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A Bird's-Eye View of Influence Peddling:
KEN SILVERSTEIN: Highlights from The DC Issue

Highlights from The DC Issue

Photography by Sophia Rivera-Silverstein


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The following piece appears in Issue 37: The DC Issue. For more on this issue, click here


An interview with Ken Silverstein

By David Gargill

Last year, Harper’s Magazine Washington Editor Ken Silverstein went undercover as a London-based consultant with the fictional Maldon Group to help the notoriously oppressive government of Turkmenistan win over Capitol Hill. He contacted a number of top lobbying firms, whose representatives fell over themselves trying to secure a contract to burnish the dictatorship’s image in DC. “Even the best-endowed regimes need help navigating the shoals of Washington,” Silverstein observed, “and it is their great fortune that, for the right price, countless lobbyists are willing to steer even the foulest of ships.”

His new book, Turkmeniscam: How Washington Lobbyists Fought to Flack for a Stalinist Dictatorship (Random House), evolved from the Harper’s article “Their Men in Washington,” which garnered acclaim for exposing the time-honored tradition of depravity among the Beltway lobbying elite, but also drew the ire of many commentators and journalists who criticized Silverstein for deceiving the subjects of the article and failing to operate in good faith. Turkmeniscam’s publication, however, should serve as a rebuke to these critics: It is a rare first-hand account of a political culture in which iniquity has become banal to the point of absurdity, and the blood-money of a murderous despot is as good as anyone else’s.

Stop Smiling: You received a fair amount of criticism from journalists and media critics when the Harper’s piece came out. In the Washington Post, Howard Kurtz argued that “no matter how good the story, lying to get it raises as many questions about journalists as their subjects.” In the book you acknowledge the dangers of engaging in a little duplicity to get the truth, and the recent decline of undercover journalism. Were you initially worried about how journalists would react?

Ken Silverstein: I expected the piece would be controversial but, frankly, I was surprised by how controversial it was. Ironically, the reaction of the mainstream journalism establishment was much more hostile than that of lobbyists and PR people. The article was broadly unpopular among the mainstream press because of discomfort with undercover reporting. But, interestingly enough, it has not in any way hindered my ability to report. I haven’t found a single person who has said “Oh, you’re the guy who did that lobbying story for Harper’s. Fuck you.” I work for a national magazine and when I call people, even though I’ve done a lot of stories that piss people off, they’ll talk to me. If they’re familiar with my reporting, they’ll think, “This guy will give me a fair shake.” I didn’t give the lobbyists a fair shake, obviously: it was an undercover story. I find the whole debate about being fair to the lobbyists ridiculous.

But I feel vindicated in two ways. One, it’s a very big issue on the campaign trail, which demonstrates that, in fact, there was a public interest in focusing attention on the role and influence of lobbyists. Both candidates now — whether sincerely or not — are denouncing lobbyists. One of the goals I had was to draw more attention to this issue because, post-Abramoff, nothing serious has been done to diminish the influence of lobbyists.

Secondly, others have since used this undercover tactic successfully. The Sunday Times of London recently did a piece in which they set up Stephen Payne, a lobbyist who used to work for the Bush administration. The reporter was supposedly representing the ex-president of Kurdistan, and Payne said, “Well, why don’t you make a donation to the Bush Library?” That piece also demonstrated that nothing has changed. But whereas the Times piece exposed Payne doing something illegal — trading money for access — this book demonstrates routinized, day-to-day corruption. Lobbyists don’t have to do anything illegal to corrupt the political system.

SS: The quote that sums it up for me is the one you borrow from Michael Kinsley: “The real scandal in Washington isn’t what’s illegal, but what’s legal.” But you knew that going into this.

KS: I wasn’t stunned by what I found. I didn’t think, “Oh my God, they’ll represent the scummiest regime in the world.” I expected some of them to bite, despite the scenario being so ridiculous — not only with Turkmenistan but with this ratty, completely unknown company I set up, and my demand for complete confidentiality. I’ve read stories about lobbying, I’ve written stories about lobbying, but to go into meetings with some of the top lobbyists in town and to watch them flaunt their powers to influence the system was like having a bird’s-eye view.

: Are these lobbyists self-aware, or do they get some sort of perverse excitement out of being able to work the wheels of power?

KS: There is a level of self-deception about one’s own actions that is striking, and I do think many get a perverse thrill from being important and influential. But they’re so accustomed to wielding power they probably don’t think about it a whole lot. It’s a funny town. People do things here that really are unacceptable in most parts of the country. If you went to a cocktail party in many parts of the country and you talked about representing the government of Turkmenistan — “Yeah, well, this is what I do for a living. I get up in the morning, go to work and lobby for dictators” — most people would find that morally repugnant. But in Washington you can talk about it without fear of embarrassment.

When I was in the meeting at Cassidy & Associates, one of the lobbyists mentioned he’d met a number of Turkmen officials on a previous job. He said, “Unfortunately, the previous government had a history of shuffling ministers.” Another one added, “We won’t ask where all of them were shuffled!” The room burst into laughter — a nervous laughter, I think. I guess the only way to deal with that is to laugh, but it shows there is at least some level of discomfort about what they do.

SS: You cast DC as a pretty shameless town.

KS: Yes, it’s an absolutely, utterly shameless town. I remember Tommy Boggs, one of the best-known lobbyists here, was profiled some years ago in the National Journal. It wasn’t a hatchet job, but it wasn’t a flattering portrait. I’m told Boggs put the cover of that issue on the wall in his office: “So it’s a story that shows how I twist arms and get things done for clients even if these clients aren’t admirable — but hey, I’m still on the cover, so it’s going up in my office.” Shamelessness is a good way of describing it.

SS: If much of this activity is routine now, so deeply ingrained in the culture of Washington, how do we change it? What do we do about it?

KS: Well, that’s the perennial question. People were angry after Abramoff and Cunningham and other assorted scandals, and I think people are still angry, or just disgusted. But there’s just no way that Congress, barring a much bigger uproar, will be compelled to do anything really serious. It’s a self-perpetuating system and nobody is going to do anything about it. Everybody has a stake in it. It’s like having a convention of bank robbers and asking them to agree to tough new rules to curb bank robberies.

For more on The DC Issue, click here




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