America’s powerful pro-Israel lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, enlisted the help of one of the nation’s most prominent and extreme anti-Muslim activists, Frank Gaffney, during its 2015 push to sink the Iran nuclear deal. And it did so through an organization staffed by some of the country’s most prominent Democratic consultants and advised by a group of four ex-Senate Democrats.
AIPAC’s funding of Gaffney was uncovered earlier this month by LobeLog’s Eli Clifton. He noticed that a 501(c)(4) dark-money organization called Citizens For a Nuclear Free Iran, or CNFI, which AIPAC created to oppose the Iran deal, gave $60,000 to “Secure Freedom,” a group whose tax ID number identifies it as belonging to Gaffney’s think tank, the Center for Security Policy, or CSP. AIPAC later confirmed to Haaretz that it offered the funding to Gaffney to run ads opposed to the Iran deal.
Gaffney and the CSP are notorious in Washington for circulating some of America’s most wild anti-Muslim conspiracy theories, such as that Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin is a covert operative of the Muslim Brotherhood — an accusation so bizarre that even then-Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner condemned it in 2012. Gaffney has also claimed that Barack Obama should be “considered America’s first Muslim president” and that Obama made “commitments … to promote Islam in America.”
So you might assume, given that CNFI were willing to partner with such a far-right fringe organization, that it would be staffed by hardcore conservative Republicans.
But you would be wrong.
In fact, during its failed campaign to sink diplomacy with Iran, CFNI enlisted a gamut of top Democrats. Its advisory board included four Democratic senators-turned-lobbyists: Mark Begich of Alaska, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Evan Bayh of Indiana, and Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu. Former Nevada Democratic congresswoman Shelley Berkley also advised the group.
None of the former lawmakers who advised CNFI replied to requests for comment about the group’s financial support for Gaffney.
In addition to Gaffney’s accusations about Abedin, he has claimed that officials in the U.S. government are waging a “civilizational jihad” to undermine the country from within. Gaffney was even briefly banned from the Conservative Political Action Conference after he accused anti-tax activist Grover Norquist of being part of a purported plot to bring Islamic law to America. His sham polling was also used by then-candidate Donald Trump to justify his call for a total ban on Muslim migration to the United States.
In addition to the former members of Congress, and political firms like Trilogy Interactive and Winning Connections, CNFI deployed a number of top Democratic consultants and pollsters to run its campaign.
Mark Putnam cut his teeth working for a long list of Democratic candidates, but his most prominent work was producing television advertising for both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns.
His firm Putnam Partners was hired by CFNI to produce television ads designed to frighten Americans about the consequences of the Iran nuclear deal. Shortly after his hiring by CNFI, Putnam spoke to the Washington Post to explain his convictions in opposing diplomacy by the president he had worked for. “I am more grateful to President Obama than I can ever express for being able to help him in two presidential campaigns,” he told the Post. “I have strongly supported every other initiative he has undertaken. On this issue, however, I, like other Democrats, have a heartfelt position against the agreement.”
Newly released disclosures show that Putnam’s firm was paid $162,070 for his heartfelt work in 2015. He did not respond to a request for comment from The Intercept.
Dorton also did not respond to a request for comment from The Intercept.
Mark S. Mellman of the Mellman Group was hired to commission polling for CFNI. Mellman is a veteran Democratic pollster; on his biography webpage he boasts of working for the campaigns of 29 U.S. senators, 10 governors, and many more officials. One of his top clients was former Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid.
Mellman told The Intercept that he has no affinity for Gaffney’s ideology, but declined to condemn AIPAC or CNFI for financially supporting him — claiming ignorance of the relationship.
“I’m someone who got money, not someone who gave money,” he told me, laughing (Mellman’s firm was paid $241,439 by CNFI). “It’s not my organization. I was paid by that organization to do work for them, which I did. I don’t know who else was paid by that organization.”
“Do you have any personal regrets about being associated with an organization that would also be supporting Frank Gaffney?” I followed up.
Mellman paused for a moment, then responded with a joke: “How often do you beat your wife?”
After being asked again if it were appropriate for AIPAC to support Gaffney, Mellman started to raise doubts about the story altogether. “I don’t know anything about it other than what you’re telling me, based on documents that you’ve seen that I haven’t,” he said of CFNI’s grant to Gaffney’s group.
I offered to send him the disclosure forms so he could review them himself, but he declined.
“I really don’t feel like paying an accountant to review the documents,” he said.
(The disclosure forms are right here, and you don’t have to be an accountant to read them. The grant to Gaffney is on page 13.)