Inside Morocco’s Campaign To Influence Hillary Clinton and Other U.S. Leaders

Leaked documents and other evidence offer a glimpse of a foreign government's lobbying campaign in Washington, focused on the former secretary of state.

Morocco’s team of American lobbyists regularly communicated with State Department officials during Hillary Rodham Clinton’s four-year tenure and several are supporting her candidacy for the 2016 presidential election, according to disclosures filed with the Justice Department.

Meanwhile, a controversial cache of what appear to be Moroccan diplomatic documents show how the Moroccan government courted Clinton, built a cooperative relationship with the Secretary of State, and orchestrated the use of consultants, think tanks and other “third-party validators” to advance the North African nation’s goals within elite U.S. political circles.

The DOJ filings and Moroccan leaks help flesh out the story of how a strategically important Arab nation — one that’s been widely denounced for holding one of the last remaining colonial territories in the world — has sought to influence U.S. politics in general and Clinton in particular. Clinton, who has called Morocco “a leader and a model,” saw her and her family’s relationship with the nation burst into the national consciousness earlier this month when Politico reported that the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation would accept more than $1 million in funding from a company controlled by Moroccan King Mohammed VI to host a foundation event in Marrakech on May 5-7. Other foreign contributions to the foundation have also generated controversy, but none as intensely as the Morocco gift.

Documents suggest that the Moroccan government has long sought to influence the Clinton family over U.S.-Morocco relations. Mandatory disclosures filed by Morocco’s many American lobbyists provide one window into these efforts. Another side of the story can be seen through the cache of apparent Moroccan diplomatic documents believed to have been hacked by critics of the government. The diplomatic cables began to appear online seven months ago but are receiving fresh scrutiny given news of the donation to the foundation.

Paid by Morocco — and pushing hard for Hillary 2016

U.S.-based lobbyists for Morocco communicated frequently with State Department officials during Clinton’s tenure, according to disclosures filed with the Justice Department. The filings also show Morocco’s lobbyists are positioned to support Hillary Rodham Clinton’s bid for the 2016 presidential election. In February of last year, Morocco retained Justin Gray, a board member to Priorities USA Action, the pro-Clinton Super PAC, as a lobbyist on retainer for $25,000 per month, an amount that now represents about a third of his firm’s revenue.

Toby Moffett, a longtime lobbyist for the Moroccan government, penned an op-ed last month decrying the “left-right tag team” of pundits in the media criticizing Clinton’s bid for the presidency. Records show that on December 24, 2014, Moffett held a conference call with Dwight Bush, the U.S. ambassador to Morocco, concerning the Clinton Global Initiative event in Marrakech next month.

Gray and two other lobbyists employed by his firm Gray Global Advisors on retainer for the Kingdom of Morocco, Ed Towns and Ralph Nurmberger, gave donations totaling $16,500 to the Super PAC Ready for Hillary, which rebranded recently as Ready PAC.

Gray Global Advisors declined to comment. Asked about the Clinton Foundation event, Moffett emailed to say he knows “absolutely zero about it.”

“Marocleaks” show a friendly Clinton-Moroccan relationship

Though the Foreign Agents Registration Act requires representatives of foreign governments to disclose certain lobbying contacts, Morocco’s reliance on lobbyists for influence over American foreign policy is spelled out in greater detail in more than 700 documents that began appearing on the web late last year. The cache of diplomatic documents detail efforts to court Hillary Clinton during her tenure at the State Department, the Kingdom’s preference for Clinton over Secretary of State John Kerry, as well attempts to use American think tanks and other supportive U.S. entities to advance Morocco’s goals.

The diplomatic cables, known as the “Marocleaks” in French and North African news outlets, began appearing online on October 3 of last year through various social media accounts. The cables are reportedly the result of a hacking campaign and although many of the accounts leaking the documents were shut down, new leaks of Moroccan government cables appeared as recently as March of this year. The source of the stolen documents is unknown, though social media postings make clear that those involved are critical of the Moroccan government.

Moroccan government officials have not denied the authenticity of the documents, but some have dismissed them as part of a campaign by “pro-Polisario elements,” referring to the armed insurgent group that has battled government forces in Western Sahara, a territory occupied by Morocco. Speaking at a press conference last December, a Moroccan official denounced what he called “a rabid campaign” against his country.

I contacted an American filmmaker mentioned in the diplomatic cables and was able to confirm the authenticity of some of the files. The names and identifying information about American lobbyists on retainer for the Kingdom of Morocco are accurately reflected in the documents. And events described in the documents correspond with contemporaneous public information about those events. The Moroccan Embassy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Still, questions persist about the origin and other aspects of the cache. One journalist in France raised questions about the leaks, suggesting one of the media accounts disseminating the cables blended “authentic and manipulated documents.” Brian Whitaker, the former Middle East editor of the Guardian, has reported on a small batch of the documents, believing them to be authentic, but noted that the cache has “mostly gone unnoticed outside Morocco, perhaps because the leaks have so far revealed little that was not already known, or at least suspected.”

The documents collectively portray the relationship between former Secretary Clinton and the Moroccan government as cooperative. Minutes of meetings conducted by then-Foreign Minister Saad-Eddine El Othmani on March 15 and 16 of 2012 describe a meeting with Clinton in which she requests support from Morocco on the Syrian civil war, asking them to ask the Arab League to prevent Arabic satellite networks from rebroadcasting Syrian state television, “to put a stop to false images and propaganda.” She also wanted the Arab League to require inspections of Iranian aircraft flying to Syria to prevent the transit of weapons via Iraqi airspace.

The foreign minister added that according to President Obama’s adviser Dennis McDonough in a recent meeting with the president, “Clinton had highlighted the many democratic reforms initiated by His Majesty King Mohammed VI,” and called the country a model for the region.

The upbeat mood was echoed in similar memos circulated throughout 2012, Clinton’s last year in office. “In recent years,” declared a December 2012 memo from the Moroccan Embassy in Washington, D.C., there had been “significant progress in defending the ultimate interests of Morocco.” The relationship between the U.S. and Morocco, the memo stated, was “marked by friendship and mutual respect,” and the country enjoyed support from U.S. policymakers including those in the State Department.

The tone shifts in early 2013 as Clinton left office and was replaced by John Kerry. A dossier prepared by embassy officials features career highlights from Kerry while lamenting the loss of Clinton. “It is clear that with the departure of Ms. Clinton, Morocco loses an ally who will be difficult to replace.” Kerry, the dossier noted, once signed a letter reaffirming the United Nations-backed call for a referendum allowing the people of Western Sahara a vote on independence.

Other memos written by Moroccan government sources express similar regret at the retirement of Clinton. One memo states, “changes in the American administration, notably the departure of former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, an important ally of the Kingdom in the Obama administration, and the appointment of John Kerry, who has never visited Morocco and on occasion held positions not always favorable to our country, has had some impact on the development of bilateral relations.”

Leaked: Moroccan strategy for pulling U.S. strings

Morocco’s attempts to sway policymakers relate to a host of contentious issues. Since 1975, Morocco has occupied Western Sahara, one of the last remaining colonies in the world, a conflict that has provoked fighting with the Polisario Front, a guerrilla army of indigenous Sahrawi people that draws support from the Algerian government. Morocco has also used its lobbying roster to mitigate stories that portray it as an authoritarian state that violently crushes dissent, suppresses the media and engages in child labor.

The United Nations since 1991 has called for a referendum in Western Sahara to allow local residents to choose between independence and integration with Morocco. The referendum option is bitterly opposed by the Moroccan government. King Mohammed VI has only supported an autonomy plan that would maintain Moroccan control over the region. He recently said, “Morocco will remain in its Sahara, and the Sahara will remain part of Morocco, until the end of time.”

In June 2009, President Obama wrote to King Mohammed VI and expressed support for the U.N.-led negotiations for a settlement to the dispute. Some observers interpreted the letter as a reversal of the Bush administration’s position supporting the Moroccan government’s plan.

Later that year, however, Secretary Clinton stood firmly behind Morocco, saying there had been “no change” in policy on Western Sahara. The Clinton campaign did not respond to a request for comment. In 2011, Clinton appeared with the Moroccan Foreign Minister and referenced Morocco’s plan as “serious, realistic, and credible — a potential approach to satisfy the aspirations of the people in the Western Sahara to run their own affairs in peace and dignity.”

In joint statements released by the State Department and the White House in October 2012, November 2013, and April 2014, the phrase “serious, realistic, and credible” was used to describe Morocco’s plan.

“There was somewhat of a reversal” by Clinton of the administration’s position, says Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, who noted that Clinton appeared to walk back the Obama administration’s brief support of a referendum. “It was certainly a disappointment to those who had hoped President Obama would join the majority of the international community in supporting self-determination.”

The donation to the Clinton Foundation will be made by Office Chérifien des Phosphates, a company known as OCP, controlled by King Mohammed VI. OCP, the world’s leading phosphate producer, relates directly to Morocco’s continued quest for control over Western Sahara. Brou Craa mine in the occupied Western Sahara territory is managed by OCP and is “today Morocco’s biggest source of income in Western Sahara,” according to Western Sahara Resource Watch, an NGO based in Brussels. Phosphorus from the mine is exported to fertilizer companies throughout the world.

Last month, the African Union Peace and Security Council voted to recommend a “global boycott of products of companies involved in the illegal exploitation of the natural resources of Western Sahara.” Critics have said OCP’s activities in the Western Sahara are illegal because they arise from an unlawful occupation, because they do not sufficiently benefit the local population, and because insufficient efforts have been made to obtain permission from the local population for the extraction of natural resources.

As Morocco attempted to lobby Clinton and other U.S. government officials, the diplomatic cables show a regime continually fine-turning their influence strategy.

The use of think tanks, business associations, other “third party validators … with unquestionable credibility,” one cable said, relates to the “peculiarity of the American political system.” Think tanks, the cable continued, “have considerable influence” on government officials, especially because so many former officials move in and out of think tank work. Mentioning the State Department as one agency that could be swayed through think tank advocacy, the memo goes on to state, “our work focuses on the most influential think tanks … across the political spectrum.” The memo lists several think tanks such as the Atlantic Council, the Heritage Foundation and the Hudson Institute.

One undated cable describes the relative advantages of the various lobbying firms on retainer for the Moroccan government. In the section on the Moffett Group, a company founded by Toby Moffett, a former Democratic congressman, the cable touts a “professional and personal relationship” between Moffett’s daughter and Tony Blinken, deputy secretary of state and former deputy national security advisor to President Obama. (The Moffet Group ended its relationship with Morocco last year, though Moffett is still retained individually through the law firm Mayer Brown, where he works as a senior advisor.)

The cable suggests other lobbyists were hired to help broaden Morocco’s appeal. For Ralph Nurnberger, another consultant mentioned in the lobbyist profile cable, his experience as a “former lobbyist for AIPAC, the largest Jewish lobby in the U.S.,” is mentioned as an asset. Joseph Grieboski, a social justice activist and founder of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, was hired briefly on a $120,000 a year plus expenses contract for Morocco. Grieboski’s “credibility and authority” on human rights and religious freedom “could make the difference among US policymakers,” the cable observed.

In an email to The Intercept, Grieboski said, “We worked as an advisor to the Embassy of Morocco on human rights issues. I believe we were hired because of the firm’s reputation for human rights expertise and our long understanding of issues in North Africa and the Islamic World.”

In one of the cables describing Morocco’s lobbying strategy, the country’s success in achieving its foreign policy goals stems from its efforts to take the “offensive to counter the enemies of our national cause.” Isolating supporters of Western Sahara and the Polisario Front through Morocco’s congressional allies appears to be a critical element of this approach. Lobbyists for the Kingdom have previously been tied to efforts to cast the Polisario Front as supporters of terrorism. The cable makes clear that one of the goals of outreach should be to “Drain US investment in the provinces of South, particularly in terms of oil and gas exploration.”

In late November 2012, the Kingdom of Morocco’s Ministry of the Interior partnered with the Wilson Center to host an event for the Women in Public Service Project, an initiative founded by Hillary Clinton in 2011, which “empowers the next generation of women around the world and mobilizes them on issues of critical importance in public service.” The following year, Rachad Bouhlal, the Moroccan ambassador, sent a cable to remind his government of the project’s association with Clinton and to encourage continued support. Bouhlal attached a brochure for the project to the cable.

Image #: 21352807    Former U.S. President Bill Clinton speaks during a news conference at the international university in Casablanca February 24, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer  (MOROCCO - Tags: POLITICS)       REUTERS /STRINGER /LANDOV

Bill Clinton at a news conference in Casablanca in 2013. (Reuters/Landov)

Old friend Bill Clinton tells Morocco, “We love this country … Democracy is a lot of a trouble.”

Support for Clinton family nonprofits by Morocco date back over a decade.

In 2004, the New York Sun reported that King Mohammed VI of Morocco gave between $100,000 and $500,000 to Bill Clinton’s presidential library in Little Rock, Arkansas. In 2007, the New York Times reported that Mohammed VI was among several world leaders who “made contributions of unknown amounts to the Clinton Foundation.”

Both Clintons have praised the Kingdom.

“My family and I, my wife, her late mother, our daughter, we love this country,” Bill Clinton said during a 2013 event in Casablanca sponsored by Laureate International Universities, a for-profit college company that employs the former president as its Honorary Chancellor. “I like the idea that the country is becoming more democratic and more empowering.” He continued with a chuckle, “Democracy is a lot of trouble by the way, we’ve been at it a long time and we still have a lot of trouble with it.”

“In many ways, the United States looks to Morocco to be a leader and a model,” said Secretary Clinton during an appearance with Morocco’s foreign minister in 2012.

But watchdog groups say little has changed in the Kingdom, even though democratic reforms were promised during the Arab Spring, and that Morocco’s image as a modernizing state is shaped more by lobbying than by the facts on the ground.

“Overall, progress has stagnated,” says Eric Goldstein, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at the international advocacy group Human Rights Watch. Goldstein explained that while Morocco has implemented some positive reforms, in many ways the country’s human rights situation has deteriorated amid crackdowns on reporters and activists.

Goldstein said he reviewed many of the hacked diplomatic cables, noting that they appear to correspond closely with what is publicly known about Morocco’s lobbying efforts.

“Reading the documents, one gets a sense that this country, Morocco, which does not have a large economy, spends huge amounts of energy and resources on influence, particularly to assert its claim to Western Sahara.”

Photo: U.S. State Department / YouTube

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