Saturday, September 17, 2011


By William Fisher

Well, Matt Lauer’s got his hands full.

No, not the TV Matt Lauer. The other Matt Lauer. The one who used to do public diplomacy work for the US State Department and now does PR for a Washington company called Qorvis Communications.

Why are his hands full? The good news is that his firm just got a big new account. The bad news is that it’s the Kingdom of Bahrain.

That’s bad news because it’s a little like getting the Pol Pot account; there wouldn’t seem to be a lot a PR firm could do to burnish Mr. Pol Pot’s “image.” Not even for $40,000 a month plus expenses.

King Hamad-Bin-Isa-Al-Khalifa is no Pol Pot. But he has unleashed the full fury of the government apparatus on peaceful demonstrators. His security police and army have killed many of these demonstrators. Hundreds have been wounded. Even larger numbers have been arrested and, according to reputable human rights groups, have been tortured and otherwise abused in prison, where they have little access to lawyers or even family members.

What do PR firms customarily do with high profile clients with deeply tarnished “images?” They’ll construct a narrative presenting the King’s version of what’s happened. They will have the King say, as he did this week, that he will forgive all the miscreants. He will make speeches about the openness of the government to “dialogue.” He may even empty his prisons of political prisoners as a pre-condition to dialogue.

They’ll issue an endless stream of press releases and films designed to reassure the world – and especially the tourist trade – that peace has been restored and all is well in the Kingdom. And they will need to reassure the sponsors of Formula One auto racing that it’s OK for them to drive in Bahrain.

Meanwhile, the improvised, home-grown PR machinery of the demonstrators will continue to push out story after story designed to heighten awareness of the dire human rights situation still prevailing in the tiny Kingdom. Journalists covering this story – and there are very few of them – will continue to receive pictures of corpses butchered by their jailers.

And e-mailed statements from those leaders not yet arrested or out on bail. And daily tallies of deaths and detentions and military trials and the usual array of police state toys.

Mr. Lauer’s task may be made a bit easier by the presence of Bahrain’s two most powerful friends. One is Saudi Arabia – also a client of Lauer’s firm --- which is just 20 minutes over the causeway to Bahrain. Saudi Arabia actually sent troops into Bahrain, where they are currently helping the King and his family to quell the protests. The last thing the Saudis want is a Shia controlled country 20 minutes away from their Eastern oilfields.

So Mr. Lauer and his colleagues are going to have to deal with the religious aspects of their client’s situation. The King and his family, you see, are Sunni Muslims, like the Saudis. The majority of the people of Bahrain are Shia Muslims, just like the Iranians. One of the Shia’s main protests is that they are systematically excluded from any job with any authority.

Mr. Lauer’s other advantage is the silence of the United States. The Crown Prince – the King’s son – has been dispatched to Washington to reassure the State Department and President Obama that his government is eager to engage in dialogue with the protesters but that they won’t play until unacceptable conditions have been met. The US Government has helped by emphasizing the important of dialogue.

Bahrain is of strategic importance to the US. Its Fifth Fleet is housed there. And the US can’t afford to annoy the Saudis too much, because we buy their oil, they’re still fretting about Obama letting Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak resign too soon, and they represent the Sunni balance of power in the Mideast.

When the Crown Prince visited Washington, he told the folks at the State Department that he was worried about Bahrain’s “image” and its negative impact on tourism. So that’s what Mr. Lauer and his team of warriors will try to correct in the eyes of the US Government and the Congress and in major nation capitals in Europe.

So we will see whether “the engineering of consent” – the phrase used by the father of PR to define this form of art – can trump the suffering of an undervalued, abused, and gutsy populace.

How will a public relations program explain – perhaps even attempt to justify – the death of a 14-year-old boy, Ali Jawad, who was participating with thousands of other peaceful Bahrainis in an Eid celebration. A member of the security forces fired a teargas canister at him at point-blank range.

The point is that most honest public relations practitioners will tell you that only limited change can be made in people’s attitudes until there are substantial and well-communicated changes in the policies that caused the problem in the first place.

If Mr. Lauer and his colleagues can do that, they should get a raise to $80,000 a month!

PS: After this post was written, I learned that Joe Trippi, the internet fund-raising guru who landed John Edwards' 2008 presidential campaign among the big boys, has become the latest to join Bahrain's PR team. This is a huge disappointment to those of us who developed a great respect for Trippi during the campaign. Sadly, it reminded me of Andy Hatcher, JFK's African-American Deputy Press Secretary, who ended up flacking for the apartheid regime of South Africa before Mandela.

Muslim Advocates Calls for Investigation of FBI Training

By William Fisher

A prominent Muslim organization is calling for an immediate investigation into the FBI's use of “grossly inaccurate and bigoted trainers and training materials for its counterterrorism agents and other law enforcement.”

Muslim Advocates filed the complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice Inspector General.

The organization said that in materials disclosed to Wired magazine, “FBI agents were presented with slides and materials that, for example, stated that zakat, or charity, given by Muslims, is a ‘funding mechanism for combat’," and that the Prophet Muhammad was a "cult leader."

The group said this was “just the latest in a string of reports that the FBI has been using inflammatory and woefully inaccurate materials to train its agents across the country.”

The FBI has thus far either denied that the materials are being used or defended the use of bigots as welcoming a range of opinions. But Muslim Advocates said, “One cannot reasonably imagine the FBI defending the use of David Duke or a white supremacist leader as a trainer”

It added that “an investigation by the government watchdog overseeing the FBI is long overdue. That is why Muslim Advocates today filed a complaint with the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Justice. The Inspector General is tasked with investigating allegations of misconduct by employees of the Justice Department, including the FBI.”

The disclosures regarding the FBI training materials and instructors were unearthed by a journalist, Spencer Ackerman of Wired. He presented his material on a popular television program, The Rachel Maddow Show, on MSNBC, last Thursday. The content was based upon Ackerman’s acquisition of FBI counterterrorism training documents.

Ackerman writes in Wired, “The FBI is teaching its counterterrorism agents that ‘main stream’ [sic] American Muslims are likely to be terrorist sympathizers; that the Prophet Mohammed was a “cult leader”; and that the Islamic practice of giving charity is no more than a “funding mechanism for combat.”

At the Bureau’s training ground in Quantico, Virginia, he adds, “agents are shown a chart contending that the more ‘devout’ a Muslim, the more likely he is to be ‘violent’,” he said.

Maddow said that WorldNetDaily, a right-wing Internet-based journal, is providing some of the trainers who are working with the FBI. The publication has been an outspoken representative of Islamophobia.

Maddow described their FBI mission as essentially “trying to make a buck off the more gullible elements of the conservative base.”

She pointed to some of the group’s previous projects, such as their reports on the need to wage a war on Islam itself rather than on terrorists acting under their own fundamentalist interpretations.

Her guest, Wired‘s Spencer Ackerman, charged that the person behind WorldNetDaily’s reports regarding Islam has been instructing FBI counter-terrorism officers. Ackerman explains:

“What they [the FBI] did tell me is that this was training that agents who had two to three years of experience in counter-terrorism have gone through. And they said to me that this is just the opinions of this one particular author…We’re still trying to find out the extent of this training.”

When asked why someone within or close to the FBI is now offering him this information, Ackerman explained that the training has been “deeply upsetting” to counter-terrorism experts inside the FBI concerned over civil rights of Muslim Americans and the impression this sort of attitude might have on their impression of those meant to protect them and all law-abiding Americans.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) commented: “Seeing the materials FBI agents are being trained with certainly helps explain why we’ve seen so many inappropriate FBI surveillance operations broadly targeting the Muslim-American community, from infiltrating mosques with agents provocateur to racial- and ethnic-mapping programs,” Mike German, a former FBI agent now with the American Civil Liberties Union, tells Danger Room after being shown the documents. ”Biased police training can only result in biased policing.”

In another case, Muslim Advocates has filed a Friend of the Court brief supporting compensation in a computer destruction case. It is supporting Majd Kam-Almaz’s lawsuit, which demands compensation for the destruction of his laptop by the Department of Homeland Security. Mr. Kam-Almaz, a U.S. citizen, works in the area of disaster relief services, and had his business computer seized at Dulles Airport during a trip returning home from work travel.

His computer was destroyed while in the possession of border agents, causing him to lose contracts of substantial value.

Muslim Advocates’ claims that travelers across the country have experienced similar improper searches and questioning at the border, including in some cases the destruction of their cell phones and laptops. Their amicus brief argues that individuals whose electronic devices are damaged or destroyed while in the possession of government agents should be compensated for their loss.