For more than five years, Donald Trump’s new top campaign aide, Paul Manafort, lobbied for a Washington-based group that Justice Department prosecutors have charged operated as a front for Pakistan’s intelligence service, according to court and lobbying records reviewed by Yahoo News.
Manafort’s work in the 1990s as a registered lobbyist for the Kashmiri American Council was only one part of a wide-ranging portfolio that, over several decades, included a gallery of controversial foreign clients ranging from Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and Zaire’s brutal dictator Mobutu Sese Seko to an Angolan rebel leader accused by human rights groups of torture. His role as an adviser to Ukraine’s then prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, prompted concerns within the Bush White House that he was undermining U.S. foreign policy. It was considered so politically toxic in 2008 that presidential candidate John McCain nixed plans for Manafort to manage the Republican National Convention — a move that caused a rupture between Manafort and his then business partner, Rick Davis, who at the time was McCain’s campaign manager.
Manafort’s work for the Kashmiri group has so far not gotten any media attention.
But it could fuel more questions about his years of lobbying for questionable foreign interests before Manafort, 67, assumed his new position as chief delegate counter and strategist for a presidential candidate who repeatedly decries the influence of Washington lobbyists and denounces the manipulation of U.S. policy by foreign governments.
Court records show that Manafort’s Kashmiri lobbying contract came on the FBI’s radar screen during a lengthy counterterrorism investigation that culminated in 2011 with the arrest of the Kashmiri council’s director, Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai, on charges that he ran the group on behalf of Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, as part of a scheme to secretly influence U.S. policy toward the disputed territory of Kashmir.
Paul Manafort, convention manager for the Trump campaign, on “Meet the Press,” April 10. (Photo: William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
The Kashmiri American Council was a “scam” that amounted to a “false flag operation that Mr. Fai was operating on behalf of the ISI,” Gordon D. Kromberg, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case, said in March 2012 at Fai’s sentencing hearing in federal court. While posing as a U.S.-based nonprofit funded by American donors sympathetic to the plight of Kashmiris, it was actually bankrolled by the ISI in order to deflect public attention “away from the involvement of Pakistan in sponsoring terrorism in Kashmir and elsewhere,” Kromberg said. Fai, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy and tax fraud charges, was then sentenced to two years in federal prison.
Lobbying records filed with the secretary of the Senate show that Manafort’s lobbying firm, Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly, was paid $700,000 by the Kashmiri American Council between 1990 and 1995. This was among more than $4 million that federal prosecutors alleged came from the ISI; Fai collected the money over 20 years from “straw” American donors who were being reimbursed from secret accounts in Pakistan. (The funds were in some cases delivered to Fai in brown paper bags stuffed with cash — and then the donors reimbursed with wire transfers from ISI operatives, according to an FBI affidavit.)
Manafort, who handled the Kashmiri account for his firm, was never charged in the case, and Kromberg told Yahoo News that what knowledge, if any, he had of the secret source of money from his client was not part of the Justice Department’s investigation. (While registering with Congress as a domestic lobbyist for the Kashmiri American Council, Manafort never registered with the U.S. Justice Department as a foreign agent of Pakistan, as he would have been required to do if he was aware of the ISI funding of his client.)
But a former senior Pakistani official, who asked not to be identified, told Yahoo News that there was never any doubt on Pakistan’s part that Manafort knew of his government’s role in backing the Kashmiri council. The former official said that during a trip from Islamabad in 1994 he met with Manafort and Fai in Manafort’s office in Alexandria, Va., “to review strategy and plans” for the council. Manafort, at the meeting, presented plans to influence members of Congress to back Pakistan’s case for a plebiscite for Kashmir (the largest portion of which has been part of India since 1947), he said. (Internal budget documents later obtained by the FBI show plans by the council to spend $80,000 to $100,000 a year on campaign contributions to members of Congress.) “There is no way Manafort didn’t know that Pakistan was involved with” the council, the former official said, although he added: “Some things are not explicitly stated.”
Neither Manafort nor the Trump campaign responded to requests for comment for this story. (“I’m not working for any client right now other than working for Mr. Trump,” Manafort recently said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” when asked by moderator Chuck Todd about his past “controversial” clients.)
Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai, executive director of the Kashmiri American Council, in 2007. (Photo: Roshan Mughal/AP)
But Manafort’s former partner Charlie Black, now an adviser to rival Republican presidential candidate John Kasich, said that as far as the firm was concerned, the Kashmiri council was a domestic, not a foreign, client. “Nobody was more surprised than me that the guy was taking the money from Pakistan,” Black said in a telephone interview. “We didn’t know anything about it.”
But there was no doubt on the part of the Indian government about where the money was coming from. Its officials repeatedly alleged that the Kashmiri council was a front group for Pakistan during the period that Manafort’s firm was lobbying for it. The issue blew up in September 1993 after Manafort and one of his lobbying associates, Riva Levinson, traveled to Kashmir and, according to Indian officials, posed as CNN reporters in an effort to gather video footage of interviews with Kashmiri officials.
“The whole thing was obviously a blatant operation of producing television software with a deliberate and particularly anti-Indian slant by lobbyists hired by Pakistan for this very purpose,” Shiv Shankar, then the Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in a letter to CNN in Atlanta at the time. (Levinson did not respond to a request for comment from Yahoo News. At the time she denied the Indian allegations, telling a UPI reporter, “We never misrepresented ourselves as journalists.”)
Exactly what Manafort did for the Kashmiri council is unclear from the sketchy lobbying reports his firm filed with the secretary of the Senate. Those reports show his firm first registered as lobbyists for the group in October 1990, the same year the group was founded by Fai. The reports list little beyond the purpose of the lobbying: to seek support for a House resolution by then-Rep. Dan Burton to sponsor a “peaceful resolution” of the Kashmir dispute. They also show payments to the firm of $140,000 a year. (During this time, Black, Manafort had a long list of other domestic clients that included the NRA, the Tobacco Institute and the Trump Organization, which paid the firm $70,000 a year to lobby Congress on casino gambling, aviation and tax issues, according to the lobbying records.)
“We went to the Hill for them to raise the profile of the [Kashmiri] cause,” said Black about the firm’s work for Fai’s council. “But nobody in Bush 41 [the administration of George H.W. Bush] or the Clinton administration wanted to touch it. We never got any real attention for it.”
The FBI came across evidence that ISI was actually not pleased with Manafort’s work. The bureau’s investigation began in 2005 with a tip from a confidential informant (who was seeking a reduced prison term) that Fai and an associate in Pakistan, Zaheer Ahmad, were agents of the ISI. As part of the probe, agents obtained secret national security warrants to wiretap Fai’s communications; they also searched his home and offices. Among the evidence they seized: a December 1995 letter from Fai’s main ISI handler, identified as a Pakistani Army brigadier general named Javeed Aziz Khan, who went by the name of “Abdullah,” that criticized Fai for renewing a contract with a public relations firm, according to the FBI affidavit from a counterterrorism agent, Sarah Webb Linden, that was filed to support Fai’s detention in July 2011.
Lobbyist Charlie Black (Photo: Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images)
Eight months later, at Fai’s sentencing hearing, prosecutor Kromberg for the first time identified the public relations firm as Black, Manafort, according to court records. He then detailed a dispute between Fai and his ISI handler over the Black, Manafort contract. Fai wrote back to Khan the next day insisting that the ISI official had in fact approved the renewal of the contract and noted that to “make it appear” that the council was a Kashmiri organization “financed by Americans,” there was a preexisting agreement that nobody from the Pakistani Embassy would ever contact Black, Manafort, said Kromberg. But Fai was overruled, according to Kromberg’s account. The ISI handler wrote back to Fai stating that that “‘we’ — a reference to the ISI — were unsatisfied with the performance of Black, Manafort & Stone, and advised Fai to terminate the contract immediately,” according to a transcript of Kromberg’s statement to the court.
Meanwhile, the FBI pursued even more alarming allegations relating to Ahmad, Fai’s Pakistan-based associate. According to a ProPublica account, the bureau questioned witnesses about a trip that Ahmad had allegedly made to Afghanistan with a Pakistani nuclear scientist, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood; the scientist was suspecting of having met with Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri in August 2001 to discuss the terror leaders’ interest in acquiring nuclear weapons.
Manafort, for his part, appears to have expanded his business connections in Pakistan. In 2013 he acknowledged to French investigators that, in 1994, he had received $86,000 from two arms dealers involved in the sale of French attack submarines to Pakistan’s navy. The payments were part of an arrangement to compensate Manafort for political advice and polling he provided to French presidential candidate Édouard Balladur — one part of a wide-ranging French investigation into alleged kickbacks from arms sales dubbed by the French press “the Karachi affair.”
One puzzling question about the Kashmir case is why, six years after the investigation began, the FBI decided to arrest Fai in 2011. One explanation, a source familiar with the case said, is that it came during a period of mounting tensions between the United States and Pakistan, much of it due to concerns among U.S. national security officials about the “double game” being played by the ISI. In May of that year, President Obama ordered the U.S. raid that killed bin Laden without informing the Pakistani military, in part because of fears that elements of the ISI (an arm of the military) might have been protecting the al-Qaida leader. Just weeks later, federal prosecutors in Chicago presented damning testimony in federal court that an ISI handler had directed one of the confessed conspirators in the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai — which killed 164 people, including six Americans — that was perpetrated by Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani-based group with links to al-Qaida committed to “liberating” Muslims from Indian rule in Kashmir.
Then, on July 18, after Fai returned from a trip to the United Kingdom, the FBI confronted him for the third time about whether he had any connections to the ISI — and he denied it. Fai was arrested, and he and Ahmad (who remained in Pakistan and died later that year) were charged in federal court with being unregistered foreign agents of Pakistan.