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Morocco taps cassidy to turn political tide in western sahara land dispute

Legal Times  July 13, 1998, Monday

 

The Kingdom of Morocco, badly outmaneuvered on Capitol Hill by a desert tribesman turned advocate, has enlisted one of Wasington's biggest lobbying firms for $100, 000 a month to help it turn the tide of congressional opinion. By retaining Cassidy & Associates Inc. for that hefty fee, the Moroccans hope to reverse the remarkable Capitol Hill successes of Moulud Said. Said is a one-man lobby who represents the Sahrawi, a tribal people locked in a bitter territorial dispute with Morocco over the Western Sahara.

Morocco has long claimed title to the area, which is about the size of Colorado. It fought an intermittent 16-year war with the Sahrawi until the United Nations imposed a cease fire in 1991.

Said, a Sahrawi tribesman, has pressed the Sahrawi cause in Washington for the last four years as ambassador at large for the Polisario Front, the tribe's political arm. In that time, says a Hill aide who has watched Said at work, "he has managed to completely outfox the Moroccan embassy."

Now, with the approach of a February 1999 United Nations-sponsored referendum among the Sahrawi that could lead to statehood, King Hassan II doesn't want to be outfoxed any more.

Enter the Cassidy lobbyists. Their prime mission is to shore up congressional support for Morocco if the referendum gets bogged down and Morocco is blamed.

"It's a charm offensive, " says one staffer working on the issue. The referendum, which is being supervised by former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker III as a special U.N. envoy, is an outgrowth of a 1975 International Court of Justice decision giving the Sahrawi the right to self- determination. Attempts to hold it have stalled, State Department officials say, with blame falling on both the Moroccans and the Sahrawi.

Allegations are already flying that the Moroccans are trying to scuttle or manipulate the process. Said has alleged that the Moroccan secret police are attempting to register thousands of non-Sahrawi in order to pack the polls. A congressional outcry at this juncture could seriously damage the Moroccans' chances of gaining control of the territory. That's why, according to Hill and State Department staffers who follow the issue, the Moroccans are starting preemptive damage control.

So far, Hill aides say, the Cassidy lobbyists are being careful not to mention the Western Sahara directly, instead emphasizing the United States' long history of cooperation with Morocco and the good relations between the two nations. One State Department official with North African experience calls such an approach disingenuous, since the Western Sahara issue is so crucial to Morocco. "It's like shoring up support for Israel without having to mention the peace process, " this official says.

In an interview, Moroccan Ambassador Mohamed Benaissa tries to downplay the territorial issue, maintaining that Cassidy's $1.2 million, one-year contract with the kingdom primarily involves lobbying on economic issues.

"We hire a lobbyist like any country to do all sorts of things, " says Benaissa. But according to a senior U.S. official, a source close to King Hassan has confirmed that the Western Sahara issue is the main reason Cassidy was hired. Cassidy has already begun flying staffers to Morocco, with more trips to come. This is intended as a counter to the successful shuttle operation for congressional staffers that Said has been running to Sahrawi refugee camps in the Algerian desert for years to build up support on the Hill.

An estimated 120, 000 Sahrawi live in those camps, while many who remain in the Western Sahara face persecution from the Moroccan government, according to human rights groups.

The Moroccans have generally avoided using K Street hired guns in the past, preferring instead to rely on back-channel methods and inside connections. For example, Vernon Walters, a former deputy director of the CIA and an old friend of the King's, helped the Moroccans procure U.S. arms in the late 1970s, according to press accounts at the time.

"The King has always been very attentive to the inside game of politics in Washington and has been somewhat distrustful of traditional diplomats, " says William Quandt, a professor of Middle Eastern and North African affairs at the University of Virginia.

Cassidy spokesmen decline to discuss what they are doing on behalf of Morocco, referring a reporter to their Justice Department foreign agent registration filing. That document says that the lobby firm's job is "advancing the appreciation of Morocco's culture and historic ties with the United States and its role in the development and stability of North Africa."

Cassidy, which ranked second in the city in reported lobby fees in 1997, with $16.5 million, has lined up some heavy-hitting talent for this history lesson. Longtime Democratic Party stalwart and firm founder Gerald Cassidy is overseeing the project, according to the filing. Other Cassidy lobbyists on the project include Gregory Gill, former legislative aide for the House Appropriations Committee; W. Christopher Lamond, a former aide to Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.); former Jimmy Carter White House aide Dan Tate Sr.; and Dan Tate Jr., a former lobbyist for the Clinton White House.

To bolster its Republican credentials, Cassidy is also bringing in a raft of lobbyists from Boland & Madigan, its GOP-heavy subsidiary: Peter Madigan, a former principal deputy assistant secretary for legislative affairs to Baker when he was secretary of state; Paul Behrends, a former aide to International Relations Committee member Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.); and James Gallagher, former administrative assistant to Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.).

Faced with this small army of Washington insiders, Said acknowledges no fear. He says Cassidy is going to have an uphill battle trying to defend King Hassan, whom he regards as a dictator.

According to Amnesty International, hundreds of Sahrawis have "disappeared" and remain unaccounted for, while Sahrawis are regularly tortured and imprisoned for participating in pro-independence demonstrations. "It will be very difficult for any American, for whatever amount of money, to try to wash the face of someone like Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot or Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu. I am sure that people on the Hill have enough information on the clear-cut issue of Western Sahara that they cannot be misled easily, " says Said.

"The $1.2 million cannot change the facts on the ground, " Said continues. " It is a matter of common sense that any country or any entity paying such an amount of money must have real problems--problems that that country can only blame itself for."

But Cassidy's offensive has already gone into high gear. In the last few weeks, the firm staged the first of many planned trips for congressional staff to Morocco to meet with government officials, according to a senior Senate aide. The Cassidy lobbyists have a lot of catching up to do. Since 1995, about 100 congressional staffers have flown to Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria. The trips are organized by the Defense Forum Foundation, a small conservative foreign policy organization founded in the early 1980s and chaired by former Reagan administration diplomat William Middendorf.

The trips are funded by the Sahara Fund, which is run by Western Sahara specialist Teresa Smith de Cherif.

These well-organized trips have won the Sahrawi a significant amount of support among Hill staffers, most of whom were at best only vaguely familiar with the issue before their journeys.

"Just about anybody who has gone on the trip comes back huge Polisario supporters. They are converted, " says a House aide. Said personally leads the trips, including one as recently as last week. The missions take the staffers on a week-long jaunt via Madrid and Algiers, to Tandouf, Algeria, where they board off-road vehicles for a 30- minute trip across the desert to the Sahrawi refugee camps.

They have made a significant impression on key decision-makers. "These refugee camps are located in the end of the world, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the desert, " says Miriam Wolff, a congressional staffer. "It is very hard to think of that place as being life-sustaining. It is amazing that they have been able to survive in these refugee camps, and to have some sense of normalcy. There was a small oasis where they had date trees. You see trees and you think wow, because it's all sand. The sky is cloudless and it's quiet." The staffers live in the camps, sleeping with Sahrawi families in tents, or under the stars. There is no plumbing. The handful of aides interviewed say they were given free rein to wander the camps and speak with tribal leaders, teachers, and even Moroccan prisoners of war captured in the 16-year conflict.

"The biggest impression that I came away with was that people there were so positive. Here they were on what seemed the most inhospitable place on earth, and they were making something out of it. They felt that one day they were going to go home, " says Jonathan Berger, legislative director for Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.). "This issue is so emotional. It really is unlike any of the other issues that I deal with."

But the Moroccans seem to have made some headway lately, getting the House International Relations Committee to write a letter to President Bill Clinton. The letter was initiated by committee Chairman Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.) after he met with Benaissa, the Moroccan ambassador.

The letter does not specifically mention the Western Sahara, but calls Morocco "a vital ally" and says the country has "consistently demonstrated a strong commitment to peace, stability, human rights and constitutional democracy." It asks the administration to "undertake all appropriate steps to strengthen U.S.- Moroccan cooperation."

All Material Copyright Samuel Lowenberg