By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 30, 2009; A01
The government of Sudan, eager to curry favor with a U.S. government that accused it of genocide, sought help last fall from an unlikely source: a former Reagan administration official known for his role in the Iran-contra scandal.
The approach by Sudanese officials led to a $1.3 million contract for former national security adviser Robert "Bud" McFarlane, who went on to meet with two of the Obama administration's top policymakers on Sudan and its strife-torn Darfur region, according to documents and interviews.
The unusual talks between Sudan and McFarlane featured meetings in Middle Eastern capitals, clandestine communications with Sudan's intelligence service and a final agreement with the government of Qatar, which is employing McFarlane as part of its peacemaking role in the eastern African region.
The episode puts an old Cold War hand in the middle of the volatile 21st-century conflict in Sudan, whose president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, faces international war crimes charges for allegedly orchestrating a campaign of murder, torture and forced expulsions in Darfur. The arrangement also places McFarlane, 72, close to the edge of U.S. legal requirements, which mandate disclosure of work for foreign governments and which prohibit doing business with Sudan under sanctions first imposed in the 1990s.
McFarlane dismisses suggestions that he has done anything improper, saying he has adhered to U.S. restrictions while focusing on his work to unify feuding tribal leaders and help create jobs in Darfur.
His involvement, however, presents another serious complication for the Obama administration, which is struggling to formulate a coherent policy on Sudan amid disputes between the State Department and Sudan envoy J. Scott Gration, who has signaled support for easing sanctions against the Khartoum regime.
Top administration officials met Wednesday to continue a reassessment of Sudan policy, but White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said no changes are imminent. "The policy is being worked on," he said.
Copies of internal e-mails and other documents obtained by The Washington Post portray a Sudanese government hoping to gain access to the new administration to persuade Obama aides to lift sanctions and remove Sudan from a list of state sponsors of terrorism. The strategy to approach McFarlane was dubbed "Plan Tragacanth," named for a natural gum indigenous to the Middle East.
The records show that a Sudanese diplomat played a central role in proposing and securing McFarlane's contract with Qatar and that the diplomat was in regular contact with Sudan's intelligence chief and other officials during the negotiations. The documents also show that Sudanese officials discussed the need to provide funds for McFarlane and others once an agreement was complete, while McFarlane pledged to "work together" toward "restoring a normal relationship between our two countries."
In written answers to questions from The Post, McFarlane characterized Sudan as an intermediary in his negotiations with Qatar and said he has not received money or entered any agreement with the Khartoum regime.
"In the course of this work, I have of necessity had periodic contact with Sudanese officials," he wrote. "However, I do not now, nor have I ever had a business or other affiliation with any part of the Government of Sudan."
McFarlane met with Gration and national security adviser James L. Jones earlier this year about the Sudan conflict, but White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said neither official approved of McFarlane's consulting plans.
"Both General Jones and U.S. Special Envoy Gration have had conversations with Mr. McFarlane about the urgent need to improve the security situation in Sudan and the need for development in southern Sudan," Vietor said. "However, it is inaccurate to characterize those conversations as having been about Mr. McFarlane seeking, or General Jones or U.S. Special Envoy Gration providing, approval for Mr. McFarlane's efforts."
Neither McFarlane nor his firm, McFarlane Associates, in Arlington, has registered as a lobbyist or foreign agent on behalf of Qatar or Sudan, or received permission from the State Department to do business with Sudan.
Several legal experts said that while this is a gray area, the situation appears to fall under the requirements of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which requires anyone acting on behalf of a foreign power to file disclosures with the Justice Department. "Once you start talking to U.S. officials, that's what normally would trigger the obligation to register," said Joseph E. Sandler, a prominent Democratic lawyer and FARA expert.
McFarlane said his lawyers concluded that registration was not necessary for the Qatari contract.
Ghazi Salahuddin, a close Bashir adviser and negotiator for the ruling National Congress Party, said during a recent interview in Khartoum that McFarlane is not working for his government. But he acknowledged that the former Reagan aide had talked with Mohammed H. Babiker, whom he described as a "government official" previously involved in high-profile border talks with southern Sudan.
"Any allusion to the possibility would be misguided," Salahuddin said, referring to McFarlane working for the National Congress Party. "It would be damaging to his reputation. And in the first place, it's not right."
Sudan is still reeling from a bloody 21-year civil war between the Muslim-dominated north and the mostly Christian and animist south, which is set to vote on independence in 2011. In a separate conflict in the western region of Darfur, millions have been displaced amid massacres by Khartoum-backed militias and continued fighting among rebel tribes.
John Prendergast, a former aide to President Bill Clinton and a prominent Darfur expert, said McFarlane's nebulous role disrupted peace talks in Ethiopia this summer, when, he said, one tribal leader backed by McFarlane asked for $6 million in funding from Gration's office. He said the proposal caused an angry uproar among other Darfur leaders and nearly derailed the summit.
"When a paid consultant engages directly in the process in support of one of the belligerents, with real question marks about whose agenda is being served, that can be destabilizing," said Prendergast, who serves as co-chair of the Enough Project, an anti-genocide group.
Jerry Fowler, president of the Save Darfur Coalition, said McFarlane's activities are an example of the Bashir regime's "no-holds-barred PR strategy."
"This apparent relationship with McFarlane just shows the extent to which they will go to try to buy influence, especially with the United States," he said.
McFarlane was a top foreign policy and national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan until being waylaid by allegations of wrongdoing in the Iran-contra affair. He pleaded guilty in 1988 to misdemeanor charges of withholding information from Congress but was later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush. He served as an adviser last year to the GOP presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).
McFarlane said he became interested in Sudan during an interfaith trip to the region with members of Congress in 2007, and he has done consulting work in southern Sudan since then. In November 2008, McFarlane recounted in an e-mail, he was approached by a former business partner, Albino Aboug, on behalf of Sudan's government.
"Albino asked whether I was willing to discuss with senior representatives from the Khartoum government how to foster negotiations between Khartoum and the Darfur rebel groups and also how to move toward renewed diplomatic negotiations between our countries," McFarlane wrote. "I agreed to do so."
In early January, Aboug and McFarlane met in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, with Babiker, who is currently stationed as a Sudanese diplomat in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; it is unclear whether a Qatari representative was present, and McFarlane declined to provide details. The Qatari Embassy in Washington did not respond to telephone messages.
What followed was a month-long exchange of e-mails and documents between McFarlane and Babiker, culminating with McFarlane's contract with Qatar. Sudanese officials asked McFarlane to approach four former U.S. diplomats to ask whether they were interested in assisting in the effort;
a proposed budget set aside $100,000 a month to pay them.
But all four men turned McFarlane down. Former Missouri senator and Sudan envoy John Danforth said in an interview that he felt his involvement would create "confusion" among the parties; another former envoy for President George W. Bush, Rich Williamson, said, "It didn't make sense for me to get involved."
Robert B. Oakley, a former ambassador to Somalia and Zaire who served as Danforth's deputy, said McFarlane told him he was "trying to broker some arrangements between the Sudanese government and the Obama administration."
"He's a wheeler-dealer," Oakley added. "I remember him from Iran-contra and all the rest. I didn't get into it; I didn't want to, quite frankly."
During this time, Babiker was in regular communication with senior Sudanese intelligence officials about McFarlane, the documents show.
The documents suggest that the parties were keen to avoid public links between McFarlane and Sudan, with McFarlane stressing the need for a third party such as Qatar.
Yet an Arabic-language memo from Babiker to an unidentified Sudanese superior on Jan. 25 refers to the need to "provide the necessary money for the activities of the group," according to a translation. A week later, McFarlane sent an electronic copy of the proposed contract with Qatar to Babiker "for your consideration" before it was signed, the documents show.
McFarlane also drafted a letter from Qatar inviting himself to the contract signing, then sent the language to Babiker to pass on to Qatar for approval. The final contract was signed in Doha, Qatar's capital, on Feb. 9 with Sudanese officials present, according to the records.
McFarlane, whose salary under the contract is $410,400, according to a fee schedule sent to Babiker, said he has "no basis for assuming" that Sudan is funding any part of the contract.
Babiker confirmed his talks with McFarlane in an e-mail but did not respond to a list of follow-up questions.
Staff writer Stephanie McCrummen in Khartoum and staff writer Michael A. Fletcher and research director Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.