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At the Atlantic Council, Foreign Money Talks

When Turkish president Recep Tayyip

Erdogan’s bodyguards were arrested after
attacking a crowd of protesters outside the
Turkish ambassador’s residence in May 2017,
Erdogan and his crew were heading inside for a
private, off-the-record meeting with Atlantic
Council fellows and board members.
That event is just one example of the close
relationship between the Washington, D.C.,
think tank and the Erdogan government.
Starting in 2008, the Atlantic Council hosted an
"Istanbul Summit" bankrolled by several
business conglomerates closely aligned with
Erdogan’s Justice and Development party,
including the state-owned Halkbank, which has
been accused of evading U.S. sanctions on
Iran. Calik Holding, another conference sponsor
and current Atlantic Council donor, is a Turkish
business giant that was until late 2013 led by
Erdogan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak.
Calik acquired the once-reputable Turkish
newspaper Sabah in 2008 and, according to
Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on
Foreign Relations, turned it into "a wild
mouthpiece of the Erdogan government."
The Turks have tried to do the same with the
Atlantic Council, sources say, routinely
objecting to the panelists—and even guests—
participating in the organization’s Turkey events
because their views did not align with those of
the Erdogan government.
In 2018, the Atlantic Council moved the annual
conference, now known as the Global Energy
Forum, to Abu Dhabi because, according to a
source familiar with the conference's
operations, Erdogan’s son-in-law "was basically
the shadow organizer of the event."
A spokesman for the Atlantic Council, Alex
Kisling, said that the move to Abu Dhabi had
nothing to do with the efforts of Turkish
officials to influence programming and that the
organization "receives support from a diverse
set of organizations, including Calik Holding,
which has a significant global footprint."
The Atlantic Council, he added, "is responsible
for determining who serves in speaking roles
for its programming—as well as for deciding
who is invited to join the audience. It’s not
unusual for conference partners and
participants to make requests, but no one has
been disinvited from participating in our Turkish
But according to a think tank analyst and the
source familiar with the conference's
operations, the Atlantic Council canceled a
panel at its 2015 Istanbul conference featuring
the Turkish journalist Asli Aydintasbas after the
Turks objected to her participation.
Aydintasbas, now a fellow at the European
Council on Foreign Relations, has been mildly
critical of the Erdogan government. The Turks
also objected to the participation of the Turkish
foreign policy expert Naz Durakoglu, who was
also removed from a panel, the same sources
said. Both sources requested anonymity to
speak freely.
"Their way of handling this was terrible," the
think tank analyst said, adding that "there are
times where they have allowed themselves to
become a PR arm of the Turkish government."
While the influence of foreign money on
American think tanks has been well
documented, including by the New York Times,
seven foreign policy experts told
the Washington Free Beacon that the Atlantic
Council is an outlier, taking more money from
more undemocratic and corrupt governments
than its counterparts.
The institution publicly discloses the money it
has taken from unsavory governments and
foreign businesses and insists that money has
no influence on its scholarship—a claim that
insiders dispute, pointing to Turkey as an
example. The think tank’s operations also
provide a window into how the sausage gets
made in the nation’s capital, revealing how
lobbyists, government officials, wealthy donors
and independent experts are often inextricably
A member of the Atlantic Council’s executive
committee, Amir Handjani, offers one example
of the overlapping interests. Handjani was at
one time a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council,
a donor to its Iran program, and a registered
foreign agent for Saudi Arabia’s Public
Investment Fund. At one point, Handjani
also served as president of his family’s
company, a Cargill subsidiary that imports grain
into Iran. Attorney David Aufhauser, an Atlantic
Council board member who helps underwrite
the organization’s "economic sanctions
initiative," is a registered foreign agent for
Myanmar’s Kanbawza bank, helping it manage
the fallout from a United Nations report that
called on the international community to
impose sanctions on the bank after U.N.
investigators implicated it in a "genocidal
campaign" against the country’s Rohingya
While the Atlantic Council requires scholars and
board members to inform them of any conflicts
of interest, serving as a lobbyist or foreign
agent is permissible, Kisling said.
Sources say those sorts of overlapping equities
are the rule, rather than the exception, at the
Atlantic Council, which inoculates itself from
Beltway criticism by adding members to an
ever-expanding board of directors — which has
ballooned to approximately 140 members —
and taking money from an array of foreign and
domestic sources.
"It’s like some John Grisham movie where
everybody has a stake in protecting the equities
of the Atlantic Council because if you’re not on
the board you’re giving money," said a third
source who works closely with the organization.
The Atlantic Council’s Ukraine
program formalized a relationship with the
corrupt Ukrainian gas giant Burisma in early
2017, allowing Burisma to underwrite its
Ukraine programming—a move that allowed the
scandal-plagued company to burnish its image
by associating with a respected Washington
Just four months after the ink dried on the
agreement, the American public relations
consultant who helped engineer the Atlantic
Council partnership on Burisma’s behalf, Sally
Painter, was appointed to the Atlantic Council’s
board of directors.
Kisling said that Painter’s nomination to the
board had nothing to do with her work for the
company and that she was nominated to the
board "due to her deep foreign affairs
experience, her past support for NATO
summits, and her commitment to the
transatlantic community." The Atlantic Council
ended its relationship with Burisma in 2019.
Emails released in a Freedom of Information
Act lawsuit show that the Atlantic Council
accepted the Burisma funding despite
reservations, and that the Atlantic Council’s top
Ukraine expert, John Herbst, gave State
Department officials early warning. The Atlantic
Council, Herbst said, had weighed the decision
"for over a month" and that "some uneasiness
State Department officials, including George
Kent, the deputy chief of mission in Ukraine
who testified in President Donald Trump’s
impeachment trial, chalked up the move to "an
image rehab campaign" on Burisma's part, led
by Painter and her business partner, Karen
Tramontano. "The Blue Star duo, Karen and
Sally, are on the Atlantic Council roster and are
the probable pushers of this," Kent wrote to
then American ambassador Marie Yovanovitch.
"So," he added, "Atlantic Council’s robust
Ukraine program, funded by … Akhmetov,
Pinchuk, and Zlochevsky/Burisma," a reference
to the pro-Russian oligarchs Rinat Akhmetov
and Victor Pinchuk, whose business and
charitable foundation, respectively, have
contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to
the Atlantic Council.
Kisling, the Atlantic Council spokesman, said
the organization agreed to a partnership with
Burisma only "once we understood a legal
challenge against the company in London was
dismissed by a judge." Painter’s colleague,
Tramontano, requested meetings with U.S.
government officials to try to clear the company
of wrongdoing, arguing that "there is no
evidence of corruption." But neither was there
exoneration, as prosecutors in London were
stymied by the refusal of the Ukrainian
government to provide the necessary
documents. Ukrainian officials said their own
investigation found that Burisma had bribed
anticorruption investigators, paying them $6
million to drop the case.
While the Atlantic Council has maintained that
the foreign money flowing into its coffers has
no sway over its scholarship and programming,
others say that the money inevitably affects
scholarship, even if only the choice of topics the
organization’s scholars choose to focus on—
and, more importantly, the ones they avoid.
The Atlantic Council’s publications on Turkey,
for example, sidestep some of the most
contentious issues in the U.S.-Turkey
relationship, including Ankara's troubled ties
with Europe and the country’s adventurism in
the Middle East.
In April, the organization hosted an
event featuring, among others, Erdogan’s
spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, whom Atlantic
Council president Fred Kempe praised as "an
intellectual force." A piece penned by the
former Turkish ambassador to the United
States, Namik Tan, attributes problems in the
U.S.-Turkey relationship to the work of
"politicized analysts." And a recent event
highlighting Turkey’s "refugee resilience" was
moderated by a news anchor for TRT, Turkey’s
public broadcast station, which has registered
as a foreign agent in the United States.
Kisling said the Atlantic Council does not require
moderators and panelists to disclose conflicts of
interest and characterized the anchor, Maria
Ramos, as "an experienced reporter" and said
that she was invited to moderate "to bring an
outside perspective and pose journalistic
questions to panelists."
Asked to point to Atlantic Council publications
critical of Turkey, Kisling highlighted an op-
ed appended with an "editor’s note" directing
readers to a response from a Turkish official; an
"issue brief" about Syria, not Turkey, whose
lead author is no longer with the Atlantic
Council; an op-ed laying out a roadmap for
Turkey to repair its relationship with NATO after
its importation of Russian missiles set off a
conflagration; and a collection of expert
views on Turkey’s incursions into Syria.

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