18:02 GMT26 January 2021
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    The US Justice Department neglected an opportunity to enforce its strict foreign lobbying laws last year as Saudi Arabia initiated a sophisticated lobbying campaign that used US veterans as props without proper disclosures to the government, according to a new report.

    The Saudi Arabian government hired a lobbying firm, Qorvis Communications, to fly former troops into Washington to campaign against the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) last March. The lobbying effort was aimed at stifling lawsuits by families of 9/11 victims against the Saudi government for its alleged ties to the perpetrators of the terror attacks.

    Qorvis Communications never told the veterans it was flying into Capitol Hill to lobby against JASTA that their airfare, lodging and meals were being paid for by Riyadh, 28 Pages reported Wednesday. The 9/11 families responded to the lobbying effort by filing a complaint alleging that Saudi Arabia was engaged in illegal lobbying under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

    In their complaint, the families urged the DOJ to investigate their claims of potential FARA violations; they didn't allege that a violation had occurred. "We believe the best determination as to whether any violations have occurred will come following a thorough investigation by the Department of Justice," the complaint states.

    In one instance, the lobbying firm told ex-veterans they didn't need to know anything about JASTA in order to obtain an all-expenses paid trip to Washington. "You don't have to know anything about JASTA," lobbyist Shelbi Lewark wrote in invitations to vets. "They will be putting you in the Trump Hotel, which is incredibly nice… It's basically like a 5 star vacation." At least 200 vets participated in the lobbying scheme, according to reports.

    More than a year later, the DOJ still has yet to initiate an investigation into the alleged misconduct, according 28 Pages. "It's one of the most deceptive campaigns that any foreign lobbying operation has ever done, and yet there's been no punishment whatsoever," said Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative, 28 Pages reported.

    The Saudi lobbying effort hinged on persuading lawmakers that JASTA should be overturned because it can expose US veterans to being prosecuted in foreign countries. But State Department attorneys said this argument does not hold water. JASTA presents "no risk" of exposing the soldiers to lawsuits, according to William Dodge, former international law attorney at the State Department. "JASTA deals only with the immunity of foreign states, not individuals," said Dodge.

    Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud , Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman receives Khashoggi family in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia October 23, 2018.
    © REUTERS / Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court

    "The government not in some way looking into this just raises all kinds of red flags as to where their loyalties are," said T.J. Hermesman, a US Marine veteran who deployed to Afghanistan and was one of the people flown into Washington by Qorvis Communications.

    Another veteran who was tricked into participating in the Saudi campaign, David Casler, told 28 Pages he wasn't sure whether to think DOJ's decision to decline investigating the case was "f**king crazy" or "business as usual."

    The American government previously cited FARA to charge former Ukraine lobbyists Paul Manafort and Sam Patten with federal crimes in connection with special counsel Robert Mueller's probe, yet Riyadh's expansive influence operations have not been scrutinized, the report alleges. This example of selective prosecution "politicizes the legal system, undermines the rule of law nationwide and promotes disobedience," Lorraine Barlett, attorney and retired US Army officer, told 28 Pages.


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