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Biden Administration Backs Qatar Lobby

When Elliott Broidy sued Qatari lobbyists for allegedly hacking his private emails, the foreign agents responded by going after Americans—many of them Jews—critical of Qatar. Guess who the Justice and State departments appear to be siding with?

Armin Rosen
November 03, 2022
Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images
Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

Beginning in 2018, Elliott Broidy, a venture capitalist and former deputy finance chair of the Republican National Committee, sued the Qatari government and the former pro-Qatar lobbyists Nick Muzin, Joey Allaham, and Gregory Howard (all registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act), claiming that the Gulf emirate and its American hirelings had coordinated the theft and dissemination of his private emails. The suit also claims that some of the lobbyists had knowledge of the hacking and strategized the promotion of its contents among members of the media. Qatar is no longer a party in the case, but the lawsuit reflects the belief among Broidy and his allies that they can prove the Qatari government was responsible for the email theft—citing forensic analysis of the hack and its origins, along with a larger social and business nexus connecting the source of the hack to specific officials in Qatar. Muzin, Allaham, and Howard are accused of formulating a strategy for spreading the hacked material through the American media in full knowledge of how it was obtained.

The stolen Broidy emails showed that after Donald Trump’s inauguration, the RNC official began pursuing substantial business interests in the United Arab Emirates with the help of UAE-linked political consultants in Washington. Broidy, who had long been active in pro-Israel causes, also donated to various organizations that were scrutinizing Qatari support for Islamist movements, mostly through journalism and think tank-produced conferences and research. At the time, the UAE was part of a Saudi-led group of countries that sought to isolate Qatar over its backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, a transnational Islamist organization that most of the other Gulf States saw as their leading internal security threat. The emails were an uncomfortably raw look into the various political, social, and business relationships that Broidy maintained in Washington. In October of 2020, Broidy pleaded guilty to what the Department of Justice described as “back-channel lobbying” on behalf of interests in China and Malaysia. Trump pardoned him during his last day in the White House.

Broidy’s lawsuit against Qatar itself was dismissed in August of 2018 on sovereign immunity grounds—Americans have the right to sue a foreign government on U.S. soil only under very limited circumstances. But the case against Qatar’s former lobbyists continues. Earlier this year, the three lobbyists countered by issuing far-reaching subpoenas to nearly two-dozen figures in the U.S. Jewish, pro-Israel, and foreign policy communities. Tablet has obtained these subpoenas, and interviewed several recipients for this article. Many of the subpoenas were sent to groups and individuals who were, as one target put it, “somewhere between a third party and a bystander” to the lawsuit—in other words, people who could not have been reasonably expected to possess information about Broidy’s hacking allegations. But they were all either opposed to Qatar’s support for Islamist groups, or had been publicly linked to people, groups, or activities that were critical of Qatar.

The subpoenas Tablet reviewed are fairly expansive, making them onerous, costly, and time-consuming for both the filers and recipients to address. According to Broidy’s 2019 amended complaint in the lawsuit, Muzin himself told a Broidy associate that fighting future subpoenas in a lawsuit over the hack could put him “in a multi-million-dollar hole.” The cost of addressing the filings as they have wound their way through the federal court system over the past nine months isn’t quite that astronomical, but it isn’t insignificant either: One recipient estimated out-of-pocket legal fees of $40,000 for attempting to comply with the order, a process that involved hiring a lawyer who then hired a contractor to analyze their email account and hard drives. “And that’s a defense based on me saying I honestly don’t have anything,” the source added.

The subpoenas have a make-work quality to them. In more than one case, the defendants’ legal teams asked journalists for “[a]ll media, articles, reports, Twitter posts, social media posts, and public statements that You, or someone on Your behalf, authored or contributed to regarding Broidy, Defendants, the alleged hacking, as well as any documents or communications relating to such publications.” The gathering of this kind of public information is something the parties in a lawsuit typically finance themselves, rather than using the federal courts to make third parties to the litigation pay for it.

“These law firms are engaged in a really despicable harassment, fishing, and lawfare campaign against people who, like me, are accused of no wrongdoing,” said the writer and activist David Reaboi, who received a subpoena from Muzin’s lawyers at a Washington, D.C., firm. “They’ve absurdly demanded my correspondence relating to the Middle East—which, as someone who’s been an analyst of that region for more than a decade, would amount to just about every work email over a period of years. Even more, they’ve demanded an accounting of every germane public tweet and article I’ve published. I’m not here to do book reports for them, or to collate my work—it’s available to anyone with an internet connection and the URL of my website. These law firms should be ashamed of themselves but, like their clients, it seems they’re incapable of shame.”

In many of the subpoenas Tablet reviewed the defense asked for information far beyond anything the recipients could reasonably have known—about Broidy’s work in Africa and Eastern Europe, for instance—putting them in the unenviable position of having to prove a series of negatives.

In some subpoenas Tablet obtained, the defense appears to be looking for sensitive information about U.S.-based groups and individuals who might have drawn unwanted attention to controversial areas of Qatari foreign policy. In a subpoena sent to the conservative nonprofit Secure America Now, the defense requested “all documents and communications regarding monetary payments or donations made or received by You, in connection with Broidy’s advocacy, lobbying, or consulting efforts relating to the State of Qatar,” and sought “all documents and communications relating to any conferences you organized, participated in, or financed regarding the State of Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, or the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, involving Broidy … or any Broidy-affiliated entity.” The subpoena is specifically addressed to Allen Roth, Secure America Now’s president. He is also the longtime political adviser to Ron Lauder, the center-right Jewish philanthropist who is reported to be one of Secure America Now’s chief funders.

The purpose of the request is to discover whether Broidy himself contributed to the group, as part of the subpoena blitz’s apparent effort to build a larger picture of Broidy’s contacts and politics-related spending. But if the subpoena to Roth were fully executed—which still remains to be seen, in light of the ongoing series of protective orders and counterfilings between the parties—the effect of its requests would be for the defense to access materials that have little to do with Broidy himself. The defendants want Roth to turn over anything related to financial relationships between Broidy and Secure America Now’s wider pool of donors, along with communications with the media and government officials that touch on any topic that’s even indirectly related to Broidy’s Qatar-related spending. If satisfied, these demands would conceivably allow the defendants to pry into Lauder’s larger network, which sustains Jewish day schools across Europe and helps fund nearly every establishment Jewish institution in the United States. “Broidy’s advocacy” reportedly included pushing for naming Qatar as a financial sponsor of Hamas as part of a congressional sanctions package against the Palestinian militant group, which means the subpoena might reveal a range of private discussions related to the overall topic of Middle East politics.

Exposing Broidy’s connections in journalism, advocacy, and public policy appears to be the likely justification for probing the work and funding streams of a diverse group of activists and operatives who have never brought or considered legal action against Qatar or its agents. Many of them are longtime professionals in the Jewish or pro-Israel space. Former Republican pro-Israel congressional stalwarts Ed Royce of California and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, for example, received subpoenas. As chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee for six years, Royce helped lead efforts to pass the Broidy-supported sanctions targeting Hamas. Subpoenas also went out to several staffers at the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum. The center-right Hudson Institute received one, as did the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs’ Michael Makovsky, along with Charles Wald, a retired four-star Air Force general who once served as deputy commander of U.S. forces in Europe.

In many cases, the targets’ apparent connection to Broidy is instructively vague, and it is unclear how they could be in a position to help disprove Broidy’s hacking allegations. In 2020, The New York Times reported that Broidy paid $10,000 to a Washington firm led by the political strategist Aaron Keyak, who was responsible for Jewish outreach during Joe Biden’s successful campaign for the presidency. Keyak is currently the State Department’s deputy special envoy to combat and monitor antisemitism, and served as acting envoy until the senate confirmed Deborah Lipstadt to the position earlier this year. A subpoena was also issued to Steve Rabinowitz, Keyak’s former partner at Blue Light Strategies, a Washington strategy shop with several high-profile clients across the Jewish and Democratic Party center-left.

I asked Rabinowitz why he believes he received a broad subpoena from the defense as part of a legal proceeding in which he has no involvement whatsoever. “Because they’re idiots and assholes?” he replied, careful to clarify that he meant this as a question.

Tablet attempted to reach the three defendants for comment. “In light of the pending litigation, I am not going to comment on subpoenas issued to any specific individual or party,” Jeffrey Udell, Howard’s lawyer, wrote by email. “However, I will say the following. Elliott Broidy has issued scores of subpoenas (many directed at individuals with absolutely no relevant connection to this litigation) desperately searching for evidence to support his meritless claims, which have now been rejected by multiple courts. By contrast, Mr. Howard has issued a small number of targeted subpoenas to parties that he reasonably believes are in the possession of evidence that the Court has deemed to be highly relevant to this case and to Mr. Howard’s defenses. We look forward to the inevitable day when this matter is resolved in Mr. Howard’s favor.” Udell would not comment on whether Qatar has financed the defense of the Broidy lawsuit, or on whether any foreign actors appear to be funding the plaintiff’s side.

The subpoenas are being pursued with notable energy: In more than one case, the defendants requested that judges sanction recipients for their alleged slowness in responding to the subpoenas, a first step toward holding them in contempt of court. Filing such broad subpoenas meant that the recipients often had to spend substantial time and money challenging their scope. But such disputes rack up billable hours for the people pursuing the subpoenas, too. Civil litigation services from a firm like Wiley Rein, which is representing Muzin, Arent Fox, which is representing Allaham, or Wiley, Macht, and Haran, which is representing Howard, aren’t cheap, and even a single court motion can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

At the beginning of the year, at least one of the defendants didn’t seem to be in an obvious position to finance a drawn-out, high-end lawsuit defense. In January, Allaham and his businesses owed over $3.8 million in unpaid taxes to the state of New York, making him the state’s 12th-largest tax delinquent. By February, however, the kosher restaurateur, consultant, and real estate developer had disappeared from the state’s official monthly public ranking of tax scofflaws.

All of the half-dozen subpoena recipients contacted for this article said they believe the Qataris are funding litigation for the Broidy defendants. The Qatari government’s lawyers clearly acted to conceal their agents’ work from Broidy’s scrutiny, something that required a line of communication with the defense team. In a February 2022 nonparty filing, a lawyer representing Qatar noted that the emirate planned on reviewing documents related to the case with the defendants, working with them to establish which of their records could be considered “privileged” under the Vienna Convention governing the rights and immunities of foreign diplomatic missions. The defendants had also pushed for something more formal, too. In late 2021, the defense unsuccessfully moved to create an “immunity protocol” that would allow nonparties in the litigation to obtain, redact, and withhold documents the plaintiffs had requested.

Muzin and Allaham have a long and tangled history with Qatar. The gas-rich Gulf statelet, searching for ways to continue its support for Islamist movements across the Middle East without undermining its standing in Washington, hired Muzin, a former senior staffer for the conservative Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, as one of their lobbyists in late 2017. Muzin got to work attempting to broker meetings between Qatari offcials and American Jewish and pro-Israel leadership. This was not an easy task: At the time, the U.S. pro-Israel and Jewish institutional world tended to view the emirate as both an underwriter of Hamas’ war against Israel and a globally powerful source of skewed media coverage of the country through Al Jazeera, the then-influential Qatari state media outlet. Still ,Muzin succeeded in bringing several leading communal figures, including Malcolm Hoenlein, former vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, to Doha. When it came out that Al Jazeera had sent an undercover British national to infiltrate Jewish and pro-Israel groups in Washington, Muzin handled much of the damage control in Washington.

Allaham was one of Muzin’s partners in his effort to promote Qatar among American Jews, but didn’t file a FARA disclosure until June of 2018, several months into his work on the country’s behalf. Allaham is apparently now serving as a back channel between the governments of Israel and Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country and a close Qatari ally. Allaham “orchestrated a meeting between [Indonesian Minister of Defense Prabowo] Subianto’s personal assistant Sudaryono B. Eng and an Israeli intelligence agent in Budapest” in May of 2021, leading to “higher-level contacts, including a meeting in Paris,” according to the Jerusalem Post.

Does the United States benefit more from upholding an expansive interpretation of the Vienna Convention than it does from allowing its citizens to probe the alleged theft of their private information by foreign states?

The Broidy email hack can be understood as part of the Qataris’ campaign to gain influence in Washington. Qatar’s American strategy involves straightforward media and policy outreach—Jamaal Khashoggi’s columns in The Washington Post were “shaped” by a consultant for the Qatar Foundation, and the emirate gave millions of dollars to the arch-establishment Brookings Institution. But Qatar allegedly considered the reputations and privacy of its perceived opponents to be in play as well, whether this meant potentially exposing Broidy to the humiliation of an email leak, or a senior Biden administration staffer to the time and money-consuming ordeal of responding to a federal subpoena. The hack and the subpoenas expose not just Broidy, but also anyone who ever worked or even communicated with him. As one subpoena recipient put it, “They are trying to influence American politics by character assassinating people they disagree with, and by hacking emails and releasing them to the public they are destroying any private space that enables compromise among extreme positions.”

Jews are caught in the crossfire, treated as the decisive swing-vote in terms of building support in Washington. This is probably a delusion on the part of Qatar or the UAE or anyone else who still sees the American Jewish establishment as the key to much of anything. American Jews are as flummoxed by the current state of U.S. politics as anyone else—it is doubtful that organized pro-Israel opposition can stop the United States from reentering the Iran nuclear deal, for example. AIPAC, whose annual policy conference once prided itself on being the last true bipartisan forum in Washington, radically changed tactics over the past election cycle and became an unapologetic campaign spender. As an embattled fundraiser for a historically unpopular one-term president, Broidy is a living embodiment of the poor explanatory power of any theory of American government that hinges on wealthy, pro-Israel Jews.

Whatever false idea of American society convinced the Qataris to both court and harass pro-Israel Jewish activists and organizations was misguided in 2015. In 2022, a preoccupation with the Jews can be seen not only as evidence of conspiratorial thinking, but as a sign of desperation—a flailing reaction to just how limited the options are for reaching a hyperpolarized American public or the small circle of actual decision-makers in government, whose process for formulating American foreign policy is increasingly secretive, ineffective, and dysfunctional.

In an August filing, the U.S. government, which is not a party to the Broidy case, stated its support for Qatar’s position that its former agents should be protected from the plaintiff’s requests for potentially sensitive documents.

The state of Qatar was dropped as a defendant in Broidy’s lawsuit in 2018, when their lawyers successfully argued that the government they represented cannot be sued in U.S. court, thanks to the broad legal protections foreign states enjoy under America’s Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. In a series of so far less successful filings, Allaham, Muzin, and Howard’s lawyers claimed that Qatar’s sovereign immunity extended to its American contractors, too. If the court bought this argument, it would have meant that FARA-registered lobbyists enjoyed similar legal protections to diplomats, making it difficult for U.S. citizens to bring civil actions against other Americans if the alleged wrongdoing was carried out in the course of their work as registered agents of a foreign government.

When that contention failed, lawyers for both the defense and Qatar argued that even if the lobbyists could be sued, documents and communications related to their work for the Qatari government was entitled to the same robust and almost impenetrable legal immunity as any other diplomatic activity.  On Aug. 26, the U.S. government filed an amicus brief partially backing Qatar’s request that the judge in the case reverse his decision granting Broidy’s discovery demands in the suit. The government claimed that granting Broidy’s requests would threaten to make the United States violate its international legal obligations: In allowing Broidy to obtain the materials he wanted from the defendants related to their work on Qatar’s behalf, the court was in danger of trespassing on Qatar’s rights under Article 24 of the Vienna Convention, which immunizes the documents of foreign diplomatic missions. “Ensuring that federal courts honor the treaty obligations as to a foreign sovereign’s inviolable documents, both under this treaty and other international agreements, is a critical value to the United States,” the brief states. “Moreover,” it continues, granting Broidy overly broad discovery “may adversely affect the reciprocal treatment of the United States and its mission archives and documents (which could include sensitive national security and foreign policy materials) in foreign courts.” The brief is credited to Brian Boynton, a principal deputy assistant attorney general, and Richard Visek, a legal adviser at the State Department.

One can question whether the United States benefits more from upholding an expansive interpretation of the Vienna Convention than it does from allowing its citizens to probe the alleged theft of their private information by foreign states. The U.S. position looks especially questionable in light of a Nov. 2 Swiss Broadcasting Corporation report that Qatari-hired agents were in possession of hacked materials from the email account of United States Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati. But the U.S. government’s lawyers are at least right about the untenability of the larger phenomenon the lawsuit has helped reveal: American society, and possibly even the court system, is now a proxy battlefield for geopolitical opponents half a world away.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.