Pakistan’s Man in Washington
By Chris Frates for Politico
As Pakistan’s top Washington lobbyist, it’s Mark Siegel’s job to convince U.S. officials not to take out their anger on the country despite the fact that Osama bin Laden spent at least five years living in relative comfort outside Islamabad.
It’s not an easy sell.
Lawmakers from across the political spectrum wonder aloud how the world’s No. 1 terrorist could be living in plain sight unbeknownst to the Pakistanis. Siegel has to make the pitch that it’s in America’s national security interests to continue its relationship with Pakistan and to keep the billions of dollars in foreign aid flowing.
It’s a message that Siegel’s firm, Locke Lord, is getting paid good money to sell; the firm brings in almost $1 million a year representing Pakistan.
In addition to Siegel, the firm has about half a dozen lobbyists representing the country including Harriet Miers, an aide to former President George W. Bush and a one-time U.S. Supreme Court nominee.
Siegel is uniquely positioned to make the country’s case to skeptics on the Hill. He’s been friends with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s family for almost three decades and has a direct line to Islamabad.
“The Pakistanis insist to me that they were not aware that Osama bin Laden was at that venue. The president made that very clear to me,” Siegel told POLITICO after speaking with Zardari this week. “I think if they had known, they would have been happy to nab him themselves.”
His connection to Zardari isn’t lost on those he lobbies, like House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King, who met with Siegel on Tuesday.
“It wasn’t so much what Mark was saying to me on Tuesday, it was what I was saying to him knowing, or feeling confident that it was going to go directly back to the president,” said King (R-N.Y.). “There is a real question of credibility and trust and faith. You can’t have the No. 1 mass murderer of Americans living in plain view in Pakistan all these years while Pakistan is claiming to be our ally and getting $3 billion a year.”
Pakistan, King said, must investigate and credibly explain how bin Laden was able to go undected and demonstrate that its intelligence services and military have not been penetrated by al Qaeda.
“Mark’s basic job is almost to tread water, to keep everything afloat until something can be done,” King said. “I think he’s trying to prevent something from happening too quickly to have the relationship severed. He wants to make sure that he keeps it together and so you can have extensive talks between the two governments.”
But King’s not the only one critical of Pakistan these days.
The Obama administration – which didn’t give its ally a heads up that Americans would be swooping into their country to take out bin Laden for fear of leaks – has been describing the relationship between the two countries with the ambiguous “it’s complicated” tag usually reserved for Facebook profiles.
And Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin told ABC News Thursday that he thinks high-level Pakistani intelligence knew of bin Laden’s whereabouts and he has “no doubt” the country knows the location of other top-level targets.
“None of the people on the Hill are suggesting to me that anybody in the civilian government knew that Osama was there,” Siegel said, drawing a distinction between Zardari and the country’s military and intelligence branches.
Tony Podesta, a lobbyist who represents Egypt, knows something of representing a vilified client that is nevertheless a U.S. military ally in an unstable part of the world.
“You want to take it back to the long term strategic interests of the U.S. and to facts rather than supposition. It makes no long term strategic sense for any kind of reckless decisions to be made at this moment,” Podesta said. “That’s where he’ll leave it.”
Siegel has been friends with Zardari’s family for almost three decades, having met Zardari’s late wife, Benazir Bhutto, in 1984 when a mutual friend asked him to host a dinner party for her. The two would go on to write a book together and when Bhutto became prime minister, Siegel represented her government.
This week, Siegel said he has been reminding lawmakers that Pakistan has been a strong ally and that President Barack Obama and other administration officials have praised the country’s cooperation in fighting al Qaeda and terrorism. Pakistan itself has been a victim of terrorism – 30,000 civilians have been killed by terrorists in the last decade, he added.
Even before this week’s killing of bin Laden, Locke Lord has been active on the Hill. In February and March, firm lobbyists accompanied the Pakistani Ambassador Husain Haqqani on meetings with House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, and Kay Granger, chairwoman of the House appropriations subcommittee on state-foreign operations.
Last year, the firm successfully lobbied for $1.5 billion in economic and social aid over the next five years — a sum that has to be reauthorized each year. The firm is also lobbying to secure foreign aid and create duty-free “reconstruction opportunity zones” inside Pakistan’s tribal lands and Afghanistan.