When Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bodyguards were arrested after attacking a crowd of protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in May 2017, Erdogan and his crew were heading inside for a private, off-the-record meeting with Atlantic Council fellows and board members.
That event is just one example of the close relationship between the Washington, D.C., think tank and the Erdogan government.
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Starting in 2008, the Atlantic Council hosted an "Istanbul Summit" bankrolled by several business conglomerates closely aligned with Erdogan’s Justice and Development party, including the state-owned Halkbank, which has been accused of evading U.S. sanctions on Iran. Calik Holding, another conference sponsor and current Atlantic Council donor, is a Turkish business giant that was until late 2013 led by Erdogan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak.
Calik acquired the once-reputable Turkish newspaper Sabah in 2008 and, according to Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, turned it into "a wild mouthpiece of the Erdogan government."
The Turks have tried to do the same with the Atlantic Council, sources say, routinely objecting to the panelists—and even guests—participating in the organization’s Turkey events because their views did not align with those of the Erdogan government.
In 2018, the Atlantic Council moved the annual conference, now known as the Global Energy Forum, to Abu Dhabi because, according to a source familiar with the conference's operations, Erdogan’s son-in-law "was basically the shadow organizer of the event."
A spokesman for the Atlantic Council, Alex Kisling, said that the move to Abu Dhabi had nothing to do with the efforts of Turkish officials to influence programming and that the organization "receives support from a diverse set of organizations, including Calik Holding, which has a significant global footprint."
The Atlantic Council, he added, "is responsible for determining who serves in speaking roles for its programming—as well as for deciding who is invited to join the audience. It’s not unusual for conference partners and participants to make requests, but no one has been disinvited from participating in our Turkish events."
But according to a think tank analyst and the source familiar with the conference's operations, the Atlantic Council canceled a panel at its 2015 Istanbul conference featuring the Turkish journalist Asli Aydintasbas after the Turks objected to her participation. Aydintasbas, now a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, has been mildly critical of the Erdogan government. The Turks also objected to the participation of the Turkish foreign policy expert Naz Durakoglu, who was also removed from a panel, the same sources said. Both sources requested anonymity to speak freely.
"Their way of handling this was terrible," the think tank analyst said, adding that "there are times where they have allowed themselves to become a PR arm of the Turkish government."
While the influence of foreign money on American think tanks has been well documented, including by the New York Times, seven foreign policy experts told the Washington Free Beacon that the Atlantic Council is an outlier, taking more money from more undemocratic and corrupt governments than its counterparts.
The institution publicly discloses the money it has taken from unsavory governments and foreign businesses and insists that money has no influence on its scholarship—a claim that insiders dispute, pointing to Turkey as an example. The think tank’s operations also provide a window into how the sausage gets made in the nation’s capital, revealing how lobbyists, government officials, wealthy donors and independent experts are often inextricably intertwined.
A member of the Atlantic Council’s executive committee, Amir Handjani, offers one example of the overlapping interests. Handjani was at one time a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a donor to its Iran program, and a registered foreign agent for Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. At one point, Handjani also served as president of his family’s company, a Cargill subsidiary that imports grain into Iran. Attorney David Aufhauser, an Atlantic Council board member who helps underwrite the organization’s "economic sanctions initiative," is a registered foreign agent for Myanmar’s Kanbawza bank, helping it manage the fallout from a United Nations report that called on the international community to impose sanctions on the bank after U.N. investigators implicated it in a "genocidal campaign" against the country’s Rohingya Muslims.
While the Atlantic Council requires scholars and board members to inform them of any conflicts of interest, serving as a lobbyist or foreign agent is permissible, Kisling said.
Sources say those sorts of overlapping equities are the rule, rather than the exception, at the Atlantic Council, which inoculates itself from Beltway criticism by adding members to an ever-expanding board of directors — which has ballooned to approximately 140 members — and taking money from an array of foreign and domestic sources.
"It’s like some John Grisham movie where everybody has a stake in protecting the equities of the Atlantic Council because if you’re not on the board you’re giving money," said a third source who works closely with the organization.
The Atlantic Council’s Ukraine program formalized a relationship with the corrupt Ukrainian gas giant Burisma in early 2017, allowing Burisma to underwrite its Ukraine programming—a move that allowed the scandal-plagued company to burnish its image by associating with a respected Washington institution.
Just four months after the ink dried on the agreement, the American public relations consultant who helped engineer the Atlantic Council partnership on Burisma’s behalf, Sally Painter, was appointed to the Atlantic Council’s board of directors.
Kisling said that Painter’s nomination to the board had nothing to do with her work for the company and that she was nominated to the board "due to her deep foreign affairs experience, her past support for NATO summits, and her commitment to the transatlantic community." The Atlantic Council ended its relationship with Burisma in 2019.
Emails released in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit show that the Atlantic Council accepted the Burisma funding despite reservations, and that the Atlantic Council’s top Ukraine expert, John Herbst, gave State Department officials early warning. The Atlantic Council, Herbst said, had weighed the decision "for over a month" and that "some uneasiness remains."
State Department officials, including George Kent, the deputy chief of mission in Ukraine who testified in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, chalked up the move to "an image rehab campaign" on Burisma's part, led by Painter and her business partner, Karen Tramontano. "The Blue Star duo, Karen and Sally, are on the Atlantic Council roster and are the probable pushers of this," Kent wrote to then American ambassador Marie Yovanovitch.
"So," he added, "Atlantic Council’s robust Ukraine program, funded by … Akhmetov, Pinchuk, and Zlochevsky/Burisma," a reference to the pro-Russian oligarchs Rinat Akhmetov and Victor Pinchuk, whose business and charitable foundation, respectively, have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Atlantic Council.
Kisling, the Atlantic Council spokesman, said the organization agreed to a partnership with Burisma only "once we understood a legal challenge against the company in London was dismissed by a judge." Painter’s colleague, Tramontano, requested meetings with U.S. government officials to try to clear the company of wrongdoing, arguing that "there is no evidence of corruption." But neither was there exoneration, as prosecutors in London were stymied by the refusal of the Ukrainian government to provide the necessary documents. Ukrainian officials said their own investigation found that Burisma had bribed anticorruption investigators, paying them $6 million to drop the case.
While the Atlantic Council has maintained that the foreign money flowing into its coffers has no sway over its scholarship and programming, others say that the money inevitably affects scholarship, even if only the choice of topics the organization’s scholars choose to focus on—and, more importantly, the ones they avoid.
The Atlantic Council’s publications on Turkey, for example, sidestep some of the most contentious issues in the U.S.-Turkey relationship, including Ankara's troubled ties with Europe and the country’s adventurism in the Middle East.
In April, the organization hosted an event featuring, among others, Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, whom Atlantic Council president Fred Kempe praised as "an intellectual force." A piece penned by the former Turkish ambassador to the United States, Namik Tan, attributes problems in the U.S.-Turkey relationship to the work of "politicized analysts." And a recent event highlighting Turkey’s "refugee resilience" was moderated by a news anchor for TRT, Turkey’s public broadcast station, which has registered as a foreign agent in the United States.
Kisling said the Atlantic Council does not require moderators and panelists to disclose conflicts of interest and characterized the anchor, Maria Ramos, as "an experienced reporter" and said that she was invited to moderate "to bring an outside perspective and pose journalistic questions to panelists."
Asked to point to Atlantic Council publications critical of Turkey, Kisling highlighted an op-ed appended with an "editor’s note" directing readers to a response from a Turkish official; an "issue brief" about Syria, not Turkey, whose lead author is no longer with the Atlantic Council; an op-ed laying out a roadmap for Turkey to repair its relationship with NATO after its importation of Russian missiles set off a conflagration; and a collection of expert views on Turkey’s incursions into Syria.