific case of the Azerbaijan Chamber of
Commerce, one expert, Ed Wilson, concluded that the organization is very
probably not obliged to register under current rules.
The Azerbaijan America Alliance gala dinner 2012
Media Outlets Aided Shaffer’s Efforts for Azerbaijan
Shaffer led the Caspian Studies Program until 2005. During her tenure,
she wrote 14
for leading US and Israeli newspapers including the International Herald
Tribune and the Jerusalem Post. Most called on American policy makers to
pay more attention to the region. One exhorted the US to stop funding
for disputed Nagorno-Karabakh.
In May 2006, journalist and lobbying expert Ken Silverstein dropped a
bombshell in the form of a short piece entitled “Academics for
Hire” in Harper’s Magazine. It accused
prominent academics of performing “intellectual acrobatics on behalf of
the [Caspian] region’s rulers”. Shaffer was singled out for especially
Silverstein highlighted the connection between Harvard and the
Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce, alleged that the Caspian Studies
Program’s scholarship lacked intellectual integrity, and unearthed
Shaffer’s 2001 plea to Congress to repeal sanctions against Azerbaijan.
He cautioned at the end of his article: “Caspian watchers beware: the
next time you see or hear an ‘independent’ American expert talking about
how the region’s rulers are implementing bold reforms, check the
expert’s credentials to see just how independent he or she truly is.”
The next month, the International Herald Tribune ran its third Shaffer
about ethnic Azerbaijanis and other minorities in Iran. In the years
since Silverstein outed her as an “academic for hire: whose career was
fuelled by Azerbaijani lobbying outfits and Western oil companies
invested in Azerbaijan,“ Shaffer has placed 13 additional
10 of these in American outlets.
Did the editors of America’s opinion pages not know about Shaffer’s
reputation, or not care?
I emailed to the New York Times, Washington Post, Reuters, and Wall
Street Journal a link to the article that broke the
asked them to explain how they screened op-ed contributors, and
encouraged them to publish a clarification beneath Shaffer’s op-eds, all
of which were still online.
The Times quickly posted a
that said: “This Op-Ed, about tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan,
did not disclose that the writer has been an adviser to Azerbaijan’s
state-run oil company. Like other Op-Ed contributors, the writer, Brenda
Shaffer, signed a contract obliging her to disclose conflicts of
interest, actual or potential. Had editors been aware of her ties to the
company, they would have insisted on disclosure.”
Michael Larabee, the Op-ed Editor at the Post, responded that, “We make
inquiries about possible conflicts of interest with all writers prior to
publication.” The Post also published a
Reuters ran three op-eds by
in 2013. Two identified her as a visiting researcher at Georgetown and a
University of Haifa professor. The third stated simply that, “The author
is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.”
One of these op-eds advised US policy makers on how to handle
Even though Syria and Israel are technically in a state of war, readers
were not informed that the author was the member of an Israeli
government steering committee.
Reuters also ran a Shaffer piece about Azerbaijan’s human rights record.
Baku’s regime persecutes its
mercilessly; democracy activists routinely get beaten
up or thrown into jail on
patently absurd charges. In
2013 alone, the State Department
the list of human rights violations in Azerbaijan included beating
military conscripts to death, torture (including threats of rape) to
coerce confessions, and detention conditions that were sometimes “life
“Protection of human rights is not necessarily better under illiberal elected regimes… Many new populist governments do not support the rights of women and minorities…”
Shaffer offered an alternative perspective.
Reuters declined to add a clarification about Shaffer’s outside
Her opinion piece in the Journal simultaneously took a swipe at
Palestine and discouraged US support for Azerbaijan’s rival Armenia in
the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.
Judi Walsh, the paper’s News Editor, Newsroom Standards, notified me
that my email requesting a reaction had been passed on to the paper’s
Editorial Department, which – she wrote – had been “responsible” for
disseminating Shaffer’s op-ed.
No correction was published. Instead, last Nov. 30, the Journal posted
another Shaffer op-ed
identifying her as “a visiting researcher and professor at Georgetown
University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies.”
Other media outlets continue to cite Shaffer as an independent expert.
Bloomberg’s Businessweek ran a story quoting her, without mentioning her
link with SOCAR, praising Azerbaijan’s dependability as an oil supplier.
“Azerbaijan is very serious about the sanctity of contracts,” she told
Businessweek. “It has never reopened its international contracts in the
The responsible editor, Hellmuth Tromm, did not reply to an email
requesting an explanation, and the article remains online in its
Veteran journalists Jackie
from National Public Radio and Roger
from the London Times have also recently quoted Shaffer.
Protest rally in Baku, Azerbaijan.
In addition to writing op-eds and advising SOCAR, Shaffer over the years
has run many laps around the D.C. think tank circuit.
Her participation in a 2013 panel discussion at the Carnegie Endowment
for International Peace about Azerbaijan’s prospects is a case in point.
The panel took place two days after the 2013 elections in Azerbaijan,
which had been comical. The election commission accidentally released
a day before polling had begun. Otherwise, there were no surprises:
Ilham Aliyev, the incumbent, won by a large margin.
According to an official U.S. State Department
“Flaws in the conduct of the… presidential election included a
repressive political environment leading up to election day, lack of a
level playing field among candidates, [and] significant shortcomings
throughout all stages of election-day processes.”
Shaffer told her audience at Carnegie, according to an audio recording
that the very fact that so much was known about electoral and other
abuses in Azerbaijan demonstrated just how open a society it was.
She praised Azerbaijan’s “vibrant press”, its fierce political debates,
and its “realistic” voters. She expressed hope that with elections over,
Azerbaijan would take “even more bolder steps towards democracy. It will
do a better job… if it has the US on its side… If you really care about
democracy in Azerbaijan… be a partner there, be a friend there.”
Prof. Donald Abelson from the University of Western Ontario, an expert
says policy shops can have reasons for hosting experts whose neutrality
is questionable: “First, “ he said, “their presence could help to
highlight the independent posture of the host relative to the more
biased guests… Alternatively, the think tank inviting these people
might simply want them there to create controversy or generate media
attention. Or, it’s possible that they are there for whatever expertise
However, in contrast to much of the US media, some think tanks
from Shaffer once her SOCAR connection became known. The Wilson Center,
which lists her as an expert on its
website, explained in
an email: “The way that our website lists people can be misleading… Ms.
Shaffer has no Wilson Center affiliation.”
She still, however, gets her voice heard. At least two think tanks have
recently posted contributions by her online – identifying her only as an
The Role of Academia in Foreign Affairs Formulation
The academic institutions that have lent Shaffer credibility over the
years continue to support her. Foreign Affairs journal, noted for its
strong influence among policy-makers, published a contribution by
that discussed a proposed pipeline to carry gas from Azerbaijan to
Europe as follows: “[I]t will edge out coal once more and help lower
pollution and carbon emissions… Europe’s efforts to increase eastern
pipeline gas are a good start toward addressing the continent’s energy
woes… And hopefully the United States will hold off on fast-tracking
exports until the benefit of those extra supplies for Europe becomes
The journal’s editor did not respond to emails pointing out Shaffer’s
apparent conflict of interest and asking for a reaction.
When Shaffer’s side job in Baku first became public, the reporter who
broke the story publicly challenged Georgetown University’s Center for
Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies via a Twitter
to disclose her SOCAR affiliation.
Georgetown never reacted, and Shaffer’s profile
page there continues to
make no reference to her commercial interests. The school also has
recently added an “In the news”
to her profile that showcases her latest public commentary. During
December 2014 alone, Shaffer appeared on TV screens via Fox Business and
Al Jazeera America, and commented on energy issues in print via the
Times, The Australian, NPR, and Foreign Policy magazine. (Only weeks
earlier, Foreign Policy itself had run a piece on Azerbaijan’s lobbying
by a different author that mentioned Shaffer’s SOCAR connection.)
Some academics caution that external funding need not compromise
independent scholarship. UK-based Prof. Timothy Edmunds, editor in chief
of the European Journal of International
said: “Many academics have ‘outside’ funding. The question is when that
line is crossed to having outside interests. I think these are questions
of professional responsibility and integrity, though transparency in
declaring interests (and proper sanction against those who don’t) is
Shaffer denies crossing the line from outside funding to outside
During an October 2014 public discussion at Columbia University during
which she shared the podium with an official SOCAR representative, a
participant asked Shaffer about her links with the state-owned energy
company, and whether Congress had been aware of that relationship when
she testified. In a testy
Shaffer insisted that her scholarly independence had not been
compromised, and that “my students benefit from the fact that I have
been on every side of the table.”
In email exchanges, several regional experts reported having detected
bias in Shaffer’s output in the past. “Scholars in academia do not
regard her work as really academic,” wrote Manouchehr
Shiva, who did research in
Azerbaijan under a Fulbright scholarship in 2005-2006 and continues to
follow developments there.
Should Georgetown have been more cautious about inviting the SOCAR
advisor on board?
“The sponsoring institution has a responsibility to prevent cases like
Shaffer’s,” said Gerald Robbins of the Foreign Policy Research
Institute. At the same time, he cautioned, “Due diligence is a
challenging feat when confronting such matters as academic tenure and
intellectual freedom. Inevitably it’s an ethical issue where checks and
balances would have questionable impact.”
Furthermore, Shaffer does have genuine and strong academic credibility
markers to her name: books published at university presses, articles in
respected peer-reviewed journals, and active membership in an academic
association. While some of her books have been very critically
received, this in itself
should not raise any red flags.
Ironically, just as her academic titles facilitated her getting op-eds
in major newspapers, those media pieces, in turn, strengthened Shaffer’s
academic credentials. The same feedback loop seems to apply to
Congressional appearances. The first time she appeared in front of
Congress in 2001, lawmakers were told
“Dr. Shaffer’s op-eds have appeared also in the International Herald
Tribune and the Boston Globe.”
To sum up: SOCAR funded a programme at Harvard that furnished Shaffer
with an impressive academic title, which in turn opened doors to the
media, which in turn – maybe with a little help from Azerbaijan’s
friends on the inside – opened doors to Congress.
Closing the loop, the homepage of her department at Georgetown contains
a prominent link to the latest
Congressional testimony by “CERES Visiting Researcher Shaffer”, and her
profile page lists all her op-eds and recent media appearances, while
the Georgetown University page titled “Media: Find a Subject Matter
journalists who type in “Azerbaijan” or “energy” to contact Brenda
Shaffer for commentary.
It seems that in D.C., each lap around the policy circle of media, think
tanks, academia, and politics further builds credibility, but nobody is
checking credentials along the way.