Hitting a Plouffe Patch

Senior White House aide took money from company that partnered with Assad regime

David Plouffe with President Obama / AP
August 7, 2012

The South African company that paid senior White House adviser David Plouffe $100,000 in December 2010 to deliver two speeches is closely aligned with the Syrian government, helping the regime of President Bashar al-Assad prosper as the embattled government violently cracks down on its citizens.

It was reported Monday that Plouffe profited from a speaking engagement before a subsidiary of the MTN Group, a telecommunications firm that has close ties to the Iranian government and stands accused of bribing its officials. The talk occurred in December 2010, just a month before Plouffe became a senior White House official but after the appointment had been announced.

MTN also has been engaged in a long-term business deal with the Syrian government, which has blossomed as embattled President Bashar al-Assad's violent crackdown on Syrian opposition groups has broadened into what amounts to a civil war.

MTN’s profitable entanglements with Iran and Syria has raised eyebrows among foreign policy experts, many of whom are concerned that the telecommunications firm is helping these oppressive governments disrupt opposition movements.

"MTN is the quintessential ‘do business with anyone’ company," said one senior foreign policy official who agreed to speak on background. "It's who you call if you're a terror-sponsoring dictatorship and nobody else will talk to you."

In 2001, the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment (STE) awarded a 15-year deal to a company that is now MTN Syria. The contract stipulates that as of 2009, MTN and the government-owned STE would split revenues evenly.

The relationship has brought senior MTN officials into close proximity with the Assad government’s highest-ranking officials.

In February, as Assad ordered the systematic murder of his own citizens, MTN CEO Sifiso Dabengwa was in Syria at the time for a two-day powwow with Adel Safar, Syria’s prime minister. He also met with Syria’s minister of communications and technology, as well as with South Africa’s Syrian ambassador, according to a MTN press release translated from Arabic.

The meetings were held to discuss "the ways to develop the communications’ services, operating systems and settle some administrative aspects which allow the company to expand its activities, investments and contribute to the local development process," according to the press release.

As MTN and Syrian officials were meeting, pro-Assad forces murdered as many as 100 people in the besieged city of Homs, according to Associated Press.

MTN Syria has utilized message-filtering technology to disrupt communication between anti-Assad insurgents, according to a Bloomberg report.

Syrian intelligence organizations are reported to have directed MTN Syria and other telecommunications firms operating in the country to block specific words such as "revolution," "strike," and "dignity."

During a pro-democracy demonstration in April of 2011, Internet and cell phone communications mysteriously went dark, according to reports. Syrian officials later said that the outage was "due to an overload of connections," according to AFP, though no further details were provided to the news organization.

MTN Syria has also awarded pro-Assad supporters with free phone calls, Ahram online reported last year:

Syriatel and MTN, Syria's two phone companies, offered customers one hour of free calls valid between April 2 and 6 "in recognition of the people who stood with the President (Bashar) al-Assad during the day of dignity." They were referring to pro-regime demonstrations in the capital Tuesday.

In May of this year, MTN CEO Dabengwa promised that his company would commit nearly $107 million of its capital in Syria, despite a decrease in growth in that country due to its ongoing conflict.

In addition to its ties to Iran and Syria, MTN also operates in Sudan, a country that the U.S. has designated as a state sponsor of terrorism.

The governor of Khartoum, a major Sudanese town, hosted a delegation from MTN in January, according to the Sudanese press. During the meeting, government officials promised to help MTN gain foreign investors.

"The delegation presented a detailed and explanatory presentation to the Governor on MTN group and success it has been achieving in Africa, Europe and the Middle East as well as the company’s operations in Sudan, its commercial activities, future expansion plans by engineer Abdallah Al-Fadil Ali Fayit, Manager of Department of the institution services," the report in Sudan Vision stated.

In February, MTN hosted a gathering in Khartoum that included representatives from Syria, Yemen, Cyprus, Iran, and Afghanistan, according to an MTN press release. The event honored "distinct employees of the company in the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) region."

In July, MTN’s Sudanese affiliate hosted a conference attended by a host of Sudanese and Arab country officials, according to a Sudanese Vision report.

Plouffe should not have accepted payment from a firm with such dubious dealings, the foreign policy source said.

"David Plouffe seems like a smart man and the Obama team is supposed to do vetting on folks—it's just not credible this was some kind of oversight," said the source. "For MTN, money talks no matter where you are—Tehran, Damascus and apparently the White House."