By Greg Rushford
Monday, May 23, Washington, D.C. —Air Force One touched down yesterday evening in Hanoi. The White House and influential Washington think-tank scholars are spinning President Barack Obama’s three-day Vietnam visit as a “legacy” moment, validating the president’s “pivot” to Asia. Expect much warm talk of how America is forging ever-closer economic- and security ties with a modernizing Vietnam. Expect the usual heartwarming television images of happy people —including peasants toiling in lush rice fields, wearing their iconic conical hats.
Don’t expect any admissions from Vietnamese Communist leaders of the suffering they continue to inflict upon some of their country’s best citizens. As former prisoner of conscience Cu Huy Ha Vu rightly notes, today’s Vietnam is “a kleptocracy.” Intrepid pro-democracy advocates stand in the way.
Courageous men like Dang Xuan Dieu, Ho Duc Hoa, and Tran Vu Anh Binh, three of Vietnam’s 100-plus current political prisoners. They languish behind bars, while some Washington insiders have averted their eyes.
Some of those insiders are Southeast Asian analysts who work inside the gleaming $100 million headquarters of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, just a few minutes from the White House — and who have undisclosed sidelines as business consultants. They know that to speak forthrightly on Vietnam’s shameful human rights record would threaten their easy access to senior communist officials. Their corporate benefactors who depend upon that political access to win lucrative business contracts in Vietnam could lose the big bucks.
Moreover, Vietnam’s ambassador to the United States has a team of $30,000-a-month Washington lobbyists on his payroll. Their assignment is basically not to let awkward questions about political prisoners interfere with enhanced U.S.-Vietnamese commercial- and security ties, especially the sale of lethal weapons to fend off Chinese maritime intimidation.
One wonders what Dieu, Hoa, and Binh, locked away in their cells, would have to say — if they were free to speak.
Dieu, a devout Catholic citizen journalist, has been imprisoned since 2011. He committed the “crime” of exercising free speech. Dieu has been living “in hell” — beaten, humiliated, and treated like a “slave” for refusing to wear a uniform with the word “criminal” — his brother has told Radio Free Asia. Hoa, also a blogger whose crime was his free speech, has been incarcerated since 2011. Binh, a songwriter, lost his liberty in 2012. His crime was writing music that offended the Communist Party. While Binh’s term is scheduled to end next year, Dieu and Hoa could languish behind bars until 2024.
All three men are associated with the Viet Tan, a U.S.-based political party that is highly effective in using the social media to advocate democratic freedoms of speech and assembly. The Viet Tan reaches a wide audience, both inside Vietnam and in the Vietnamese diaspora. For its skilled high-tech advocacy, the Hanoi’s feared Ministry of Public Security brands Viet Tan as a “terrorist” organization.
Binh, Hoa and Dieu were amongst a group of 17 political prisoners who have been represented by Stanford law professor Allen Weiner, a former high-powered U.S. State Department official. Weiner won a United Nations panel determination that his clients — all either Viet Tan members, supporters or friends — had been unjustly imprisoned. While 14 of Weiner’s clients have been released, that’s unfortunately not quite a happy ending. “Some of those who have been released, however, continue to suffer severe harassment and intimidation at the hands of the Vietnamese security services,” Weiner reports. “They continue to pay a heavy price.”
That’s the sort of glaring injustice that no credible analyst of today’s Vietnam would want to downplay. Meet CSIS Asia analyst Murray Hiebert — a man who doesn’t deny that Vietnam has human rights issues, yet is careful never to use clear language that would anger senior Vietnamese officials.
Nine months ago, I brought Allen Weiner’s brave clients to Hiebert’s attention, asking if perhaps this would be an opportunity to highlight the injustice by holding a public forum. The CSIS analyst brushed off the inquiry — at the time I had not realized that CSIS has never held such an event. He also declined to say whether he agreed with Hanoi’s characterization of the Viet Tan as a “terrorist” organization.
(The White House and State Department are better informed than CSIS. Not only do they respect the Viet Tan for its peaceable advocacy, but Obama’s national security officials have maintained close ties with the Viet Tan leadership. Radio Free Asia reported that on May 17 representatives of the Viet Tan, along with other respected Vietnamese pro-democracy advocates including Boat People SOS and Vietnam for Progress, were briefed on Obama’s upcoming Vietnam trip in the White House on May 17.)
A few weeks ago, Hiebert once again did not respond to a request to be interviewed on the imprisoned Viet Tan supporters. I then tried to register for a May 17 press briefing that Hiebert and two other CSIS scholars held on the Obama visit. I had hoped to ask about Binh, Hoa and Dieu. But CSIS spokesman Andrew Schwartz — who also had not responded to a recent e-mail inquiry — denied me admission, asserting that the event was “oversubscribed.”
While the briefing room was indeed rather crowded, even full, according to people who were present, Schwartz found room for Vietnam Television. VTV is a Hanoi-controlled media tool that the Communist Party finds useful for spreading the party line. These days, VTV’s best “scoop” has been in warning Vietnamese independent journalists — and specifically the Viet Tan — to stay away from linking corrupt communist officials to a Taiwanese steel mill that somehow obtained environmental clearance to discharge toxic wastes into the sea, which has resulted in a massive fish kill.
(At the May 17 CSIS briefing, a Television Vietnam correspondent asked if the next American president would continue Obama’s “pivot” to Asia — which at least drew laughter. It is perhaps also worth noting that while “journalists” from Vietnam Television are welcome to peddle their propaganda in the United States, authorities in Hanoi continue to jam Radio Free Asia’s Vietnamese language service. And while the BBC is free to broadcast its English-language programs in Vietnam, the BBC’s celebrated Vietnamese Language Service frequently has run into problems.)
As it turns out, CSIS has a history of making life uncomfortable for guests at the think tank’s public events who might pose awkward questions. On May 24, 2015, former political prisoner Ha Vu angered the Vietnamese ambassador to the U.S., Pham Quang Vinh, by asking how Vietnam justified persecuting its political prisoners. Vinh, visibly upset, retorted that Vietnam has no political prisoners — which was pretty rich, considering that at that moment, the ambassador was busy trying to avoid making eye contact with one of Vietnam’s most famous political prisoners.
Moreover, CSIS analyst Hiebert, who chaired the panel, did not challenge the ambassador’s absurd claim. (The CSIS event discussed a study on U.S.-Vietnamese relations that Hiebert had co-authored; that study had not disclosed that the Vietnamese government had secretly financed it, Hiebert subsequently admitted to me.
And last July, Hiebert went to extraordinary lengths to accommodate Vietnamese security officials when Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong spoke at CSIS. Hiebert summoned a guard, escorting Dr. Binh Nguyen, a prominent Vietnamese-American physician, from the premises. Hiebert apologized to Binh, who had been invited, but said that the communist security officials insisted that she be ejected (for details see: How Hanoi Buys Influence in Washington, D.C., http://www.rushfordreport.com).
Turns out that there are other reasons to doubt Hiebert’s independence. While his official CSIS bio does not disclose it, Hiebert is also a senior advisor to a prominent business consultancy, the Bower Group Asia.
Hiebert’s boss at CSIS, Ernie Bower, runs the Bower Group Asia. “Our clients include the world’s best global enterprises,” the BGA website proclaims. “We understand the nexus between politics and economics.” Bower has more than 60 employees in his Washington, D.C. headquarters and in 21 Asian countries (including Vietnam). Another CSIS analyst, Chris Johnson, is a BGA managing director for China. Like Hiebert, Johnson does not disclose his business affiliations on his CSIS website.
Bower, who formerly chaired the CSIS Southeast Studies chair, responded angrily last year when I asked him which was his real day job: CSIS or his business consultancy. He said he was “saddened” that I had suggested he appeared to have conflicts of interest. But perhaps aware that others might also wonder, Bower now identifies himself on the CSIS website as a “non-resident” advisor. The chair remains vacant. CSIS spokesman Schwartz and John Hamre, the think tank’s CEO and one of Washington’s most acclaimed fundraisers, have not responded to persistent inquiries to explain the apparent conflicts.
Here’s how the conflict works:
At CSIS Hiebert has advocated the TPP trade deal. The Bower Group is actively seeking TPP business.
Hiebert has strongly contended that the U.S. lethal arms embargo on Vietnam has outlived its usefulness, and should be lifted. Lockheed, which wants to sell Hanoi its P-3 Orion and C-130 Hercules surveillance planes, has a seat on Hiebert’s CSIS board. So does Boeing, which has been peddling its P-8 Poseidon military surveillance aircraft in Hanoi. Imagine how the giant defense contractors would feel if the money they dole out to CSIS would be used to shine a spotlight on issues involving corruption and human-rights abuses in Vietnam.
Coca-Cola, a Bower Group client, got into Laos a few years ago, thanks to Ernie Bower’s understanding of “the nexus” between business and politics. Coke also has a seat on the CSIS Southeast Asia board.
Chevron, another major CSIS benefactor, also has a representative on CSIS’s Southeast Asia board. Hiebert authored a November 2014 column for the Wall Street Journal defending Chevron in bitter litigation the oil giant had in Indonesia. In his column, Hiebert identified himself only as a CSIS analyst. Then Ernie Bower got busy on the Bower Group’s Facebook page, touting the Journal piece: “BGA’s Murray Hiebert provides much-needed analysis of the court case against Chevron in Indonesia” in the Wall Street Journal. [Full disclosure: I have been an occasional contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s Asian edition for more than two decades.]
In recent months, Hiebert has been quoted widely by major news outlets including CNN, Reuters, the Associated Press, Forbes, Politico, the Financial Times, the Washington Times, and the Voice of America — always only identified as a CSIS analyst. Readers would not know that Hiebert also works for a business consultancy. They would not know that corporations that fund Hiebert’s CSIS programs have serious financial interests at stake. One wire-service report that quoted Hiebert about Vietnam’s new top leadership was picked up by the New York Times in April. This gave Ernie Bower another opportunity to twitter to his clients about how “BGA Senior Advisor Murray Hiebert” had made the pages of the Times.
And earlier today, CNN quoted Hiebert’s approving views of enhanced U.S. weapons sales to Vietnam, identifying him only as a CSIS scholar. Viewers were not aware that this “scholar” is funded at CSIS by major U.S. defense contractors, and has taken money from the Vietnamese government for co-authoring a study that called for the lifting of the U.S. weapons embargo to that country. Nor would viewers know that Hiebert also works for the Bower Group, which also touts its interest in facilitating arms deals.
A little digging illustrates how Bower mixes his CSIS affiliations with business. In 2014, for example, Bower opened some important doors in Washington to a Manila wheeler-dealer named Antonio “Tony Boy” Cojuangco. Tony Boy also sits on CSIS’s Southeast Asia board. Bower brought him to town as the head of an “eminent persons” group — such flattery can go a long way in certain Asian circles.
CSIS arranged appointments for the Filipino eminences in the White House, the Export-Import Bank, on Capitol Hill and of course at CSIS headquarters, where they had a scheduled appointment with the think tank’s president, John Hamre. That was during the day. That night, the Bower Group hosted a lavish dinner for Tony Boy and his associates at the posh Jefferson Hotel. Bower, Hiebert, Chris Johnson, and other CSIS/Bower Group operatives were present. To judge from photos I’ve seen, it was a good night all around, lubricated by bottles of Pomerol. (Hamre has not responded to repeated requests to comment. On the CSIS website, the CSIS head asserts that some unnamed journalists who have questioned CSIS ethical practices have ignored evidence to the contrary that he has provided.)
Agents of Influence
Speaking of influence peddling, if one looks closely, the Washington lobbyists on that $30,000-a-month retainer from Vietnamese Ambassador Vinh unwittingly illustrate how the official spin surrounding the Obama visit to Vietnam doesn’t tell the whole story.
The most recent foreign agent’s disclosure form that the Podesta Group has filed with the U.S. Department of Justice lists some of what the firm did to earn its $180,000 for the last six months of 2015. One is left wondering exactly what the lobbyists did to earn their keep.
The lobbyists disclosed only seven meetings, mostly with congressional aides. The only elected representative who met with Podesta representatives was Matt Salmon, an Arizona Republican who is retiring from Congress at the end of this year.
Rep. Salmon had already met with Vietnamese Amb. Vinh earlier in the year and had been to Vietnam in May. The congressman already had supported an enhanced U.S.-Vietnam trade relationship.
Do the math: $180,000 for seven meetings. That’s about $25,000 a meeting, throwing in about 50 e-mails and five phone calls that the Podesta lobbying form mentions. David Adams, the Podesta lobbyist who has been working to facilitate the Obama visit to Vietnam this week, is a former close aide to Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state. Asked what he had really done to each the money, Adams declined to comment.
This week, when the television screens show images of happy Vietnamese peasants with their conical hats, toiling in their rice paddies, think of David Adams. The average Vietnamese citizen would have to work 13 years to earn enough money to pay for just one $25,000 Podesta Group meeting with congressional aides.
From the days of French colonialism to the present Communist kleptocracy, the Vietnamese central government has always stolen from its poorest people.
Amb. Vinh’s lobbyist Adams proudly styles himself as a part-time “gentleman farmer” in Virginia’s wine country. Wonder what those Vietnamese peasants would say, if they knew that their stooped labor is helping subsidize such a lifestyle?