White House Aide David Plouffe Takes Money Indirectly from Iran -- and Nobody Seems to Notice

What if, during the gathering-storm decade of the 1930s, a senior White House aide in the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration had been found to have taken big money from a company dealing closely with the Nazis? Would it would have been a huge scandal? Of course it would.     

And what if, during the Cold War '40s, a top White House aide to President Harry Truman had been caught taking cash from a company dealing with the Soviets? The question answers itself.  

But now, in 2012, a White House aide in the Obama administration is revealed to have received a six-figure amount from a company connected to Iran, and nothing happens. The press doesn’t seem to care; the establishment is unruffled; even opposition Republicans have hardly noticed. If we, as a nation, had been this un-vigilant back during '30s or the '40s, America might not have survived.   

More than two weeks after it ran, we can see now what should have been a big bang of a news story -- the August 5 report in the Washington Post that David Plouffe, White House senior adviser, had accepted $100,000 from MTN, a South Africa-based mobile-phone company--a company that does multi-billion dollar business with Iran. Yet the story has, in fact, turned out to be a whimper.  

At Monday’s White House press conference -- the first such Q and A session in eight weeks -- the press found time to ask questions about Syria, Afghanistan, and, of course, Mitt Romney’s taxes and Todd Akins’s idiotic words. Legitimate questions all, but the juiciest potential news story was Plouffe and his money; after all, here was the chance for a brave reporter to ask the President, face to face, why one of his closest aides had taken money, indirectly, from Iran. And yet none of the questioners seized the moment.   

So who, exactly, is David Plouffe? He is a longtime Democratic political operative, perhaps second only to David Axelrod in the Obama political world; Plouffe was campaign manager for the 2008 Obama campaign, while Axelrod was chief strategist. Remaining in the private sector after Obama’s victory, Plouffe published in 2010 a partisan and hallowing book about Obama, The Audacity to Win: How Obama Won and How We Can Beat the Party of Limbaugh, Beck, and Palin

In addition, Plouffe did what many others, in both parties, have done after a big political win; he cashed in on the speaking circuit. One of those speeches caused him quick grief; it was reported in February 2009 that he had taken $50,000 to speak in the repressive ex-Soviet state of Azerbaijan; the backlash from human rights activists forced him to donate the money to a pro-democracy group.  

Given that precedent, it’s all the more remarkable that nobody in the media has made a stink about Plouffe taking twice as much money from MTN, a $15 billion-a-year mobile phone company, for a speaking gig to MTN executives in Lagos, Nigeria in December 2010. One of the firm’s assets is MTN Irancell, which is Iran’s second-largest mobile operator. Indeed, according to the Wall Street Journal, MTN Irancell accounts for more than a fifth of MTN subscribers worldwide.   

For its part, an MTN spokesman told the Post in its August 5 story that Plouffe was engaged “because of his expertise and his knowledge of the U.S. political scene.” But importantly, the speaking gig came three weeks after it was announced that Plouffe would be joining the White House staff. In other words, MTN wasn’t just paying to schmooze with a well-connected political insider; it was paying to schmooze with a future senior White House aide, someone who would have close access to the President and to national security secrets.  

And while the same Post article added that the White House assured that Plouffe held no private meetings with MTN executives on his speaking trip, the questions of how one defines “private meeting” and whether or not Plouffe held meetings with MTN executives elsewhere seem not to have come up.

Yet one activist group, United Against Nuclear Iran, (UANI) doesn’t seem to buy these attempted soothings. UANI has been campaigning for sanctions against MTN for three years. The group issued a statement on August 6, the day after the Post story, noting MTN Irancell’s subservience to the Iranian government, adding that it was especially egregious when Irancell shut down phone service to dissidents during the 2009-10 “Green Revolution.”  Declared UANI: “MTN has blood on its hands.” 

Pointing its finger at the White House aide, UANI's statement continued, “We hope Mr. Plouffe will use his considerable influences to urge President Obama to sanction MTN and most important enact a full economic blockade on Iran, so that companies will no longer be able to operate there.” And UANI offered model language for sanctions which would prohibit the sort of speeches-for-hire that Plouffe had delivered.   

That same day, August 6, the Washington Post’s rogue conservative blogger, Jennifer Rubin, got right down to it when she asked why Plouffe still had a job

Why hasn’t the president fired David Plouffe who “accepted a $100,000 speaking fee in 2010 from an affiliate of a company doing business with Iran’s government”? How can the president tell other countries not to do business with the regime if a senior adviser has?

Yes, those are good questions, going right to the heart of not only ethics in the White House, but also US national security policy around the world. But nobody else asked them.   

Instead, the following day, August 7, the New York Times ran a complicated story on the Plouffe matter, in which White House aides managed to work Mitt Romney into the narrative, arguing that he was an investor in a rival phone company, Turkcell, that competed against MTN for the Iran business -- so Romney stood to gain if MTN were sanctioned. In other words, the White House was saying, whatever an Obama aide might have done indirectly with Iran, Romney could be doing it even worse.   

In fact, it appears that the Times story, including the Turkcell pushback, was enough to convince the Romney campaign not to engage on the Plouffe issue. And perhaps the Romney campaign’s non-engagement was enough, also, to wave away most of the conservative media. And for its part, the MSM wasn’t much interested.  

But the rest of us should be interested -- a lot. No matter where the chips fall.  

Iran has been a sworn enemy of the United States since 1979. The Islamic Republic was held legally responsible by a US court for the deaths of 17 Americans at the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia. And US officials have accused Iran of supplying weapons to anti-American forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, Iran has been credibly linked to various anti-Israeli terrorist attacks from Argentina to India -- which should be no surprise, since Iranian leaders, long before Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have long called for the annihilation of Israel. From an American strategic point of view, it’s hard to get much worse than that. And in fact, according to a 2012 Gallup survey, Americans agree that Iran is America’s number one enemy.   

In the Plouffe case, the press has had a huge opportunity to speak some strong truth to corrupt, reckless -- and, yes, dangerous -- power. That is, reporters could now be connecting the dots from Washington, DC to Johannesburg to Lagos -- and maybe from there to Tehran. Some enterprising journo could be sleuthing out the paymasters and the interlocutors, threshing out witnesses, documents, and maybe even a Deep Throat. And he or she could be revealing a huge international scandal -- far bigger than the domestic Watergate -- that would not only be disrupting US politics but also reverberate through history, like the XYZ Affair, the Alger Hiss spy case, or the Iran-Contra fiasco.   

Promotions, Pulitzers, and publishing contracts await whoever cracks this story -- maybe even a big Hollywood movie deal. Or maybe not. Because, after all, such scandal-sleuthing would come at the expense of a Democratic President. The One. So which reporter -- among all the reporters whom Politico once called “Obama’s secret weapon” -- wants to have that on his or her conscience? So far, none -- and certainly none of the reporters who asked questions of the President on Monday. They all seem more interested in protecting their access to the White House and their special relationships with staffers than in doing their jobs. Yet because the stakes are so high, we must regard them not just as lapdogs but as enablers of a significant national security risk to the nation.    

But can it really be that simple? Can it really be that reporters will forgo a great story for partisan purposes? Or for ideological affinity? Or for personal adulation?  

Well, we have seen the same pro-Obama lack of curiosity before. Earlier this year, as a cascade of leaks about sensitive topics -- the use of the Stuxnet virus against Iran and anti-terror tactics in Pakistan and Yemen, including the death of Bin Laden, among others -- came gushing from the White House. The reason for these leaks was plainly to help burnish Obama’s national security credentials in time for his re-election campaign -- a campaign that seems to have a second campaign manager in the form of national security adviser Tom Donilon. 

To Donilon, and perhaps others around the Oval Office, the safety of our troops seems to be less important than four more years for their man. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was blunt about the whole business: The leaking, she declared on June 6, has been “very, very disturbing… It’s dismayed our allies. It puts American lives in jeopardy. It puts our nation’s security in jeopardy.” A few weeks later, she added, “I think the White House has to understand that some of this is coming from their ranks.” After a fierce reaction inside the Democratic Party, Feinstein recanted her charge against the White House, although not the assertion that the leaks were harmful.   

For its part, the press has not been particularly interested in this story, either. A few favored reporters got their hot scoops while the rest of the press corps looked on coolly, getting more excited over Mitt Romney’s old taxes than over the future safety of the nation.  

This media-disinterest phenomenon is so staggering -- and so dangerous -- that it requires further examination. We’ll take up this issue further in the next installment.


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