Eli Clifton | The Nation


Eli Clifton

Squawks from hawks: Money, politics and Middle East diplomacy.

Who Are the Billionaires Attacking Obama’s Iran Diplomacy?

Paul Singer

Paul Singer, founder and CEO of the hedge fund Elliott Management Corporation (Reuters/Brendan McDermid)

Since taking the helm of The Israel Project two and a half years ago, former AIPAC spokesman Josh Block has turned the pro-Israel advocacy group into one of the shrillest opponents of diplomacy with Iran. But, according to documents obtained by The Nation, two of the groups’ billionaire underwriters may have their own anti-Obama impetuses, beyond simply a right-wing objection to striking a nuclear accord with Israel’s arch-foe.

Block’s pushes to denigrate and even kill talks with Iran come a dime a dozen. Just two weeks ago, ahead of Obama’s State of the Union address, Block emailed a list of reporters with a list of “FACTS AND TALKING POINTS” (his caps) claiming Senators Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez’s proposed sanctions bill against Iran was “NOT new sanctions legislation.” My colleague Ali Gharib addressed Block’s misleading “FACTS,” pointing out that the first words of the legislation explained its purpose as “To expand sanctions imposed with respect to Iran and to impose additional sanctions with respect to Iran.” Block’s misrepresentation of the legislation is particularly ironic because he accused the administration of peddling “false,” “misleading” and “ridiculous” information about the sanctions bill. Obama would go on to promise a veto if the bill reached his desk.

TIP’s growing hostility to Obama’s ongoing negotiations with Iran also came to the fore three weeks ago, when Obama reportedly suggested “donors” were behind some of the attempts to sabotage talks with sanctions. Block went apoplectic, telling The Washington Post’s far-right columnist Jennifer Rubin, “It’s a vile suggestion and one that will only damages [sic] the President’s personal credibility and his position.”

So who are the major donors behind TIP, an organization who, under Block’s leadership, has emerged as an attack dog against the White House’s Iran-policy?

A document (viewable here) acquired by The Nation lists TIP’s major donors from October 2012 to September 2013, revealing that just two billionaire hedge funders provided over one-third of the group’s total revenue. The two funders with the outsize roles were GOP megadonor Paul Singer and Hillary Clinton booster Richard Perry. Each contributed $1 million, making them TIP’s two largest donors.

Perry, the media-shy owner of Barneys and manager of the Perry Capital hedge fund, runs in the Clintons’ New York City and Hamptons social circles. He gives to the Clinton Foundation and, along with his wife, makes no secret of his support for Hillary Clinton’s future political aspirations.

A 2007 New York Times profile of Richard and his wife, Lisa Perry, describes two large portrait photographs of Hillary Clinton adorning the hallways of their penthouse apartment. In a Tablet magazine profile two years ago, Lisa Perry explains that she lost interest in politics because she “really wanted Hillary to be president.” Despite that disappointment, she contributed to Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, though her husband, who had contributed in 2008, gave no money.

But even Hillary Clinton, who has her own complicated history with Obama, has refrained from joining in on the calls for new sanctions against Iran. A day after Obama’s State of the Union address, Clinton said that introducing additional sanctions would be a “serious strategic error.”

TIP’s other million-dollar donor in the period covered by the documents, the GOP megadonor Paul Singer, was no doubt disappointed himself by Obama’s election victories. But if Singer’s other policy-oriented giving is any indication, he’s also majorly committed to pursuing confrontation with Iran. Singer sits on the board of the neoconservative Republican Jewish Coalition and contributed $3.6 million to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish think tank whose members have advocated for “crippling sanctions” and bombing Iran.

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Singer has also lent his support to the American Enterprise Institute, the brain trust of the George W. Bush White House, whose scholars advocated for the invasion of Iraq and perpetually decry Iran diplomacy in tandem with calls for more hawkish measures.

A disappointed Clinton donor and GOP/neoconservative patron might believe Block’s claims to be fighting the “war of ideas” to defend Israel against the Obama administration’s attempts to solve the nuclear crisis peacefully. But if they’re hoping to bring Jewish-Americans along to TIP’s “war,” they may face higher hurdles: a November poll of American Jewish voters found that 84 percent supported the outlines of an agreement along the lines the Obama administration is reportedly pursuing.

(In the interest of full disclosure, Block attempted to orchestrate a campaign against me and my colleagues at the Center for American Progress back in 2011. Block’s business partner, Lanny Davis, repudiated Block’s smears and the affair culminated in the Truman National Security Project expelling Block for his “mischaracterization” and “character attacks.”)


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Congressional Hawks Gear Up to Kill Talks, Bomb Iran

Senator Robert Menendez

Senate Foreign Relations Commitee chairman Senator Robert Menendez. (AP Photo/Molly Riley)

Yesterday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the status of US efforts to reach a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran put on display a surprising disconnect between some of the Senate’s most hawkish members and a stacked panel of “experts,” all of whom were probably expected to agree with Senate hawks.

The hearing went to plan early on, with the panelists—David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security; Gary Samore, president of the hawkish United Against Nuclear Iran pressure group; and Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute—expressing concerns about extending negotiations through March and backing increased sanctions should negotiators fail to reach an agreement by the new deadline.

But the wheels came off in the second hour of the hearing when the committee chairman, Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), raised the possibility of sanctions that would be implemented automatically at the end of March if there is no agreement between the P5+1 and Iran.

“Something that makes them understand that there are consequences for not coming to the conclusions that are necessary to actually make a deal that the international community could support,” Menendez said. “And signaling to them that this is not an endless rolling negotiation which you can just game but something you have to come to grips with.”

Gary Samore, the White House’s former non-proliferation czar, quickly shot Menendez’s trigger-sanctions down.

“My concern is that some in Iran might actually welcome such legislation because they could very well calculate that it will put more pressure on the P5+1 to make additional concessions in order to get a deal to avoid having the old sanctions imposed and then going back to the previous situation,” he demurred.

David Albright jumped in as well, warning that such legislation could actually push Iran to further develop their nuclear program. “Trigger sanctions, where they come into effect in a mandatory way, is perceived by the Iranians as putting a gun to their head and leads them to put together trigger-advancements in their nuclear program,” he said.

The panel also expressed concerns over the failed effort by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Bob Corker (R-TN) to automatically impose sanctions if negotiators failed to reach an agreement by the November deadline.

Albright warned, “The fact that Congress was not on board [with the Agreed Framework] was a severely corrosive factor, so I think it’s important the administration works with Congress to make sure this is a united effort.”

Samore, who earlier in the hearing warned that congressional attacks on the White House’s diplomatic outreach sends the wrong message to international allies, added, “I think the administration would be reluctant to accept such legislation when there’s such a divergence between what they think a deal is going to look like and what Congress has expressed as the essential elements of a deal.”

Menendez, visibly dismayed that his hearing had failed to produce expert approval of his “trigger sanctions” and efforts to constrain the acceptable terms for a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran, adjourned the hearing shortly thereafter.

Senate hawks, however, need not hang their heads: reinforcements are on the way. Next year, Tom Cotton (R-AR), a favorite in the neoconservative corner of the Republican Party, joins the upper house.

Yesterday, the Senator-elect tipped his cards, revealing that he had no intention of supporting a negotiated resolution to international concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.

“I hope that Congress’s role will be to put an end to these negotiations,” Cotton told a roundtable of reporters. “Iran is getting everything it wants in slow motion, so why would they ever reach a final agreement?”

Representative Mike Pompeo (R-KS), participating in the same roundtable, urged the United States and its allies to strongly consider a pre-emptive bombing campaign of Iran’s nuclear sites.“In an unclassified setting, it is under 2,000 sorties to destroy the Iranian nuclear capacity. This is not an insurmountable task for the coalition forces,” Pompeo said. (Even though such an attack would likely only delay, rather than prevent Iran’s nuclear progress.)

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While Senate hawks are typically careful to avoid an outright call to end diplomacy and steer the United States into a third war in the Middle East, the Senator-elect from Arkansas and Pompeo never got that memo. Although they are far from the only members of Congress to have quietly discussed a long-term goal of killing the P5+1 negotiations.

In September, The New Yorker’s Connie Bruck detailed how Representative Eric Cantor (R-VA), with AIPAC’s backing, introduced legislation in late 2013 designed to kill the interim agreement with Iran. Cantor eventually backed down, but the incoming Congress seems poised to take up his mantle.


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Pro-Sanctions Group Targets Legal Humanitarian Trade With Iran

Senator Mark Kirk

Senator Mark Kirk, ally of United Against Nuclear Iran. Kirk is an ardent proponent of total sanctions against Iran, including exempted humanitarian items, foods and medicines. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The anti-Iran pressure group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) claims as its mission to stop the Iranian nuclear program. A big part of its effort revolves around what it calls “private sanctions campaigns”—attempts to get consumers to boycott or otherwise pressure companies doing business with Iran, while at the same time “striving not to punish the Iranian people,” as the group’s mission statement puts it.

But the pledge to avoid harming “the Iranian people”—heard from many who take a hard line against Iran—rings hollow amid the breadth of UANI’s advocacy. A Nation investigation into UANI’s Iran Business Registry reveals a more muddled picture. The registry lists more than 1,100 companies doing business with or in Iran—legal or otherwise. While UANI accuses many of the companies of violating US or international sanctions, the listings also target for public pressure some companies doing entirely legal, humanitarian trade with Iran, including those engaged in selling Iran medicines—economic activity that is specifically exempted from sanctions by the US Treasury Department.

The result appears to be an attempt to impose an unofficial total embargo on Iran. When successfully enacted as official policies, total embargoes have wrought extreme harm to the peoples of targeted countries. The most draconian period of sanctions against Iraq, for example, coincided with increases in malnutrition, and infant mortality there rose from one death per thirty births in 1990 to one per eight in 1997. One of Washington’s most vociferous Iran hawks, Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL), whom UANI regularly praises and whose legislative initiatives it supports, has said, “It’s okay to take the food out of the mouths” of the Iranian people to punish their government for its misdeeds.

Intrigue seems to swirl around everything about UANI: its finances, ties to mining interests and policy positions have all raised many unanswered questions. And yet the group wields considerable clout in Washington. Its executive director, Mark Wallace, a former George W. Bush–appointed ambassador to the UN, has testified three times before Congress since taking UANI’s helm in 2008, and former intelligence chiefs from Germany, Israel and the UK lend their credibility by serving on the group’s advisory board. In September 2013, Dr. Gary Samore joined UANI as the group’s president following his retirement from the Obama administration as the White House’s coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction. At UANI, Samore now leads a group campaigning for blacklisting companies doing humanitarian trade, some of which received Treasury Department licenses while he was still in the administration.

UANI’s Iran Business Registry is aimed at “increasing the economic isolation of the Iranian regime by pressuring corporations to end their Iran business,” according to the group’s website. But unlike most of UANI’s name-and-shame campaigns, the registry makes no claim that all its listings expose sanctions violators—those doing illegal business in Iran in contravention of US and international bars on such trade.

The Nation found at least five well-known pharmaceutical companies engaged in Treasury Department–xempted humanitarian trade listed in the registry. In an informational document on Iran sanctions, the Treasury Department explicitly acknowledges its aim of allowing humanitarian trade with Iran, noting that “under U.S. law, the sale and export of nearly all types of food and medicine to Iran are broadly authorized, and require no specific license or special authorization.”

Nonetheless, UANI includes these companies on their registry, citing news articles about legal trade with Iran. Boston Scientific and Abbott Laboratories are listed with a citation to a December 2010 New York Times list of “Companies with Permission to Bypass Sanctions.” The permission came in the form of special licenses, most of them for “humanitarian” purposes, issued by the Treasury Department. Sanofi, AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline wound up on the registry after they were named in a December 2013 Wall Street Journal article on targeted sanctions relief for humanitarian trade, specifically loosening financial restrictions on the trade of food, agricultural and medical products to Iran.

Contacted for comment about the five pharmaceutical companies listed on UANI’s business registry, a Treasury Department spokesperson confirmed to The Nation that none of the five pharmaceutical companies had at any point been announced as violators of Iran sanctions. “These companies have each been listed [by the Treasury Department] for being awarded different exemptions or licenses,” the Treasury spokesperson said.

UANI, for its part, has denied that it advocates for cutting off humanitarian trade with Iran. Last year, the group tweeted that “our campaign stance is that there is no legitimate trade w/ #Iran EXCEPT humanitarian (food, pharm included).” It added that the Iran Business Registry “is a comprehensive directory of all biz in #Iran. UANI does not campaign/advocate 4 divestment from humanitarian co.’s.”

But that doesn’t appear to be true. The Iran Business Registry’s automated “Message Center” allows users to contact “all companies with recently reported business with Iran” and send them a pre-written e-mail demanding that they end their trade with the country.

Neither Samore nor UANI responded to requests for comment to clarify the apparent contradictions.

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The Iran Business Registry’s listing of trade in medicines isn’t the first alleged instance of UANI’s targeting and trying to cut off legal, humanitarian trade with Iran. Such allegations also appeared in a bizarre lawsuit wending its way through court. In 2013, UANI accused Victor Restis, a Greek shipping magnate, of violating Iran sanctions and, with an associate, acting as “front-men” for the Iranian regime. Restis sued UANI for defamation. In his suit, Restis contended that he’d done no illegal business with sanctioned entities in Iran and, according to The New York Times, that “his ships made only authorized humanitarian shipments” to the Islamic Republic, including legal shipments of soya beans.

Last week, we reported that Restis’s lawyers now allege in court filings that UANI continues to spread false information about the Greek shipping magnate. In that instance, the alleged conduit for the UANI’s allegations, an Israeli newspaper, retracted the claim after concluding Restis had shipped soya beans to Iran in a legitimate humanitarian transaction that violated no sanctions.

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Is the Justice Department Shielding an Anti-Iran Smear Campaign?


(Reuters/Heinz-Peter Bader)

A new wrinkle in an already bizarre lawsuit is shaping up to potentially embarrass the Obama administration. If allegations made in a recent court filing are true, then the Justice Department, with an unprecedented assertion of the state secrets privilege, might be shielding from any accountability a group actively engaged in spreading false information.

The lawsuit revolves around an anti-Iran group called United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), a pro-sanctions outfit that takes a hard line against Iran and lodges name-and-shame campaigns against companies it says are doing business with Iran. The group is made up of former officials from the Bush and Obama administrations, as well as a host of academics, former diplomats and former intelligence officials from foreign countries, including Israel.

In May 2013, UANI accused Victor Restis of doing illegal business with Iran’s sanctioned energy sector and working with an associate to act as a “front-men” for the Iranian government. But Restis fought back: he sued for defamation in July 2013.

All seemed to be proceeding normally after Restis filed his suit. His lawyers asked for documents in an effort to get UANI to back up its allegations against their clients, as well as some general information about UANI. That’s when things got strange: in September, the Justice Department stepped in to block the release of the documents. Justice officials asserted the so-called state secrets privilege, claiming that national security secrets would be at risk of exposure if the disclosures proceeded. The government also suggested the court dismiss the suit. The Justice Department’s reasons for intervening remain a mystery and, unlike any case in the past where the government has intervened in a private suit to which it is not party, refused to even explain privately to the court its reasoning for asserting the privilege.

Last week, things got even weirder: in a motion filed on Wednesday, Restis’s lawyers suggested that UANI had leaked information to the Israeli daily The Jerusalem Post that resulted in a piece accusing Restis of doing more illegal business in Iran. The Post later retracted the article, citing “new information” that indicated the purportedly illegal shipping had been “legitimate and permitted,” and scrubbing the article from its website.

“Defendants appear to have provided The Jerusalem Post with false information purporting to show an American company’s legal and humanitarian cargo of soya beans to Iran aboard Plaintiffs’ vessel violated sanctions against Iran,” said a footnote in the filing from Restis’s lawyers. “Although it printed Defendants’ false allegations against Plaintiffs, The Jerusalem Post recognized the falsity of the allegations and issued a retraction and apology.”

Restis’s legal team contends that the acknowledgment by a media organization that the information—which Restis alleges was provided by UANI—was false shows a pattern by the group of making defamatory allegations and using the government’s intervention in the case to shield themselves.

“Defendants continue to say whatever they want and then, when their targets fight back, they run and hide behind the Government without ever having to defend their words or actions,” said the filing. (The Justice Department declined to comment for this story, and UANI did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

“We appreciate The Jerusalem Post recognizing the falsity of these claims and taking the responsible step of retracting the inaccuracies relating to Victor Restis and his company,” Restis’s lawyer Abbe Lowell told The Nation, “and we will continue to expose UANI’s tactics and lies for as long as they keep spreading them.”

If true, the alleged UANI leak of false information to The Jerusalem Post would contradict UANI lawyers’ assertion in an October hearing that “UANI has made no statements whatsoever about Victor Restis or his companies, about any subject, doing business with Iran or any subject since February of 2014.” The Jerusalem Post article also said that the information it revealed would be “raised… in an upcoming hearing in a US federal court.” UANI’s lawyers brought up the purported revelations the following day in the October 8 hearing. It has not been proven that UANI leaked information to The Jerusalem Post.

The October 29 filing by Restis’s lawyers containing the latest allegations came in an effort to compel the government to justify its assertion of states secrets and to oppose dismissal of the suit.

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Iin a separate filing last Wednesday, lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other groups spelled out how unusual the Justice Department intervention was. The groups submitted a friend of the court briefing—itself an unusual move, since amicus briefs are usually filed when cases reach the appellate stage—agreeing with Restis’s team.

“Never before has the government sought dismissal of a suit between private parties on state secrets grounds without providing the parties and the public any information about the government’s interest in the case,” the lawyers from the groups wrote. “It is hard to see why, unlike in every other state secrets case in history, meaningful public disclosure to the parties is not possible in this case.”

That UANI would allegedly strike out with false allegations even as it was receiving extraordinary protection from the Justice Department only underscores the mystery surrounding the government’s intervention.

The October 7 Jerusalem Post article in question, headlined “Evidence obtained by JPost shows alleged ongoing violation of Iran sanctions” and written by legal correspondent Yonah Jeremy Bob, went through several iterations online before being retracted. (Bob did not respond to requests for comment.)

The original version of the article purported to present evidence that Restis’s companies were continuing to violate Iran sanctions by pointing to information that a ship owned by Restis docked in Iran on September 27. (The article was amended without notice before being captured by a web archive on October 8.) Lowell, the lawyer for Restis, denied the charges to the Post at the time. “In September 2014, a major US-based food company made a legal shipment of soya beans from Argentina to Iran aboard the Helvetia One, a vessel owned by the Restis family,” Lowell told the paper. “The provision of food cargo to Iran is entirely legal and encouraged under the humanitarian carve-outs to international sanctions regimes.”

On October 22, the Post came around to Lowell’s perspective, scrubbing the story and issuing a “clarification and correction” that expressed regret for publishing the story. The Post said its assertions of illegal business were “contradicted by new information provided to us and therefore no allegations of misconduct should be concluded from the above article.”

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Who Else Is in the Koch Brothers Billionaire Donor Club?

Americans for Prosperity Foundation president Tim Phillips, left, and chairman David Koch, center laugh with Amway founder Richard DeVos, right. AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack

The Koch brothers have emerged as the left’s favorite bogeymen, tied to numerous advocacy groups attempting to influence elections at the state and federal levels, but the brothers’ lasting impact won’t be the political campaigns they’ve financed but the institutions and networks they’ve constructed on the political right. While the Koch name gets all the headlines, in this effort the brothers are not, in fact, alone.

Hiding the shadow of their bigger-name brothers is a group of fellow travelers, tied to one another by their large donations aimed at pushing forward a business-friendly agenda, including rolling back labor and environmental regulations. But the many of the members of this network share something else with the Kansas-based billionaire brothers: they have pursued business ventures that target low-income communities as customers and employees, essentially profiting off poverty.

Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-funded advocacy group that spent $122 million in the 2012 election cycle and was expected to match that amount this season, endorses corporation-friendly positions under the guise of helping the poor. The group promotes the belief that raising the federal minimum wage does “more harm than good” and “does not help low-skilled and unemployed Americans”; it also warns that the White House’s proposal to tighten carbon emission regulations “will harm minority and low income communities the most.”

The Koch brothers and the groups they fund have taken both the credit and the heat for these positions, while few of their fellow billionaire donors to Koch-funded institutions rarely make headlines or are asked to explain their support for the extreme right-wing views espoused by the groups they fund.

“[A] lot of the portraits of [the Koch brothers] portray them as reticent or reluctant crusaders, but I think they also have accepted and embrace this role, to their advantage, of being so heavily identified with it,” Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies, a group that calls attention to the “capacity for progressive change in the American South,” told The Nation. “And it may provide shielding for other people who play this role.”

Earlier this year, a leaked document from one of the brothers’ secretive biannual meetings revealed the names of more than forty top conservative donors who were singled out for one-on-one meetings with the brothers and their top strategists. But exact dollar amounts and their connections to Koch-founded institutions remain elusive. Do these donors work in parallel with the brothers or in direct collaboration?

An examination of 501(c)(3) tax filings sheds light on several of the seven-figure donors to the Americans For Prosperity Foundation, the “educational” arm of the brothers’ Americans For Prosperity advocacy group, a group of (almost entirely) men who are at the center of the Koch universe. The AFP Foundation is tax-exempt so donations are tax deductible. Only donors who contributed through their personal foundations are traceable, meaning that donors who contribute via personal checks are shielded from all public scrutiny. The majority of the AFP Foundation’s approximately $22 million in annual revenue comes from a variety of untraceable sources, where the individuals or families writing the donation and potentially enjoying the tax deduction are hidden from public view.

Indeed, the top identifiable non-Koch donors and the contributions associated with them are likely the tip of the iceberg for these donors involvement in the Koch network. Contributions to Koch funded advocacy groups, such as AFP’s 501c4 arm, provide no tax deduction for donors and, as a result, donors contribute almost exclusively through direct contributions, leaving no publicly accessible paper trail.

Art Pope, Variety Wholesalers

The biggest identifiable donor to the AFP Foundation is Art Pope, CEO and chairman of Variety Wholesalers, a North Carolina–based discount store chain, a major funder of the Republican Party in North Carolina and nationally, and an invitee at a secretive 2011, Koch-hosted meeting to “develop strategies to counter the most severe threats facing our free society and outline a vision of how we can foster a renewal of American free enterprise and prosperity,” according to a leaked invitation. His foundation, the John William Pope Foundation, contributed $4.17 million to the AFP Foundation between 2003 and 2012. Pope’s closeness to the Koch brothers and AFP is exemplified by his seat on the organization’s board, an exception to the Koch brothers’ tendency to appoint current and former employees of Koch companies and family insiders as directors.

Between 1998 and 2012, Pope also contributed $400,000 to the Mercatus Center, a free market–oriented think tank whose board of directors includes Charles G. Koch. The Mercatus Center “advances knowledge about how markets work to improve people’s lives,” according to the group’s website.

While Pope’s name is relatively unknown outside of his home state, his reputation in North Carolina is that of a GOP kingmaker and a former director at Americans for Prosperity. “From our analysis, we can’t see anyone who has spent as much money or orchestrates the political machine as Pope has in North Carolina,” said Kromm, who noted that Pope has spent more than $50 million in the past decade to influence North Carolina and national politics.

Pope, until this summer, served as budget director for North Carolina Governor Pat McRory. “Mr. Pope served on Americans for Prosperity Foundation’s board until stepping down to serve in the administration of NC Governor Pat McCrory in January, 2013,” Adam Nicholson, state communications manager at the AFP Foundation, told The Nation.

Pope found himself in the headlines last holiday season when the NAACP urged a boycott of his stores, accusing him of implementing policies that hurt the minority and low-income communities in which his stores are located. Last December, the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, president of the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, wrote Pope, saying, “As the Budget Director for North Carolina and one of the architects of the extremist policies and laws adopted this year by the NC General Assembly, you have supported denial of the expansion of Medicaid to 500,000 people, cuts in unemployment benefits to 170,000 people, and many other regressive, mean-spirited policies.”

Pope responded expressing dismay that Barber and his “allies would demand any public official to support your political positions, by threatening a business which is not part of state government,” and pointing out that “44 percent of Variety Wholesalers and Roses store employees are black.”

This defense—that personal business interests are independent from policy positions supported by business owners—is a popular trope in the Koch brothers’ world. Responding to criticism from Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Koch Industries executive Philip Ellender told Politico that Reid was “waging war on private citizens.”

Richard DeVos, Amway

Perhaps the most public and outspoken participants in the Koch network are billionaire Richard DeVos, the co-founder of retailing giant Amway, and his extended family. While other big donors like Pope may enjoy the relative anonymity that contributing to the Koch-branded AFP affords, Richard DeVos and his family are well known bankrollers of the evangelical far-right’s political agenda (including a 2008 initiative to block same-sex marriage in California and opposing the legality of abortion). That agenda doesn’t neatly fit with the Koch brothers’ pro-business views, but the family also quietly supports a number of anti-union and Koch-linked projects.

The DeVos family foundation contributed $3 million to the AFP Foundation in 2011. That contribution alone makes them the second-largest overall donor that is identifiable after Art Pope. The DeVos family foundation from 2007–11 also contributed $800,000 to the Koch-seeded FreedomWorks Foundation, a conservative and libertarian group that promotes “less government, lower taxes and more economic freedom”; in 2012, they wrote a $500,000 “unrestricted grant” to the Mercatus Center, according to the DeVos family’s foundation’s tax filings.

And the DeVos family, now apparently led by Richard DeVos’s son, Richard DeVos Jr., bankrolled anti-union campaigns in Michigan and gave serious momentum to Republican backed anti-union “right-to-work” laws across the country, a key policy issue of AFP both in Michigan and nationwide. Michigan, the DeVos families’ home state, became the twenty-fourth state to pass “right to work” legislation after Governor Rich Snyder signed the bill into law, following a full court press by AFP’s Michigan chapter and DeVos-backed Republican lawmakers to pass the legislation.

As in the case of Pope, and Koch, the government and the family’s golden goose, Amway, have not always seen eye to eye on regulatory matters. A 1975 Federal Trade Commission investigation accused the company of operating as an illegal pyramid scheme. Though the agency eventually rescinded the accusation,) and, according to Mother Jones’s Andy Kroll, the company magazine has pushed the message that the government stands in the way of free-market enterprise, telling readers, “Entrepreneur DeVos Preaches Self-Help: GOVERNMENT MEDDLING ASSAILED.”

The DeVos family’s philanthropy to anti-regulatory and pro-free market institutions could not have hurt Amway’s bottom line. Amway is currently listed as the twenty-eighth-largest private company in the US by Forbes, generating $11.3 billion in sales in the last fiscal year.

This year, AFP has focused its sights on Obamacare, with one AFP website, Obamacareistooexpensive.com, claiming that 2 million jobs were “killed because of ObamaCare.” That text was part of an attack on Democrat Rick Weiland, who is running against former South Dakota governor Mike Rounds for a seat in the Senate. “We can’t afford Rick Weiland’s ObamaCare,” the site declared; earlier this month, Americans for Prosperity began running web advertisements attacking Weiland. For their part, the DeVos family contributed approximately $100,000 in direct campaign contributions to Rounds’s campaign coffers. Rounds has raised $2.9 million for his campaign and is in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline and, as governor, signed legislation banning most medical abortions, has been the largest recipient of money from the DeVoses, who, according to FEC disclosures, appear to coordinate their political giving across a sizable extended family, allowing them to give directly to candidates instead of relying exclusively on more tightly restricted contributions to Super PACs. “In aggregate, [the DeVos family] are quite a significant force,” Rich Robinson, executive director of Michigan Campaign Finance Network, told The Nation. “They’re without peers as political spenders in this state,” he added.

DeVos family members, Koch family members and Koch Industries employees have also joined forces in a number of congressional races, directing significant campaign contributions to anti-regulatory candidates, including Timothy Walberg ($40,800), the incumbent in a Michigan congressional race; William Cassidy ($47,000), the incumbent in a Louisiana congressional race; Cory Gardner, the incumbent in a Colorado congressional race; and Scott Brown ($36,600), running for the Senate in New Hampshire.

Richard T. Farmer, Cintas

Richard T. Farmer, chairman emeritus of the uniform and cleaning company Cintas, is another AFP Foundation contributor ($910,000 via the Farmer Family Foundation in 2011) and invitee at the 2011 strategy session in Palm Springs.

A Republican Party heavyweight donor, Richard Farmer was the fifteenth-largest donor to George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign and a supporter of Republican efforts in the upcoming November election to gain a majority in the Senate, a key strategic goal of AFP. Farmer is heavily investing in Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), contributing $25,000 to Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, a pro-McConnell Super PAC. Richard and Scott Farmer both contributed $32,400 to the Republican National Committee.

Cintas’ current CEO, Farmer’s son Scott, also closely mirrored AFP positions when he wrote a controversial e-mail to his 30,000 employees warning that Obama’s Affordable Care Act, among other policies, could ultimately cost them their jobs.

“This uncertainty felt by many of our customers about their ability to run and grow their businesses prevents them from adding jobs which hurts our ability to grow and add jobs,” wrote Farmer before the 2012 election. “Therefore, I ask all of you to make your voice heard in the upcoming Election on November 6th.”

Farmer has faced accusations that his anti-regulatory public policy positions and his corporate undertakings have been bad for working people in myriad ways, including risking their physical safety.

Most prominently, Cintas faced accusations of dangerous working conditions in his factories, exemplified by one horrifying case in 2007 in which an employee died after falling into a drier at a Cintas facility. (Farmer was chairman of the Cintas board at the time of the accident.) Following the death, Cintas faced a shareholder lawsuit alleging the board of directors’ “conscious failure to cause the company to comply with” worker-safety regulations and laws. “Cintas has consistently failed to protect its workers from the hazards of the workplace,” said the suit. In 2009, Cintas settled that lawsuit for $475,000 and agreed to improve compliance with policies and laws related to safety. That same year, Cintas paid $24 million to settle a class-action suit that alleged the company illegally withheld overtime pay to drivers. Cintas admitted no wrongdoing in either case.

Elaine T. Marshall, Board Member of Koch Industries

The DeVos, Farmer and Pope families may have aligned business interests with the Koch brothers, but Elaine T. Marshall stands apart in being an actual insider at Koch Industries. Marshall, worth an estimated $9.1 billion, is the fourth-richest woman in America and a member of the nine-person Koch Industries board.

Marshall contributed $1.55 million to the AFP Foundation, $1.5 million to the Mercatus Center and $1.55 million to the Koch-funded Institute for Energy for Energy Research between 2008 and 2012.

Little is known about Marshall’s political views, so it is difficult to determine whether she is an ideological force in the Koch brothers’ inner circle or simply a check-writer to various Koch initiatives. She inherited the fortune accrued by her father-in-law, J. Howard Marshall II, a Texas oil industry executive whose 1950s investment in a refining business developed into Koch Industries. Elaine T. Marshall struggled to control the inheritance when Marshall’s third wife, Playboy playmate Anna Nicole Smith, sought to overturn Marshall’s will and trust. Smith’s case was unsuccessful but offers one of the few examples of Elaine Marshall’s name appearing in headlines; she rarely makes public appearances or speaks with the media.

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But Marshall’s relative anonymity may be the norm, rather than the exception, among the Koch brothers’ political allies. As political bogeymen, Charles and David Koch are villainized as the masterminds of a vast right-wing network to undermine unions, repeal Obamacare and lower taxes on the ultra-rich. Indeed, that may all be true. But the Koch name nearly always steals the headlines, leaving billionaire families like the Marshalls, Popes, DeVoses and Farmers relatively unnoticed by the mainstream media.

And that might be just how the Koch brothers and their allies want it. None of the donors identified in this article responded to requests for comment. AFP, for its part, won’t answer questions about the roles played by individual donors. “Our Foundation provides education on a number of issues, such as parental choice and education reform generally, in order to enable more children to have an excellent education,” Nicholson told The Nation. “We appreciate the support of a number of grant-making foundations towards this end.”


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Beltway Foreign Policy Groups to Congress: Stay Out of the Way on Iran!

Iran Flag

(Reuters/Heinz-Peter Bader)

The November 24 deadline for the P5+1 and Iran to reach an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program is quickly approaching. If negotiators can reach a deal next month, it will almost certainly provide unprecedented access for inspectors to Iran’s nuclear sites and will reduce to a near-zero possibility that Iran could acquire a nuclear weapon. But perhaps most importantly, it will show that US strategic interests in the Middle East can be pursued and secured without the use of military force, an important new precedent to set after over a decade of costly conflict.

If there is a deal on November 24, the White House indicated, in an article authored by David E. Sanger in Sunday’s New York Times, that it would not seek an immediate vote on the agreement or sanctions relief, instead asserting that the administration can, and may need to, roll back some sanctions unilaterally as part of immediate sanctions relief guarantees in a possible agreement.

Hawks in Congress may want to portray their position as representing the mainstream consensus but a letter signed by thirty-seven organizations and sent to members of Congress on Thursday, offers some indication that many foreign policy groups in the beltway are concerned by Congress’ latest effort to meddle in the final weeks of sensitive diplomacy before the November deadline.

The signatories—which include the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation; J Street; MoveOn.org; the National Iranian American Council; Progressive Democrats of America; the United Methodist Church and VoteVets— expressed “deep concern with inaccurate and counterproductive rhetoric from a handful of Members of Congress regarding possible outcomes of the current negotiations.”

They continue:

Particularly irresponsible are threats to oppose any comprehensive agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program that initially suspends US sanctions on Iran through lawful executive action. Congress’ authorization of the President’s power to suspend and re-impose US sanctions on Iran is clear and unmistakable in each piece of legislation it has passed on the subject. Use of these provisions by the President to implement the initial phase of an agreement that ensures Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon would reflect an affirmation, not a subversion, of Congress’ will.

The echo chamber on Capitol Hill may give members of the House and Senate the impression that only the threat of military action or crushing sanctions are effective tools in bringing Iran to the negotiating table. (My colleague Ali Gharib and I discussed the disproportionate voice given to individuals from neoconservative organizations at congressional hearings on Iran in a July article in The Nation.)

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But the letter sent out on Thursday might give some congressional Democrats pause. Congress may lean hawkish but progressive groups in the beltway are throwing their weight behind the White House’s efforts to reach a diplomatic agreement on Iran’s nuclear program and are urging Congress to stay out of the way.

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UANI President Gary Samore Dismisses Imminent Threat of an Iranian Nuclear Weapon

Nuclear talks

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (L) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) at nuclear talks (Reuters/Heinz-Peter Bader)

Yesterday, Gary Samore, president of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), published a column on the website of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), arguing that even if talks between the P5+1 and Iran collapse, “Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons in the near term is severely constrained by political and technical factors.”

But Samore seems not to have contacted his office with that sensible sounding message. “It’s time to come down like a ton of bricks on this regime,” Gabriel Pedreira, communications director of UANI, told The Algemeiner, a US Jewish news outlet, on the same day. “We want an economic blockade if real change doesn’t come about. We haven’t seen a single concession from the Iranians, nor has even one centrifuge been destroyed,” said Pedreira.

That’s not what Samore, Pedreira’s boss, wrote. “Despite the impasse over the scale and scope of Iran’s enrichment program, the negotiators have made progress on several other issues, such as converting the Fordow enrichment facility to a research and development facility and converting the Arak heavy water research reactor to produce less plutonium,” said Samore.

And as for Pedreira’s argument that an “economic blockade” would be helpful? Samore acknowledged that a new interim agreement, presumably to be considered if the P5+1 and Iran are unable to meet the November 24 deadline for a comprehensive agreement, would be “resisted by some in Iran” if it is perceived that “it gives away too much nuclear capability without getting enough sanctions relief in return.”

In other words, an “economic blockade,” as Pedreira puts it, would give Iran’s hardliners ammunition to oppose a new interim agreement, which might be exactly what UANI wants.

The organization expressed “disappointment” with the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action, complaining that the agreement “provides disproportionate sanctions relief to Iran,” and has consistently opposed rollback of sanctions as part of an interim deal.

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Indeed, both Mark Wallace, UANI’s CEO, and UANI’s mysterious benefactor, billionaire Thomas Kaplan, have expressed more hardline views than Samore, who served in the Obama administration as the president’s Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction until last year.

But the divergence between Samore’s column, in which he is ID’d with his Belfer Center affiliation instead of UANI, and UANI’s contradictory statements the same day, raises questions about how much leadership Samore is offering to the organization and whether his role is more than purely ceremonial. Either way, Samore should probably phone his (UANI) office.

Read Next: Out-of-state Money Surges Into Alabama Congressional Race

Out-of-State Money Surges Into Alabama Congressional Race

Alabama State Capitol

The Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

The battle over Alabama’s Sixth Congressional District hasn’t received much media attention as underdog Mark Lester (D), a history professor at Birmingham Southern College, takes on Gary Palmer (R), former president of the largely unknown Alabama Policy Institute (API). But questions about the sources of funding to API and Lester’s challenge to Palmer—calling on him to reveal his tax returns—might transform the contest over a predominantly red district into the frontlines in the ongoing debate over candidates’ financial transparency and sources of campaign finance.

On September 9, Lester charged that Palmer is a “man who has lived off of special interest contributions for several decades of his life,” and that API is funded largely from sources outside of Alabama. Palmer responded, “I can assure you that [API’s] donor list is primarily—I mean, almost entirely—individuals.”

An investigation into API’s donors by The Nation reveals that Palmer’s statement is demonstrably untrue.

In 2012, the last year in which complete tax data is available, the API received nearly half ($480,519) of its $970,977 in grant revenue from thirteen 501(c)(3) foundation donors, not individuals.

The majority of institutional grants came from out-of-state foundations ($282,969), the largest donor being the National Christian Charitable Foundation, a massive donor-advised fund based in Georgia. National Christian Charitable Foundation is one of the nation’s biggest donors to the anti-gay and anti-abortion movement. (Hobby Lobby’s owners and executives were NCF’s biggest donors in 2009.)

Other major 501(c)(3) donors in 2012 included: Virginia-based Donors Trust ($97,000); Alabama-based J.L. Bedsole Foundation ($100,000) and the Alabama-based Williams Charitable Foundation ($50,300).

None of this fits with Palmer’s claim that API, under his leadership, was funded “almost entirely” by individuals.

But an exploration into the funding supporting Palmer’s candidacy brings up even stranger links to out-of-state interests.

Palmer has raised $1,086,567 in campaign contributions. Over half of that, $548,176, came from the Washington, DC–based Club for Growth PAC, a conservative political action committee that “endorses and raises money for candidates who stay true to the fundamental principles of limited government and economic freedom,” according to its website.

None of that diverges from Palmer’s stated positions of opposing tax increases, reducing regulations limiting oil drilling in the United States, and repealing Obamacare. However, an examination of Club For Growth PAC’s donors reveals that only one of its biggest donors comes from Alabama.

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PAC contributors can give a maximum of $5,000, and Club for Growth PAC raised nearly $200,000 from heavy-hitter donors who maxed out and gave $5,000. In 2013 and 2014, only one donor from Alabama, T. Owen Vickers (an executive at Birmingham Hide & Tallow Company), was a member of the PAC’s $5,000 club.

Palmer’s claim that the Alabama Policy Institute is funded “almost entirely” by individuals is false. But, perhaps more importantly, it looks like his campaign is receiving the majority of its funding from a Washington, DC–based PAC funded almost entirely by non-Alabaman voters.


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How Much Money Could These Two Iran Hawks Make From Unrest in the Middle East?

Iranian flag

An Iranian flag in front of the United Nations headquarters in Vienna (Reuters/Heinz-Peter Bader)

On Monday, I published an article detailing how billionaire gold and silver investor Thomas Kaplan and former UN Ambassador Mark Wallace may have promoted their own business interests through work undertaken by United Against Nuclear Iran, a group that is headed up by Wallace and that shares employees with companies controlled by Thomas Kaplan.

UANI has been an outspoken critic of the White House’s efforts to reach a nuclear accord with Iran, characterizing the November interim agreement as a “disappointment” that provides “disproportionate sanctions relief to Iran.” A former Obama administration official who worked closely on Middle East policy told me, “I’m concerned that [UANI and its allies] don’t understand that failure to address this issue will ensure that Iran gets the bomb or we’re headed toward war.”

Indeed, Wallace and Kaplan, through various public disclosures about silver mines they own or have owned in the past, state that they believe the value of silver will hold steady or appreciate if there is unrest in the Middle East. Those statements raise questions about the two men’s motives in attacking the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts.

But a filing submitted in New York yesterday by attorneys representing Victor Restis, a Greek shipping magnate accused by UANI of doing business with Iran, offers some new clues into the connections between Kaplan and UANI.

Restis, who is filing a defamation suit against UANI, suggests that Kaplan “stands to profit from UANI’s ‘name and shame campaign’” against Restis’s two companies, Enterprises Shipping & Trading and Golden Energy.

The filing reads:

[Kaplan] got his start with help from the family of Leon Recanati, a Greek-Israeli entrepreneur whose family owns and still operates Overseas Shipholding Group (“OSG”), a rival shipping company to Enterprises Shipping and Trading. See Exs. 4, 5. OSG operates oil tankers that compete directly with Mr. Restis’ tanker company, Golden Energy Maritime Corp., whose initial public offering had to be abandoned in 2013 when Defendants launched their defamation campaign that is at the heart of this litigation. See Am. Compl. ¶ 97. OSG would stand to profit if Mr. Restis and his companies were no longer able to operate. Kaplan married Leon Recanati’s daughter Dafna Recanati and was introduced to Israeli investor Avi Tiomkin, by Dafna Recanati’s mother.

Restis’s counsel also infers from Wallace and Kaplan’s statements about silver’s value during periods of geopolitical unrest in the Middle East, that:

UANI’s hard-line campaigns against Iran contribute to the very uncertainty that, in turn, benefits Kaplan, Tigris Financial Group, Wallace, and other Kaplan-controlled companies in which Wallace is involved.

The Wallace-Kaplan connections, which I outlined in my article, are further expanded upon in the court filing. It reads:

Defendant Mark Wallace, founder and CEO of UANI, serves as an officer and/or director of at least six of Kaplan’s companies (Tigris Financial Group, Silver Opportunity Partners, Niocan, Inc., Nio-Metals, Cougar Gold LLC, and Electrum Group). Wallace has not drawn a salary from UANI since 2009, so Wallace appears to be getting his financial benefit indirectly through UANI supporter Kaplan.

I detailed how three employees of Kaplan’s companies, other than Wallace, serve or served in positions at UANI, but the court filing adds a fourth overlapping individual. Restis’s lawyer writes:

Jonathan Powell, an Advisory Board member of UANI and The Institute for Strategic Dialogue was a college classmate of Kaplan’s and serves as a Senior Advisor to Tigris Financial Group.

The filing also raises questions about how UANI “operates rent free out of offices in 45 Rockefeller Center in office space donated by Continental Properties.” Continental Properties’ managing director is Mark Fisch. The filing elaborates:

Fisch and Kaplan jointly fund the Kaplan-Fisch Fellowship at the NYU Institute of Fine Arts. Id. Furthermore, Continental Properties employee Kim Hillman is also a director of UANI.

And, as if the connections between Kaplan and UANI weren’t well enough established, UANI’s counsel is Brian Stack, “also a UANI Board Member and Kaplan’s counsel in other matters,” according to Restis’s attorney.

But the real intrigue in all of this is the access and influence that UANI, a group whose own executive director is betting big on a series of investments he and Kaplan say will appreciate in or retain value if there is unrest in the Middle East, has to Congress and prominent academics.

Wallace has testified three times in his capacity as a UANI official and, at a July Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing on Iran policy, all three outside witnesses invited to testify were affiliated with UANI (one did not attend because of sickness).

While access on Capitol Hill for a group with murky financial interests in the shipping industry and gold and silver markets raises eyebrows, Restis’s attorney also points to a possible quid pro quo at Harvard University. He writes:

Kaplan is a member of and donor to the International Council of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. See Ex. 8. The Recanati-Kaplan Foundation (Kaplan’s and his wife’s family foundation) contributed $149,000 to the Belfer Center in 2012. See Ex. 9 In 2013, the Belfer Center appointed a new executive director, Gary Samore, who had just finished serving as an anti-proliferation advisor to the Obama administration. See Ex. 10. Shortly thereafter, Samore became UANI’s President.

I’ve reached out to Gary Samore and a number of current and former UANI advisory board members with positions at the Belfer Center, including Graham Allison, Dennis Ross and Chuck Freilich. None have responded. (The Belfer Center was ranked as one of the least transparent US think tanks in a recent Transparify study on think tank transparency.)

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UANI advisory board member Mark Lagon, a professor at the Master of Science in Foreign Service Program at Georgetown University and former director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the State Department, told The Nation that UANI “has done tremendous work.”

Addressing Wallace’s dual role as head of Kaplan’s Tigris Financial Group and executive director of UANI, Lagon said, “I was aware of Amb. Wallace’s role at Tigris. I leave further comment to Mark Wallace, a man of integrity.”

Kaplan, UANI and Wallace have not responded to repeated requests for comment.


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Why the Hawks Are Winning the Iran Debate

Senator Mark Kirk

Senator Mark Kirk, R-IL, speaks during a Senate Appropriations Subcommitte hearing in support of Iran sanctions (AP Photo/J.Scott Applewhite) 

Last week, my colleague Ali Gharib and I published an article in The Nation in which we explored the influence of hawkish groups in shaping congressional legislation on Iran sanctions. One of the explanations we offered was the overwhelmingly large budgets enjoyed by hard line, pro-sanctions organizations such as the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Another, perhaps related, explanation lies in the frequency with which hawkish groups advise members of Congress at House and Senate committee hearings .

We wrote:

Since November 2012, eleven separate hearings on Iran policy have considered a total of thirty-six expert testimonies from outside groups. Of that number, two neoconservative organizations dominated: FDD fellows made five appearances, and those from the AEI had four. Neoconservative allies like David Albright, who co-chairs a nonproliferation group with Dubowitz and spoke before Congress four times in this period, also gave testimony. All told, people associated with groups taking a hard line on Iran sanctions accounted for twenty-two of the thirty-six testimonies solicited by House and Senate committees.

Centrist think tanks, on the other hand, were underrepresented. Employees of the Council on Foreign Relations testified twice, while the Brookings Institution, the RAND Corporation, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Center for Strategic and International Studies fielded only one witness apiece over the period reviewed by The Nation. Experts from dovish think tanks hardly appeared at all: the only witness from such a group, Barak Barfi of the generally left-of-center New America Foundation, made one appearance.

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A pie chart, shown below, illustrates the outsize influence enjoyed by hawkish groups at committee hearings. Simply stated, hard line, pro-sanctions, groups are the most frequent outside voices invited to advise Congress about the White House’s Iran policy.


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