Frank Wisner, Egypt, and the inside game

The rather unfortunate comments of Frank Wisner, the former ambassador dispatched by the U.S. State Department last week to prod Hosni Mubarak to go, have brought him into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Mr. Wisner, it turns out, works for a law firm that has a history of representing the interests of wealthy Egyptians, and the Mubarak regime. Wisner is, as most people who get tapped by the federal government for “special assignments,” a consummate insider. But did Team Obama know what kind of hot potato the State Department was handing them?

The Wisner unraveling began with an article by Robert Fisk, the UK Independent’s muckraking skewerer of the powerful. Fisk wrote on Monday that …

… President Barack Obama’s envoy to Cairo who infuriated the White House this weekend by urging Hosni Mubarak to remain President of Egypt, works for a New York and Washington law firm which works for the dictator’s own Egyptian government.

Mr Wisner’s astonishing remarks – “President Mubarak’s continued leadership is critical: it’s his opportunity to write his own legacy” – shocked the democratic opposition in Egypt and called into question Mr Obama’s judgement, as well as that of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The US State Department and Mr Wisner himself have now both claimed that his remarks were made in a “personal capacity”. But there is nothing “personal” about Mr Wisner’s connections with the litigation firm Patton Boggs, which openly boasts that it advises “the Egyptian military, the Egyptian Economic Development Agency, and has handled arbitrations and litigation on the [Mubarak] government’s behalf in Europe and the US”. Oddly, not a single journalist raised this extraordinary connection with US government officials – nor the blatant conflict of interest it appears to represent.

Mr Wisner is a retired State Department 36-year career diplomat – he served as US ambassador to Egypt, Zambia, the Philippines and India under eight American presidents. In other words, he was not a political appointee. But it is inconceivable Hillary Clinton did not know of his employment by a company that works for the very dictator which Mr Wisner now defends in the face of a massive democratic opposition in Egypt.

So why on earth was he sent to talk to Mubarak, who is in effect a client of Mr Wisner’s current employers?

Patton Boggs states that its attorneys “represent some of the leading Egyptian commercial families and their companies” and “have been involved in oil and gas and telecommunications infrastructure projects on their behalf”. One of its partners served as chairman of the US-Egyptian Chamber of Commerce promoting foreign investment in the Egyptian economy. The company has also managed contractor disputes in military-sales agreements arising under the US Foreign Military Sales Act. Washington gives around $1.3bn (£800m) a year to the Egyptian military.

Mr Wisner joined Patton Boggs almost two years ago – more than enough time for both the White House and the State Department to learn of his company’s intimate connections with the Mubarak regime. The New York Times ran a glowing profile of Mr Wisner in its pages two weeks ago – but mysteriously did not mention his ties to Egypt. …

Fisk’s main source for his story was Nicholas Noe, a former opposition researcher for Hillary Clinton, who went on NPR Monday to explain why he believed Wisner’s association with the firm to be a blatant conflict — their ongoing efforts to facilitate such things as the privatization of Egyptian schools (something that strikes me as troubling all on its own.)

But while Patton Boggs does indeed boast about its Egypt portfolio on its website, it’s not clear how much of the work they describe in the passage below is ongoing, which would seem to be germane:

Patton Boggs has been active in Egypt for 20 years. We have advised the Egyptian military, the Egyptian Economic Development Agency, and have handled arbitrations and litigation on the government’s behalf in Europe and the US. Our attorneys also represent some of the leading Egyptian commercial families and their companies, and we have been involved in oil and gas and telecommunications infrastructure projects on their behalf. One of our partners also served as the Chairman of the US-Egyptian Chamber of Commerce, promoting foreign direct investment into targeted sectors of the Egyptian economy. We have also handled negotiation of offset agreements and managed contractor disputes in military sales agreements arising under the US Foreign Military Sales Act.

Patton Boggs maintains a correspondent affiliate relationship with one of Egypt’s most prominent firm of lawyers in Cairo, the law firm of Zaki Hashem.

Saying what the firm’s lawyers “have done” and what they do now, are, in the end, two different things.

And as the Guardian’s Michael Tomasky points out:

Having now read Robert Fiske’s piece that started this, if you read it closely we don’t know definitively, which is not a knock on Fiske necessarily because such a thing is hard to prove, if true.

Patton Boggs is a massive firm with 600 attorneys spread across nine locations. It represents 200 international clients from more than 70 countries. Did Wisner work directly on the Egypt account? If so, problem. At the other far end of the spectrum, he might not even have known the firm represented Egyptians interests. Don’t laugh. He’s not a managing partner. He’s just an “adviser,” whatever that is, exactly. Now one would think that he knew, but one would think a lot of things that don’t turn out to be true.

In my reporting years in New York, I pursued my share of conflict-of-interest stories. I often found that they usually didn’t pan out exactly the way I’d hoped. I remember very clearly wanting to tie one big-shot conservative money guy to the Colombian army, which seemed a sexy angle. But it turned out that the guy honestly had nothing to do with that portfolio.

The other thing is, there’s nothing per se shady about representing Egypt’s interests before Congress. Yes, it’s a nasty regime, but representation of its interests could just involve development projects that most people would think were a fine idea for a developing country, or a change in visa policy of some sort. I doubt very much that Patton was lobbying Congress in behalf of Mubarak’s right to throw political enemies in jail.

Also, the firm is denying in statements to news outlets that it has any current business with the Egyptian government. Here’s what was posted on Salon Monday:

The law firm of Frank Wisner, who was the Obama administration’s special envoy to Egpyt last week, is denying that Wisner ever worked for the Egyptian government, which has been a client of the firm, Patton Boggs. …

… Ed Newberry, managing partner at Patton Boggs, told Salon today that the firm “represented the Egyptian government in the past — in the mid-1990s.” He said the firm also handled “a very small legal matter” for the Egyptian embassy in Washington last year, but that Wisner did not work on that case. Newberry said that matter generated fees of less than $10,000.

Still the appearance and timing aren’t good, and I think we can presume that Mr. Wisner will quickly be shuffled off the stage by the administration. But his firm has now moved squarely into the spotlight.

So who are the folks of Patton Boggs?

For one thing, the “Boggs” in Patton Boggs is its chairman, Thomas Hale Boggs, Jr. — son of the late Louisiana Congressman Hale Boggs, a member of the Warren Commission, whose plane disappeared over Alaska in 1972. Boggs Jr’s sister is Cokie Roberts, the Sunday morning fixture and on-air commentator for ABC News.

Other notables at the firm include former Senators Trent Lott and John Breaux, each of whom joined the firm as “senior counsels”/policy advisers after they left Congress. The firm boasts a lineup of TV-ready legal experts who seem most often to feed the airwaves of Fox News.

Foreign Policy magazine’s The Cable, posts what it calls the “inside story” of Wisner’s selection by State, which traces to yet another D.C. insider:

Wisner was suggested for the “envoy” assignment to talk with Mubarak by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns, two administration officials confirmed. Burns is the highest-ranking foreign service officer at State and has known Wisner for decades.

Inside the administration’s policy process on Egypt, Burns is a key player, having been U.S. ambassador to Jordan and assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs. He wrote a book called Economic Aid and American Policy Toward Egypt, published in 1985, just before Wisner was named ambassador to Cairo.

But Wisner’s embrace of Mubarak goes even further than Burns’ position. “The implication that Bill agrees with [Wisner's] public statements since [Wisner's trip to Cairo]…is just plain wrong,” an administration official told The Cable.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said on Monday that the administration knew about Wisner’s work for the lobbying firm Patton Boggs, which does business in Egypt, and that his long relationship with Mubarak was an asset, not a detraction.

“We’re aware of his employer… And we felt that he was uniquely positioned to have the kind of conversation that we felt needed to be done in Egypt,” Crowley said.

A spokesman for Patton Boggs told the New York Times that Patton Boggs was not doing significant work on behalf of the Egyptian government and that Wisner “has no involvement and has not had any involvement in Egyptian business while at the firm.”

The Obama administration will try to put Mr. Wisner and his unfortunate statement behind them (though some folks on the left who will likely continue to pound them for it), but it’s clear that once again, Washington’s tendency to fish from a very small, homogenous pool has bitten the “outsiders” –in this case, Team Chicago. You’ve got to assume that while Secretary Clinton likely knew the firm and all its players well, the Chicago squad wasn’t quite as familiar. I’m sure they’ll be certain to become more familiar next time. It’s notable that even the New York Times, in its extensive profile of Wisner, missed the connection.

It’s also true that in Washington, it’s likely all but impossible to find an “expert” in any area of concern who isn’t somehow “tainted” with former business or political ties to that concern (think Dick Cheney, Haliburton, Iran and Iraq…) It’s an incestuous business, politics and corporations. And it’s only getting worse.


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One Response to Frank Wisner, Egypt, and the inside game

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