LEAKED INTERNAL EMAILS from the powerful Democratic think tank Center for American Progress (CAP) shed light on several public controversies involving the organization, particularly in regard to its positioning on Israel. They reveal the lengths to which the group has gone in order to placate AIPAC and long-time Clinton operative and Israel activist Ann Lewis — including censoring its own writers on the topic of Israel.
The emails also provide crucial context for understanding CAP’s controversial decision to host an event next week for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That event, billed by CAP as “A Conversation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,” will feature CAP President Neera Tanden and Netanyahu together in a Q&A session as they explore “ways to strengthen the partnership between Israel and the United States.” That a group whose core mission is loyalty to the White House and the Democratic Party would roll out the red carpet for a hostile Obama nemesis is bizarre, for reasons the Huffington Post laid out when it reported on the controversy provoked by CAP’s invitation.
For years, CAP has exerted massive influence in Washington through its ties to the Democratic Party and its founder, John Podesta, one of Washington’s most powerful political operatives. The group is likely to become even more influential due to its deep and countless ties to the Clintons. As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent put it earlier this year: CAP “is poised to exert outsized influence over the 2016 president race and — should Hillary Clinton win it — the policies and agenda of the 45th President of the United States. CAP founder John Podesta is set to run Clinton’s presidential campaign, and current CAP president Neera Tanden is a longtime Clinton confidante and adviser.”
The recent CAP announcement of the Netanyahu event has generated substantial confusion and even anger among Democratic partisans. Netanyahu “sacrificed much of his popularity with the Democratic Party by crusading against the Iran nuclear deal,” the Huffington Post noted. Netanyahu has repeatedly treated the Obama White House as a political enemy. Indeed, just today, Netanyahu appointed “as his new chief of public diplomacy a conservative academic who suggested President Obama was anti-Semitic and compared Secretary of State John Kerry’s ‘mental age’ to that of a preteen.”
A core objective of Netanyahu’s trip to Washington is to re-establish credibility among progressives in the post-Obama era. For that reason, the Huffington Post reported, “the Israeli government pushed hard for an invite to” CAP and “was joined by [AIPAC], which also applied pressure to CAP to allow Netanyahu to speak.”
The article quoted several former CAP staffers angered by the group’s capitulation to the demands of the Israeli government and AIPAC; said one: Netanyahu is “looking for that progressive validation, and they’re basically validating a guy who race-baited during his election and has disavowed the two-state solution, which is CAP’s own prior work.” Matt Duss, a former foreign policy analyst at CAP, said “the idea that CAP would agree to give him bipartisan cover is really disappointing” since “this is someone who is an enemy of the progressive agenda, who has targeted Israeli human rights organizations throughout his term, and was re-elected on the back of blatant anti-Arab race-baiting.” Yet another former CAP staffer, Ali Gharib, published an article in The Nation noting that Netanyahu has all but formally aligned himself with the GOP, writing: “That a liberal institution feels the need to kowtow to AIPAC in a climate like this speaks volumes about either how out of touch or how craven it can be.”
BUT NONE OF THIS should be surprising. The Nation previously investigated CAP’s once-secret list of corporate donors, documenting how the group will abandon Democratic Party orthodoxy whenever that orthodoxy conflicts with the interests of its funders. That article noted that “Tanden ratcheted up the efforts to openly court donors, which has impacted CAP’s work. Staffers were very clearly instructed to check with the think tank’s development team before writing anything that might upset contributors.”
Since that article, CAP, to its credit, has provided some greater transparency about its funding sources. As the Washington Post’s Sargent reported earlier this year, “CAP’s top donors include Walmart and Citigroup,” and also “include the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which represents leading biotech and bio-pharma firms, and Blue Cross Blue Shield Association.” Other large CAP donors include Goldman Sachs, the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates, Bank of America, Google and Time Warner.
Still, many of its largest donors remain concealed. That is disturbing because of persistent reports that CAP manipulates and suppresses its own writers’ opinions to suit the interests of its donors. One former CAP staffer described to The Intercept the not-so-subtle ways they were pressured to abandon positions that offended CAP’s donors; the staffer was directed to meet with corporate lobbyists who argued against his progressive position on a widely debated political controversy, and was told by CAP officials that his views were “bad” and “unhelpful.”
But on Israel, CAP’s efforts to manipulate the content of its publications are even more aggressive and overt. Under Tanden, the group has repeatedly demonstrated it will go to almost any length to keep AIPAC and its pro-Israel donors happy, regardless of how such behavior subverts its pretense of independent advocacy.
In 2012, a former AIPAC spokesman, Josh Block, launched a campaign to brand several young, liberal writers at CAP’s blog, ThinkProgress, as anti-Semites due to their writings on Israel, Palestine and Iran. CAP and its writers were widely vilified for what Ben Smith, then of Politico, called deviations from “the bipartisan consensus on Israel,” and for voicing “a heretical and often critical stance on Israel heretofore confined to the political margins.” Among other crimes, these CAP writers stood accused of failing to sufficiently praise the Netanyahu government: “Warm words for Israel can be hard to find on [CAP’s] blogs,” Smith noted.
Rather than stand behind its writers, top CAP officials, led by Tanden, applied constant coercion to stifle content upsetting to AIPAC. As Gharib, one of the vilified CAP writers, recounted last week, “CAP’s positions moving forward from the attacks — including but not limited to virtually banishing criticisms of Israel and Netanyahu from our writings and, in at least one case, needlessly censoring a piece after publication — were guided by how to return to AIPAC’s good graces, often in coordination with AIPAC itself.” Most of the CAP writers accused of Israel heresy were gone from the organization within a short time thereafter, and several have publicly revealed that they had been censored on matters pertaining to Israel.
THESE NEWLY PUBLISHED EMAILS reveal AIPAC-pleasing efforts far more heavy-handed than previously known. On January 20, 2012 — at the height of the controversy over ThinkProgress’ publications on Israel — Tanden wrote an email to CAP founder John Podesta and several of her top aides, including ThinkProgress editor Judd Legum. In that email, Tanden recounted an angry call she received from Ann Lewis who, among other D.C. roles, served as the representative of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign on Jewish matters and is also a board member of Block’s hard-line group The Israel Project. The email reflects the censorship demands being imposed on CAP over Israel and how seriously Tanden was taking those demands:
That phone call was preceded by a rambling, detailed email from Lewis to Tanden, describing the audit she conducted of ThinkProgress’ output over several weeks about Israel and identifying all of the offending material. “Ambassador Michael Oren was called a liar in two posts,” complained Lewis, and “there are regular criticisms of the Israeli government” but “no mention of rocket attacks from Gaza.” (All of the leaked CAP emails referenced in this article can be read here.)
Four days after Lewis’ angry phone call, two ThinkProgress writers, Gharib and Eli Clifton, published an investigation that exposed the funding sources behind a controversial anti-Muslim film called “The Third Jihad,” which had been used as training material by the NYPD. The film was produced by a shadowy group calling itself The Clarion Fund, about which almost nothing was known. Through outstanding shoe-leather reporting, Gharib and Clifton revealed numerous ties between that group and various Israeli settlers and other extremists.
Because it dared to discuss Israeli activists, publication of this exposé provoked serious consternation from Tanden, as this email exchange demonstrates. It begins with an email from long-time Democratic Party operative Howard Wolfson, formerly a top aide to Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer, which provides a link to the piece with one simple message: “For the love of god!” Tanden’s reply expressed concern about whether Israel should have been included in the reporting:
Soon after their article was published, it was severely censored. Virtually every reference to Israelis was simply deleted. The neocon magazine Weekly Standard first noticed the censorship and reveled in the success of the campaign to force CAP to suppress Israel criticisms. “Somebody at the Center for American Progress’ ThinkProgress realized that what had been published was completely inappropriate. Within what seems to have been a few hours, the post was scrubbed,” it noted. “The good news is that there seems to be at least one grown up at the Center for American Progress,” it proclaimed.
One of the article’s authors, Gharib, told The Intercept that Tanden implemented a policy requiring that any material about Israel was to receive special review from a designated editor before being published. Gharib and Clifton did not submit this particular article for special review in advance of publication because it concerned only individual Israeli funders, not Israel itself. That editor, however, went into the article hours after it was published and deleted the references to Israelis. When asked, CAP’s senior national security fellow and then-chief-of-staff, Ken Gude, said he “does not recall this specific incident.”
The website Mondoweiss, which had trumpeted the importance of this Clarion Group report when it was first published, detailed the following day that “the piece originally contained four explicit references to Israel. Now it contains only one, at the end, an aside about Gingrich.” As Mondoweiss put it, “This is a shocking effort to remove any description of the Israel lobby from a major ideological and political undertaking.”
Shocking indeed. But it was all part of a larger CAP effort to assure AIPAC and the likes of Ann Lewis that it would not allow any meaningful criticisms of Israel to be voiced. In a Washington Post article on the Josh Block-created campaign against CAP, Gude groveled, reciting this loyalty pledge: “The clear and overwhelming record of the literally hundreds of articles and policy papers from the Center for American Progress and ThinkProgress demonstrates our longstanding support both for Israel and the two-state solution to the Middle East peace process as being in the moral and national security interests of the United States.”
CAP also denounced the language used by its writers as “inappropriate” and boasted to the Post that they deleted some of the tweets that were deemed offensive. And after his article was censored, Gharib was told by a CAP editor that he was to avoid criticizing American Jewish groups, such as AIPAC, under any circumstances. When he asked whether this was a temporary ban in light of the controversy or a permanent one — i.e., when he could once again write about such groups — the editor told him: “For AIPAC? Probably never.”
Less than two weeks after CAP criticized its own writers to the Washington Post, the group’s top officials celebrated that their censorship efforts and public groveling seemed to be restoring them to AIPAC’s good graces. On February 1, 2012 — exactly one week after publication of the heavily censored post — Gude wrote an excited email to top CAP officials, including Tanden. The subject was Gude’s meeting with AIPAC’s deputy director of policy and government affairs, Jeff Colman, which Gude gushed was “very positive.”
In light of “the steps we have taken” — the public apologies, the censorship, the denouncing of CAP’s own writers — AIPAC, said Gude, deemed that CAP “now was moving in the right direction.” The AIPAC official singled out several CAP staffers for praise, saying AIPAC now believes “CAP/AF is in good hands.” Gude celebrated the rewards CAP was likely to receive for its good behavior: “I bet we get a lot of invitations to attend” an upcoming AIPAC event, Gude predicted. “And it’s very likely that I’m going to Israel on one of their upcoming trips.”
That is who AIPAC demanded shape CAP’s positions, and that is exactly what AIPAC got: people literally paid by the permanent corporate war faction in Washington to promote its agenda and serve its interests.
Gude claims that when citing all the “steps” that convinced AIPAC that CAP was “moving in the right direction,” he was referring to only one incident, namely: “We were responding to a controversy that originated from a young staffer’s use of his personal social media account. We instituted a social media policy for the organization that asked staff to make clear that their personal social media accounts represented their own views and a reminder that even in that context, their social media messages reflect on the organization.”
Notably, Tanden’s effort to suppress Israel reporting began well before the anti-CAP public campaign was launched. As one former CAP staffer recounted to The Intercept, Tanden, almost immediately upon her return to CAP from the Obama White House in late 2010, summoned senior staff to a meeting at which she demanded to know why CAP was covering “Israel/Palestine.” She said she understood that Israel was one of three issues — along with “trade and guns” — that were “off the table” for CAP, and did not understand why ThinkProgress was devoting coverage to it. In response to questions for this article, CAP’s Ken Gude denied that these topics were “off limits,” and cited numerous posts published and events hosted by the group on those topics from 2012-2015 (after the reported conversation with Tanden took place).
When told that the CAP blog had hired several writers such as Matt Duss who specialized in that area, and that CAP’s work was consistent with the Obama White House’s intention to confront Israel on settlements, Tanden re-iterated her view that it was not “constructive” for CAP to work on Israel, particularly in such a critical manner. The subsequent public controversy aimed at CAP, and the resulting censoring of its own writers, had its genesis in Tanden’s pre-existing belief that Israel should be avoided.
GIVEN ALL THIS, it is anything but surprising that ever since it rid itself of its troublesome Israel heretics, CAP’s foreign policy positions have been hawkish in the extreme. One remarkable email exchange in particular reveals the critical role played by Tanden in that positioning. In October 2011, a CAP national security writer, Benjamin Armbruster, circulated a discussion on CNN about whether Libya should be forced to turn over its oil revenue to the U.S. as compensation and gratitude for the U.S. having “liberated” Libya.
After one CAP official, Faiz Shakir, noted how perverse it is to first bomb a poor country and then make it turn over its revenues to you for doing so, Tanden argued that this made a great deal of sense:
Tanden’s argument is quite similar to Donald Trump’s long-time stance about Iraqi oil: “I say we should take it and pay ourselves back.” But Tanden’s twist on the argument — that Americans will continue to support foreign wars only if they see the invaded countries forced to turn over assets that the U.S. can use to fund its own programs — is singularly perverse, as it turns the U.S. military into some sort of explicit for-profit imperial force. As Shakir put it in a subsequent email, that suggestion would “make people start to think that our military is just for-hire to carry out the agendas of other people.”
At first glance, CAP’s devotion to AIPAC and Netanyahu may seem strange given that it is so plainly at odds with the Obama White House’s interests. But CAP — like so many leading D.C. think tanks with pretenses to objective “scholarship” — has repeatedly proven that it prioritizes servitude to its donors’ interests even over its partisan loyalties.
In the case of Israel and Netanyahu, there is an even more significant factor at play: Tanden is far more of a Clinton loyalist than an Obama loyalist, and a core strategy of the Clinton campaign is to depict Hillary as supremely devoted to Israel. Just last night, Clinton published an op-ed in The Forward on Israel that is so extreme it has to be read to be believed. Its core purpose is clear from its headline and photo: to implicitly criticize Obama for being too adversarial to Israel and Netanyahu, while vowing that she, as president, will be the most stalwart Israel loyalist imaginable:
Clinton’s op-ed reads like the ultimate loyalty oath: “I have stood with Israel my entire career. … As president, I will continue this fight.” Moreover, she writes, “Netanyahu’s visit to Washington on November 9 is an opportunity to reaffirm the unbreakable bonds of friendship and unity between the people and governments of the United States and Israel.” She vows: “I will do everything I can to enhance our strategic partnership and strengthen America’s security commitment to Israel, ensuring that it always has the qualitative military edge to defend itself. That includes immediately dispatching a delegation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to meet with senior Israeli commanders. I would also invite the Israeli prime minister to the White House in my first month in office.”
There is not a peep of criticism about the Israeli occupation or the violence it has used against Palestinians, though the op-ed does harshly scold the occupied people: “Israelis have to look over their shoulders during everyday tasks, like carrying groceries and waiting for the bus. … This violence must not be allowed to continue. It needs to stop immediately. … Many of us have seen the video of a cleric encouraging worshippers to stab Jews as he waves a knife in the air. This incitement needs to end, period,” etc. etc.
In that context, CAP’s servitude to AIPAC and pandering to Netanyahu makes all the sense in the world. It may conflict with the Obama White House’s preferences, but it very clearly serves its new primary goal: advancement of the Hillary Clinton campaign.
Though Gude insists CAP did not communicate with the Clinton campaign about the Netanyahu invitation, he acknowledges that “the CAP board was informed and [Clinton campaign head] John Podesta and [campaign official] Jose Villarreal are members of the CAP board. They did not have a role in making the decision to do the event.” Whatever else is true, as Clinton’s op-ed last night makes clear, she has clearly adopted a strategy of siding with Netanyahu and Israel over the Obama White House, and CAP, with its characteristic subservience, is fully on board.
UPDATE: Tanden’s office originally indicated she was traveling today and thus was unable to respond to The Intercept’s inquiries, but shortly after publication of this article, CAP’s Daniella Leger provided this comment about our questions about Tanden’s views on Libyan oil revenues: “We’re a think tank, and we have internal discussions and dialogues all the time on a variety of issues. We encourage throwing out ideas to spur conversation and spark debate. We did not take a position on this, but ThinkProgress covered it. The posts certainly did not endorse the idea.”
Ironically, one of those ThinkProgress posts she cited mockingly describes Michele Bachmann’s views, which are strikingly similar to the ones expressed by Tanden: “At last night’s GOP presidential debate, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) said Iraq and Libya should repay the U.S. for its war efforts in those two countries.” The other link described how even Rick Santorum condemned this oil-seizure idea — the one advocated by Tanden and Bachmann — as immoral and counterproductive: “I think that would send every possible wrong signal that America went to war for oil,” said the right-wing former GOP senator.