'Turkmeniscam' by Ken Silverstein

By William J. Dobson,
a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Tuesday, November 18, 2008


How Washington Lobbyists Fought to Flack for a Stalinist Dictatorship

By Ken Silverstein

Random House. 197 pp. $24

It isn't easy being a lobbyist these days. Even though most people probably can't name a single lobbyist -- besides maybe the infamous Jack Abramoff -- few professions are the object of more scorn. That's because we are constantly being told that these influence peddlers are up to no good, working in the shadows to carve out earmarks and loopholes for the special interests they represent. This year each presidential candidate sought to sully the reputation of his opponent simply by linking him to lobbyists. Never mind that lobbyists play a vital role in providing knowledge and expertise in the push and pull of democratic -- especially legislative -- politics. By the conventional wisdom, the profession is so corrosive that simply knowing lobbyists or having them on your payroll is a strike against you.

Ken Silverstein's "Turkmeniscam" aims to put another dent in lobbyists' already battered reputation. But the enterprising Silverstein didn't want just to launch another broadside at the predatory behavior of K Street; he wanted to set a trap. So Silverstein, the Washington editor of Harper's magazine, posed as the representative of a fictional London-based firm with a large stake in the natural gas fields of Turkmenistan, a former Soviet republic whose repressive regime has a history of human rights abuses. His mission: to see how low D.C. lobby shops would go to win a contract from a murky business with apparent ties to the Turkmen government. To substantiate his cover, he bought a cellphone with a London number, created fake business cards and set up a bogus Web site for the fictitious Maldon Group. Then, under the newly assumed identity of Kenneth Case, he contacted four well-heeled firms to see how they would represent the reprehensible.

Although the notion that the Beltway encircles a swamp of corruption may seem tired -- especially for readers who call the District home -- Silverstein offers a terrific hook for a book about lobbying. After being provided with a brief but entertaining history of lobbying and the halfhearted attempts to rein it in, the reader is anxious to see how Silverstein's sting operation will play out. He carefully picks his targets, aiming at established K Street firms with experience representing foreign governments, particularly in Central Asia. He begins a delicate dance of reaching out to this select group of lobby shops, cautiously whetting their appetites for what must have seemed like the next big account -- foreign government clients are usually cash cows -- while revealing surprisingly little about himself or the interests he represents.

The suspense builds as Silverstein approaches his face-to-face meetings with lobbyists eager to win his business. His anxiety (and the reader's) grows as he prepares to walk into their offices and sit at a conference table as lobbyists pitch their services. The big question is whether he can pull it off. The reader expects -- or, perhaps more accurately, hopes for -- awkward, cringe-inducing scenes worthy of a Sacha Baron Cohen movie. Will Silverstein convincingly play the part? Will the lobbyists catch on to the con? And, maybe most important, once he has entered these corridors of influence-peddling, what promises will they make to win a dictatorship's business?

But after the cinematic buildup, the pitches prove anticlimactic. There is nothing particularly diabolical or even interesting about the strategies the lobbyists sketch for him. What is perhaps more surprising is how banal their ideas actually are: They promise to arrange meetings for Turkmen officials, host think-tank events and ghost-write upbeat op-eds. They offer to track the media coverage Turkmenistan garners and to help field press queries. It ultimately doesn't amount to much more than a standard PR plan. And even if the plan could cast Turkmenistan in a more positive light, nothing in the pitches would convincingly whitewash the regime's human rights record.

The real astonishment is how much the lobbyists expect to be paid. APCO quoted him roughly $600,000 a year. Cassidy & Associates estimated its services would run $4.5 million over three years, which it said was in line with what other regimes have paid: Equatorial Guinea, for example, was shelling out $2.4 million a year for Cassidy's services. "Look at our track record and what we've charged for other representations . . . and you'll see you're not being gouged," Silverstein says he was told by a senior member of the firm.

The result is either disappointing or heartening, depending on how you look at it. The disappointment is that Silverstein's scam comes to so little. Although he goes to great lengths to get inside lobbying firms, the reader wants him to go further, to find out when a lobbyist will blink. We expect more from smoke-filled rooms -- or, in this case, climate-controlled rooms -- with manicured men and women looking to flack for repressive regimes.

But it is also heartening to think that some foreign thugs can be so easily parted from their money. If lobbyists charge them huge sums for run-of-the-mill services, that doesn't seem so terrible. Every dollar a tyrant fritters away on K Street is less money he's got for batons and bayonets.

Ironically, Silverstein's undercover methods, first aired in an article he wrote for Harper's, generated more controversy than anything those methods uncovered. Is it ethical for a journalist to lie to get the story? Silverstein never revealed his true identity to these firms. At some point, shouldn't he have given them a chance to respond? He doesn't think so, and he is at pains to defend his choices. His principal argument is that without his subterfuge he could never have learned what he did. That may be true, but it still leaves unanswered whether what he learned was worth the deception.

There is a healthy tradition of undercover journalism in America. It's been at its best when it has exposed the corruption or unjust practices of individuals or institutions in which we, the public, place our trust. But when did we ever place much trust in lobbyists? Here Silverstein has, in essence, exposed lobbyists for being, well, lobbyists. The only thing shocking is that some dictators may still buy what they are selling.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company