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Chuck Hagel's Think Tank, Its Donors, and Intellectual Independence

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Last Friday the Atlantic Council, the Washington think tank chaired by Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee for defense secretary, released a list of its foreign donors. The move came in response to a demand by 25 Republican senators ahead of a Senate vote on Hagel’s confirmation. In a letter addressed to Hagel, the Council’s president and CEO, Frederick Kempe, a former columnist at the Wall Street Journal, included the donor names as well as some details on the think tank’s ethics policies.

Kempe’s list included roughly 100 corporations and 15 governments—among them Bahrain, Jordan, Sweden, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan and Kazakhstan. “The Council maintains clear policies to ensure its ethical and legal operation as [an organization]…which values its credibility and integrity as a generator of creative ideas,” Kempe wrote. “All agreements with donors stipulate that the Council retains intellectual independence and control over any content.”

In his letter, Kempe said the Atlantic Council policy was to consistently and clearly disclose donations from foreign governments. But many of the names released Friday don’t appear on the Council’s list of donors at its website. Likewise, some foreign donors listed on the website, such as the governments of South Korea and Belgium, don’t appear in the letter. Neither the letter nor the website state how much money countries and corporations had given. (As a nonprofit organization, the Council doesn’t have to divulge details about where it gets its cash.)

The immediate Republican response was somewhat less than enthusiastic.The Hill spoke to an unnamed GOP senate staffer who complained that Kempe’s letter did not identify individual contributors, which Republicans had specifically requested. "We have no idea if funds came through individuals from foreign nations that could create conflicts of interest," the staffer told the newspaper. "He doesn’t have a right to keep such potential conflicts hidden."

On Sunday, James Joyner, the Council’s managing editor, took to the think tank’s website to publish a blog post entitled “The Atlantic Council, Foreign Funding, and Intellectual Independence.” “Like all organizations of its kind, the Atlantic Council has to fund its work by cultivating donors,” he wrote. “But we've always placed the integrity of our work above the preferences of our funders. Indeed, under the leadership of Hagel and Kempe, we've recognized the potential for these relationships to confer an appearance of conflict and therefore outlined detailed policies for review of foreign government funding and intellectual independence.” Hagel receives no salary from the Council; Kempe takes in about $420,000 per year, according to the group’s last tax filing.

But these claims of intellectual independence are hard to square with the Council’s own promises to big donors which can be found on its website. “The Council works with our partners to develop their substantive narrative and determine the types of tools and products, including event opportunities and co-branded publications, required to meet their goals and needs,” says one fundraising pitch.

In a phone interview, Kempe said that the Council does not advocate for donors and that “in the context of what you’re talking about, rewording [of the pitch] perhaps would be useful.” He explained the discrepancy between donors listed on the website and in the letter by saying the list on the website must be outdated.

The pledge of intellectual independence is also hard to square with treatment the Council has given to at least one of its foreign donors, the government of Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan is headed by crooked dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has declared himself president-for-life.The country’s rubber-stamp parliament has granted him the permanent right “to address the people of Kazakhstan at any time” and to approve all “initiatives on the country’s development.”In recent years the oil-rich Kazakh government has spent millions of dollars on American lobbyists and PR firms to help improve and deepen its relationship with the United States.

Last year, the Atlantic Council hosted a conference on Kazakhstan. The conference was paid for by Chevron, which has vast oil interests in the country and is a top-level donor ($100,000-and-up) to the Council, and the Kazakh government, Kempe acknowledged. He declined to say how much they contributed, “not because I don’t want to but because we’re not authorized to give numbers.” It’s also worth noting that the Council’s board includes Alexander Mirtchev, a highly controversial Washington operator who has close ties to the Nazarbayev regime.

The conference was essentially a love poem to Nazarbayev. During introductory remarks Hagel talked about “the partnership that evolved and grows and strengthens each day between our countries,” according to the conference transcript, and said the Kazakhs “were responsible for pulling together a very, very impressive country that has made astounding progress.”

Keynote speakers included Kenneth Derr, who was CEO of Chevron when it forged a partnership with Kazakhstan and is now the country’s Honorary Consul in San Francisco. “Under President Nazarbayev’s extraordinary leadership, Kazakhstan is now independent, secure and extremely prosperous,” Derr said, according to a conference transcript. Yerzhan Kazykhanov, Nazarbayev’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, was another keynoter. During his visit to Washington, the foreign minister presented several Americans, including Hagel, with state awards from the Nazarbayev regime.

Panels were also overwhelmingly stacked with regime-friendly voices: Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation, Bolat Nurgaliyev, Kazakhstan’s former ambassador to the United States, and Sean Roberts, an Associate Professor at George Washington University. Of more than a dozen panelists only two offered more than tepid criticism of the regime. For example, Robert Blake, Jr., U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, said Nazarbayev had largely failed to meet “Kazakhstan’s stated commitments to reform and to uphold human rights and democratic principles."

“We chose all the speakers; we chose the subjects,” Kempe said. “If you look through the whole day of speakers, they’re hardly cheerleaders for Kazakhstan.” He pointed to Lorne Cramer of the International Republican Institute as someone who offered a critical perspective.  Yet according to the transcript, Cramer had this to say: “I will tell you, as somebody that deals in human rights and democracy, that there’s a lot to praise in Kazakhstan…We all know it relinquished its nuclear arsenal, and I think that was one of the first things it did that drew such attention to it; and as it also made great strides in the field of human rights.”

Roberts chaired a panel on US-Kazakh relations and wrote one of three “issue briefs” the Council released in conjunction with the conference. Issue briefs, a perk offered to big donors, are described on the Council’s website as a “succinct document analyzing a specific, relevant topic with an emphasis on recommendations for policymakers.”

“In looking at twenty years of independence in the former Soviet region of Central Asia, Kazakhstan stands out in most respects as a stable oasis in a desert of uncertainty,” Roberts wrote in his brief. “It is little wonder, therefore, that the most stable and fruitful bilateral partnership for the United States in the region over the past twenty years has been with the Republic of Kazakhstan. (A week before the conference, at a hearing on Kazakhstan’s political stability, Roberts told federal lawmakers “we really need a policy of engaging Kazakhstan, because I think that that’s going to bear much more fruit than just beating them up.”)

The other two briefs were equally friendly, no surprise since they were written by energy industry analyst Katherine Hardin and Douglas Townsend, Honorary Consul of the Republic of Kazakhstan in Wales and a Senior Advisor to the International Tax and Investment Centre (ITIC). The latter is funded by companies and organizations with interests in Kazakhstan, including Chevron, ExxonMobil, and the Kazakhstan Petroleum Association, and sent “election observers” to various ballots held in Kazakhstan over the past decade. The elections – including one in 2011 in which Nazarbayev won 95 percent support – were deemed shams by credible international observers but enthusiastically endorsed by ITIC.

A Council speaker acknowledged that Chevron had sponsored the conference but the think tank said nothing about donations from Kazakhstan, based on transcripts of the affair. The closest it came was when Ross Wilson, director of the Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, told the audience he wanted to recognize Kazakh Ambassador Erlan Idrissov, “a friend of many of us, who encouraged the council to put together this retrospective and prospective look at Kazakhstan that we’ll have today." (Kempe said that Kazakh funding was disclosed during the introduction to the conference.) The fawning issue briefs for the conference made no mention of financial support from either Chevron or the Kazakh regime.

What all of this says about Hagel’s fitness to lead the Pentagon is not clear. What is clear, though, is that the Atlantic Council—like so many other Washington think tanks—has a definition of “intellectual independence” that differs from typical scholarly institutions. Hagel, via his unpaid position atop the board, surely didn’t invent this system, which has thrived even as scores of current and future senior government officials have done stints in the think tank world. But he also doesn’t appear to have stopped it.

Ken Silverstein and Brooke Williams are fellows at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. Silverstein is also a contributing editor to Harper’s and Williams is a correspondent for Investigative News Source.

Correction: This article originally included China on the list of foreign governments donating to the Atlantic Council. It has been updated to reflect that the donor was actually the Republic of China (Taiwan), not the mainland government.