Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Wikileaks: Syria and BrownLoydJames

A few months back, I wrote a post titled K Street and the Arab Spring, looking at a variety of western consulting firms that were helping to craft PR strategies for both entrenched dictators (Gadaffi, the al-Kalifah monarchy in Bahrain), as well as opposition governments (The Libyan NTC that replaced Gadaffi.  That post was far from definitive, as the overall thesis turned out to be that if there is a government in crisis somewhere on the globe, there is a good chance a snazzy D.C. suit is assisting them via blackberry.

The first batch of Syria emails leaked to Wikileaks, and disseminated through the internet and Wikileaks'  media publishing partners, has exposed another high-powered PR firm, BrownLoydJames (BLJ), as being in communication with the Syrian government as recently as May 19th, 2011.  In an email, BLJ provided a three and a half page media strategy to Assad, where they advocated for the Syrian First Lady, Asma Al Assad, to "get in the game" in order to show "strength and sympathy," as well as the creation of a 24 hour news monitoring office to combat "the daily torrent of criticism and lies" from Syrian opposition figures living abroad.

BrownLoydJames is a major international communicates firm, based in London and New York, that specializes in high-level public diplomacy.  Founded by former Beatles manager_______, their biggest star and current President is Mike Holtzman, whose work at BLJ include China's successful 2008 Olympic bid and Qatar's 2022 World Cup bid.  Before joining the firm, Holtzman worked as a special assistant to the State Department's Policy Planning Staff during the Bush Administration, and in the office of trade representative Charlene Barlefsky during the Clinton Administration.  He also served as FEMA's on the ground media liaison for both the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 2001 World Trade Center attack.

According to research done by Josh Rogin, a reporter for Foreign Policy magazine, BrownLoydJames:

was officially employed by the Office of the First Lady of the Syrian Arab Republic Asma al-Assad in Nov. 2010 for $5,000 per month to help arrange and execute the article, which appeared in the March 2011 edition of Vogue. The fawning piece, entitled, "Rose of the Desert," was actually scrubbed from the Vogue website out of embarrassment when Assad began a brutal crackdown on non-violent protests that month. But you can still read it here.
BLJ's contract with the Assad regime, signed by BLJ partner Mike Holtzman and Syrian government official Fares Kallas, expired in March of last year, according to documents posted on the Foreign Agents Registration Act website. The firm had claimed its work on behalf of the Assads ended in Dec. 2010.
The May 2011 media strategy is obviously past this date, and is the first sign that relations are closer than they appear between BLJ and the Syrian government.  In fact, the connections between BLJ and the Assad government go even deeper than contractual work, as a former employee of the firm Sheherazad Jaafari, who is mentioned as working for BLJ in a wikileaks emails from February 2011, was by December 2011 an employee of the Syrian government.  Moreover, another set of Syrian government emails leaked to the London Guardian earlier this year show that Jaafari remained in cordial contact with BLJ president Holtzman through January 2012.  

The Wikileaks email in question is from February 2nd 2011, sent by BLJ official Rachel Walsh to the Syrian Ministry of Presidential Affairs.  Walsh describes the planning for the following weeks "Open Hands Initiative" event, part of a youth disability advocacy program in Damascus.  In the email, Walsh refers to Jaafari as her "colleauge," and one prominent enough to gain access to the event's VIP section along with Holtzman and Open Hands founder Jay Synder.

In fact, the "Open Hands Initiative" itself seems to be largely a product of BLJ's PR strategy, as it is a Washington D.C. creation, with Holtzman sitting on the advisory board, along with former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk and media mogul Tina Brown.  The operation was founded in 2009 by Jay Snyder, a U.S. philanthropist who sits on the advisory board of the Brooking Institutions Saban Center for Middle East Policy, where Indyk is currently Vice President.  The "Open Hands Initiative" began operating in Syria in August 2010, hosting a major youth disability summit and a music exchange program.  The summit produced a collaborative, multi-cultural comic book The Silver Scorpion, which was honored by the Clinton Global Initiative in 2010.

The Syrian emails leaked by London's Guardian newspaper earlier this year shows that Jaafari soon left BLJ and went to work for the Syrian government's media office, headed by Hadeel al Ali.  But this did not mean that she stayed out of contact with her former firm, as a quite chummy email conversation between her and Holtzman took place on January 11th, 2012.  Holtzman congratulated Jaafari on organizing a speech by President Assad and his wife at a pro-government demonstration, stating "I'm proud of you, wish I were there to help."  Other emails concerning Jaafari's actions with the Syrian government are also contained in the Guardian's email set, including this, and this.

This is not the first time that BrownLoydJames has had their work with authoritarian governments exposed, although the first time was out of their own error.  When working on behalf of a Chinese lobbying group, the China-United States Exchange Foundation, BLJ mistakenly included their lobbying strategy when they filed their Foreign Agent Registration Act forms (h/t Janet Rubin, Washington Post).  BLJ's work (pdf here) included placing articles and op-eds in newspapers and arranging meetings in the U.S. for Chinese officials.  They also, more sinisterly, conducted a "textbook analysis" for four popular American high school text books, pertaining to coverage of the Tibet issue.

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