by Brian Mcglinchey, Ron Paul Institute:
The director of a national security program at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs has registered with the US Department of Justice as an agent of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 28Pages.org is first to report.
In his registration statement, retired US Army Colonel Bill Smullen, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, indicated he has agreed to provide “public relations support” to the Saudi embassy for compensation initially projected at $8,000.
Smullen’s National Security Studies program at Syracuse is billed as “a premier professional development program that offers executive education courses for senior civilian and military leaders who are responsible for the national security interests of their respective organizations.”
Within a few days of Smullen’s registration, another veteran of the Powell State Department signed on to serve the kingdom: Chris Keppler, who held media and communications leadership roles at State between 2001 and 2005, projected $45,000 in compensation from his engagement.
Smullen says he has yet to perform any work for the Saudi embassy. “I’m not even sure I’m going to be called upon. This is just an anticipatory proposition,” he tells28Pages.org.
His registration, however, raises questions about whether compensated work to advance the Saudi agenda is compatible with responsibility for a program that shapes the thinking of American national security officials.
North Carolina Republican Congressman Walter Jones, who sits on the House Committee on Armed Services, says he’s deeply troubled over the development.
The influence of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia within the United States has long been a concern of mine. As its influence continues to grow, it is clear that the kingdom does not share our nation’s best interests. There is no doubt that cases like this should cause major unease for all Americans,” he says in a statement to 28Pages.org
Smullen Says Saudi Work No Cause for Concern
“It is clearly not (a conflict of interest). It has nothing to do with my National Security Studies program at all,” says Smullen. “I would offer public relations—not national security—advice if asked.” Smullen also teaches public relations at Syracuse’s Newhouse School. “That’s the skill I’ve been asked to offer if the need arises.”
“That strains credibility to say ‘now I’m putting on my pro-Saudi Arabia hat’ and ‘now I’m taking it off’,” says Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy.
“Far and away, the majority of the people that are on (Saudi Arabia’s) lobbying and PR payroll are there (to address) the war in Yemen and Iran,” says Freeman. “It’s hard for me to imagine that Saudi Arabia and Gulf issues don’t come up in a two-week long program on national security.”
Freeman, who calls academia “the next frontier of foreign influence,” is referring to the flagship offering of Smullen’s program: the National Security Management Course. Most attendees of the event, which is hosted each spring, are senior military and federal government officials. Topics include foreign policy, terrorism and trouble spots around the world.
Given that, it’s conceivable that attendees could participate in an evaluation of the US-aided Saudi war in Yemen, a threat assessment of Saudi Arabia’s rival Iran, a discussion of Wahhabist extremism or an appraisal of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—all under the direction of a public relations consultant to the kingdom.
The course seats 55 participants at a cost of $10,000 each, and, according to Syracuse, the National Security Studies program “is recognized for credit by the Department of Defense, DOD agencies, the military departments and other federal agencies.”
28Pages.org asked the Department of Defense and the federal Office of Personnel Management if it’s appropriate for such a program to be supervised by a public relations consultant to Saudi Arabia. They have not yet responded.
No Plans for Transparency
Smullen says he has no intention of disclosing his foreign agent registration to his national security students.
“That seems very problematic to me that he won’t tell his students that he might have a potential conflict of interest,” says Freeman, a former political science professor at Texas A&M University.
“At the very least, his students have the right to know that he is at least in part being paid by the Saudi government for this work. Whether that’s a conflict of interest or not, make full disclosure to your students and let them be the judge of that,” says Freeman, author of The Foreign Policy Auction.