'Incriminating': FBI Investigates Brookings Chief Over Qatar Ties

John R. Allen addresses the 2016 Democratic National Convention / Getty Images
June 8, 2022

The FBI is investigating the president of the Brookings Institution for secretly lobbying for the government of Qatar, court documents show.

FBI agents last month executed a search warrant for the email account of John R. Allen, according to documents released Tuesday. Allen, a retired four-star general, in 2017 allegedly lobbied the Trump White House and Congress on behalf of Qatar, an oil-rich Middle Eastern country that has been accused of sponsoring terrorist groups. According to an FBI affidavit, Allen in a 2020 interview lied to the bureau about the nature of his work and failed to turn over "incriminating" emails to investigators, including one where he asked for a "speakers fee" to meet with Qatari officials to discuss their strategy to influence the Trump administration.

According to the FBI affidavit, investigators have "substantial evidence" that Allen and his colleagues intentionally violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act, a law that requires lobbyists to disclose their work for foreign governments.

Brookings announced Wednesday that it had placed Allen on administrative leave.

The investigation marks a stunning development for Allen and Brookings, one of the world's most influential think tanks. Brookings has long been accused of operating as a shill for Qatar and other foreign governments that fund the think tank. The embassy of Qatar donates hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to Brookings. The Qatari government in 2014 pledged $14.8 million to Brookings to build a satellite campus in Doha.

Allen, who oversaw NATO forces in Afghanistan, was a senior fellow at Brookings at the time of his alleged work for Qatar. He was tapped in October 2017 to lead the think tank.

Details of Allen's work have become public through a case against Richard G. Olson, who served as ambassador to Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates under former president Barack Obama. Olson pleaded guilty to making false statements in federal ethics paperwork and to illegal lobbying. Court documents show Olson began cooperating with federal prosecutors on August 31, 2020, "with the express goal of assisting them in bringing criminal charges against General Allen." Allen and Olson worked on behalf of Qatar with Imaad Zuberi, a Pakistani-American businessman convicted in a separate illegal lobbying scheme.

Allen has not been charged in the case. His spokesman said Allen has "voluntarily cooperated" with federal prosecutors.

Allen, who in 2015 retired from the military, played a major role in shaping the Trump White House's views toward Qatar during a tense 2017 standoff with neighboring Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, the FBI alleges. Allen on June 9, 2017, asked then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster to issue a statement calling on the nations to ease a blockade against Qatar. Then-secretary of state Rex Tillerson later that day issued a statement along those lines.

In a meeting on June 10, 2017, Allen allegedly advised the Qataris how to influence the White House, as well as how to "own the narrative" in the United States about the blockade. According to notes Olson took in the meeting, Allen told the Qataris they could "shape" then-president Donald Trump's opinion through McMaster. He also suggested using Al-Udeid Air Base in Doha as "leverage" to force the administration to take a friendly position toward Qatar. Olson's notes also show Allen suggested that Qatar use "the full spectrum of info. ops," including "black and white" operations, to advance its messages in the United States. Black ops commonly refer to illegal hacking activity.

Allen received $20,000 to meet with Qatari officials in Doha. He was pursuing business deals in Qatar at the same time on behalf of Spark Cognition, an artificial intelligence company at which he served as a director.

Update 5:31 p.m.: This piece has been updated to note that Brookings has placed John Allen on leave.