When the New York Police caught the powerful Kashmiri lobbyist Dr Ghulam Nabi Fai, 61, in the middle of a partly hazy day on July 19, 2011 with $35,000 cash in his possession, they had actually come across a man whose arrest would subsequently jeopardise diplomatic relations between Pakistan and the United States.
The American authorities arrested Fai, chairman of the Kashmiri American Council (KAC), for allegedly “conspiring to act as an agent of a foreign principal without registering with the Attorney General, and to falsify, conceal, and cover up material facts they had a duty to disclose by tricks, schemes and devices, in matters within the jurisdiction of agencies of the executive branch of the Government of the United States.”
According to Sarah Webb, a Special Agent of the FBI who informed the District Court of the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division, Fai had received approximately $500, 000 to 700,000 per year from the government of Pakistan which funded Fai’s operations through co-accused [Zahreer] Ahmad.
“To date, neither Fai, Ahmad nor the KAC has registered as an official agent of the Pakistani or Kashmiri governments with the Attorney General of the United States as required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act 22 U.S.C. 612,”said the Special Agent.
Fai was charged of illegally lobbying without meeting American legal requirement of registering under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
Pakistani diplomats saw Fai’s arrest as a ‘political gimmick’.
“Fai is not a secret agent. He has been a Kashmiri activist for decades,” said Tanvir Ahmed Khan, a former Foreign Secretary of Pakistan, “The Fai incident was related to Obama’s visit to India.”
Officials at the Department of Justice, on the other hand, explain why it took them so long to divulge the details of the case.
“This has been a complex investigation,” says Dean Boyd, a spokesman at the Department of Justice, “As in any investigation of this nature, developing the evidence sufficient to prove the allegations beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law takes time and extensive investigation efforts.”
Although Fai is a US national, Boyd says, “Foreign governments and foreign political parties may not make political contributions or expenditures in connection with any federal, state, or local election in the United States, either directly or indirectly.”
In a letter on March 22, 2010, the Department of Justice (DoJ) had asked Fai to register under FARA if allegations in the Indian press that he worked as a Pakistani agent were true.
Fai replied that the KAC is not doing lobbying but rather public relations. In an email to the DoJ on April 16, 2010, Fai asserted that he had no obligation to register under FARA because the KAC “has never engaged in activities on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan or any other foreign entity[ies].”
He further wrote: “KAC or I have never engaged in any activities or provided any services to any foreign entity. And KAC or I have never had written or oral agreements with Pakistan or any other foreign entity. Thereafter, this report categorically denies any connection to any foreign agent including Pakistan.”
The DoJ and FBI, however, said “voluminous evidence” independently established that Fai had acted on the direction and with the alleged financial support of the Pakistani secret service for at least 20 years.
Defence experts remain skeptical if successive civilian governments in Pakistan knew much about contacts between Fai and the secret services.
“I don’t think that the ISI would get formal permission from the Ministry of Defence to finance Fai,” said Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa, an Islamabad-based expert, “when the Pakistani army or the ISI hire lobbyists, they do not normally share such information with the political government.”
While Fai still remains under house arrest in Virginia, the disclosure of his clandestine activities has largely upset some Pakistani officials and many friends of Pakistan in the United States.
“Had I known that there was the slightest doubt about the legality of the organisation’s funding arrangements, I would definitely not have accepted their invitation to speak,” Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States, said while talking to Dawn.com.
Haqqani was the most prominent Pakistani official to speak at the Kashmir International Conference in 2009 on Capitol Hill which was organised by Fai’s KAC.
“As the ambassador of Pakistan, I would point out and try to stop any infringement of US law by any part of the Pakistan government.”
Ironically, the Pakistani embassy in Washington DC had arranged a dinner inside the embassy building for Fai and all delegates of the conference. Other prominent Pakistanis who attended the dinner included former Pakistani ambassador to US, Dr. Maleeha Lodhi and former federal information minister Mushahid Hussain Syed, both of whom had also spoken at Fai’s conference.
Fai’s affidavit alleges that the ISI approved all speakers of the conference.
Dr. Stephen P. Cohen, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute, said Fai’s Kashmir conferences were “nothing exceptional as far as lobbying efforts go,” but he still admires events for performing a useful public service, which brought diverse perspectives (including many Indians) to Washington DC.
South Asia expert Teresita C. Schaffer, on the contrary, says: “The conferences were a waste of Pakistani taxpayers’ money as they did not convert anyone to the Kashmir cause. The presentations were so blatantly biased that they were simply looked on as a way to hear what Pakistan’s “party line” was on Kashmir. Kashmiris are much more effective spokesmen for their own cause than Pakistanis.”
According to Dr. Christine Fair, an associate professor at Georgetown University, the Inter-Services Intelligence, which is accused of operating Fai inside the United States, has other assets inserted into US institutions for the purposes of influencing public and governmental views of Pakistan and shape the course of policy decisions on issues about which the ISI cares.
“Unless one is registered as an American working for a foreign intelligence agency, this conduct is illegal. Fai broke the law,” she said, adding “The issue is not that he was supporting lobbyists but he was taking money from the ISI and materially working for and with a foreign intelligence agency.”
On March 22, 2007, FBI agents investigated Fai at his Washington DC office, he said he had never met anyone who identified himself as being affiliated with the ISI and did not suspect any associates or acquaintances of being ISI operatives. He also said he was not aware of “any ISI presence” within the United States and he believed that the ISI did not operate in the United States at all.
Contrary to Fai’s naïve expression of ignorance of ISI’s presence in the United States, David Ignatius, an associate editor at the Washington Post whose recent book Blood Money focuses on the ISI’s maneuvering tactics, says it is a ‘well-known fact’ that foreign countries seek to influence US policy. They do so, “through lobbying or political activism, including campaign contributions by members of their expatriate communities.”
Ignatius says it is true of Ireland, Britain, Israel, Armenia, Turkey, Indian and now Pakistan.
“One difference in this case [of Fai] is that the political activity was sponsored by a foreign intelligence service (the ISI),” he said and argued that “I suspect that’s not a unique case, either… the most aggressive (and least known) example of such “political covert action” in history was Britain’s attempt through its Secret Intelligence Service to destroy the strong “America First” movement in Congress in 1939 and 1940. The Brits, whose backs were against the wall at the time, used covert money, planted newspaper stories and well-placed agents in the US government to push America toward intervention. So, there’s nothing new under the sun.”
Dr. Cohen recalled that some years ago India did something like what is alleged of Fai and ISI, and one US Indian-American citizen went to prison and a RAW [Research and Analysis Wing] embassy official departed the US very quickly.
“The Indian lobbying efforts are far more sophisticated now,” he said, “in the old days it was Pakistan that was the more effective lobbyist; times change.”
Ambassador Schaffer said if Fai had filed the papers for registration as an agent of the government of Pakistan, then he could have held all the conferences he wanted.
“He wasn’t stealing secret papers – the kind of activity one normally associates with ‘secret agents’”.
Former foreign secretary Tanvir Ahmed Khan says the practices of secret agents were “as old as human civilisation” and points out that India had one of the largest nets of informers in the world as “it invests a lot of money in USA to promote its interests.”
Inside the United States, Fai’s case has triggered a debate among Americans about the transparency of foreign money that is poured into election campaigns.
Sheila Krumholz, Executive Director of Washington’s anti-secrecy watchdog Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), terms secrecy in sources of funding for non- profit organisations and lobbyists as an ‘enormously serious concern’ because citizens barely have any information where the money is coming from.
“We have ample evidence not to trust big companies with a lot of money,” she says, suggesting that the culture of disinformation and hidden agendas should be replaced with more transparency.
Similarly Lisa Curtis, a Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, suggests that congressional staff should do a better job of scrutinising organisations that seek to use Congressional space for their conferences. They must also enhance their due diligence of organisations that are not transparent about their funding.
“The Pakistanis sought to portray Fai as someone working to protect the human rights of Kashmiris, when he was really just a secretly paid agent doing the bidding of the Pakistani government,” she said. “The Pakistanis probably believed Fai, a Kashmiri American, would be more credible in spreading anti-India propaganda than a registered Pakistani lobbyist.”
Fai’s remains a classic example of trust deficit between the United States and Pakistan which continue to pursue their “national interests” often through known and unknown avenues.
(Malik Siraj Akbar is based in Washington DC as a Hubert Humphrey Fellow at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), a project of the Center for Public Integrity. Twitter: @MalikSirajAkbar)