In the latest Harper’s, Ken Silverstein writes about going undercover as a representative of Turkmenistan to investigate the murky world of Washington PR firms. Silverstein has been criticized for his tactics, but says concealing his identity was necessary to get the story.
CHRIS BANNON: How do you make a nasty old dictatorship seem just a little friendlier? Well, try hiring a lobbyist. Recently, Harper's Magazine Washington editor Ken Silverstein went undercover, posing as a business consultant looking to hire a lobbying firm. The mission? To put a P.R. sheen on Turkmenistan, a country with an appalling human rights record. Two D.C.-based firms, APCO and Cassidy & Associates, bid for the job.
After Silverstein's report appeared in the July Harper's, those firms and a few journalists criticized Silverstein's covert tactics, charging that he misrepresented himself to get a story.
We reached Silverstein in his newsroom, where he said the criticism should be focused on the lobbying firms and on the many promises they made in their eagerness to revamp Turkmenistan's public image. Among those promises, carefully choreographed panel discussions. KEN SILVERSTEIN: You know, they said, you pay us $25,000, it'll look independent but we'll have total control over the agenda and who's on stage, so your point of view will be gotten across. Both of them talked about how they could basically plant Op-Eds in the newspaper. And APCO told me they had someone on staff that did nothing but that. You know, their 9-to-5 job apparently is planting bogus Op-Eds.
They talked about arranging Congressional delegations to go over to Turkmenistan. Both said, in the post-Jack Abramoff climate we have to be a little careful here, because, you know, there's been a lot of scrutiny of all of this sort of thing, but we think we can do it. You know, they both said that getting a group of staffers to go over would not be a problem. Take a little bit more work to get members of Congress themselves, but they both expressed confidence that they could to it.
Now, APCO actually already was thinking about how they might do it. And they said, we could get a Turkmen university to sponsor the trip. There's a loophole in the law that allows if you can find a university to sponsor a trip, then you can get away with it.
They didn't say they would break the law. I mean, what we wanted to demonstrate was that the law is so flimsy that they don't really need to break the law in order to evade the spirit of the law. CHRIS BANNON: So you go in. You have these meetings. How much did APCO and how much did Cassidy decide they needed to charge you? KEN SILVERSTEIN: Well, APCO said that it was going to cost about $600,000 over the first year. And it was $40,000 a month in fees, but then in addition to that there would be expenses. There would be $35,000 dollars to redo the Turkmen Embassy's website, which admittedly, as I note in this story, was a little out of date. The recent news on the website dated, I think, to 2000, and there was an exciting story about machines harvesting cotton on virgin land. CHRIS BANNON: Well, they had other priorities, I guess. KEN SILVERSTEIN: Cassidy said to me, you know, with Turkmenistan there are no quick, easy solutions. We're going to have to do this over three years, 1.2 to 1.5 million dollars a year, plus, of course, the expenses. CHRIS BANNON: And how would they address criticisms of rights abuses in places like Turkmenistan? Did they have a strategy for dealing with, you know, a human rights campaign by someone in the State Department or in government or in media? KEN SILVERSTEIN: Yeah. Cassidy had a plan. They said if there is in fact, you know, one of these non-profit groups, human rights groups that targets Turkmenistan, it's going to cost you more, because we're going to have to work harder to sort of dampen down the criticism of the regime. But they didn't seem particularly squeamish about dealing with it. Absolutely not. CHRIS BANNON: Okay. But is this really news? I mean, lobbyists will take clients from all kinds of backgrounds, many of whom we wouldn't approve of. KEN SILVERSTEIN: Well, I'd say it's news for a couple of reasons. I mean, if everything's fine and dandy and if we know that this is, after all, they're just expected to do this, then why did the new Congress feel so compelled to take up lobby reform as one of its very first priorities? And why is it, in fact, that despite claiming that that would be the first thing they did, why haven't they done it yet? That's another interesting question, and I think it speaks to the public interest nature of this story.
So, yeah, I mean, sure, we know it's a bad situation, but I don't think the public is so accepting of the situation as maybe a lot of people in Washington are. CHRIS BANNON: I just want to ask you, how did you dress yourself? How did you appear in order to show up at these lobbying firms? Did you assume a disguise? What did you do? KEN SILVERSTEIN: I did, because I'd worked in Washington for about 15 years as a reporter and because, in fact, I'd reported on several of the firms I approached as well, I did take some precautions. I did change my beard and I put on a pair of fake glasses, and I went out and bought, because I don't own a very fancy suit because I'm not a very fancy reporter - CHRIS BANNON: [LAUGHS] You're a reporter, after all. Yeah. KEN SILVERSTEIN: That’s right. And I went out and bought a much, much more expensive suit than I would normally dress in so that I could - CHRIS BANNON: Did you get to keep the suit? KEN SILVERSTEIN: I did get to keep the suit. CHRIS BANNON: Okay. KEN SILVERSTEIN: Very exciting. Now I can look good when I need to appear on TV. CHRIS BANNON: So you went undercover to conduct this story, and going undercover can always raise issues for any journalist. Howard Kurtz, in The Washington Post, wrote recently that no matter how good the story, lying to get it raises as many questions about journalists as their subjects. He's a little afraid, it seems to me, that the value of what you're getting from undercover reporting is undercut by the ways in which that method can be perceived and used as a sort of cudgel against journalists. KEN SILVERSTEIN: Well, I think there was a legitimate public interest served here, and I think it was a legitimate use of the tactic. I also would say, if I may - CHRIS BANNON: Sure. KEN SILVERSTEIN: - that I think there's a slight irony in some ways to the criticism of the undercover tactic in this case. I mean, to me, you know, it's okay for these lobbying firms to plant Op-Eds and to create bogus news events and to manipulate the media, but it's not okay for me to expose their dirty linen. I find that somewhat ironic.
Believe me, I'm not trying to suggest that I'm not open to question on it. We knew going in that we would be questioned about did you need to use the undercover tactic? It's a fair question. I think we have good answers. It's up for, I guess, the readers of the magazine to decide. CHRIS BANNON: Well, listen, the suit looks great on you, Ken. KEN SILVERSTEIN: [LAUGHS] Thank you. CHRIS BANNON: Thanks very much for joining us. Ken Silverstein is the Washington editor of Harper's Magazine. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, science fiction writers take on real-life disaster planning, and our favorite replicants turn 25. CHRIS BANNON: This is On the Media from NPR. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]