THE OCTOPUS

How a US arms lobby group played both India and Pakistan on the F-16 aircraft

Quartz india
Quartz india

In response to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Octopus has created an army of top-secret intelligence agencies, analysts, specialists, and building complexes—phalanxes, really—devoted to identifying, spying on and rooting out terrorists both domestically and around the world.

A large majority of this homeland security and intelligence apparatus actually comprises individuals who do not work for the US government directly. They are employees of private sector companies who are hired by the government to do these jobs, and are known as “contractors.”

Many of these individuals and organisations claim that they are not officially lobbying, like think tanks, public relations agencies and political action committees (PACs). Or they claim they are not really lobbyists because they avoid direct contact with the lawmakers. Instead, they send their subordinates to Capitol Hill to do the heavy lifting— the cajoling of members of Congress and their staffs. Or they claim that they spend less than 20 per cent of their time lobbying. This legal threshold is what allowed former South Dakota Democratic senator Tom Daschle to lobby for more than a decade without registering as a lobbyist…This evasion tactic is actually nicknamed and widely referred to as the “Daschle loophole”…In some cases, the organisations these lobbyists work for are lobbying for both sides of an issue—thereby, making money off adversaries.

Let us take the case of the issue of the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan in 2016.

Islamabad had been pushing to resume its purchases of the United States’ advanced F-16 fighter jets ever since 1990. This was the year the Pressler Amendment was enforced, preventing Pakistan from getting 28 of the F-16s they had agreed to buy in the early 1980s. Forced to pay for storage fees as the unused F-16s collected dust in a boneyard in the Arizona desert, the Pakistanis were incensed.

However, after 9/11, Pakistan upped its advocacy campaign and convinced the George W Bush administration to sell them the fighter jets—to “exorcise the bitter pill of the Pressler Amendment” and to forge new relations with Islamabad. The United States determined it was critical to placate Islamabad in order to get its cooperation in the war against the terrorists. Consequently, the Bush administration announced in 2005 its intent to once again sell F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan—as many as Pakistan wanted to buy.

How did Pakistan convince the Bush administration and, later the Obama administration, to continue to give it more and more military aid?

The manufacturer of the F-16—the massive defence corporation Lockheed Martin—with $47 billion in annual revenue in 2016, also has a labyrinthine lobbying operation. According to the Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets database, the company has been spending more than $10 million on it annually since 2006. In addition to their in-house lobbyists, they have amassed an army of outside companies to assist them with their lobbying efforts: law firms, public relations agencies, consultants.

By far the largest amount of Lockheed Martin’s lobbying budget is paid out to the Podesta Group, the powerful firm headed by the super-lobbyist, Tony Podesta. Lockheed Martin paid the group $550,000 in the years 2014, 2015, and 2016. Most of the issues the Podesta Group advocated for on behalf of Lockheed Martin were defence and aerospace issues. It is highly likely that they assisted in the overall effort to push through the sale of F-16s to Pakistan!

In February 2016, the state department and the department of defense announced that they were approving a sale of eight more F-16s to Pakistan, clearly a victory for Lockheed Martin. Under the terms of this new deal, however, the sale of these additional F-16s was to be subsidised by the US government. In a move to make these deals even sweeter, the government sometimes uses what is called Foreign Military Funds (FMFs). FMF is a bucket of taxpayer money that is used to subsidise sales of military equipment to foreign countries.

The Indian government immediately and publicly protested both the sale and the subsidy, causing quite a hiccup for the US government. India’s leaders recognised the jets for what they were: a nuclear-capable force projection that could be used against them. The Indian foreign secretary, S Jaishankar, immediately summoned Richard Verma, the US ambassador to New Delhi, to express his displeasure. And then the Pakistani government publicly feigned surprise over the Indians’ complaints.

The Indian embassy in Washington summarily deployed their army of lobbyists to block the deal. So, who has been lobbying on their behalf since 2010? Once again, the Podesta Group.

According to their FARA filings, the Podesta Group was paid $700,000 by the government of India for work they performed in 2016. Conventional wisdom says that a firm that is representing India cannot very well represent Pakistan at the same time. But in the world of the Octopus, the same firm represents competing interests and it is all legal.

The power and pressure of the Indian embassy’s lobbying firm produced results. A week after the state department’s announcement of the planned subsidised F-16 sale to Pakistan, Kentucky Republican senator Rand Paul introduced a joint resolution to halt the sale.

Senator Paul’s resolution was debated on the floor of the senate and a vote was called, but the resolution was scuttled in what is called a “tabling motion.” In a 71 to 24 vote, the Senate voted to “table” the resolution, which effectively killed the effort. Senator Paul received some bipartisan support for this resolution, but not enough.

The sale was approved but without the FMF subsidies, and now Pakistan says it cannot afford to pay full freight for the eight fighter jets. Lockheed Martin also complained about the news, saying that it would not be able to afford to keep its F-16 production line in operation without the sale. It also said, incredulously and ironically, that it planned to move the entire F-16 production line from Texas to India.

Indeed, the vice-president of Lockheed’s F-16 programme, Susan Ouzts, said in an interview with reporters from the Pakistani English-language daily, the Nation, that prime minister Narendra Modi had expressed interest in the planes. The Nation article even alleged that India may have lobbied to place on hold an India F-16 deal to disrupt the Pakistan F-16 one.

As cosy a relationship as Pakistan has with the Pentagon, apparently it forgot that the Octopus has many, many tentacles that would need to be choreographed. This case study is just one example of the corruptive—but thoroughly legal—behaviour of the Octopus. It will sink its suctioned feet into any client that will pay it. Everyone and everything is sullied with money. No transaction or representation is completely transparent. Nowhere is that more evident than in the case of the US–India nuclear agreement, inked in 2005 and approved in 2008. Almost a decade later, the only beneficiaries of this deal are arms traders. No nuclear power plant has even broken ground. I blame the Octopus for this.

P.S: Pressler uses “the Octopus” as a metaphor for the powerful and manipulative US military-industrial complex “with its numerous tentacles and a common centre.”

Excerpted from Larry Pressler’s book Neighbours in Arms with permission from Penguin Random House India. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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