In 1934 the German Dye Trust retained public-relations
pioneer Ivy Lee for $25,000 a year, ostensibly to promote the company's image in
the United States. Lee's true client, though, was Adolf Hitler's regime, and his
aim was to favorably influence American public opinion of the Third Reich. As
part of his work, Lee produced a report suggesting that German Foreign Minister
Joachim von Ribbentrop "undertake a definitive campaign to clarify the American
mind" via newspaper op-eds and radio addresses to the U.S. public.
Lee's arrangement was ultimately exposed, and the incident helped lead
Congress to pass the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) in 1938. FARA
required that representatives of foreign governments disclose their client list,
the thinking apparently being that lobbyists would find it too embarrassing to
work for dictatorial regimes if they knew that their activities would be made
public. It was a strategy of name and shame, and in some places it could have
worked. Washington, unfortunately, was not one of them. From the apartheid regime
in South Africa to Saddam Hussein's Iraq, foreign tyrants have had little trouble
finding friends in the capital, whatever good intentions lay behind FARA.
"Jeffrey Dahmer had a lawyer, and every country with a terrible human-rights
record has someone in Washington to try to get them out of the soup," says a
senior congressional aide who is frequently buttonholed by foreign lobbyists. "If
you have the money, you can hire yourself representation."
Nowhere is that truer than at the K Street offices of Jefferson Waterman
International (JWI), a lobbying firm that that has promoted despots across three
continents. And like Ivy Lee, JWI has sought to obscure its role by working
through front companies.
Founded in 1994 from the merger of two prominent local lobby shops, JWI
employs many executives who have passed through the Beltway's revolving door. The
firm's top two executives are Ann Wrobleski, assistant secretary of state for
international narcotics matters in the Reagan and Bush Senior administrations,
and Charles Waterman, who formerly worked for the CIA's Near East division.
(Waterman is one of at least four former spooks who hold high-ranking positions
at the lobby shop.) With those sorts of contacts, JWI boasts on its Web site, the
firm is "able to obtain early, authoritative information on international policy
developments, decisions, and opportunities that can affect a country's or a
company's future ... . This information -- discreetly acquired, expertly
analyzed, and reported on a timely basis -- lays the groundwork for effective
strategies or signals the need for immediate action."
JWI has worked for a number of corporate clients, primarily in the arms and
energy industries. The company sought to improve relations between Bogotá
and Washington for GPU International, a firm that owns a power plant in Colombia,
and worked to promote Lockheed Martin's overseas sales.
JWI has also quietly taken part in a number of corporate coalitions, including
USA*ENGAGE, which worked during the Clinton years to restrict trade sanctions
againstcountries with poor human-rights records. USA*ENGAGE portrayed itself as a
dynamic "broad-based coalition representing Americans from all regions, sectors,
and segments of our society." In fact, it was a front group led and controlled by
lobbyists and big exporters -- among them, Boeing,Caterpillar, Unocal, and
Chevron -- anxious to keep China, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and other controversial
regimes clear of trade sanctions. USA*ENGAGE's biggest success was a lawsuit
overturning the "selective purchasing" laws that had been passed in the state of
Massachusetts as well as in a dozen cities and counties. These laws banned
governments from awarding contract work to companies that trade with tyrannical
But JWI's specialty is working directly for foreign regimes, be it fighting
off congressional sanctions, winning economic or military aid, or promoting
American investment. One of its first big clients was Franjo Tudjman of Croatia,
who hired the firm in the mid-1990s in the midst of the Balkan wars. It was a
sensitive time for the Tudjman government, which along with the Serbian regime of
Slobodan Milosevic stood accused of war crimes against civilians.
Nonetheless, JWI assured Tudjman it could assist him. In a memo to the
Croatian leader, Charles Waterman wrote that American foreign and defense policy
is "primarily formulated" by the president, based on consultations with the State
Department, the Pentagon, the National Security Council, and the CIA. "It is
important ... to have official and personal contacts at appropriate levels in all
of these organizations," he wrote. "As you are aware, we are well positioned to
assist in this process." Waterman emphasized that his firm would handle spin
control for Croatia no matter how difficult the circumstances. For example, he
wrote, Tudjman might find it necessary to seize control over territory that was
being patrolled by United Nations monitors. If he did, JWI would be standing
ready to counter "a wave of criticism" that Waterman predicted would quickly
JWI was put to the test not long after it finalized the deal with Tudjman,
when Croatian troops launched Operation Storm in 1995. During that assault,
Serbian villages in Croatia were sacked and burned, hundreds of civilians were
killed, and some 170,000 people were forced from their ancestral homes. "In terms
of sheer numbers, it was the largest 'ethnic cleansing' of the war, though it was
not as brutal as the worst Serb treatment of Bosnian Muslims," The New York Times
Not surprisingly, JWI saw things differently. "Clearly, we wouldn't support
government-sponsored ethnic cleansing -- but we don't believe they're doing
that," Steve Ellis, the firm's senior vice president, told Legal Times.
"We believe that [the Croatians] are doing the best they can."
Tudjman certainly seemed to think he was getting his money's worth with JWI.
He continued to renew the firm's contract through the end of 1998. By the time
that deal expired, JWI had signed a $500,000 per year contract with the military
government in Burma, which sought "strategic counsel and public-relations
services." Burma is not your run-of-the-mill dictatorship. Opposition forces led
by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi swept national elections in 1990,
winning more than 80 percent of the seats in parliament and leading the generals
to annul the balloting and rule by terror ever since. As a recent story in The
Washington Monthly summed up, Burma's government is "every bit as tyrannical and
insane as the regimes that rule Iraq and North Korea. Throughout the tropical
nation, world-class drug lords operate a wink's length from the regime and
heavily-armed ethnic militias roam wild, spreading narcotics, arms, and
instability to neighboring countries."
Even JWI was apparently embarrassed by handling such an account, so a company
called Myanmar Resource Development Ltd. played the cutout role that the German
Dye Trust had performed in the Nazi-Ivy Lee deal of 1934. The maneuver fooled no
one. State Department memos from the period, uncovered by The Washington
Post, showed that the Clinton administration recognized that JWI was working
directly for the junta.
When she worked for Reagan and Bush Senior, Wrobleski had been an outspoken
critic of the Burmese government, accusing it of being a leading exporter of
heroin to the United States. In 1989 she said that there was little hope that
Burma would crack down on drug trafficking "until a government enjoying greater
credibility and support among the Burmese people" replaced the military regime.
At JWI, where she handled the Burma account, Wrobleski helped paint an
entirely different picture. One of her tactics was to provide American
journalists with all-expense-paid trips to Burma, where they would hear
government officials express their supposed commitment to combating drug
trafficking. The plan backfired, however, when a Newsweek reporter noticed
that a quantity of poppy plants destroyed for the benefit of the visiting scribes
"had already been drained of opium." The Newsweek story also quoted a
diplomat as saying that the junta's crop-eradication program was "window
dressing," and described Burma as a "haven for retired opium warlords and their
JWI also launched an Internet newsletter, the Myanmar Monitor, which was
supposed to "provide a broad and balanced view of Burma." This consisted of
stories about tourism (visitors, it advised, would encounter a country where
"loving kindness, sympathy, tolerance, benevolence, mutual regard, respect, and
humanitarianism evolve out of Buddha's teachings") and the junta's fervent belief
in political reform. One Monitor commentary hailed the generals for the way they
"somehow managed to unify the country, restored social order and brought
stability back to the nation."
Back in the real world, developments weren't nearly as promising. Among the
developments the Monitor somehow missed during this period were a roundup
of opposition activists and the death of one who was forced to work as a military
porter; the State Department's 1997 "decertification" of Burma, for the seventh
consecutive year, as an ally in the war on drugs; and the regime's banishment
from a London meeting of European and Asian governments. British Foreign
Secretary Robin Cook explained that Burma was "one of the few governments in the
world whose members are prepared to profit out of the drugs trade."
After two years of working for Burma, JWI concluded that it should sever its
ties to the regime. This did not arise from a fit of conscience. The decision was
taken after the generals -- angry that the United States and other Western
nations boycotted an international conference on heroin trafficking in Rangoon --
stiffed JWI for its lobby fees.
Despite this bad experience, JWI continued to work for foreign despots. "After
Burma, I guess they figured there was no point in screening their clients too
carefully," says the senior congressional aide. "Their virginity was already
One of JWI's current clients is Liberia, which pays the firm $300,000 annually
for advice on "matters related to political, economic, and commercial relations
with the United States." As with its Burma contract, JWI is not working directly
for the government of warlord Charles Taylor but is retained by a corporate
sponsor, in this case a company called AmLib United Minerals. That firm is headed
by an American businessman, Kenneth Ross, whose family mines gold in Liberia.
AmLib's chairman is a Liberian geologist named Nathaniel Richardson, whose
brother John is one of Taylor's most trusted military commanders and advisers.
Taylor heads one of the few regimes in the world that can give the Burmese
generals a run for their money in terms of its wretched human-rights record.
After years of factional fighting, Taylor won a presidential election in 1997 --
the vote was "administratively free and transparent, but ... conducted in an
atmosphere of intimidation, as most voters believed that Taylor's forces would
have resumed fighting," says the State Department -- and has plundered the
country ever since. Most Liberians are desperately poor (per capita income is
just a few hundred dollars per year and unemployment stands at around 70
percent), though Taylor lives in luxury thanks to his involvement in illegal
diamond and timber sales. This state of affairs is maintained by Taylor's goon
squads, which, according to the State Department's most recent annual global
human-rights survey, "committed many extrajudicial killings, and ... were accused
of disappearances of numerous persons. Security forces tortured, beat, and
otherwise abused or humiliated citizens."
Ken Yates, a JWI executive, insists that Taylor's Liberia is misunderstood.
"There's a lot of disinformation out there, a lot of gray areas, mixtures of
virtue and vice," he told the National Journal. To help out, JWI has helped
set up meetings between Liberian officials and State Department aides. Last year,
the firm ghostwrote a letter from Liberia's ambassador to the United States --
the aptly named William Bull -- to the House Africa Subcommittee, saying that
Taylor has a "sincere desire ... to engage and work closely with the United
States Government and US Congress in addressing issues of common concern."
The firm also puts out the Liberia Letter, which is posted on the
embassy's Web site. Seeking to take advantage of the September 11 attacks on the
World Trade Center and the Pentagon, JWI published an issue soon afterward that
quoted Taylor as saying, "Your grief is our grief; your pain and anguish are also
ours ... Where you go, Liberia will go."
JWI's work hasn't done Taylor much good. Last March, the Bush administration
backed a UN resolution that banned travel by senior Liberian officials and
Monrovia's chief financial and military supporters. On April 25 the International
Crisis Group released a report that named Taylor the "primary cause of the crisis
in West Africa" -- the Liberian leader has supported a brutal rebel group in
Sierra Leone -- and called on Western nations to use sanctions to try to force
him out of power.
Asked about his firm's lobbying activities, Yates replies, "We do not discuss
the specific work that we do other than what we report under FARA." Nor will
Yates comment on the ethics of representing JWI's controversial clients,
insisting instead that the firm has never worked for the governments of
Liberia or Burma, but only for Myanmar Resource Development and AmLib United
Minerals. "We are scrupulous about our FARA reporting and take it very
seriously," he says. "What you see is what you get."
It's a distinction Ivy Lee would surely appreciate.