Abramoff Scandal Reveals All:
The $2 Million Dollar Campaign to "Get Anwar"
and Manipulate American - and Malaysian - Public Opinion
by John R. Malott
Former US Ambassador to Malaysia
The truth is now coming out in Washington.
Everyday brings a new revelation about the corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his pals. And increasingly that includes information about the "Malaysian role" in his activities.
In publishing some new details about the Abramoff-Malaysia connection a week ago, the new editor of The New Republic Magazine, Franklin Foer, wrote, "My long-time prediction: This is going to be a big story."
Abramoff's master plan to transform Mahathir's image in Washington and "get Anwar" and his supporters in the United States is outlined in an 8-page proposal -- the "pitch," as it is called here -- that he made to the Malaysian Government in October 2000.
The timing of Abramoff's proposal is interesting - October 2000.
In December 1999 UMNO suffered its worst electoral showing ever, and most political analysts believed that PAS and Keadilan had outpolled UMNO in the Malay heartland. The reason was the treatment that the Government had meted out to Anwar.
Convicting Anwar of the un-Islamic crime of sodomy therefore became an urgent task. If he were found guilty, Malaysia's Muslims would turn against him. That was the thinking.
Anwar's second conviction came in August 2000, and he was sentenced to nine (more) years in prison. As a political advisor to Dato Seri Najib Tun Razak told me in 1998 as the Anwar saga started to unfold, the goal was to "nuke Anwar politically" and "destroy him as a political force in Malaysia." The sham trial, the government's accusation of sodomy, and the unprecedented nine year sentence were all part of the effort to remove Anwar from the public mind and make him a "forgotten" man -- the word that Anwar's opponents continued to use during his incarceration.
But just one week later, to protest Anwar's conviction, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) withdrew a speaking invitation to Mahathir for their national convention in Chicago. Another engagement for Mahathir was hastily arranged, but when the Prime Minister arrived at the hotel in Chicago's suburbs, he was met with a demonstration, something he was not accustomed to in Malaysia.
Two weeks later Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz was embarrassed at an investment seminar in New York City, when Anwar supporters managed to slip political literature onto the brochure tables and the American businessmen picked them up to take home.
All of this showed that in the United States, at least, Anwar was not going to be a "forgotten" man.
Steven Gan, the editor of Malaysiakini, wrote that ISNA's action "bespeaks the success of the Free Anwar Campaign (FAC), an outfit staffed by a handful of Anwar sympathizers, launched early this month. One of its objectives is, yes, to isolate Mahathir internationally. ISNA's rebuff of Mahathir indeed gave FAC its first big victory."
That was the background as Abramoff made his pitch in October 2000. The message: you need my help to improve your image in the United States and counter Anwar's influence.
Abramoff's role on behalf of the Malaysian Government was not known publicly for years. But now the truth is out.
-- We now know that he was hired by the Malaysian Government sometime after he made his proposal, because he said so.
-- We also know that he was paid a total of $1.2 million. That does not include the money that went from one of Megat Junid's companies to a front "consulting" operation for some Heritage Foundation executives in Hong Kong, Belle Haven. That money subsequently ended up in the hands of four other Washington DC lobbying operatives, most of whom were part of the Abramoff network.
Put it all together, and we are talking about a $2 million effort to boost the reputation of the Mahathir Government in the United States, and to counter the concerns that American individuals and groups had about Anwar's imprisonment and Malaysia's political repression.
When he was asked the other day, Tun Mahathir said that yes, $1.2 million had been paid, but he thought it had gone to the Heritage Foundation. Personally, I believe that Mahathir knew only that there were some activities going on but never knew the details. After all, that is why there are people like Megat Junid around.
But the evidence is there:
-- Abramoff's connection to a fake think tank in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware called the American International Center (AIC) has been established. He used it to disguise payments from his clients and to circumvent US law.
-- The US Senate Committee investigating Abramoff's lobbying on behalf of Native American tribes has a copy of an invoice to the Malaysian Embassy in Washington DC from the AIC, and it is on-line for everyone to see.
-- The Senate also has a copy of a check for $300,000 from the Embassy to the bogus beach house operation. There are reports in Washington that the Senate has evidence of two more payments from the Embassy to the AIC.
As Malaysia Today commented recently, this raises serious questions whether senior Embassy officials violated US Federal and state laws by participating in this scheme to evade legal requirements.
Anwar always said that there was a political conspiracy against him, and now he is being vindicated. First came the Federal court decision that overturned his sodomy conviction. Then came the Rahim Noor settlement and apology over the near-fatal beating. Khalid Jafri then was found guilty of libel for his "50 Reasons" pamphlet slandering Anwar, the feast of lies that "somehow" found its way into the folders of UMNO delegates in 1998.
Now, thanks to Abramoff and some great investigative journalism from Hong Kong to Los Angeles to Washington, we have the revelations about the Government-funded press and political campaign in the US to "get Anwar."
While Abramoff's objective was to manipulate public opinion in the US, those same articles and statements were used back in Malaysia to convince people that the US had turned away from Anwar and towards Mahathir.
The New Republic reports that in 2000, when Abramoff first proposed to the Malaysian Government that they should hire him, he bragged that he had "facilitated hundreds of ...articles and editorials." Abramoff makes it very clear in his proposal that a key part of his strategy to build up Mahathir's image in the US was to tear down Anwar's and counter Anwar support in the US by using "surrogates" (his word).
I always wondered why Amy Ridenour, who is not a foreign policy expert, wrote an article in 2001 for the Washington Times newspaper that attacked Anwar as a radical Islamic terrorist. It was hard to explain her sudden interest in Malaysia.
It was after that article appeared that I first heard rumors that Malaysian money was being passed around in Washington.
Now we know the answer. There is a clear connection between Abramoff and Ridenour. Abramoff sat on the Board of Directors of Ridenour's so-called think tank. He would tell his clients to send money to her group, which under US tax law was a non-profit "educational" organization. That way, his clients could claim a tax deductible contribution. It was also a way for Abramoff to hide his hand and get around US lobbying and ethics laws. The non-profit educational think tank could do things that he could not.
For Ridenour, the benefits were equally clear. Without the money that Abramoff's Native American clients were channeling to her, she might have gone out of business.
Abramoff would tell Ridenour what to do with the money, like pay the bills for the disgraced Republican leader Tom Delay to take an expensive golf trip to St Andrews in Scotland.
Ridenour did more favors for the corrupt Abramoff. She would write articles and op-eds to support whatever clients Abramoff had, which as we now know, included the Government of Malaysia.
Ridenour continues to claim she never got money to write about Anwar. But given the key role that Abramoff's money played in her little think tank's operations, where hundreds of thousands of dollars regularly flowed from Abramoff's Indian (Native American) clients to her, no one needed to tell her where the butter for her bread came from. She knew what she had to do.
Abramoff's connection to Ridenour and to two other people at Washington think tanks, Doug Bandow of the CATO Institute and Peter Ferrara of the Institute for Policy innovation, is detailed in an article in the New Republic. Bandow "resigned" from the CATO Institute after his "op-eds for sale" scam was revealed. He admitted all and says he got $2,000 per article. Ferrara also admits he took money from Abramoff for op-eds, although he claims he did nothing wrong.
Bandow and Ferrara both wrote op-eds praising Malaysia. In one article Bandow wrote in December 2001, he praised Mahathir's leadership and advocated an alliance between the US and Malaysia to fight terrorism. He called PAS's electoral gains "ominous" and claimed that Islamic fundamentalists in Malaysia have aided terrorists in Indonesia and guerrillas in the Philippines. He hinted that there was a link between PAS and the terrorists.
Bandow wrote, "A strong public stand by the Mahathir government should help prevent extremists from winning over the Muslim majority. Combating terrorism is not easy. Allies are essential, particularly in the Islamic world. One of the most important international friendships that might emerge from the war on terrorism is that between America and Malaysia."
As for Ferrara, he wrote an op-ed in the Washington Times in November 2001 that described Malaysia as the "model of Islamic democracy" and a country that "is governed by the rule of law", and where "elections have been free and fair since its independence in 1957." (Ferrara obviously has never been to Malaysia.) He said that "as part of the new policies that the US administration is crafting to fight terrorism around the world, President Bush should recognise Malaysia’s success as a democratic Government." Ferrara recommended that "the United States should reaffirm its relations with Malaysia and collaborate closely with it in the global war against terror."
By itself, that is not objectionable. But the hidden message from both Ferrara and Bandow was that the United States should stop talking about Anwar and stop complaining about human rights violations in Malaysia. Forget about all of Mahathir's incessant America-bashing over the years. Now there was a war on terror to fight, and Mahathir, as Bandow said, should be our ally in that war. Mahathir was right to crack down on his political opponents at home and use the ISA against them, because they were political extremists.
Like Ridenour, Ferrara is not a foreign policy expert and knew nothing about Malaysia before he was paid to write the article. They are both Washington "unknowns," except in some right-wing Republican circles.
What Ridenour, Ferrara and Bandow all have in common is the Abramoff connection and the fact that they have been his "pens for hire." The other common point is the use of the Washington Times as the outlet for their op-eds. With a circulation of just 103,000, the Washington Times takes a back seat to the prestigious Washington Post, a paper of international standing and a daily circulation of 752,000. But the Washington Times, owned by the eccentric Korean Reverend Sun Myung Moon and his Unification Church, is the darling of the Washington DC right wing, which includes Abramoff, Tom Delay, and all their political allies.
According to the New Republic, the Washington Times did not publish the Abramoff henchmen's articles just because they agreed with their point of view. At least six Washington Times editors were invited on trips paid for by Abramoff, and sometimes their families were included to watch entertainment events like a Bruce Springsteen concert or the circus, sitting high above the crowd in the penthouse box.
Another common point is that as soon as one of these anti-Anwar, anti-PAS, pro-Mahathir articles would appear in the Washington Times, they would immediately be reported back to Malaysia by the Bernama correspondent in Washington. Bernama's representative in Washington is not known for her investigative reporting, so it is nothing short of miraculous that everytime one of these op-eds would appear, she would somehow know about it "instantly."
Knowing what to do, the Bernama reporter would beef up the credentials and influence of these unknown and obscure organizations and writers. Amy Ridenour's little Mama-Papa think tank suddenly was as influential as the Brookings Institution. The unknown Peter Ferrara was described as someone who "served under two US Presidents." The White House telephone operators have served under more Presidents than that.
Back in KL, the Mahathir propaganda machine went into full gear -- Bernama, the NST, Utusan, Berita Harian, RTM and all the usual suspects would report the views of these allegedly influential Americans on page 1. The hidden message was always the same. US public opinion about Mahathir has changed. The Americans recognize what a great leader he is, especially after 9/11. Anwar is forgotten. PAS is dangerous and may have Islamic terrorist connections. According to Ridenour, maybe Anwar does, too.
What the Malaysian people didn't know is that American views had not turned around at all.
In a country with free speech and a free press, all points of view can be expressed. To its credit, after the Washington Times published Amy Ridenour's attack on Anwar, it published a rebuttal I wrote, where I said that Ridenour didn't know what she was talking about.
Furthermore, there are enough genuine Southeast Asian experts in Washington, inside and outside the Government, who could easily counter the ignorance of the Ridenours, Bandows, Ferraras, and Abramoffs. There were also human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that were monitoring the situation in Malaysia closely and issuing public reports.
After he was hired, Abramoff's goal to improve Malaysia's public image was made more difficult by the actions being taken in Malaysia. In April 2001 Malaysian police arrested ten opposition activists, including eight leaders of Anwar's party, the columnist Hishamudin Rais, and Raja Petra Kamaruddin, the Director of the Free Anwar Campaign. (They also "arrested" Raja Petra's computer. I believe that is when the Malaysian Government learned of my own role in the international campaign to free Anwar. Abramoff got $1.2 million for his efforts, but I didn't ask for a penny.)
But then came 9/11, and it was a Godsend for Abramoff's strategy. Mahathir saw it as an opportunity to prove both at home and abroad that he was right in cracking down on the Islamic opposition. The Americans were looking for moderate Muslims who were against terrorism, and Mahathir clearly fit the bill.
Mahathir reached out to the United States in an unprecedented way. Famous for refusing to meet with foreign Ambassadors during their tenure in Malaysia, Mahathir drove to the US Embassy to sign the condolence book for the 9/11 victims, a very touching and appreciated gesture. When the new US Ambassador, Marie Huhtala, arrived in KL, Mahathir met with her even before she had presented her credentials to the King, another striking action.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, Bandow and Ferrara were writing their op-eds praising Malaysia as a potential ally in the war on terror. Islamic groups in the US, traditionally strong supporters of Anwar, were preoccupied with their own concerns post 9/11.
The idea that America didn't care about Anwar anymore -- and that only the war on terrorism mattered -- was reinforced when James Kelly, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs, visited KL in April 2002. He never raised the Anwar issue, and admitted so in his press conference.
So the political word in Malaysia was, the Americans have forgotten about Anwar. Mahathir is now in their good graces. The Americans finally recognize his wisdom and leadership.
Mahathir was just a month away from meeting with Bush, and what is sometimes called Newton's Law of Washington DC now came into play: for every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction. Human rights groups and others, myself included, weighed in. We understood why Bush was meeting with Mahathir. He was a moderate Muslim and anti-terrorist. And from my own experience, I knew that the Malaysian and US Governments cooperated closely in opposing terrorism, something that the Official 9/11 Commission later revealed in its report.
But at the same time, it was important that America not forsake its principles as it fought the war on terror. It was President Bush himself who said in his State of the Union speech to the Congress just four months before:
"America will always stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law; limits on the power of the state; respect for women; private property; free speech; equal justice; and religious tolerance.
"America will take the side of brave men and women who advocate these values around the world, including the Islamic world, because we have a greater objective than eliminating threats and containing resentment. We seek a just and peaceful world beyond the war on terror."
We pointed out that Bush has to stand by what he said, or it was just rhetoric. If he didn't talk about Anwar, it would mean that his speeches were just hot air.
When Mahathir got into the White House in May 2002, it probably was a very uncomfortable moment for him as he sat next to Bush when this exchange occurred:
Q: Mr. President, I'd like to know whether it's still the position of the United States that Anwar Ibrahim has been jailed primarily for his political opposition to the Prime Minister? ...
THE PRESIDENT: What was your second part of your question?
Q The question was, Mr. President, is it still the position of the United States that Anwar Ibrahim, the former finance minister --
THE PRESIDENT: Yes.
Q -- was jailed primarily for his political opposition to the Prime Minister? Or do you believe -- and do you believe he should be released?
THE PRESIDENT: Our position has not changed.
So there went $2 million and months of effort down the drain.
No wonder the Malaysian Government dropped Abramoff from their payroll.
After that, Mahathir's attitude towards the United States reverted to his more traditional anti-American stance.
Two months after the White House visit, human rights groups and Anwar supporters in the US put Secretary of State Colin Powell on the spot as he planned his July 30, 2002 visit to KL. Do you support the President's public commitment to "brave Muslim democrats" like Anwar or not? Powell showed that he did. He said he raised the issue with Mahathir and called Anwar's trials "flawed." His assistant Jim Kelly, who had failed to talk about Anwar on his previous visit, made amends by having breakfast with Anwar's wife Azizah at the US Ambassador's Residence, with a very public photograph released to the press. The point was made.
The Bush Administration's movement towards war with Iraq during 2002 further provoked Mahathir (and many others in the US and around the world), and Mahathir's rhetoric became tougher. After Bush launched his war against Iraq, Mahathir -- who obviously had been reading up on the neo-conservatives in the United States -- could take it no more and charged that the United States was doing Israel's bidding. In October 2003 he lashed out and said, "Today the Jews rule the world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them."
A week later Bush said he told Mahathir at the APEC meetings that the remarks were "divisive and unnecessary" and made clear that he found them "reprehensible." But Mahathir denied Bush reprimanded him. "I'm now told that Bush said he rebuked me," Mahathir was quoted as saying in the New Sunday Times newspaper. "That is the biggest lie of all."
Things were back to normal between the US and Malaysia, and the whole $2 million effort to change American opinions was a failure. But in any event, it didn't matter. Abdullah Ahmad Badawi became Malaysia's Prime Minister later that month.
When Prime Minister Badawi visited Washington in July 2004, he addressed the US-ASEAN Business Council. I was there, and the atmosphere and "buzz" in the room among the Americans were quite remarkable. Everyone commented that Malaysia clearly was "under new management" and that US-Malaysian relations had never been better. There was a very warm feeling everywhere.
With Anwar's release a few weeks later, the relationship continued to improve. Today it truthfully can be said that the relationship between Malaysia and the United States has never been better, the war in Iraq notwithstanding.
At the end of the day, the Abramoff propaganda campaign was more effective in manipulating Malaysian public opinion than it was American. But the Malaysian people didn't know something -- they were the ones paying for the whole thing, through their taxes and, in the case of the so-called "Heritage Foundation" money -- through companies that they bought services and products from.
Why didn't the campaign work in the United States? Why did the Abramoff Machine and the Heritage-connected lobbyists fail in their effort?
First, as the saying goes in Texas, "you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig." If the underlying situation is bad, no amount of public relations or money can change that. The Bush Administration is learning that lesson as it tries to improve America's image in the Muslim world. Policies and actions matter far more than PR. No amount of advertising can sell a bad product. Prime Minister Badawi changed the tone and the rhetoric of the relationship with America, and it immediately got better. (The same for Malaysia's relations with Singapore and Australia, two of Mahathir's favorite bete-noires.) It didn't cost a penny.
Second, dictators and autocrats are far more susceptible to the pitches of the Abramoffs of the world than the governments of democratic countries are. Because they can control and manipulate public opinion at home, the autocrats think they can do so abroad. But America and other democracies are a marketplace of ideas. If Amy Ridenour can write an op-ed, I can write one, too. If Abramoff can put pressure on the White House, so can the human rights groups.
When the Abramoff scandal started to crack, it was all about Native Americans and casinos. I had no idea that those of us who were striving for Anwar's freedom were up against the "Great Abramoff" and Malaysia's millions. Now we know.
But at the end of the day, we won. Anwar got out of jail, and now Abramoff is on his way there. Malaysia's Government and certain businessmen wasted two million dollars, for sure.
But the story still is not over. As Franklin Foer of the New Republic said,
"My long-time prediction: This is going to be a big story."