Membership Has Its Privileges: Donor Perks and the Atlantic Council

by Ken Silverstein and Brooke Williams

The Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank chaired by Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee for defense secretary, released a list of foreign donors in response to demands from Republican senators, who blocked his confirmation vote last week.

In a letter addressed to Hagel, the Council’s president and CEO, Frederick Kempe, a former columnist at The Wall Street Journal, defended the think tank’s intellectual independence and outlined its ethical policies, including clearly and consistently disclosing funding from foreign governments.

Kempe’s letter listed roughly 100 corporations and 15 governments that donated to the Council in the past five years. But the list in the letter was hugely different from the one on the think tank’s website. Indeed, the Council’s online disclosure was missing key funders, including Bahrain, Jordan, Sweden, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan and Kazakhstan. If it weren’t for Hagel’s nomination and subsequent spotlight on the think tank’s funding, their support might still be secret.

The Council didn’t disclose in the letter or on its website exactly how much money countries and corporations had given. As a nonprofit organization, it doesn’t have to divulge details about where it gets its cash. This is especially problematic given that the Council invites donors to pay for and participate in specific projects—even those in which they have a financial stake.

Kempe’s letter described the Council’s “Intellectual Independence” policy: “The Council maintains clear policies to ensure its ethical and legal operation as [an organization]…which values its credibility and integrity as a generator of creative ideas,” Kempe wrote. “All agreements with donors stipulate that the Council retains intellectual independence and control over any content.”

Following the release of Kempe’s letter, James Joyner, the Council’s managing editor, took to the think tank’s website to publish a blog post entitled “The Atlantic Council, Foreign Funding, and Intellectual Independence.” “Like all organizations of its kind, the Atlantic Council has to fund its work by cultivating donors,” he wrote. “But we've always placed the integrity of our work above the preferences of our funders. Indeed, under the leadership of Hagel and Kempe, we've recognized the potential for these relationships to confer an appearance of conflict and therefore outlined detailed policies for review of foreign government funding and intellectual independence.”

The Council’s claims of intellectual independence are hard to square with its own promises to big donors which can be found on its website. “The Council works with our partners to develop their substantive narrative and determine the types of tools and products, including event opportunities and co-branded publications, required to meet their goals and needs,” says one fundraising pitch. Another invites companies to contribute to research and reports that “will help position them as thought leaders and influence top leaders in government, business, the military, and academia.”

Kempe said during a phone interview that the Council does not advocate for donors and that “in the context of what you’re talking about, rewording [of the pitch] perhaps would be useful.” He said the donor list on the website must be outdated.

The pledge of intellectual independence is also hard to square with services the Council has rendered to at least one of its foreign donors, the government of Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan is headed by crooked dictator Nursultan Nazerbayev, who has declared himself president-for-life. The country’s rubber stamp parliament has granted him the permanent right “to address the people of Kazakhstan at any time” and to approve all “initiatives on the country’s development.”

The U.S. State Department’s latest report on global human rights cites extensive problems in Kazakhstan. The most significant, among a very long list, were “severe limits on citizens’ rights to change their government; restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association; and lack of an independent judiciary and due process, especially in dealing with pervasive corruption and law enforcement and judicial abuse.” Meanwhile, the oil-rich Kazakh government has in recent years spent millions of dollars on American lobbyists and PR firms to help improve and deepen its relationship with the United States.

Last year, the Atlantic Council hosted a conference on Kazakhstan. The conference was paid for by Chevron, which has vast oil interests in the country and is a top-level donor ($100,000-and-up) to the Council, and the Kazakh government, Kempe acknowledged. He declined to say how much they contributed, “not because I don’t want to but because we’re not authorized to give numbers.”

Chevron and the Kazakh government are partners in a variety of initiatives in the country. While each certainly has its own, separate interests, this arrangement seems to violate at least the spirit of the Council’s policy that it will try “to ensure that any one project is not dependent on one government funder.”

Not surprisingly, the conference was essentially a love poem to Nazerbayev. During introductory remarks Hagel talked about “the partnership that evolved and grows and strengthens each day between our countries,” according to the conference transcript, and said the Kazakhs “were responsible for pulling together a very, very impressive country that has made astounding progress.”

Keynote speakers included Kenneth Derr, who was CEO of Chevron when it forged a partnership with Kazakhstan and is now the country’s Honorary Consul in San Francisco. “Under President Nazarbayev’s extraordinary leadership, Kazakhstan is now independent, secure and extremely prosperous,” Derr said, according to a conference transcript. Yerzhan Kazykhanov, Nazerbayev’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, was another keynoter. During his visit to Washington, the foreign minister presented several Americans, including Hagel, with state awards from the Nazerbayev regime.
“We chose all the speakers; we chose the subjects,” Kempe said. “If you look through the whole day of speakers, they’re hardly cheerleaders for Kazakhstan.” He pointed to Lorne Cramer of the International Republican Institute as someone who offered a critical perspective. Yet according to the transcript, Cramer had this to say: “I will tell you, as somebody that deals in human rights and democracy, that there’s a lot to praise in Kazakhstan.”

A Council speaker acknowledged that Chevron had sponsored the conference but the think tank said nothing about donations from Kazakhstan, based on transcripts of the affair. The closest it came was when Ross Wilson, director of the Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, told the audience he wanted to recognize Kazakh Ambassador Erlan Idrissov, “a friend of many of us, who encouraged the council to put together this retrospective and prospective look at Kazakhstan that we’ll have today."

In conjunction with the conference, the Council released three issue briefs, a perk offered to big donors, for a certain price. In a fundraising pitch on the Council’s website, they’re described as a “succinct document analyzing a specific, relevant topic with an emphasis on recommendations for policymakers.” All three briefs offered positive analysis about the Nazarbayev regime though none mentioned the financial support from either Chevron or the Kazakh government.

Roberts, who chaired a panel on US-Kazakh relations, wrote one of the briefs. “In looking at twenty years of independence in the former Soviet region of Central Asia, Kazakhstan stands out in most respects as a stable oasis in a desert of uncertainty,” he wrote. “It is little wonder, therefore, that the most stable and fruitful bilateral partnership for the United States in the region over the past twenty years has been with the Republic of Kazakhstan."

What good is the Council’s pledge of independence if the think tank remains dependent on money that creates a conflict of interest? How could anyone trust the independence of a conference on Kazakhstan paid for by Kazakhstan? In order to trust the research of an institution, the public must be able to trust its independence.

What all of this says about Hagel’s fitness to lead the Pentagon is not clear. What is clear, though, is that the Atlantic Council — like so many other Washington think tanks — has a definition of “intellectual independence” that differs from typical scholarly institutions. Hagel, via his unpaid position atop the board, surely didn’t invent this system, but he also doesn’t appear to have stopped it.

(Note: A version of this story originally ran in the New Republic.)