ALEXANDRIA, Va. - Federal prosecutors unsealed an indictment Monday charging two business associates of Michael T. Flynn with acting as agents of the Turkish government, describing in remarkable detail how the three attempted to convince the U.S. to expel a rival of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Throughout the fall of 2016, while Flynn served publicly as a key surrogate and foreign policy adviser to Donald Trump's presidential campaign, prosecutors say he and business partner Bijan Kian took hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Turkish government to push for the extradition from the U.S. of dissident cleric Fethullah Gulen. Their efforts, prosecutors said, were directed by Kamil Ekim Alptekin, a Turkish businessman with close ties to the country's leadership.
U.S. law enforcement has repeatedly rejected Turkey's efforts to bring Gulen back to his home country - despite intense pressure from Erdogan, who believes the cleric responsible for a failed 2016 coup attempt despite Gulen's denials. By prosecutors' account, the foreign government found a powerful and enthusiastic ally in Flynn - one who was willing on the eve of the presidential election to pen an op-ed pushing for Gulen's expulsion.
Flynn already admitted last year to lying about his business with the Turkish government and agreed to cooperate with law enforcement in a deal with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team. That almost certainly helped produce charges against Kian and Alptekin. But the indictment Monday spells out for the first time how intimately Flynn was involved in the effort, which involved weekly conference calls to coordinate with Turkish officials.
Flynn's piece in The Hill, which called Gulen "a "radical cleric . . . running a scam," was the culmination of a months-long public and private lobbying campaign for which the Turkish government agreed to pay Flynn's consulting firm $600,000, according to the indictment.
The money was funneled through a company run by Alptekin - who also arranged meetings and delivered guidance from his country's leaders - to obscure that the effort was directed by Turkey, according to the indictment.
Kian and Alptekin are charged with conspiracy and acting as agents of a foreign government; Alptekin is also accused of making false statements. Kian - who also goes by Rafiekian - made his first appearance in Alexandria federal court Monday morning; Alptekin, who notably co-chaired a conference on U.S.-Turkey relations at Trump's Washington hotel in 2017, remains in Turkey. While that event was being held, there was a violent clash between Turkish guards and protesters outside the Turkish ambassador's residence near Dupont Circle.
Molly Toomey, a spokeswoman for Alptekin, said Alptekin had initially wanted to broker a contract between Flynn Intel Group and the Turkish government, but that never occurred and he ultimately hired the company himself.
"Ekim has never changed his story," Toomey said. "He has always been perfectly clear that the government of Turkey did not participate in this project, and that he was the only person, and his company was the only entity directing the work and paying for the work."
As the Mueller investigation has moved forward, the Justice Department has seemed to take a more aggressive posture in recent months toward prosecuting those who lobby for foreign interests without registering appropriately. Mueller had charged former Trump campaign advisers Paul Manafort and Rick Gates with related crimes for their work in Ukraine, and the Justice Department recently reached a plea agreement with a Russian woman who it had accused of acting as a Kremlin agent in the U.S.
Flynn is set to be sentenced Tuesday for lying to FBI agents as part of a special counsel investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. Prosecutors asked that he receive no prison time, citing his "substantial assistance."
On Monday night, prosecutors filed in D.C. court the notes of FBI agents' January 2017 interview with Flynn in which, he later admitted, he misled agents. The filings show that Flynn was asked about Obama-era sanctions that were announced Dec. 29, 2016, as punishment for Russia's interference in the election and that he insisted he had not discussed them with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Flynn claimed he had not even known about the newly announced sanctions because he had been on vacation in the Dominican Republic, where he did not have access to television news and his government BlackBerry was not working.
In fact, Flynn had called a senior transition official at Trump's Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, to talk about what he should say to Kislyak about the sanctions that had been announced, and he followed up later to report the upshot of the conversation with the ambassador, according to his plea agreement. People familiar with the case have said the official was Flynn's deputy, K.T. McFarland.
Trump allies who have alleged that Flynn was entrapped by the FBI have sought the release of the interview notes for months, believing they could reveal that Flynn was confused in the session or tricked by agents. The document, however, shows that Flynn spun an elaborate story to hide the details of his conversation with Kislyak.
As part of his plea, Flynn agreed that he had lied to FBI agents about that and the Turkey scheme.
The Turkey case against Kian and Alptekin, though, is being handled by Assistant U.S. Attorneys James Gillis and Evan Turgeon in the Eastern District of Virginia, not the special counsel.
While Flynn's efforts to have Gulen extradited from the United States were previously known, the indictment offered new details.
Those involved dubbed their project the "Truth Campaign," and later, "Operation Confidence," and prosecutors described emails between the men discussing what they hoped to accomplish.
Negotiations began in July 2016, according to the court records, after the Justice Department told the Turkish government that Gulen could not be extradited without more evidence of wrongdoing. That was during the heart of Trump's presidential campaign, when President Barack Obama was still in office.
"We are ready to engage on what needs to be done," Kian wrote Alptekin, on July 27.
"I just finished in Ankara after several meetings today" with Turkish ministers, Alptekin responded to Kian and Flynn the next month, according to the indictment. "I have a green light to discuss confidentiality, budget, and the scope of the contract."
That contract, drawn up in September 2016, required Flynn's company, the Flynn Intel Group, to "deliver findings and results including but not limited to making criminal referrals" against Gulen.
That same month, according to the indictment, Flynn, Kian, and Alptekin met with high-level Turkish officials in New York to discuss the campaign. Over the next two months Flynn's firm lobbied a member of Congress, a congressional staffer and a state government official, according to the indictment.
A statement released by The Alliance for Shared Values, a nonprofit affiliated with Gulen, said the indictment "shows just how far the Erdogan government will go in breaking US law."
Ergodan has engaged in a years-long, worldwide campaign against Gulen, a former political ally he now claims is a leader of a "terrorist organization." Inside Turkey, tens of thousands of people have been arrested and more than 100,000 civil servants fired for alleged links to Gulen. At least 80 Turkish nationals have been extradited from other countries and arrested. Turkish lobbying efforts to have Gulen himself extradited from Pennsylvania, where he has lived for two decades, continue to this day.
Following a phone call between Erdogan and President Trump last week, Turkish officials told reporters that the U.S. president said possible tax violations by Gulen were being reviewed. But administration officials dispute that there is a justifiable legal case for returning him to Turkey.
In the fall of 2016, even with Flynn's help, efforts were similarly unsuccessful. In October of that year, Alptekin complained that there had been no "smoking gun." Kian, according to prosecutors, then produced a draft of the op-ed, which compared Gulen to Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini and argued the U.S. should not provide a "safe haven" for the cleric.
"The arrow has left the bow!" Kian emailed Alptekin on Nov. 4, 2016. "This is a very high profile exposure one day before the election."
Flynn's piece was published in The Hill on Nov. 8, the day Trump was elected. It prompted concern in the Justice Department's national security division, where officials wondered why Flynn, aspiring to be national security adviser to the next president, was parroting the talking points of the Turkish government.
Prosecutors alleged those involved used Alptekin's company in the Netherlands to obscure the role of the Turkish government in directing the project, and that Alptekin himself was paid $40,000 for his involvement.
The Flynn Intel Group, based in Alexandria, Virginia, registered retroactively with the Justice Department as a foreign agent in March 2017, disclosing that Alptekin's firm, Inovo BV, had paid it more than $500,000 for work that could benefit Turkey.
But according to the indictment, Kian and Alptekin lied about the involvement of Turkish government officials in the project, claiming it was done on behalf of an Israeli company seeking to do business in Turkey.
Prosecutors said the men falsely claimed that Flynn wrote the op-ed on his own and that Alptekin opposed its publication, and that the $40,000 payment to Alptekin's firm was a refund for unperformed work.
The Flynn Intel Group also falsely claimed that a meeting in New York with Turkish officials on Sept. 19, 2016, was just for background on the country, prosecutors said.
Flynn left the White House in February 2017 after it was revealed that he had lied about his conversation with a Russian ambassador. But Flynn had informed the incoming White House legal counsel during the transition that he might need to register as a foreign agent, and that apparently raised no alarms - even though he would soon become Trump's national security adviser. Flynn's firm is now defunct.
Kian was allowed out on a personal recognizance bond Monday, with one condition: that he keep the probation office abreast of his movements. Defense attorney Robert Trout told a magistrate judge that Kian is in the process of relocating from California to the D.C. area. Trout declined to comment after the proceeding.
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The Washington Post's Devlin Barrett, Karen DeYoung, Rosalind S. Helderman, David Fahrenthold and Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.
DAVIS, Calif. - Three cows clomped, single-file, through a chute to line up for sonograms - ultrasound "preg checks" - to reveal if they were expecting calves next summer.
"Right now. This is exciting, right this minute," animal geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam said as she waited for a tiny blob of a fetus to materialize on a laptop screen on a recent afternoon at the Beef Barn, part of the University of California at Davis's sprawling agricultural facilities for teaching and research.
The cows had been implanted a month and a half earlier with embryos genetically edited to grow and look like males, regardless of their biological gender.
The research project pits one of the hottest fields in biotechnology against the messy politics of gene modification.
As scientists in labs across the world create virus-resistant pigs, heat-tolerant cattle and fatter, more muscular lambs, a big question looms: Will regulation, safety concerns and public skepticism prevent these advances from becoming anything more than fascinating laboratory experiments, or will the animals transform agriculture and the food supply? So far, gene-editing tools have jump-started research worldwide, creating more than 300 pigs, cattle, sheep and goats. Now, proponents of the field say the United States is at a make-or-break moment, when government action over the next year could determine whether any gene-edited food animals make it to market.
The announcement last month that a Chinese researcher had created genetically edited human babies sparked an international furor and a moral debate. But while such research is effectively outlawed in the United States and was swiftly condemned by a group of leading researchers, Van Eenennaam and her colleagues are pushing similar techniques into the barnyard. There, such applications are far less hypothetical. But the societal consensus about how or whether they should be used - and how to prove the technology is safe for animals and people who eat them - is even less clear.
Just down the road from the Beef Barn are five bulls and a heifer, the second generation of cattle that have been gene-edited to lack horns, avoiding a grisly procedure in the dairy industry called "disbudding," when calves' horns are burned or cut off. The new gene-editing attempt is even more audacious.
For farmers seeking to maximize beef production, all-male cattle could be a win: Males gain weight more efficiently than females. For scientists, successful births would add to a menagerie of gene-edited animals that demonstrate the power of the technology beyond the lab, where their use is mostly routine and uncontroversial.
"The technology challenges of producing genetically engineered animals are gone," said Charles Long, a biologist at Texas A&M University who says he works in pretty much any livestock animal except chickens. "What we have to do is really start producing the animals that have these traits."
Gene-edited plants will soon be in the grocery store, but similar tinkering with the DNA of animals faces a far more uncertain future. The regulatory process for getting animals approved is more complex and treats the edited DNA as a veterinary drug - a difference that animal scientists argue will effectively kill their field by preventing innovations that could make raising livestock more sustainable, more efficient or more humane. Many advocates and ethicists agree that the current oversight system is a poor fit but think that scientists and industry underestimate potential safety concerns.
"I don't want speed limits, either, but they have a role," said Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety.
The Trump administration has signaled its interest in modernizing regulations to foster innovation. The Food and Drug Administration, which oversees animal gene editing, announced in late October that it will issue new guidance next year to calibrate the regulation to the risk posed by the product. Sonny Perdue, the secretary of agriculture, met with food biotechnology leaders in November.
Researchers, after years of fighting public skepticism on genetically modified foods, are hopeful but not optimistic. Advocates are lining up on both sides of the issue.
"We're at this inflection point in society, where gene editing is really taking off, and now is the time we could have a more sustained public conversation about how we want it used in our world and how we don't want it to be used," said Jennifer Kuzma, co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University. "All the polls indicate that people are less comfortable with animal biotechnology than plant biotechnology. . . . A regulatory system cannot be based 100 percent on science or scientific risk, and values come into play when setting the standards."
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For decades, scientists have been transferring genes between species in the lab - inserting a gene from a microbe into a cow's DNA to make it resistant to a painful infection called mastitis, or repurposing a gene found in bacteria to reduce pigs' phosphorus pollution. The only genetically modified animal approved for food consumption in the United States is the fast-growing AquAdvantage salmon, but it isn't being sold because of a labeling requirement originally introduced in a spending bill.
To oversee the emerging field of biotechnology, the Reagan administration, rather than passing new laws, created a "coordinated framework" in which regulatory agencies would use their existing laws for oversight. Genetically engineered animals thus fall under the FDA's process for approving new veterinary drugs.
The regulatory path was complicated, and the research had to contend with the public "ick" factor.
Van Eenennaam recalls one of her fondest scientific memories - more than two decades ago, she inserted a gene from a roundworm into a mouse and successfully showed that this could generate heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids in the rodent's milk. The experiment was conceived as a proof of concept before extending the technology to cows, but the grant proposal was rejected.
"While it may be putting the cart before the horse, the proposal has not mentioned the problem with acceptance of transgenic food products," a reviewer wrote. "Given the 'pure and wholesome' public perception of milk products, it may be particularly difficult to gain widespread public acceptance for transgenic milk products - despite their benefits."
Many who worked in the field at the time recall feeling discouraged by similar rejections.
"I'm angry as hell 90 percent of the time," said Long, who now plans to move some of his work to Brazil, where the regulatory path is more certain. "It's been a 20-year fight."
When Van Eenennaam was traveling in China a few years ago, she visited a lab where the omega-3 gene had been inserted into cows.
"I kept getting these emails from researchers in China, and then I saw the cow," she said, bringing up a photo on her computer screen. "Good on them."
Scientists were re-energized by the invention of new and more precise technologies, the most famous of which is CRISPR, short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.
Using CRISPR, scientists can quickly, easily and cheaply make targeted cuts to the genome and make changes or insert new genes. Instead of introducing the foreign DNA that had triggered public skepticism, they could delete or change a single letter out of billions in an animal's genome. Such changes happen routinely in nature - they are the basis for evolution - so scientists were hopeful that regulators and the public would see these animals differently.
But in early 2017, the FDA put out draft guidance indicating that animals with intentionally altered DNA would be regulated just like the genetically modified animals have been - as containing veterinary drugs. Proponents and skeptics alike felt it wasn't the right move.
"We need to rethink this - look at the science, look at the potential risk, look at the products that are going to be developed. Is there a need for oversight, and what is the appropriate mechanism for that oversight?" said Greg Jaffe, biotechnology project director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Van Eenennaam was in the middle of an experiment at the time. There were two bulls on campus that had been gene-edited to be "polled," lacking horns, through a collaboration with the company Recombinetics. Overnight, the animals' status changed.
"We went from having two bulls that were polled to having two 2,000-pound drugs," Van Eenennaam said. "It sounds funny, but all of that becomes a huge liability."
In written responses to questions, the FDA clarified that gene-edited animals aren't considered drugs but that they contain new animal drugs.
Researchers and companies argued that it wasn't rational to treat all gene-editing the same, whether it was a single DNA letter change that was also found in nature or a radical rewrite of the genome.
"Somebody comes to me and says, 'Randy, I want to make these genetic modifications and put it in the food chain. What is it going to take?' I tell them I don't know how long, and I don't know how much it's going to cost, because we don't have any examples," said Randall Prather, a reproductive physiologist who runs the National Swine Resource and Research Center at the University of Missouri. "You hear a click when they hang up."
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A few days before the scheduled preg checks in Davis, the FDA sent out a new Plant and Animal Biotechnology Innovation Action Plan. The details will be rolled out over the next year, but the goal is to clarify its approach, reduce barriers to innovation and protect public health. The agency said in a statement that it could be more "flexible with respect to data" if a genetic alteration does not differ in any "relevant way" from nature. But it also added that genome editing techniques "may carry unique risks." Scientists and watchdogs alike are worried that the process will take place behind closed doors.
Kuzma is particularly concerned about unforeseen changes to DNA that occur because tools such as CRISPR aren't perfect and may make unintended changes to other genes. She worries that the regulatory process may be too industry-friendly.
"It's going to be a very closed process and a very cozy relationship between the technology developers and the federal government," Kuzma said.
Van Eenennaam, wearing an "I love science" shirt, had a different concern. She worried that the agency won't grapple with the fundamental problem, as she sees it, that edits creating animals with DNA and traits that occur naturally shouldn't be treated as drugs.
But at the moment, her bigger concern was the difficulty of science. CRISPR is often touted a tool so simple that high school students can use it, but experiments in large mammals are far from straightforward. The challenges of in vitro fertilization, the imperfect efficiency of gene-editing and the vagaries of bovine fertility whittle down the odds of success.
Van Eenennaam joked that her shirt should say "I hate science," as she headed over to the Beef Barn for the preg checks.
In the late afternoon light, veterinarian Bret McNabb reluctantly declared one cow after another "open" - meaning no pregnancies today. The last cow, 1201, showed signs that she may have been pregnant but lost the fetus.
A tense silence fell over the group.
"I don't know that we can blame the cows. There's a lot going on here," Van Eenennaam said.
But this was not the end - graduate student Joey Owen had already spent the morning freezing the next round of gene-edited embryos. The next day, he showed up at lab at 2 a.m. to analyze biopsies from those embryos, and hours later, he and Van Eenennaam began to game out the next few months, planning another round of experiments for right before the winter break.