Politics

Washington power-brokers defend Egypt after raids on US offices

Jan. 25, 2012: Protesters fill Tahrir Square after sundown in Cairo, Egypt.

Jan. 25, 2012: Protesters fill Tahrir Square after sundown in Cairo, Egypt.  (AP)

Prominent American lobbyists are coming under fire for offering "talking points" smoothing over a recent raid by Egyptian security forces on the offices of 10 rights and democracy groups – including three American organizations.

The late December raids were decried by the U.S. government as "harassment." Since then, the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that were hit have been locked in a battle with the Egyptian government. Workers have been dragged in for questioning. Despite repeated assurances, the Egyptian government has not returned the loads of equipment it confiscated in the raids.

Most recently, several rights workers, including the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, have been prevented from exiting the country.

As the fallout builds, U.S. lobbyists -- longtime representatives of the Egyptian government in Washington -- are being accused of trying to mute the criticism on behalf of the new regime in Cairo.

The situation is "depressing," said U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a congressionally mandated group named after the late congressman and human rights advocate from California.

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Wolf, who described the raids as an attempt to ultimately drive out foreign groups, has suggested the U.S. reconsider aid to Egypt unless Cairo backs down.

"To have an American lobbyist lobbying for a government where these activities are taking place -- is there no shame in this town?" Wolf asked.

The same cadre of lobbyists has been representing the Egyptian government since before Hosni Mubarak was overthrown one year ago. Federal records show the lobbying firms continued to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars in lobbying fees since Mubarak stepped down.

One of the lobbyists, former Rep. Bob Livingston, adamantly denies that his team is defending the raids.

To the contrary, Livingston told FoxNews.com, his group warned the Egyptian government that the raids were a "mistake" and urged officials to reverse course. He complained that his work, and that of his colleagues, was being misconstrued.

"We didn't know about the raid. We didn't advise them on the raid, except to say (after the fact) this is not a good idea," Livingston said Wednesday.

Livingston's firm, the Livingston Group, represents the Egyptian government along with the Podesta Group and the Moffett Group. Together, they go by the name The PLM Group. The firms are all led by powerful D.C. figures. Toby Moffett, like Livingston, is also a former member of Congress.

The hubbub surrounding their lobbying work started when Politico ran a story claiming they provided "political cover" to Egypt after the NGO raids.

Livingston confirmed that a memo circulated by someone within his organization said foreign NGOs were operating in Egypt "without being licensed" by the government. "No organizations, entities or individuals, national or foreign, should be allowed to operate outside the law," reads the memo.

Livingston said his people had prepared the talking points, but his office only sent them over to Capitol Hill after a senior member called and asked for "notes" about the raids.

"It was really kind of a regular briefing," Livingston said. He argued that he wasn't defending the government -- just relaying their position and providing the "facts" about what happened.

Nonetheless, two prominent senators ripped into the lobbyists after seeing the initial report.

"It is bad enough when the actions of American lobbyists conflict with U.S. national interests. It is far worse when their influence-peddling undermines American values, as the Egyptian government’s lobbyists in Washington are doing in this instance," Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said in a joint statement. 

The senators called on the lobbyists to urge Cairo to "reverse its reckless crackdown on American NGOs," register the groups, "cease its intimidation" of their workers and return the property that was confiscated.

On Thursday, after it was reported that LaHood's son, Sam LaHood, was being prevented from leaving the country, McCain said it's bad enough the raids endangered the staffs at the NGOs, but the Egyptian government has long denied to grant approval for the requirements they demand.

"These individuals and the organizations that employ them have broken no laws, and indeed, have made every effort to comply with the statutes, regulations, and requests of the Egyptian government," said McCain, who is the chairman of the International Republican Institute where Sam LaHood works as Egypt director.

The Obama administration has been critical of the raids. Late last month, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. was "deeply concerned" about the move, saying the NGOs are in Egypt to "support the democratic process."

President Obama underscored those concerns in a call last week with Egyptian Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. Tantawi, a leftover of the Mubarak regime, heads the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. Egypt's Interior Ministry reportedly claimed responsibility for the raids. 

But ahead of Wednesday's one-year anniversary of the start of the revolution, the White House praised Tantawai for other gains made in the country. Press Secretary Jay Carney, in a statement, applauded Tantawi for moving to lift the state of emergency in Egypt and other steps. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information countered that the conditions imposed by Tantawi on removing the state of emergency means it effectively remains in place everywhere.

Livingston said his group to this day is urging the government to return the confiscated equipment from the raids and rectify the situation.

"My advice, of course, to the Egyptians is turn the damn computers back," he said.

So far, this hasn't happened.

The U.S.-based groups that were raided are IRI, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House. All say Egypt has refused to return their stuff – everything from computers to documents to spare cash.

"It has not been returned," said Kathy Gest, spokeswoman for NDI. "Basically, they took everything."

Charles Dunne, director of the Middle East and North Africa programs for Freedom House, said his group has not been allowed to go into their office since the raid, as the facility has been sealed.

"These offices should be reopened. The equipment should be returned," he said.

Scott Mastic, director of the IRI’s Middle East division, acknowledged that the groups tried earlier to apply for permission to be officially licensed NGOs, to no avail.

As for the lobbying, he criticized the PLM Group for the so-called "talking points" on the raids.

"Egypt, obviously, is not the only government that has lobbyists in Washington," he said. "I think that what is so alarming about what's happening now is American citizens are under threat of detention and trial, and you have Washington lobbyists that are promoting the Egyptian government's position in this."