The Biggest D.C. Spy Scandal You Haven't Heard About (Part One)
Two years ago, the executive director of the Kashmiri American Council (KAC), Ghulam Nabi Fai, was riding high in Washington, D.C. circles. In March 2010, he hosted a pricey fundraiser in his own home for Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN), the powerful chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia and co-chairman of the Congressional Pakistan Caucus.
In 2004, Fai testified before Burton’s subcommittee. Internal KAC documents show that in just 2007 alone, he had 33 meetings with members of Congress, congressional staff, the Bush administration’s National Security Council, and the State Department. He led congressional delegations to the disputed Kashmir region, and over the years nearly three dozen different members of Congress of both parties attended or spoke at Fai’s annual Kashmir Peace Conference held on Capitol Hill. KAC’s events were even broadcast live on C-SPAN.
One thing that bought Fai so much access was that Fai and the KAC board of directors generously spread campaign contributions all over Capitol Hill to members of both political parties. However, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, the bulk of contributions by Fai, KAC’s board, and Fai’s associates went to Burton and the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
That all changed on July 19, 2011, when Fai was arrested by the FBI not far from his Fairfax, Virginia home, where he had held the fundraiser for Burton sixteen months earlier. And just last month, a year after his arrest, Fai reported to federal prison.
According to an affidavit by FBI Special Agent Sarah Webb Linden that was the basis for the criminal complaint, an extensive investigation into Fai's activities showed that all of Fai’s efforts over the past 20 years had been illegally financed and directed by Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI.
The FBI affidavit stated that Fai was in constant contact with his Pakistani ISI handlers: since June 2008, Fai and his handlers exchanged more than 4,000 messages.
The FBI also found that Fai and KAC had received more than $4 million from the ISI since KAC’s founding in 1990 through the use of U.S.-based Pakistani-American straw donors who would donate to KAC and receive tax deductions, and then be reimbursed in Pakistan by the ISI. This was arranged through Fai’s conspirator Fazeer Ahmad, a U.S. citizen who lived in Pakistan and was charged along with Fai in the case.
These straw-donor transactions concealed that KAC was not an independent public relations effort by U.S. citizens to advocate on behalf of the Kashmiri people, but rather an influence operation run by the intelligence agency of a hostile foreign power, one intended to influence members of Congress to shape U.S. foreign policy in Pakistan’s favor. The stated targets for much of KAC's operations were the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
KAC’s activities didn’t have to be illegal. All Fai had to do was register his organization with the attorney general under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Doing so would have exposed the Pakistani ISI’s role in the operation, however, and would have closed most doors in Washington, D.C., to Fai and KAC.
The FBI gave Fai sufficient opportunity to come clean about his operation and its ties to Pakistani intelligence. In March 2007, the FBI interviewed Fai, who claimed he had never met anyone affiliated with the government of Pakistan.
In March 2010, the Justice Department sent Fai a letter stating that press reports in India had identified him as an agent of Pakistan, and that if true, he was required to file as a foreign agent with the attorney general’s office under FARA. In an email reply, Fai stated that KAC “has never engaged in activities on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan or any other foreign entity.”
What undoubtedly prompted that Justice Department letter was a meeting that Fai had with two of his Pakistani ISI handlers in Geneva just days before. In that March 2010 strategy meeting, according to notes of the meeting obtained by U.S. Customs officials when Fai reentered the U.S., Fai briefed his handlers on KAC’s 2010 goals and the targets of his efforts. Most notably: “E.B. [Executive Branch], State, DoD, WH [White House]; Media, Think tank; Congress; U.N.”
According to the FBI, the two ISI handlers Fai met with in that March 2010 Geneva strategy meeting were Sohail Mahmood and Major General Mumtaz Ahmad Bajwa, the then-head of the ISI’s Security Directorate, which oversees operations of several Kashmiri terrorist groups.
Bajwa had also attended Fai’s Tenth International Kashmir Peace Conference on Capitol Hill in July 2009. Also at the event was Fai’s then-ISI handler, Lt. Col. Touqeer Mehmood Butt, whose visa application noted his employer as “Pakistani Ministry of Defence, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Islamabad, Pakistan.” Among the speakers at that conference were Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA), Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA), Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY), and the ubiquitous Rep. Dan Burton, as seen in the video below:
The event was even covered by the Hindi-language section of Voice of America:
The day after the 2009 KAC conference ended, Bajwa and Butt met with Fai in KAC’s Washington, D.C. office and had a conversation that was wiretapped by the FBI.
According to Agent Linden’s affidavit, the wiretap transcript shows that Fai gave his Pakistani ISI handlers a review of his efforts (p. 24):
His comments included the history of the establishment of KAC; KAC’s primary lobbying targets within the U.S. (to wit, White House, State Department, Pentagon, Congress, and the United Nations); KAC’s prior encounters with U.S. and Pakistani politicians; and Fai’s relationship with the Pakistani Embassy in Washington.
Agent Linden’s affidavit (p. 20) also notes a plan of action submitted by Fai to his handlers in December 2008 for the incoming Obama administration in 2009, outlining his strategy:
[S]ecure Congressional support to encourage the Executive Branch to support self determination in Kashmire, build new alliances in the State Department, the National Security Council, the Congress, and the Pentagon, and to expand KAC’s media efforts.
Fai’s budget for KAC for 2009 was $738,000, which included $100,000 intended for campaign contributions for members of Congress. After his ISI handlers balked, Fai reduced his budget to $638,000, most of which would be passed from the ISI to KAC through the U.S.-based straw donors.
The proposed activities for KAC in 2010 approved by the Pakistani ISI listed 61 events that Fai had planned for the year, including 10 briefings/events for members of Congress and their staff. In 2011, Fai was ordered by his handler to cultivate relationships with eleven identified members of the media and six intellectuals from D.C. think-tanks.
Under normal circumstances, you might think it would be front-page news that Pakistani intelligence had successfully penetrated the inner recesses of Capitol Hill and the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations; Pakistani intelligence had conducted a 20-year influence operation; and Pakistani intelligence made campaign contributions primarily to Republican members of Congress (including Burton -- one of the most vocal critics of President Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal) and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. You would expect the establishment media to subject the issue to investigation rivaling the Jack Abramoff scandal during the Bush administration.
You would be wrong.
While Fai’s arrest was noted by many press outlets and a smattering of articles appeared in the subsequent days, within a week the story virtually vanished from the establishment media.
The New York Times reported on Fai’s arrest, and the following day published an article announcing denials by Burton and his congressional colleagues that they had any knowledge of Fai’s ties to Pakistani intelligence. The last mention in the newspaper of the matter was less than a week later, when they reported that the FBI had attempted to arrest Fai several times, only to be stymied by the State Department and the CIA, who wanted to avoid heightening tensions with Pakistan. And except for a two-sentence mention on the New York Times India blog, the matter then disappeared from their pages entirely.
The Fai arrest got the same treatment from the Washington Post, which ran two stories and a short blog post in the days following Fai’s arrest, and later made short mention of his guilty plea. The paper has published nothing since.
The only full-scale treatment of the Fai matter and his influence on Capitol Hill was an October 2011 investigative piece by ProPublica researchers published by The Atlantic that outlined Fai's background and lobbying efforts, as well as the extensive evidence compiled by the FBI in the case.
One might have at least expected a flurry of reporting when Fai pled guilty and was later sentenced to two years in prison, Alas, no. Nor was there any discussion of the 26-page Statement of Facts signed by Fai where he admitted in detail to his crimes outlined in FBI Agent Linden's July 2011 affidavit.
The ambivalence about one of the biggest foreign intelligence influence operations on Capitol Hill in our lifetimes extended to Capitol Hill itself. No handwringing, no committee hearings or investigations, no press conferences by members of Congress explaining exactly how they had been duped for 20 years.
The Hill also made short work of the Fai affair, merely noting his arrest, guilty plea, and sentencing. No in-depth reporting, no stonewalling by congressional spokesmen, and certainly no chasing down members of Congress in the halls asking for comment.
About the only response from Congress was a two-paragraph press release from Rep. Burton’s office claiming he knew nothing, and promising to turn over the amount received by Fai to the Boy Scouts. In a brief interview with Rep. Joe Pitts by Lancaster (PA) Online, Pitts said in response to Fai’s arrest: “It never appeared to me that Dr. Fai was a lobbyist for Pakistan.” With respect to Fai's attempt to influence him, “it didn’t work”.
In recent months I’ve conducted briefings for congressional staff and members of Congress on the Fai matter, and without exception have been met with blank faces and surprised stares.
So was the 20-year illegal lobbying effort by Ghulam Nabi Fai on behalf of Pakistan’s intelligence service really much ado about nothing? Was Rep. Pitts right that Pakistan’s influence operation on Capitol Hill “didn’t work”?
Or might there be something larger at work? Could it be that there’s more to the story of Ghulam Nabi Fai and the Kashmiri American Council than what you read in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Hill?
The story of Pakistan’s two-decade influence operation in the heart of Congress, the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon is the biggest Capitol Hill spy scandal you’ve never heard about.
In Part Two, I’ll tell you the reason why.