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FDL Book Salon Welcomes Ken Silverstein: Turkmeniscam

Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it’s nice to find out for yourself.

Rumor has it Washington lobbyists will represent anyone for the right price. Anyone? Journalist Ken Silverstein, the author of Turkmeniscam: How Washington Lobbyists Fought to Flack for a Stalinist Dictatorship, wanted to find out for himself. Turns out, money buys a lot of lobbying. 

Most people don’t realize that foreign countries routinely and openly pay American lobbyists to influence US foreign policy. It’s a multi-million dollar industry. Yet, so far, little is known about how these lobbyists ply their trade in the halls of power. 

Lobbyists are notoriously secretive about their work. Obviously, they weren’t going to spill their high-priced secrets to a the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine. So, Silverstein contrived a simple but elegant ruse to gain entry to the inner sanctums of the Washington lobbying establishment: posing as a potential client.

He chose the pseudonym "Kenneth Case," an homage to singer Neko Case.

Silverstein approached major international lobby shops disguised as a representative of a shadowy cartel with ties to the government of Turkmenistan. The Malden Group, as the cartel was known, was deliberately given all the hallmarks of an organized crime syndicate. 

The Maldon Group wanted help burnishing Turkmenistan’s image as a human-rights-loving democracy. In fact, it is a repressive dictatorship. Many of the lobbyists Silverstein spoke to were experts on Central Asia, so they had few illusions about the facts on the ground. 

Silverstein wondered if the lobbyists would reject his overtures out of hand. Surely either he or Turkmenistan would seem too sketchy.

To his amazement, most lobbyists launched into elaborate capabilities presentations. The APCO lobby shop offered to set up a Turkmenistan seminar at the Heritage Foundation where APCO’s handpicked "experts" could hold forth. Such an event might give rise to a paper that could even be inserted into the Congressional Record by one of APCO’s friendly congressmen. Another option would be to pay The Economist or Roll Call about $25,000 to host a "Turkmenistan Day"–it would cost more, they said, but in return Ken Case would get more control over the content of the forum, plus the imprimatur of an "independent" media outlet. 

Lobbyists also pitched 24/7 "crisis management," official visits, media relations, junkets for politicians and the press, planted op/eds, and more. One influence peddler even suggested organizing a Turkmenistan caucus in the House. 

The results of Silverstein’s investigation were published in Harper’s. It was a blockbuster: Lobbyists hired by foreign dictatorships could routinely buy influence with the U.S. the foreign policy establishment.

Ironically, the journalistic community was more interested in Silverstein’s ethics than his revelations about a Stalinist kleptocracy paying to shape American foreign policy. 

Undercover reporting has a long and distinguished history in American journalism, but the practice has fallen out of favor in recent years. Silverstein was widely criticized by other journalists for using deception to get his story. He argues, persuasively, that deception is permissible if the story is important and can’t be gotten any other way. 

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Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein