The government of Saudi Arabia and its agents appear to be recruiting U.S. military veterans and people with foreign policy credentials to submit basically the same op-ed to newspapers around the country in an effort to concoct the appearance of an organic groundswell of opposition to a new federal law that allows civil lawsuits against state sponsors of terrorism.
The law — the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) — creates a way for American citizens to file civil claims against foreign governments for deaths, injuries and other damage related to terrorist acts if the foreign governments financed those attacks.
The immediate effect of the new legislation is to allow a group of plaintiffs to proceed in a longstanding lawsuit against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The plaintiffs point to evidence that the Saudi government partially financed the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, which killed 2,996 people.
A cursory review of five different newspaper submissions allegedly written by five different authors — and placed in five different major newspapers from Oct. 5, 2016 to Nov. 28, 2016 — strongly suggests an astroturf campaign conducted by some single source.
Examining the astroturf
All five op-eds use exactly the same language at different points, with full paragraphs that are clearly, almost lazily repetitive.
Below, for instance, is a Nov. 4 op-ed in The Tennessean, Nashville’s primary newspaper, entitled “JASTA will harm our soldiers and diplomats overseas.” The author is Air Force Major Gen. (Ret.) William Russell Cotney.
“The principle known as sovereign immunity has governed relations between states for centuries. It holds that governments cannot be sued for civil wrongs without their consent. In international relations, it preserves the right and responsibility of governments to settle disputes with other governments on behalf of their citizens.”
And here is Angela Sinkovits, described as “an attorney and was a medical specialist in the U.S. Army,” writing in The Denver Post on Oct. 5:
“The principle of sovereign immunity has governed relations between states for centuries. It holds that governments cannot be sued for civil wrongs without their consent. In international relations, it preserves the right and responsibility of governments to settle disputes with other governments on behalf of their citizens.”
Only the word “of” instead of the phrase “known as” separates what Sinkovits wrote from what Cotney wrote. Otherwise, 46 words — out of 47 and 48, respectively — are identical.
But wait. There’s more. On Nov. 28, the Cedar Rapids Gazette published an op-ed titled “JASTA’s negative consequences” by “guest columnist” Don Pugsley with exactly the same string of 47 words contained in the Oct. 5 op-ed in The Denver Post by Sinkovits.
The Gazette describes Pugsley as “a special forces Green Beret Sargeant [sic] Major with 87 military parachute jumps, a top Secret Security Clearance and a medi-vac in Vietnam.”
In the Concord Monitor on Nov. 20, a letter to the editor by Ken Georgevits — no description given — changes three words but is otherwise a carbon copy of the identical wording by Cotney, Sinkovits and Pugsley.
On Oct. 27, the Miami Herald published an op-ed by Paul Crespo entitled “Congress must revisit flawed 9/11 lawsuit law.” Slightly to his credit, Crespo appears to have taken some time to paraphrase the language a bit:
“Sovereign immunity has been a bedrock principle governing relations between states for five centuries. It holds that governments cannot be sued for civil wrongs without their consent. It preserves the right of governments to settle disputes with other governments on behalf of their citizens.”
The Herald describes Crespo as “president and CEO of Spectre Global Risk, an international security consulting firm” as well as “a former officer in the U.S. Marine Corps” and a former Defense Intelligence Agency attaché.
There is much more evidence of a planned astroturfing campaign in the five allegedly different op-ed pieces published in five different major newspapers.
In a second instance, both Pugsley — the “special forces Green Beret” writing in The Cedar Rapids Gazette — and Cotney — the retired Air Force major general writing in The Tennessean — appear to present this entire, 47-word paragraph as something they did not plagiarize but composed by themselves:
“No nation wants this. In fact, several countries have raised their deep concerns about JASTA with the United States government, including the Gulf Cooperation Council, the European Union, the Netherlands, Turkey and Pakistan — countries where many thousands of U.S. servicemen and women are or have been present.”
Crespo, writing in the Miami Herald, wrote exactly the same thing substantively and used many of the same words. However, he at least appeared to have changed things up a bit.
The five writers use virtually the same — or exactly the same — words to make their arguments in several other instances.
Pugsley in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Cotney in The Tennessean, Sinkovits in The Denver Post and Crespo in the Miami Herald all managed to produce a similar variation of a sentence obviously sourced from the same original document:
“Whether the allegations have merit or not is immaterial; what matters is that they would be subject to local courts — not just in Canada or Germany, but even potentially in places like Pakistan, Russia or Venezuela.”
In all of the instances of similarity, Cotney and Pugsley — the op-ed writers most reliant on their military credentials — appear to have been the laziest in their reproduction of the original document.
For example, here’s Pugsley in The Gazette claiming that there is no evidence that Saudi Arabia participated in the Sept. 11 terror attacks:
“Remember, there is no evidence that the government of Saudi Arabia was complicit in the attacks of 9/11, yet the families want to bring suit against it.”
“Remember, and as much as some wish were the case, there is no solid evidence the government of Saudi Arabia was complicit in the attacks of 9/11.”
In addition to the lazy similarity in their op-eds, Pugsley and Cotney are also flatly wrong about the lack of evidence against Saudi Arabia.
This summer, well before the two ex-military men presented the op-eds to major newspapers as their own, the U.S. Congress released 28 pages of a congressional inquiry. These 28 pages produce solid evidence showing Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks.
The official inquiry by Congress states that the September 11 hijackers “received support and assistance from” “Saudi intelligence officers.” “A [deleted], dated July 2, 2002,” suggests “incontrovertible evidence that there is support for these terrorists inside the Saudi Government,” the congressional finding says.
The source of the astroturf
Who coordinated the five impressively identical op-eds allegedly written by five different authors in five different major newspapers in the last two months? The obvious candidate — the only candidate, really — is a lobbyist or a public relations firm working on a large retainer for Saudi Arabia.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia appears to be the only foreign government named in any lawsuit alleging material foreign-government support for the Sept. 11 hijackers. The practical effect of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act has been to allow lawsuits to go forward against Saudi Arabia because of 9/11.
In response to the 9/11 law (now and when it was a bill), the Saudi government has been engaging in a furious lobbying effort.
As of early November, The Hill reports, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is paying 14 lobbying firms to convince Congress to change the law — and thus to prevent any federal trial in which Saudi Arabia must defend itself.
Fees are exorbitant. As of October, Saudi Arabia was paying American lobbyists and public relations firms $1.3 million each month to fight against the right of Americans to sue terror-financing nations, according to The Hill.
Last year, the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia paid DLA Piper, a huge law firm, $450,000 for just nine months of work to “assist the Embassy in strengthening the ability of the United States and Saudi Arabia to advance mutual national security interests,” according to The Washington Post.
The fact that this multitude of lobbyists is working on behalf of Saudi Arabia is public knowledge because firms working with foreign governments must disclose their work in a U.S. Justice Department database. (Other firms on retainer with Saudi Arabia include Sphere Consulting and Glover Park Group.)
‘An absolute betrayal’
Congress enacted the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act on Sept. 28, 2016 after the House voted 348 to 77 to override a veto by President Barack Obama. (The Senate had previously voted to override Obama by a 97-to-1 vote.)
Terry Strada, a widow and the national chair for the 9/11 Families & Survivors United for Justice Against Terrorists, spoke to The Daily Caller about her group’s continuing effort to sue the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in federal court.
“It is the Saudi talking points that these people are publishing,” Strada told TheDC.
The five people who signed their names to op-eds containing impressively large chunks of the same words were likely contacted by people they know and trust, she suggested.
“I think they are approached and agree to put their name on the op-ed. The lobbying firms and communications firms reach out to the individuals,” Strada said.
“But you are doing it for the government of Saudi Arabia,” she added. “This is Saudi Arabia trying to dictate our laws and that is frightening. That just can’t happen. You can’t let Saudi Arabia pull the strings in our legislative process.”
“We want the right to present our evidence in a U.S. courtroom, just like anyone else,” Strada said.
“This is Washington, D.C. at its worst,” Strada also said. “We are counting on President-elect Trump to continue his support for the law.”
During his presidential campaign, now-President-elect Trump expressed vigorous support for the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act in its current form.
Hillary Clinton also said she supports the law as it stands, according to CNN.
Last week, two Republican senators, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, proposed an amendment to the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. The amendment would only allow Americans to sue foreign governments for damages related to terrorist attacks if the foreign nations “knowingly engage with a terrorist organization directly or indirectly, including financing,” reports Politico.
Strada and other proponents of the legislation as it is currently written believe the amendment would effectively make the law meaningless.
“Senator Graham is now stabbing the 9/11 families in the back. He and Senator McCain are seeking to torpedo JASTA by imposing changes demanded by Saudi Arabia’s lobbyists,” the 9/11 widow said in a statement sent to TheDC. “We have reviewed the language, and it is an absolute betrayal.”