The Saudi Expert Who Hides Foreign Funding When Testifying to Congress

A former Trump official sidestepped a new ethics rule.

The Saudi Expert Who Hides Foreign Funding When Testifying to Congress
Saudi Arabia Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the G20 opening ceremony at the Hangzhou International Expo Center on September 4, 2016 in Hangzhou, China.

The American Prospect is a nonprofit, independent magazine covering public policy and politics. Sludge is re-publishing this article.

The Biden administration has pledged to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for human rights violations, though its restrained approach has raised skepticism. Congress has the power to step in, and the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing last week to assess the role it can play.

The hearing included a Saudi activist, explaining that torture has been documented 3,000 times in Saudi prisons. There was a free-speech advocate, urging the U.S. to punish Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who the CIA determined had ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But as members of Congress struggled to mute and unmute themselves in the virtual hearing room, the witness that Republican members had invited to testify didn’t quite fit.

She spoke with the authority of someone who had worked closely with high-level Saudi officials. She warned that taking action against the Saudi prince might have repercussions for the U.S., like losing funding for domestic investment or security work in the region. “We do really count on Saudi Arabia writing checks,” said Kirsten Fontenrose of the foreign-policy think tank the Atlantic Council. “This is best handled in a way that doesn’t make [Mohammed bin Salman] look like a public pariah,” she said.

Lawmakers had no way of knowing from her congressional testimony that Fontenrose’s employer has received millions of dollars from Saudi Arabia’s biggest boosters. The Atlantic Council has received large gifts from Saudi Arabia’s close ally, the United Arab Emirates. The two monarchies’ interests are deeply connected in Washington. The Embassy of the UAE has donated more than $1 million annually to the Atlantic Council for the past five years, and state-run entities like its national oil company and sovereign wealth fund have also donated hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Fontenrose did not disclose any of these potential conflicts of interest to the House Subcommittee on Middle East, North Africa, and Global Terrorism in advance of her presentation last week.

Reached by phone, Fontenrose emphasized that foreign funding does not influence her expertise. “Every think tank in Washington gets money from Middle East governments, and the Hill knows,” Fontenrose told me. “We receive zero money from Saudi Arabia.”

After Congress approved strong ethics rules in January, experts appearing at committee hearings must now report any foreign payments “related to the subject matter of the hearing” as part of an enhanced Truth in Testimony rule. But enforcement for the measure is lacking. “These rules only matter as much as congressional staff make them matter,” a House Democratic aide told me.

House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and subcommittee chairman Ted Deutch (D-FL) declined to comment. Ranking member Joe Wilson (R-SC) did not respond to requests for comment.

Fontenrose sidestepped this ethics rule by writing in her forms that she represented herself, not her employer. But her written testimony was published on Atlantic Council letterhead, and in those pages she noted her authority as an expert in her “current role as the director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council.”

An Atlantic Council spokesperson described this as “standard practice.” But Middle East researchers say the fact that she didn’t disclose the foreign funding suggests that she has something to hide.

“The organizers of congressional hearings have the duty to do their due diligence and not put before us people whose salary is paid for by a foreign government about which they’re testifying,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, who directs Democracy for the Arab World Now, the nonprofit founded by the late journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Fontenrose’s recent work in government and in the private sector alarms anti-corruption watchdogs. Fontenrose was the White House official responsible for Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries during the first year of the Trump administration. She resigned in November 2018, as Trump overlooked the Saudi-directed assassination of Khashoggi, and she got credit for resigning on principle. But according to several sources, she left due to unrelated issues.

The next month, the revolving door turned about as fast as it could. She went to work consulting, apparently around the very countries she had been working on in the White House. Fontenrose took a role at a firm called Sonoran Policy Group, which was founded by a major Trump campaign adviser. Saudi Arabia paid the firm an unusually large up-front contract of $5.4 million in 2017.

The lobbying firm quickly dispatched her to help Saudi’s close ally, the repressive kingdom of Bahrain. It was only a month after leaving the White House that Fontenrose appeared in the small island kingdom, which is essentially a Saudi protectorate. She met with the Bahraini king as part of a delegation led by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani in December 2018. Fontenrose was not registered as a lobbyist at the time. “Going to Bahrain is not lobbying,” she told me. But her visit there coincided with Bahrain’s payments of $500,000 to Sonoran, which was listed as its registered foreign agent in Washington. 

Congressional experts must submit bios for the record, and Fontenrose left out many details from her career. She did not disclose her ongoing work as a consultant for Ergo, a business advisory with former Trump officials on its roster. Before joining the administration, Fontenrose worked at SCL, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, the firm that was hired to sway elections worldwide through fraudulent social media accounts and disinformation operations. From 2008 to 2011, she worked for a U.S. military company called Archimedes Global, which SCL had subcontracted over the years for work in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

During the hearing on Saudi human rights on March 18, members of Congress directed most questions to Fontenrose. Her comments drowned out other experts at the hearing, who pushed for much more accountability for Saudi Arabia. “The regime is able to indulge in such excessive abuses because of the impunity granted by its allies,” said Hala Aldosari, a Saudi activist and researcher living in exile who spoke at the hearing.

Emma Briant, the author of the forthcoming Propaganda Machine: Inside Cambridge Analytica and the Digital Influence Industry, has followed Fontenrose’s rising star in Washington. She is concerned that corporate work for Saudi-aligned interests would affect the impartiality of her testimony. “It would be naïve to assume that this wouldn’t shape her positions on U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia,” said Briant.

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