The director of a national security studies program at Syracuse University has given conflicting statements about his work for the Saudi embassy in Washington.
In June, 28Pages.org reported that Bill Smullen had registered with the Department of Justice as an agent of the kingdom for purposes of providing public relations support.
Interviewed last month about the seeming conflict of interest with his duties at Syracuse, where he leads instruction of U.S. national security officials, Smullen repeatedly asserted he had not yet been asked to do anything for the kingdom.
Now, the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell has stated he performed unspecified work for Saudi Arabia in March.
Beyond contradicting his previous assurances, Smullen’s acknowledgement also makes clear that he failed to fully comply with the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Smullen registered at the end of April, but FARA requires registration within 10 days of agreeing to serve a foreign government and before performing any activities.
FARA violations are punishable by fines of up to $10,000 and prison terms of up to five years. Enforcement, however, is famously lax: Only seven people have been prosecuted in the last 50 years.
In the most striking example of the DOJ’s inattention to FARA enforcement, a lobbying program that in 2016 and 2017 turned U.S. military veterans into unwitting agents for Saudi Arabia has seemingly gone uninvestigated, despite a formal, detailed complaint being filed with the Department of Justice.
That lobbying campaign was managed by the same firm that is facilitating Smullen’s service to Saudi Arabia: Qorvis MSLGROUP, which receives a monthly retainer fee of $279,500 for providing public relations and lobbying services to the kingdom.
A senior member of the House Armed Services Committee expressed alarm over the Syracuse situation. When informed that a Saudi public relations agent was supervising a program that shapes the views of U.S. military and intelligence officials, Rep. Walter Jones said it “should cause major unease for all Americans.”
Last week, Qorvis filed its latest six-month report on its work for Saudi Arabia and the Republic of Equatorial Guinea. Submitted more than a month after the deadline, the 28-page reportsummarizes the firm’s activities, disbursements and receipts.
It also discloses that Qorvis engaged Smullen on Dec. 15, 2017, and paid him $8,000 sometime before March 31, 2018.
Under FARA, Smullen was therefore required to register by Dec. 25, 2017—10 days after his engagement with Qorvis began. However, he did not complete his FARA registration form until April 27, 2018.
Asked via email to shed light on the timing of his registration, Smullen replied, “I agreed in principle only to assist Qorvis if possible in December 2017. No work was agreed to or provided. In 2018, I was asked to do a bit of work after which I register(ed) as required.”
“Agreeing in principle” appears to be enough to trigger the registration requirement. Yet, even if Qorvis were wrong about when the engagement began for purposes of FARA compliance, Smullen would still have been required to register before doing work for the Saudi embassy. That would have been March, not April.
In early June, Smullen repeatedly told 28Pages.org he had yet to perform any work for the kingdom. “I’m not even sure I’m going to be called upon. This is just an anticipatory proposition,” he said.
Asked now to explain those previous denials, Smullen replied, “You were challenging me as to national security advice that I might have provided which you construed to be a conflict of interest with my (National Security Studies) Program. I was simply telling you that was not true.”
The interview recording does not support Smullen’s description of my questions or his answers.
Smullen’s registration indicated he would provide “public relations support” to the kingdom. In my interview, I never suggested that Qorvis, a lobbying and PR firm, engaged him to provide national security advice to the kingdom.
Rather, I focused on the apparent conflict of interest that arises when he is paid to help promote Saudi policies and then oversees discussions of the same policies by U.S. government officials who attend his Syracuse program.
Readers can judge Smullen’s claim about the scope of his previous denials against these excerpts from the June interview:
McGLINCHEY: On the FARA registration form, there’s that section asking you to describe in detail the services you’ll perform for the (Saudi) embassy. You put “public relations support.” Could you add a little more detail on what the engagement is about?
SMULLEN: I really haven’t been very engaged at this point. I think they are hoping that I might at some point in time be able to contribute to something with respect to some of the recent initiatives by the crown prince and to advise either the embassy or the kingdom, if that were the case, but I haven’t had to directly do that as yet. So I’m in a to-be-determined role as to exactly what I would do, if anything. I’m not even sure I’m going to be called upon. This is just an anticipatory proposition.
McGLINCHEY: Oh, okay. So you haven’t done any work yet under this engagement?
SMULLEN: I think the kingdom has a lot of new initiatives underway by virtue of the crown prince, not only his recent visitation to the United States but things he has done in the kingdom to reform and there is obviously a need to explain that, I presume, and an ability for those who are interested to understand what they are doing and why and so if I can be of any help in that regard, I stand by.
McGLINCHEY: Might those initiatives include communicating the crown prince’s objectives in Yemen, for example?
SMULLEN: I don’t know. I haven’t been asked to do anything yet.
McGLINCHEY: Conceivably, some of that public relations effort might be about putting the best face on Saudi national security issues, on Yemen, on Syria, on Syria vis-à-vis Iran. The nature of the public relations work would seem to have many connections to national security topics.
SMULLEN: Alright, sir, but I haven’t been asked to do anything yet, so unless and until I do, I don’t think there is any conflict of interest, and you can keep asking me the question but the answer remains the same.
As Smullen himself implied last month, now that we know he has already been tasked with doing something (to say nothing of his receipt of $8,000), the conflict of interest question is in no way hypothetical.
By examining the nature of his “bit of work” in March, one could evaluate if there was indeed overlap between his endeavor for the kingdom and topics covered in his $10,000-per-student course for national security officials.
Alas, when asked what issues his March work touched on, Smullen—who is also a professor of public relations—replied, “I don’t have any more for you on this matter.”
Perhaps he’ll be more forthcoming with Syracuse officials…if they care to ask.
On June 5, Jessica Smith, the director of media relations at Syracuse’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, told 28Pages.org she had forwarded information about Smullen’s relationship with Saudi Arabia “for review of potential conflicts of interest.”
I’ve followed up to learn what conclusion, if any, that review has reached in the 37 days that have since passed, but multiple inquiries have not been acknowledged.
Not exactly in keeping with the Syracuse University motto: “Knowledge crowns those who seek her.”
Meanwhile, though it would seem Smullen’s national security students deserve to have knowledge of his financial and working relationship with Saudi Arabia, the retired Army colonel said he has no intention of disclosing it to them.
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