Former U.S. ambassador points finger in Qatar lobbying probe
A former high-ranking U.S. ambassador admitted Friday to illegal foreign lobbying on behalf of Qatar after demanding that prosecutors tell him why a retired four-star general who worked with him on the effort has not also been charged.
The dispute involving two Washington power players has highlighted the often-ambiguous boundaries of foreign lobbying laws as well as what prosecutors say were high-level, behind-the-scenes influence dealings with the wealthy Persian Gulf country.
Richard G. Olson, former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan, pleaded guilty Friday in Washington on federal charges that include improperly helping Qatar influence U.S. policy in 2017 -- when a diplomatic crisis erupted between the gas-rich monarchy and its neighbors over the country’s alleged ties to terror groups and other issues.
Olson had recently argued he’s entitled to learn why prosecutors aren’t also bringing charges against someone he says he worked side by side with on Qatar: retired Marine Gen. John Allen, who led U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan before being tapped in late 2017 to lead the influential Brookings Institution think tank.
Allen has denied ever working as a Qatari agent and said his efforts on Qatar in 2017 were motivated to prevent a war from breaking out in the Gulf that would put U.S. troops at risk. A statement from his spokesman to The Associated Press on Thursday said Allen has “voluntarily cooperated with the government’s investigation."
Olson’s lawyers said in court papers that since 2020 he has been seeking to get a lighter sentencing recommendation by extensively cooperating with prosecutors “with the express goal” of bringing charges against Allen. Olson’s lawyers said prosecutors “reiterated their belief in the strength of their case against” Allen only to apparently drop their pursuit.
But federal prosecutor Evan Turgeon said at a hearing last week that the government has not “made a prosecutorial decision as to other persons” and disputed how Olson’s attorney characterized past discussions. The Justice Department declined to comment on its internal deliberations on Allen.
Olson’s lawyers had previously pushed prosecutors to provide copies of Allen’s communications with U.S. government officials related to his actions involving Qatar. Friday, Olson’s attorney Mike Hannon said prosecutors had provided the requested information — the contents of which are not public — and his client was now ready to plead guilty.
Recent filings in Olson’s case provide new details about Allen’s role and what actions prosecutors might view as possible crimes. Allen is not named in those filings but identified as “the General” or “Person 3.”
U.S. law prohibits individuals from helping a foreign entity influence U.S. policy without registering with the Justice Department. The law, known as the Foreign Agents Registration Act or FARA, was largely unenforced until prosecutors began taking more aggressive action in recent years.
Typically, FARA violations by themselves do not lead to significant prison time but the law’s critics say there are too many unsettled questions about what may constitute a prosecutable offense.
“FARA is an exceptionally broad and vague law that ... sets snares for the unwary, even capturing some of the most sophisticated of Washington players,” David Keating of the Institute for Free Speech said in comments to the Justice Department earlier this year.
Notably, Olson pleaded guilty to a violation of State Department policy regarding working for a foreign government within a year of leaving government service, not a FARA violation.
Olson’s lawyer said in court last week that federal prosecutors made clear that they were pursing a FARA case against Allen.
Olson recruited Allen to join him “in providing aid and advice to Qatari government officials with the intent to influence U.S. foreign policy” shortly after the Gulf diplomatic crisis erupted in June 2017, prosecutors said in court filings.
That crisis sparked a heavy spending war between Qatar and rivals Saudi Arabia and the UAE in a battle to win influence in Washington during much of President Donald Trump’s administration.
Olson was being paid $20,000 a month by Imaad Zuberi, a one-time political donor who is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence on corruption charges and who prosecutors say illegally lobbied for Qatar.
Zuberi also agreed to pay Allen an undisclosed fee for his efforts, prosecutors said in Olson’s plea deal. Allen’s spokesman said the general was never paid.
In mid June 2017, Allen met with Olson and Zuberi at a Washington hotel to explain “how he would conduct the lobbying and public relations campaign,” prosecutors said.
A few days later, Olson and Allen flew to Qatar -- at Zuberi’s expense -- to meet with the Qatari’s ruling emir and other government officials, where the pair explained that they were not representing the U.S. government but “noted that they had the connections with U.S. government officials that placed them in a position to help Qatar,” prosecutors wrote.
Allen advised the Qataris on what steps to take, including signing a pending deal to purchase F-15 fighter jets and using e a major U.S. military base in Qatar “as leverage to exert influence over U.S. government officials,” prosecutors wrote.
Qatar signed a deal to purchase the jets four days after that meeting.
After returning to the U.S., Allen sought the help of then-National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and his staff to support Qatar’s position in the diplomatic crisis, prosecutors said in court filings.
Allen previously said through a spokesman that McMaster had approved of Allen going to Qatar and “offered the assistance of his staff in preparation.”
McMaster has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
Olson, Allen and a Qatari government representative also met with members of Congress “for the purpose of convincing the U.S. lawmakers to support Qatar rather than its regional rivals,” prosecutors wrote in court records.
Allen’s spokesman said previously that the general’s work on Qatari issues only lasted three weeks and that it had nothing to do with Brookings.
Qatar has been one of Brookings' biggest donors for the last several years, according to annual reports that don't offer specific figures. A Brookings spokeswoman said Allen decided in 2019 to no longer accept new Qatari funding.
Olson is set to be sentenced Sept. 13.
Suderman reported from Richmond, Virginia. Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.
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