A former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates pleaded guilty Friday to federal charges in connection with a secret lobbying campaign on behalf of Qatar to influence the Trump White House and Congress in 2017, after implicating a retired four-star American general in the effort.
In pre-plea proceedings in federal court in Washington, Olson’s defense counsel said he admitted to the misdemeanor charges — each punishable by up to one year in prison at his sentencing Sept. 13 — and cooperated with federal prosecutors on the understanding that they were also investigating and pursuing criminal charges against retired four-star Marine Gen. John G. Allen. The latter commanded U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan before retiring in 2013. He was tapped in late 2017 as president of Washington’s influential Brookings Institution, to which Qatar agreed in 2013 to donate $14.8 million over four years.
The two men are the latest high-level American officials to be enmeshed in a long-running federal investigation into a ferocious — and lucrative — battle for influence in Washington waged between the wealthy Persian Gulf nation of Qatar and its regional rival the United Arab Emirates, as Donald Trump prepared to take office and engage in new rounds of Middle East diplomacy.
In July 2021, billionaire Thomas J. Barrack, Jr., Trump’s longtime friend and presidential inaugural committee chairman, was criminally charged with obstructing justice and acting as an unregistered agent for the UAE; and American businessman Imaad Zuberi, a major political donor to both political parties, was sentenced in February 2020 to 12 years in prison after pleading guilty to tax evasion, foreign-influence peddling and campaign-finance violations.
In plea papers, Olson acknowledged not disclosing as required in annual ethics forms that he had received a first-class airplane ticket from New Mexico to London and a stay in a luxury hotel in January 2015 worth about $20,000 from a Pakistani American businessman who was not identified by the government but whose description matches that of Zuberi.
Olson admitted meeting with a Bahrain businessman, who would offer him a one-year $300,000 contract for work after he left the State Department.
In June 2017, Olson admitted in plea papers, he contacted an unnamed third person — whom his defense identified as Allen — to help “provide aid and advice to Qatari government officials with the intent to influence” U.S. policy during a blockade of Qatar by the UAE and its ally, Saudi Arabia. Zuberi, Olson and “Person 3” traveled to Doha, where the latter pair met with various Qatari officials including its emir, then returned to meet in Washington with members of Congress.
In court filings and a hearing May 27, Olson attorney J. Michael Hannon pressed U.S. prosecutors to say why Allen has not been charged.
Exculpatory evidence about Allen could mitigate Olson’s sentence or invalidate his plea agreement, Hannon argued, saying a decision not to charge the general could mean prosecutors improperly “induced” a guilty plea from the diplomat who relied on government representations that he might be recommended leniency at sentencing for his cooperation.
“If in fact there is no case against General John R. Allen [for allegedly violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act], we think that that is a significant piece of information for sentencing, just as we believe that an inducement to enter into this plea agreement is important to the court,” Hannon told U.S. Magistrate Judge G. Michael Harvey, who accepted Olson’s plea.
Prosecutor Evan Turgeon, with the Justice Department’s national security division, said in the earlier hearing that any communications between Allen and U.S. government officials about the Qatar trip were not exculpatory for Olson, that Allen’s case remained open, and that Olson’s signed plea deal contained no promise by prosecutors to recommend leniency in exchange for cooperation.
“We dispute the statement that the government has made a prosecutorial decision as to other persons,” Turgeon said.
He added, “Nothing related to General Allen has any bearing on the false statement the defendant made on an Office of Government Ethics form in May of 2016, and that was a full year before General Allen’s involvement in activities related to Qatar.”
Beau Phillips, a spokesman for Allen, declined to comment on the status of his investigation, but said in a emailed statement Friday: “John Allen voluntarily cooperated with the government’s investigation into this matter. John Allen’s only efforts with regard to Qatar in 2017 were to protect the interests of the United States and the military personnel stationed in Qatar. John Allen received no fee for his efforts.”
Phillips has previously said Trump’s national security adviser at the time, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, “approved the [Qatar] trip and offered the assistance of his staff in preparation.”
Olson, who retired in November 2016, was recognized by then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry as “quite simply one of our most distinguished diplomats, a career member of the Senior Foreign Service who has been on the forefront of our work in the Middle East, Africa and most recently in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
A criminal information charging Olson was filed under seal in federal court March 22, and a plea agreement signed by both sides in January was entered the following day. The case was transferred in April to Washington for a plea and sentencing, when it became public.
In charging papers, the Justice Department said Olson was paid to lobby the Trump administration to help lift the blockade against Qatar — which hosts a key forward operating base of the U.S. military’s Central Command — and mend relations among its Persian Gulf neighbors.
The department has not alleged that Olson or those he worked with violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires Americans to publicly register with the attorney general when they are paid to influence U.S. policy for foreign governments, political parties or politicians. The once nearly dormant law enacted in 1938 to thwart Nazi propaganda has been invoked since 2017 in more than two dozen federal prosecutions aimed at combating foreign interference in U.S. politics, but criminal prosecutions under it can be difficult as they require proof that violations are made willfully.
The law has been a land mine for Trump allies accused of secretly exploiting their insider access to affect U.S. foreign policy and peddling influence to further their own business interests. Barrack, one of his Trump’s closet associates on his road to the White House, pleaded not guilty last summer and was freed on $250 million bond pending trial on charges of conspiring to secretly lobby for the UAE, which invested significantly in his investment firm, Colony Capital.
In October 2020, Elliott Broidy, a Trump fundraiser and former Republican National Committee deputy finance chairman who also received a $200 million security contract with the UAE, pleaded guilty to acting as an unregistered foreign agent and accepting millions of dollars to secretly lobby the Trump administration for Malaysian and Chinese interests.
And last month, the Justice Department sued hotel and casino magnate Steve Wynn to compel the Republican megadonor and RNC finance chair with Broidy to register as an agent of China. The department argued that Wynn, former chief executive of Wynn Resorts, leveraged his relationship with Trump and members of his administration to advance Beijing’s interests in 2017.
Wynn’s attorneys have said he never acted as agent of the Chinese government and had no obligation to register under the law. Prosecutors alleged Barrack engaged in a two-year effort from April 2016 to April 2018 to advance the UAE’s interests through Trump’s campaign and his presidency, trading in on his friendships and access to the president to influence his campaign, U.S. government officials and the media without disclosing his true allegiances.
Zuberi has appealed his sentence. A prolific donor whose major gifts to Trump, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden and members of Congress of both parties gave him elite political status, Zuberi has claimed he was a longtime U.S. intelligence source for the U.S. government, a factor his attorneys say may offset his criminal charges, the Wall Street Journal has reported.
Prosecutors called the scope of Zuberi’s scheme unprecedented, in which he solicited foreign nationals and governments to hire him to lobby U.S. officials, arranged illegal campaign contributions and cheated on his taxes. Zuberi lobbied for the Bahraini citizen, as well as the Sri Lanka, Turkey and a Ukrainian oligarch close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, prosecutors said.