WASHINGTON — A top National Security Council official who worked on Persian Gulf issues amid controversy over Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi has joined a lobbying firm that deals with Gulf issues, a representative for the company confirmed to Yahoo News.
Robert Stryk, chairman of Sonoran Policy Group (SPG), which he describes as a private intelligence and diplomacy firm, confirmed that the company hired Kirsten Fontenrose, who recently resigned from her White House position.
“Ms. Fontenrose is the United States’ leading expert on the Gulf, and we are excited about her continuing her service to vital U.S. security and foreign policy interests with SPG as she plots a new course with the emerging generation of Gulf leaders,” he told Yahoo News in a phone call.
Israeli news site i24 news was the first to report the new hire.
SPG, which is registered as a foreign agent on multiple contracts, previously worked for King Salman’s nephew Mohammed bin Nayef, in the early days of the Trump administration before Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, commonly referred to as MBS, won a power struggle within the family. The company was paid $5.4 million in May 2017 by the Saudi interior ministry, which was headed by Nayef. (The firm has worked with other countries, according to Department of Justice documentation, including the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia.)
The firm is currently not doing any work for Saudi Arabia, and Fontenrose will not be lobbying on Capitol Hill on behalf of clients.
While Saudi Arabia has for years been a major U.S. ally, Khashoggi’s death was not the first instance of a humanitarian disaster or regime violence against dissidents, as the Gulf nation has been involved in myriad civilian deaths in Yemen and the arrest of other prominent Saudi critics. Regardless, Western security services and contractors have long helped bolster fledgling Gulf nations on common issues of counterterrorism and extremism, and some have profited handsomely from that work.
Fontenrose’s tenure at the White House was relatively short; she joined the NSC in April 2017. Before that, she worked for the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, the political data company employed by President Trump’s 2016 campaign that came under fire for its use of millions of people’s Facebook data to target voters. Earlier, she served in a number of national security positions.
During her brief time at the NSC, Fontenrose reportedly pushed for tougher sanctions on Saudi Arabia in response to Khashoggi’s murder.
Khashoggi was killed last month after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, to file paperwork needed for his marriage. While Saudi officials eventually admitted that a team from the Saudi Arabia killed Khashoggi in the consulate, the crown prince has denied playing a role.
In spite of the U.S. intelligence assessment that MBS likely ordered the murder, Trump has refused to condemn the de facto kingdom ruler, and in a press briefing Tuesday at the White House, national security adviser John Bolton avoided pointing fingers.
Asked if he had heard the tape, and whether it pointed to involvement from the crown prince, Bolton said there was no point in listening to the audio. “What am I going to learn from [it]?” he asked. “I mean if they were speaking Korean I wouldn’t learn any more from it either.”
Hunter Walker contributed reporting to this article.
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