WikiLeaks released the first batch of its Syria-related e-mails today, which, according to embattled WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, will prove “embarrassing to Syria, but it is also embarrassing to Syria’s opponents.” It has also proved embarrassing to Syria’s surrogates in Washington.
The first release contains communications between the Syrian government and its American-British PR firm Brown Lloyd James (BLJ). The firm, founded by former Beatles manager Peter Brown, has represented a number of undemocratic regimes in the past, included Gabon, China, and Moammar Gaddafi’s Libya, plus it has worked on behalf of supporters of the Mujaheddin-e-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian opposition group designated a terrorist organization by the State Department. (Full disclosure: I went on a Brown Lloyd James arranged trip to Libya in 2010 and wrote the following skeptical dispatch upon returning.)
In a document contained in the WikiLeaks releases, Brown Lloyd James advises the Syrian regime on how to spin its war against anti-Assad dissidents: “If hard power is necessary to quell rebellion, soft power is needed to reassure the Syrian people and outside audiences that reform is proceeding apace, legitimate grievances are being addressed and taken seriously, and that Syria’s actions are ultimately aimed at creating an environment in which change and progress can take place.” The document also advises the creation of a media campaign that would “create a reform ‘echo-chamber’ by developing media coverage outside of Syria that points to the President’s difficult task of wanting reform, but conducted in an non-chaotic, rational way.”
The WikiLeaks document appears to blow a rather large hole in Brown Lloyd James’s previous claim, made to the Hill last August, that “its work for the Syrian government ended in December 2010.” The Syrian e-mail released by WikiLeaks, which contained the BLJ plan as an attachment, is dated May 19, 2011. According to the Microsoft Word document properties, the proposal was written by BJL partner Michael Holtzman on May 15, 2011. The company’s 2011 Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filings for Syria only say the company was doing business on behalf of the “Office of the First Lady of the Syrian Arab Republic,” remunerated only for its assistance in arranging that now infamous Vogue profile of Bashar al-Assad’s wife, Asma.
BLJ sent Right Turn the following statement: “In early 2011, prior to the Syrian regime reaching the point of no return with its people and the international regime, BLJ was in conversations with the Office of the First Lady of Syria regarding a cultural project to promote regional history. This followed a brief engagement in Syria prior to the unrest in which we were helping strengthen US-Syrian relations by giving new tools and resources to civil society.
“Noting the developing turmoil, we decided to discontinue these discussions, instead opting to exploit our last remaining contact with the Office of the First Lady to try, on behalf of the Syrian people, to encourage a peaceful outcome rather than violence.
“In this narrow window of opportunity, we sent the Office of the First Lady an unsolicited last-ditch memo — for which we were not paid — urging the leadership in plain terms to recognize that they still had time to avoid an escalating bloodbath and urgently implement reforms. Above all, BLJ boldly and directly encouraged the government to listen to the demands of the Syrian people. Our message was timely and consonant with that of the US government.
“Unfortunately, our advice was ignored, resulting in the ongoing and escalating violence against the Syrian people. Our professional and voluntary involvement in the country ended when the regime proved irredeemable and US sanctions were imposed.”
Such documents outlining a lobby group’s PR strategy for an authoritarian regime rarely see the light of day, so credit to Assange for exposing this one. But WikiLeaks isn’t the only place one can find a document outlining BJL strategy on behalf of such a client. In 2010, the company filed FARA documents pertaining to its relationship with the China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF), a pro-China lobby group with close ties to the government in Beijing, mistakenly including its work plan along with the required forms (filers need only provide details of their contract, not their PR strategies). Understandably, the document has thus far escaped media attention. It can be read here.
In a section headlined “Tibet Factual Review,” BJL suggests to CUSEF the creation of a “strong, factual counter narrative” to spin China’s occupation of Tibet, one that “eliminates the emotion from the situation” and undermines “purely emotional arguments.” And more disturbingly, lobbyists from BJL contacted the publishers of “four leading United States high school textbooks regarding their coverage and portrayal of issues related to Tibet and China” in its campaign to “defend and promote” the Chinese position on the occupation.
“BJL has conducted the first stage of a textbook analysis, and will proceed with contacting editors and publishers once the CUSEF-sponsored study is published and there is material with which to approach the relevant parties.”
The document confirms that BJL “drafted and submitted a report along with recommendations for countering the tide of public discourse.”
You can browse all of BJL’s other FARA filings here.