New documentary presents tough Q&A about Qatar

In an era of obsession with Russia, ‘Blood Money’ asks 23 minutes of tough questions about Qatar. Op-ed.

Tags: Qatar
Sam Cohen ,

Doha, Qatar
Doha, Qatar

Why do countless headlines focus on Russian collusion rather than on Qatari hacking, media manipulation, think tank funding, and terror sponsorship?

It’s one of the central questions raised in “Blood Money,” the new documentary by journalist Mike Cernovich. In 23 fast-paced minutes, Cernovich dissects the web of Qatar’s influence-buying campaign on U.S. soil with interspersed commentary from security experts J. Michael Waller, vice president of the Center for Security Policy; David Reaboi, senior vice president of the Security Studies Group; and Jack Posobiec, a host for the One America News Network.

What makes Cernovich an authoritative voice on information warfare? In some respects, it’s personal. Last October, Wired magazine’s Molly McKew wrote a piece accusing him — and Posobiec — of being “information terrorists” on the Russian interference issue. Yet Cernovich maintains he has “never lobbied on behalf of a foreign nation,” unlike McKew herself, who was a lobbyist for the United Democratic Party of Moldova as well as the former president of Georgia. He also saw political consultant Doug Schoen, a registered foreign agent for Ukraine, go on Fox News to praise Ukraine and slam Russia.

“And then of course I found out that every media outlet plays the same game,” says Cernovich.

It all got him thinking: Exactly how widespread is this foreign influence problem?

Cernovich’s research pointed him to Qatar — which was validated by the warnings he says were sent his way that making this film “would come at great risk to my life, to my safety, and that I’d better have ‘everything locked down tightly.’” Meanwhile, when he raised the subject of the film with one political reporter, the reporter swiftly asked him: “Who’s paying you?” Cernovich responded “nobody,” yet explains that the reporter’s question underscores just how pervasive the influence-buying epidemic has become in Washington.

“Qatar is excellent at playing the game,” Waller says in the film. “You fund think tanks to put out policy papers that support what you want, and then you fund law firms to sue people you don’t like. There’s pay-to-play journalism, a huge amount of foreign-funded news and commentary that we all take in as real thoughts and real news coming from real American citizens.”

Posobiec says that when it comes to influence-buying, “the real money isn’t coming from Russia. It’s coming from China, it’s coming from Ukraine, it’s coming from Qatar…But that’s the game. These people go and take money from other countries, and they run articles, they run op-eds, they go on TV programs. They’re propagandizing to our people, and we do nothing about it.” He specifically notes AJ+, the online channel run by the Qatari state-funded broadcaster Al Jazeera, which “makes viral videos every day. Everybody retweets them, everybody shares them on Instagram. That’s an influence operation.”

Indeed, a growing number of reports in recent months have unpacked the Qatari government’s unprecedented lobbying, cyber espionage, and disinformation efforts on American soil, including a historically large government-led hacking operation that reportedly affected more than 1,500 people in 20 countries. Victims of Qatari hacking have no relief, Cernovich points out, due to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which prevents them from being able to sue foreign governments for damages in U.S. courts.

Doha’s broad PR and lobbying campaign in the U.S. has sought an image makeover for the Gulf state and ultimately, a softened stance from the Trump administration on Qatar’s funding of Islamic terrorist groups such as Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Al-Qaeda.

In its publicity blitz, Qatar has hired numerous FARA-registered lobbyists including John Ashcroft’s Ashcroft Law Firm, Barry Bennett’s Avenue Strategies, Ballard Partners, Blueprint Advisors,James Courtovich, McDermott Will & Emery, Mercury Public Affairs and its media strategist Gregory Howard, Myriad Creative, Richard Levick’s Levick Communications, Lumen8 Advisors, Nick Muzin’s Stonington Strategies, and Venable.

Coinciding with Qatar’s PR blitz and last October’s killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia has increasingly become the target of investigative reporting in Washington establishment media. “Blood Money” asks: Why now?

“A lot of this is being led by former Obama people. The Obama people just will not forgive the Saudis for putting an end to the Arab Spring,” says Reaboi, who goes on to explain former President Barack Obama’s rationale that the citizens of toppled pro-American dictatorships in the Middle East would eventually support the U.S. following their revolutions.

“That was a bad bet,” explains Reaboi — particularly in Egypt and Tunisia, which initially fell to the Qatari-supported Muslim Brotherhood.

While the Obama administration had aimed to foster democracy in the region, Waller notes that the Muslim Brotherhood’s fundamental goal is “to take political control over entire countries and to eventually bring about a caliphate, a global caliphate, meaning a global Islamist dictatorship that rules all of us.” In other words, not exactly democracy.

Both Waller and Reaboi praise the new approach to the Middle East taken by President Donald Trump, including his May 2017 speech to the Arab world in Riyadh, where the commander-in-chief repeatedly told Arab leaders to “drive them (extremists) out.”

While the Saudis proceeded to become a lynchpin of the American strategy to combat Islamic terrorism, the Qataris launched a charm offensive instead of denouncing terror, the film explains. Waller describes the example of Muzin, a foreign agent for Qatar who started “pimping himself out as Ted Cruz’s man on Jewish affairs. Boom, there’s a whole new audience [for Qatar]: your pro-Israel, anti-jihadist, MAGA types of conservatives.”

The Qatari government has contracted with Muzin in an effort to bring Jewish conservatives and other pro-Israel activists on all-expenses-paid trips to Qatar despite the Gulf state’s funding of anti-Israel terrorist groups.

“I don’t know how someone who supports the Jewish people could wind up taking money from the Qataris,” says Reaboi.

The experts in the film also comment on Qatar’s wooing of American think tanks, including its donations of at least $24 million to the Brookings Institution over time.

“You can see this in the products they put out, in the events they sponsor, in the people they try to promote, and in the people they ignore,” Waller says of Brookings.

Cernovich adds that journalists “are afraid to report on Qatar, and those who aren’t, are accepting blood money.”

While Qatari influence-buying “corrupts our democracy,” the fact that foreign governments can engage in such efforts in America is itself a function of democracy and free speech, says Waller.

Then what, he asks, can possibly curb Qatar’s activities?

"With more investigative journalism, more holding people accountable, more asking a lot of tough questions, the public is going to be more cognizant of it, to the point where one would hope people will say, ‘What’s the source of this information?’” Waller suggests.

In a nutshell, that’s precisely the purpose of “Blood Money” — to at least get Americans to start asking the difficult questions about Qatar rather than remaining laser-focused on Russia. And in an efficient 23 minutes, the documentary is well worth your time.

Sam Cohen is freelance writer based out of the Washington, DC area.