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Liberal Think Tank Faces Fresh Scrutiny for Ties to United Arab Emirates

Then-Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at the Center for American Progress in 2013. (U.S. Department of State)

Two staff members from The Center for American Progress (CAP), a leading Washington think tank, were fired amid concerns that they were involved in leaking internal emails to the media, The Intercept reported Wednesday. Other CAP staff, who spoke to The Intercept anonymously, believed these emails “reflected improper influence by the United Arab Emirates within the think tank.”

Ken Gude, a senior national security staff member, and an unnamed employee were dismissed.

The emails, which The Intercept says were not leaked by the fired employees, revealed that CAP staff members argued over how CAP should respond in a public statement to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident, author and journalist for The Washington Post. According to a CIA report, Khashoggi was killed on the orders of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Initially, according to The Intercept, CAP’s public statement both condemned the killing and called for specific consequences for Saudi Arabia. Then, as The Intercept reports, “Brian Katulis, a Gulf expert at CAP, objected to the specific consequences proposed in an email exchange with other national security staffers.” Demands for Saudi Arabia to face specific consequences as a result of its role in Khashoggi’s killing were cut from the statement, replaced with a general, milder request to “take additional steps to reassess” U.S.-Saudi relations.

Katulis, The Intercept reports, is the link between CAP and UAE. The Intercept article continues: “[He] is close with the UAE’s ambassador in Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, who is the go-between for Emirati money flowing into Washington. Otaiba also played a key role in elevating Mohammed bin Salman to his position as crown prince of Saudi Arabia.”

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have both come under scrutiny from international organizations for their human rights records. As Amnesty International wrote in its 2017–2018 report on the Kingdom, “Many human rights defenders and critics were detained … many more were sentenced to death following grossly unfair trials.”

The UAE is accused of running secret prisons in Yemen, at which, according to a report from the Associated Press, “abuse is routine and torture extreme—including the ‘grill,’ in which the victim is tied to a spit like a roast and spun in a circle of fire.”

Gude was a critic of the UAE’s human rights record, but he was open about his views, including them in one of CAP’s own reports. Colleagues who spoke to The Intercept were adamant that even when Gude objected to organizational policy, or to the actions of CAP’s donors, he would never leak internal emails or other proprietary information.

In the end, Gude publicly praised CAP’s final statement, on Twitter, saying: “Great statement from ⁦@kellymagsamen⁩ for ⁦@amprog⁩ demanding the US hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the murder of Jamal #Khashoggi & MBS’s increasingly reckless actions that have killed thousands of Yemenis & jailed women’s rights advocates.”

The second employee was not named and did not comment, though a source tells The Intercept that the person was fired because they “forwarded the [email] exchange to a superior, concerned about the propriety of the debate around the Khashoggi statement.” The employee, according to The Intercept’s source, “had no intention of making the matter public.”

CAP, which The Nation called “Washington’s leading liberal think tank” in a 2013 article, was founded by John Podesta, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, and is now led by Neera Tanden, a former Hillary Clinton aide.

A CAP spokesperson told The Intercept that the two staff members let go as a result of the investigation were not fired for being whistleblowers. “We are not going to discuss internal personnel matters, but no one was fired at CAP for leaking or whistleblowing,” the unnamed spokesperson said.

The Intercept’s other sources contradicted the spokesperson’s statement, saying, “multiple members of CAP leadership have used the leak as the leading rationale for the firings in multiple settings,” and that the internal disagreement over the Khashoggi statement was “widely discussed within CAP, and people outside the organization also learned of it.”

Ilana Novick
Blogger / Editorial Assistant

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