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Trump fundraiser Elliott Broidy sues Qatar alleging cyber smear campaign

Elliott Broidy, seen here at an event in Beverly Hills in 2015. (Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images)

A prominent Republican fundraiser and longtime supporter of President Trump sued the country of Qatar on Monday, alleging that it engaged in a sophisticated information warfare campaign against him to smear his name in the United States and abroad.

The fundraiser, Elliott Broidy, alleged that the Qatari government hacked his email accounts and, through U.S.-based lobbyists, leaked stolen and forged material to U.S. and foreign journalists.

The move is Broidy’s counterpunch to a recent stream of negative news stories that have relied in part on the hacked emails to explore various individuals’ alleged efforts to exploit their access to Trump to affect foreign policy and peddle influence to further their own business interests.

“We believe the evidence is clear that a nation state is waging a sophisticated disinformation campaign against me to silence me, including hacking emails, forging documents, and engaging in espionage and numerous other illegal activities,” said Broidy. “We believe it is also clear that I have been targeted because of my strong political views against Qatar’s state sponsored terrorism and double dealing.”

Read the complaint: Trump fundraiser sues government of Qatar

He is framing the case as a “hostile intelligence operation” undertaken by a foreign nation on U.S. territory against U.S. citizens — including himself and his wife, Robin Rosenzweig — who have charged that Qatar is a state sponsor of terrorism.

In a statement issued by media attache Jassim al-Thani, the Qatar Embassy said Broidy’s lawsuit was “without fact or merit,” and called it “a transparent attempt to divert attention from U.S. media reports about his activities.”

“It is Mr. Broidy, not Qatar, who orchestrated nefarious activities designed to influence Congress and American foreign policy,” the statement said. “It does not matter how many venues Mr. Broidy publishes his false accusations in, they will not become truth.”

The lawsuit lays bare how information warfare is not just waged between states but is used by states against individuals and has now invaded the murky world of American politics and political lobbying.

Broidy filed suit in federal court in Los Angeles, where his firm, Broidy Capital Management, is based. He is seeking damages to be determined by the court.

Broidy alleges that Qatar supports terrorists and last year launched a multimillion-dollar public relations campaign to counter allegations that it had backed al-Qaeda, Hamas, the Taliban and the Muslim Brotherhood — and sought to change its image in the United States.

“We believe Qatar has engaged in cyberattacks aimed at a U.S. citizen on American soil seemingly because of their perceived political influence and their outspoken opposition to Qatar’s support and sponsorship of terrorists,” said Lee Wolosky, Broidy’s lawyer. “The Broidys are victims of a sophisticated effort to damage their reputations and relationships.”

The couple are also suing Nicholas Muzin and his firm, Stonington Strategies, which they allege were employed by the Qatar government and were part of the smear campaign. Muzin, a medical doctor with a law degree, is a former senior aide to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Cruz’s presidential campaign, and former chief of staff to Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.). The lawsuit alleges that Muzin, an Orthodox Jew, was hired by Qatar to improve the country’s standing with the U.S. Jewish community.

In a statement, Muzin said: “Mr. Broidy’s lawsuit is an obvious attempt to draw attention away from his controversial work, and is as flimsy as the promises he reportedly made to his clients. I am proud of the work my firm has conducted with Qatar and look forward to continuing to support peaceful dialogue and progress in the Middle East.”

The lawsuit comes in the midst of a continuing high-priced feud playing out over the past year in Washington between factions in the Middle East. On one side is Qatar, which has amassed a fleet of Washington lawyers and lobbyists to represent its interests. The other side comprises four countries: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain. The quartet, which has its own high-priced collection of U.S. lobbyists, accuses Qatar of destabilizing the region and supporting terrorism, accusations the Qataris reject.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” in terms of expense and aggressive tactics employed, said longtime lobbyist Charlie Black.

Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. have for years objected to what they charged was Qatar’s funding and harboring of leaders of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and its willingness to have stable relations with Iran, with which it shares a massive natural gas field in the Persian Gulf. Most vociferously, the two gulf states have said that the Arabic language service of Al Jazeera, the media conglomerate based in and financed by the Qatari government, gave voice to internal dissent within those countries.

Last June, the Saudis and Emiratis, along with Bahrain and Egypt, severed relations with Qatar and imposed a blockade of the country, a small peninsula into the gulf whose only land border is with Saudi Arabia. Days before they severed ties, they charged that the Qatari leader, Emir Tamin bin Hamad al-Thani, had made public statements in support of terrorists and Iran.

Qatar quickly denied the statements, which appeared on its official news site. The Washington Post later reported that, according to U.S. intelligence, the Qatari site had been hacked, and the false statements inserted, by officials of the UAE government.

UAE orchestrated hacking of Qatari government sites, sparking regional upheaval, according to U.S. intelligence officials

The Saudi and UAE actions sent the region into a political and diplomatic tailspin that continues to threaten to undermine U.S. military objectives in the Middle East.

Much of what Broidy alleges appears to fall within the confines of the lobbying campaigns. He charges that Muzin attempted to persuade American Jewish leaders — a community in which Broidy has long been active — to visit Qatar.

Broidy alleges that his own prominence in the American Jewish community, with Trump and the administration, and with Congress, made him a threat to Qatar, which he actively campaigned against. He alleges that Qatar damaged his reputation and undermined his business interests, including what he says is a $200 million security contract with the UAE.

Broidy and Rosenzweig allege that late last year, Qatar hacked their personal and business email accounts. On Dec. 27, they allege, Rosenzweig received an email that appeared to be a Gmail security alert, which she clicked on and, as directed, entered her log-in and password. In fact, she had clicked on a “phishing” email designed to get her to give up her security credentials.

That enabled the hackers to obtain access to her personal Google accounts, which contained user names and passwords to access other email accounts, including Broidy’s and the firm’s.

The intruders used a common technique to mask their location, hacking through servers located elsewhere, in this case in Britain and the Netherlands, the lawsuit alleges. According to forensic investigator Robert Johnston, chief executive of Adlumin, which was hired by Broidy, they also used a server in Utah. The hackers, he said, slipped up while trying to mask their location, and revealed an IP address that tracked back to an Internet service provider controlled by the Qatari government and that has ties to the state intelligence agency.

Among the emails distributed to U.S. media outlets were indications that Broidy had attempted to use his access to Trump to further his own political and foreign policy interests, as well as his business interests in obtaining overseas contracts.

On Monday, the Associated Press reported that Broidy had received a $2.5 million payment sent through a Canadian company by George Nader, an adviser to the UAE government who is currently cooperating with the U.S. special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The AP indicated that money was spent in part on an anti-Qatar conference by a Washington think tank, and in contributions to U.S. political figures critical of Qatar.

A person familiar with Broidy’s views, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Nader had sent the money to Broidy, but denied the funds had any connection to the UAE.

Under U.S. law, foreign sovereign countries generally may not be sued in U.S. courts unless one of a handful of exceptions apply. Broidy is suing under the noncommercial tort exception, which enables a lawsuit for “personal injury or death, or damage to or loss of property, occurring in the United States” that is caused by the “tortious act” of the foreign state.

There is not much case law in this area that involves cyber intrusions. But in a hacking case brought against the government of Ethiopia by a U.S. citizen, the federal appeals court in the District of Columbia last year ruled for the foreign government. Because the hack originated outside the United States, the plaintiff had no grounds to sue, the court said.

Wolofsky noted that the D.C. appeals court ruling does not bind the Central District of California, where the lawsuit was filed.

But Paul Krieger, a former cyber prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, said he thought that the appellate ruling “seems to pose significant challenges” for Broidy’s case because, among other things, the complaint alleges that the hack originated in Qatar.