Hacked Emails Show UAE Building Close Relationship With D.C. Think Tanks That Push Its Agenda

UAE's ambassador in D.C. is close to the Center for New American Security, which pushed the Arab dictatorship's drone agenda in a paper.

U.S. Defense Undersecretary Michele Flournoy, prepares for a bilateral meeting with Gen. Ma Xiaotian, the People's Liberation Army's deputy chief of staff, at the Bayi Building in Beijing, China, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011. Chinese and U.S. defense officials met in Beijing on Wednesday for their highest-level contacts since recent frictions over arms sales to Taiwan and plans to strengthen the American military presence in the Pacific. (AP Photo/Andy Wong, Pool)
U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Michele Flournoy during a meeting in Beijing on Dec. 7, 2011. Photo: Andy Wong/Press Pool/AP

The United Arab Emirates has one of the most repressive governments in the world. The Gulf dictatorship brutally cracks down on internal dissent and enables abusive conditions for its massive migrant labor force. It also plays a key role in the bloody war in Yemen, running a network of torture prisons in the “liberated” parts of the country.

That makes it all the more shocking that the UAE is so rarely criticized by leading U.S. think tanks, who not only ignore the Gulf dictatorship’s repression, but give a privileged platform to its ambassador, Yousef al-Otaiba. Otaiba is a deeply influential voice in U.S. foreign policy circles, and is known in Washington for using his pocketbook to recruit allies.

Last month, hackers began releasing screenshots of emails from a Hotmail account that Otaiba used for official business. The hackers have sent the screenshots to various news websites, including the The Interceptthe Daily BeastAl Jazeera, and HuffPost. The hackers refer to themselves as “GlobalLeaks,” and have previously claimed to be affiliated with the website “DCLeaks.” The U.S. intelligence community has accused the Russia government of operating DCLeaks, and it’s unclear if the “GlobalLeaks” hackers are affiliated with Russia or just trying to give that impression. When asked about their motivations for an earlier Intercept story, the hackers responded in broken English by email that they were “not affiliated with any country or religion,” but added that their goal was to “make America great again.”

The latest batch of hacked emails passed to The Intercept and other outlets by “GlobalLeaks” provide insight into how Otaiba manages to find — or buy — so many friends in D.C. think tanks. The documents offer a glimpse into how a small, oil-rich monarchy can obtain such an outsized influence on U.S. foreign policy, showing the ambassador obtaining favors from Obama administration veterans — including Hillary Clinton’s presumptive Defense Secretary — and making large payments in return.

A $250,000 Invoice

One of the documents obtained by The Intercept was an invoice from the Center for New American Security, an influential national security think tank founded in 2007 by alumni from the Clinton administration. The invoice, dated July 12, 2016, billed the UAE embassy $250,000 for a paper on the legal regime governing the export of military-grade drones. It was signed by Michele Flournoy, a senior Pentagon official under President Barack Obama; Hillary Clinton was widely expected to name Flournoy as her secretary of defense. Flournoy co-founded CNAS and, in addition to outside work as a management consultant, currently serves as the think tank’s CEO.

Think tanks are independent institutions, but they are often funded by weapons companies, Wall Street banks, and even foreign governments. CNAS is transparent about the fact they have received money from the UAE, and even list the country’s embassy on website as a donor. These institutions, including CNAS, often assert that their scholars are independent of their donors, and that their analysis reflects their personal beliefs, not the interest of powerful donors.

The invoice, however, as well as emails obtained by The Intercept, portray a different picture: a close relationship between CNAS and Otaiba, with Otaiba paying for specific papers and discussing the views in the papers with the authors. Otaiba later explained to those responsible for creating the policy papers how the documents would be used to push the UAE’s drone program.

In its description field, the invoice reports that the payment was made for “Support for the Center’s Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) Study.” The MTCR refers to a 35-nation agreement that governs the export of certain large military-grade weapons. Countries can apply for membership in the MTCR and become eligible to buy these weapons. The MTCR has been a headache for the drone industry because some of its products are classified as missiles, which makes them more difficult to export. The agreement has also irritated U.S. allies, who would love to get their hands on sophisticated, American attack drones.

The UAE is one of the countries that ran into a roadblock in the MTCR. The Obama administration blocked the sales of some weapon systems to the Emirates because the MTCR prohibits their sale beyond close allies. Some lawmakers have pushed the Trump administration to allow for the sales.

Part of the campaign to allow the UAE to buy these drones has involved think tank work. According to emails obtained by The Intercept, Otaiba commissioned a private paper on the MTCR from CNAS. In a June 24, 2016, email to Otaiba, Flournoy wrote, “Yousef: Here is the CNAS proposal for a project analyzing the potential benefits and costs of the UAE joining the MTCR, as we discussed. Please let us know whether this is what you had in mind.”

On July 11, Flournoy followed up with Otaiba, writing, “We believe the study could be done for $250K. We are happy to send you a revised proposal along those lines this week if that is acceptable.” In a November 2016 email to Otaiba, Ilan Goldenberg, the director of CNAS’s middle east security program, was blunt about the UAE’s support for the think tank’s MTCR work. “One administrative item,” he noted. “We’d initially agreed that you would provide the second tranche of your financial support for the project when we are at the midpoint, which I think is about now. So I will have someone from our development team send you bank details/invoice over the next few days.”

Goldenberg is an Obama administration veteran who led the Office of the Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy’s work on Iran. He currently serves as a senior fellow at CNAS.

In February of this year, Goldenberg sent the MTCR study to Otaiba by email. Otaiba circulated it to some high-level officials in the UAE government and military. In May, Otaiba sent an email to Flournoy and Goldenberg praising the study — and for its utility in moving the Gulf dictatorship’s agenda forward. “And thank you for the report,” he wrote. “I think it will help push the debate in the right direction. Some of the UAV” — unmanned aerial vehicles — “manufacturers are pushing for a similar conclusion, so this report might reaffirm their arguments.”

In June, CNAS produced a public paper echoing the same conclusions, arguing that the United States’s “reluctance to transfer U.S. drones harms U.S. interests in tangible ways.” Namely, the public report asserted that some countries are now turning to China to get the technology instead. The Emirates is listed as one of those countries that has been denied some drone sales, and has instead turned to China. The stated goal of the paper was to push the Trump administration on the policy.

In a statement to The Intercept, CNAS spokesperson Neal Urwitz confirmed that the institution accepted $250,000 to produce the private paper for UAE officials. “This research also supported an already ongoing CNAS project on drone proliferation policy,” he added. Urwitz insisted that the scholars’ own views were represented, and that both the public and private study complied with CNAS’s intellectual independence policy, which states that CNAS scholars “retain intellectual independence and full control over any content funded in whole or in part by the contribution.”

Urwitz also pointed out that CNAS is upfront in disclosing that it has received money from the UAE, both on its website and even in its experts’ congressional testimony. Additionally, according to Urwitz, CNAS did not take any money from the UAE prior to 2016.

Surveillance Technology

In another series of emails dated between February and March 2013, Flournoy uses a private gmail account to contact Otaiba and ask him to help promote the sale of electronic surveillance technology from a U.S.-based firm to the UAE.

The UAE government is a voracious consumer of surveillance technology, and has repeatedly bought up electronic spying tools from Western countries to spy on political dissidents. In October, The Intercept reported that the UAE is recruiting a small army of Western hackers, who are helping to turn the Emirates into the world’s most sophisticated surveillance state.

In a February 2013 email to Otaiba, Flournoy expresses dismay that du, a major Emirati telecom company, chose not to purchase location-based services technology from Polaris Wireless, a company that specializes tracking electronic devices. On its website, Polaris advertises “wireless location intelligence” that can be used in “locating and tracking known suspects,” “detecting and monitoring crowds,” and allowing users to “stay ahead of those who pose a threat.” Polaris Wireless has an office in Dubai. In 2012 its CEO credited sales in the region with a growth in revenue.

Flournoy told Otaiba that she is “most interested in seeing the UAE have this capability as a key security partner.” She asked him to intervene with the ministry of interior and help set up a meeting for a senior executive with Polaris.

In a reply, Otaiba wrote to Flournoy, “Would be happy to but MOI is quite large.” He added, “Our intel agency is legally under MOI so basically what I am asking is where this issue lives so I can assist.” Flournoy responded: “If you could help get them an opportunity to simply brief a senior MOI leader on the state of play and the national security capabilities of their system, that would at least ensure that the right people are aware of the opportunity that may be missed here. In my view, this would be nothing short of a game changing capability for you all.”

Nicholas McGeehan, Human Rights Watch’s researcher for the UAE, told The Intercept by email that activists in the country are convinced the government is using electronic surveillance to track them. “When we were last able to get into the UAE — in January 2014 — the local activists we met were leaving their mobile phones at home whenever they traveled, and didn’t want the authorities to know where they were going,” McGeehan said. “They were confident that the authorities were using their mobile phones to track them.”

Urwitz, the CNAS spokesperson, did not deny that Flournoy’s conversations promoting Polaris took place, but said that they were unrelated to her work at CNAS. Polaris did not respond to requests for comment from The Intercept.

“Michele Flournoy has known H.E. Yousef al-Otaiba for years, both in and out of government,” Urwitz said in a statement. “The conversation concerning UAE security capabilities occurred while she was working in the private sector, not at CNAS.” While on the board of directors at CNAS, Flournoy has also worked as a senior adviser to the Boston Consulting Group, specializing in “public sector” and “security and defense” consulting work. The Intercept obtained correspondence between her and Otaiba from her email address with the consulting group, but is choosing not to publish it because it is not newsworthy.

A Business Class Trip to the UAE — on the Regime’s Dime

In March, the Harbour Group, a D.C.-based of public relations firm registered to work with the Emirates, sent a memo to Otaiba outlining the details of a sponsored trip to the UAE for a wide set of leading think tank researchers.

“We have been working with Brian Katulis at CAP” — the Center for American Progress — “and Ilan Goldenberg at CNAS to plan and execute an Embassy-supported study tour of national security experts to the UAE this spring,” the memo noted. The Center for American Progress, where Katulis is a senior national security fellow, is widely considered to be the most influential think tank aligned with the Democratic Party. (One of the authors of this post, Zaid Jilani, worked at the Center for American progress from 2009 to 2012.)

Katulis and Goldenberg are cited as the organizers of the trip; other confirmed attendees included Kim Kagan, a top hawk at the Institute for Study of War, and Daniel Pletka of the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, an influential Republican-aligned think tank.

Additional attendees invited but not confirmed included CNAS president John Fontaine and John Podesta, the founder of the Center for American Progress and former chief of staff to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

The memo laid out an agenda for the trip. “In addition to senior UAE national security and FP officials, we propose to expose the group to some new elements which may include the national service program; the space program; and a glimpse of the cultural scene in the country,” it said.

One of the officials who was scheduled to meet the group was Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the UAE armed forces. No dissidents, activists, or human rights lawyers were listed among participants in the meetings.

Financing for the trip was apparently subsidized by the UAE, according to the memo. “The Embassy will cover business class fares for the group estimated at US$150K. We will request that CPC cover hotels, meals and local transportation.” CPC refers to the Crown Prince Court, a government-backed entity in the UAE.

CNAS’s Urwitz confirmed that its experts had traveled to the UAE a part of “two separate trips for think tank experts,” and described them as “fact-finding missions.”

“The UAE, in conjunction with a partner think tank, organized this fact-finding mission,” said Urwitz. “Dozens of other nations organize similar missions to their countries for U.S. security experts.”

In internal emails to Otaiba, UAE officials are very clear that the goal of these trips is to influence U.S. policymakers to be sympathetic to the UAE. In an email dated April 18 of this year, Saghira Al Ahbabi, head of political affairs at UAE’s Washington embassy, described importance the trip organized with Katulis and Goldenberg by noting that “many of these experts have served in senior U.S. government positions, and continue to inform policymakers.” She went on, “The goal of trip is to educate these influential policy analysts on the UAE’s policies regarding key regional issues, and underscore the close military cooperation between the two countries.”

Neither the Center for American Progress nor the UAE embassy in Washington responded to requests for comment about the revelations of the emails and documents.

A separate email indicates that Katulis had played a role coordinating trips to the UAE with the Harbour Group in the past as well. In October 2015, Katulis organized a group of Republican and Democratic experts on a junket, noting they were “all plugged into campaigns in various ways.” He noted they are “pretty much next generation as Amb. Otaiba discussed.”

Following the May trip this year, Katulis wrote to Richard Mintz of the Harbour Group to offer his congratulations for helping organize it. “Thank you again to you and your team. Your team has done a great job out here, as usual,” he wrote.

Katulis complimented the UAE’s government on the message it was trying to portray. “Topline of the trip: It hit all the key points and having a diversity of meetings was a good thing, and it was great to see the top leadership,” he wrote. “For me, the space agency and national service trips were new and I thought helped send the core message of unity, inclusion, and tolerance.”

Top photo: U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy during a meeting in Beijing on Dec. 7, 2011.

Join The Conversation