Three veterans who were flown to Washington as part of a Saudi-sponsored campaign to lobby for changes to the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) say organizers of the event concealed the Saudi role in the initiative.
Enacted in September 2016 over President Obama’s veto, JASTA altered the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act in a way that cleared the path for 9/11 families and survivors to sue the kingdom for its alleged support of the hijackers.
Earlier this month, The Daily Caller and Politico were first to report that Qorvis MSLGROUP, the public relations giant that works on behalf of Saudi Arabia, has been organizing veterans to travel to Washington at no expense to lobby against JASTA. The veterans initiative is part of a much broader Saudi campaign against the law.
The central argument motivating veterans’ participation—and being used in their lobbying—is that, if other countries reciprocate and pass laws similar to JASTA, individual US service members could be sued in foreign courts. That claim is false, according to William S. Dodge, former counselor on international law at the US State Department and a professor at the University of California, Davis School of Law. (See our detailed analysis of this and related claims.)
In exclusive interviews with 28Pages.org, US Marine Corps and Iraq war veterans David Casler, Tim Cord, and Dan Cord shed damning new light on a brazen campaign that turns American veterans into unwitting lobbyists for a kingdom accused of aiding the 9/11 attacks and continuing to support extremism well beyond that day.
“Do You Want to Go on a Cool Trip?”
For Casler and the Cord brothers, participation began with a solicitation from other veterans to travel to Washington at no expense and lobby for changes to JASTA.
“The guy didn’t tell us what we were doing or what side we should take,” says Tim Cord “He just said, ‘Hey you’re going to see (senators) Lindsey Graham and John McCain talk about this thing called JASTA.’ I thought we were going to sit in on a thing and listen to them talk about it. We had no idea what position that this group that was flying us out had.”
“The way it was sold to me and my brother was ‘Do you want to go on a cool trip?’ I didn’t know there was going to be work. I thought it was just going to be a group of vets getting together and checking out Congress,” Tim Cord says.
Though Casler did understand the purpose of the trip, one of the emails he received during the recruitment process also emphasized the fun that awaited: Participating veterans would stay at the “incredibly nice” Trump International DC. “It is all expenses paid…it’s an awesome trip and basically like a 5 star vacation :),” the email said.
Casler, who deployed to Iraq and was later severely injured in a car bomb attack there while working as a civilian security consultant, says he researched the issue and wasn’t entirely convinced that he’d be lobbying on the right side of it. “I did my due diligence and quickly came to the conclusion that whatever they were arguing against, I needed to hear more information first-hand,” and decided to proceed with the trip, he says.
In keeping with the military flavor of the undertaking, Casler received detailed instructions for the trip in the form of a six-page operations order, or OPORD. While the document indicates that Qorvis and Advocacy Group, Inc were supporting the operation, it does not disclose that the two organizations—or the OPORD’s author—were working on behalf of Saudi Arabia.
Advocacy Group arranged Casler’s travel and Michael Gibson, the firm’s president, was cc’d on an emailed itinerary. In October, Gibson registered as an agent of Saudi Arabia working against JASTA, as did the firm’s director of field operations, Sara Raak.
For the roughly 40 veterans involved, it was a four-day mission: a day to travel to the city, two days of lobbying, and then the trip back home.
An Unsolicited Denial
The first order of business, on the evening of their arrival, was a dinner at the Trump International accompanied by a briefing on JASTA and guidance for the veterans’ work on Capitol Hill.
Tim Cord says the dinner started with welcoming remarks by Jason Johns, President of NMLB Veterans Advocacy Group in Madison, Wisconsin, a major organizer of the veterans lobbying effort. Those remarks, says Cord, included an unsolicited—and unsettling—denial.
“(He) stands up and says, ‘Thanks for being here. We’re really passionate in our community about JASTA, and, first and foremost, this is not funded, none of this is being taken care of by Saudi Arabia’,” says Tim Cord. Dan Cord and Casler confirmed hearing the same statement. (The Cord brothers were not acquainted with Casler before the trip.)
“He just volunteered that. None of us asked or even suspected it,” says Tim Cord. “It’s like you broke a vase and you’re like, ‘Go in the living room and don’t look at the vase’.”
“Me and Dan and David and a couple other guys all look at each other like, ‘Why the fuck did he just say that? Is this funded by the KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia)?,” says Tim Cord.
In October 2016, Johns registered with the US Department of Justice as an agent working on behalf of Saudi Arabia, disclosing a fee of $100,000 for his services on behalf of the kingdom.
Casler says veterans were told to be vague when members of Congress and staffers inevitably asked who had organized their visit. “We were told, if anybody asks who you’re with, you just say you’re a group of veterans up here on your own.”
“(The organizers) wouldn’t say who is supporting us,” says Casler. “They’d say, ‘We’re getting some support from the RNC (Republican National Committee), we’re getting some support from the Purple Heart association.’ Very loose verbiage.”
“Whether that’s true or not…that could have been a bone thrown out. Because you can’t just say KSA. You need another name and you can’t say the Democrats. Personally, that’s what I saw it as. They’re lumping two (groups) together to make it seem a little bit more legit,” Casler says.
A request for comment from the Republican National Committee has not been returned.
Purple Heart Organization Leader in the Saudi Green
The loose Purple Heart reference may relate to the fact that, in addition to being a $100,000 agent for Saudi Arabia, Jason Johns is National Senior Vice Commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
Johns was among scores of individuals who registered with the DOJ in October and November, declaring they would be working against JASTA on behalf of Saudi Arabia under the Qorvis MSLGroup umbrella.
His $100,000 fee dwarfs the amounts declared by others who registered in the same time frame. The premium could reflect the amount of work he was expected to perform—or could signal the high value of someone with connections to so many veterans who are revered by citizens and legislators and who could thus be particularly useful to the Saudi cause.
John Bircher, public relations director of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, tells28Pages.org his organization has no stance on JASTA, is in no way associated with the veterans lobbying campaign, and has seen no evidence that Johns is using his position with the organization to advance the anti-JASTA effort.
Off to the Hill, Minus a Standard Lobbying Tool
The next morning, the group convened at the Capitol Hill Club, which has been described as “a home away from home” for Republican lawmakers. The club served as a sort of forward operating base where they had complimentary lunches and could retreat for periodic rest and refreshments during their lobbying days.
The veterans were divided into smaller teams and began making the rounds on Capitol Hill, talking about the issue with members of Congress or their aides.
For a lobbying effort so massive and well-funded, the veterans set about their work without what is considered an essential item in even the smallest lobbying effort for any cause: “Leave-behind” flyers that summarize the group’s position.
According to Casler, organizers said, “We’re not allowed to leave any printed materials because there’s some requirements for that.”
The organizers’ decision to go paperless was likely driven by the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires that informational material being distributed as part of a lobbying effort for a foreign government include “a conspicuous statement” disclosing that it is being distributed on that government’s behalf.
Since he was new to the undertaking, Casler says he focused on observing more experienced veterans deliver the pitch. Some have made multiple trips to Washington over the past several months.
As he listened, his doubts about the merits of their position grew. “You know, a lot of the stuff I was listening to, I thought it was very far-fetched,” he says.
Tim Cord summarizes the approach. “Everything was real veteran-related. ‘We love the 9/11 families. This is absolutely about them, but we need to protect our veterans’,” he says. Like Casler, he wasn’t sure if the argument was sound.
Purple Heart Pins
Casler observed a fashion trend among some of the other veterans that he found curious.
“A lot of guys that had been there before, and a lot of key guys, the guys in charge, were walking around (Capitol Hill) with these pins” that featured an image of a Purple Heart ribbon and words to the effect of “honoring those who have Purple Hearts,” he says.
He says he and others found it odd that veterans who hadn’t earned that honor were wearing a pin as a tribute to those who did. “You got nothing else to fucking put up there? It seemed a bit disingenuous,” he says.
The pins may have misled lawmakers and their staffs, particularly since veterans often wear military decorations on their lapels. “Wearing that pin kind of makes you look like you have that medal. You’d have to look really, really close,” he says.
“Blitzed” Organizer Reveals True Intent and Sponsorship
Late that night at the Trump International, Tim Cord says he encountered one of two brothers who were among the key organizers and leaders of the lobbying work.
“This dude who is running the show, he comes wheeling out of a room with a guy he calls a lobbyist. I don’t know what job that is, but apparently it’s really important. He comes rolling out of this office, they’re just jacked out of their minds…totally blitzed off their nuts,” he says.
After reviewing photographs of various individuals associated with organizing the event, Cord identified the “dude who is running the show” as Daniel Tinsley. Daniel’s brother Dustin is also a key leader, according to both Tim Cord and Casler.
The lobbyist parted ways and Tim Cord and Daniel Tinsley stepped outside the hotel.
“He’s like ‘Aw, man, I have such amazing news! We have a way to kill this bill!,” says Tim Cord. “And I was like, ‘Wait, what?!'”
“And he says, ‘We found a way that if we cap the lawyers’ fees at 5 percent, then no lawyer is ever going to take it, so effectively no 9/11 victim’s family is ever going to be able to sue’,” says Tim Cord.
This would seem to be a revelation of a previously undisclosed strategy to prevent 9/11 families from presenting their evidence against the kingdom—the incorporation of a provision about attorney compensation into an amendment to JASTA.
The most prominent Capitol Hill champions of amending JASTA are Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Orrin Hatch.
Tim Cord says his understanding of why he was in Washington came to a “screeching halt.”
“And I said, ‘Dude, do you even care about this JASTA?’ And he’s like, ‘No, a lot of us are doing it because we have good veterans organizations and we want to get our foot in the door so we can grease the right elbows’,” says Tim Cord.
Cord pressed for more information, asking, “By the way, dude, who’s paying for all this?”
“And he goes, ‘Dude, it’s the freaking kingdom’,” says Tim Cord.
“And this guy’s hammered. I said ‘You mean the go*damned Kingdom of Saudi Arabia?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, dude’,” says Tim Cord.
Moments later, things took a bizarre twist.
“Not two seconds after he tells me that, this dude (Daniel Tinsley) walks out to a black custom Bentley SUV, like I’ve never even seen one of these before,” says Tim Cord. “It’s a dude with a turban on, and he goes to the back of his Bentley SUV, pops it open and he hands this dude I’m with $1,200 ostrich boots. Just pulls it out of the back of his Bentley and hands them to him…I swear to God, it was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Tim Cord returned to his room, outraged. “I felt like, basically, fu*k all these guys that are running this JASTA bill bullsh*t. Because they’re all liars. We’re sitting in a room full of retired generals, colonels, men who gave 25 years of their life to this country and they’re being lied to by a bunch of young punks who are using the vet angle to make themselves sympathetic. Why do you think a 60-year-old general would want anything to do with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia? I mean, that’s a pretty heavy thing to assume we’re all going to be cool with,” says Tim Cord.
The next morning, Tim Cord shared what he’d heard and seen with his brother and a few of the other veterans he’d grown to trust the day before, including Casler. They decided to continue participating in the lobbying visits, letting others do the talking while they listened and took everything in.
“If you want to destroy something, the most effective way is to destroy it from within,” says Casler.
At the end of that second and final day of lobbying, Tim Cord walked back to the hotel with one of the leaders of the lobbying effort, who, in a single unprompted remark, destroyed whatever remained of the pretense that the anti-JASTA lobbying effort is supportive of those whose lives were so terribly shattered on September 11, 2001.
According to Cord, the other veteran said, “Aw man, I’m so fu*king tired of the 9/11 victims’ families boo-hooing.”
Casler compares the structure behind the anti-JASTA lobbying to a “multi-level marketing” scheme. While he and most other veterans were only receiving free travel, he says he got the sense that the principal, on-site organizers were receiving compensation for their work.
He says for many veterans, the trips provide a powerful set of incentives to resist the idea that Saudi Arabia is funding the effort and that the campaign rests on false claims about JASTA: Free travel, the chance to network with other veterans, meetings with senators and representatives, and the chance to move up in the hierarchy of the effort by bringing new veterans into the fold.
Those fully read into it and knowingly receiving money to carry out Saudi Arabia’s wishes, however, strike Casler as having a mercenary attitude. “It seems like (they’re thinking), ‘Hey, I don’t give a shit who pays me, if they’re going to pay me to come visit the Hill and talk talking points, what’s the evil’,” he says.
28Pages.org shared details of this report with Terry Strada, national chair of 9/11 Families and Survivors United for Justice Against Terror. Her husband, Tom, was killed in the north tower of the World Trade Center, and she was a leading voice championing the enactment of JASTA.
“I am both disgusted and saddened by the level of cruelty on the part of a few dishonest and greedy individuals, to trick honorable servicemen into unknowingly lobbying for the Saudis against JASTA…a law that will not only provide justice to victims of terrorism but also hold the kingdom accountable for the role it plays in funding it,” says Strada.
UPDATE: Invitations to comment on the story were extended to Jason Johns, Daniel Tinsley and Dustin Tinsley the morning after the story was published.
Tim Cord was enraged and still is. “I joined the Marine Corps after 9/11 to basically directly combat the Saudi fu*king terrorists that did 9/11. I joined as a result of Saudi terrorism activity, and to find out I’m on their fu*king payroll and I’m on a ledger somewhere, I’m sitting in the Trump hotel having the time of my life, and I get to the realization that, go*damn, I owe them now, and that is not a cool feeling to have. Not the Saudis, dude. I mean, to be in the Saudis’ fu*king pocketbook, that made me have a really uncomfortable feeling,” he says.
Dan Cord has similar feelings. “It seems disgustingly ironic that the entire reason I joined the military was due to the 9/11 attacks, which were largely funded and manned by the Saudis. And so now I found myself under the guise of doing some good for the veterans, which is of course a huge aspect of my life, only to find out it has nothing to do with the veterans and nothing to do with the 9/11 families,” he says.
But it’s not just about 9/11 for Dan Cord. “Anyone’s that been deployed to a combat zone knows very well—outside of the public knowledge, but in-country knowledge—that Saudis still fund fighters over there. They fund them with weapons, they fund them with people, they fund them with intel,” he says.
Tim Cord says that, since 9/11 families represent such a sympathetic side of the JASTA debate, the Saudis and their lobbyists decided they needed to counter with a sympathetic face for those who want to amend it.
His brother agrees. “This is just a guise, and we make a good face, because who is going to openly tell a group of vets…that this bill is wrong and they’re not going to support it,” Dan Cord says.
“I sat there knowing the evidence was overwhelming that we were being used as pawns,” says Casler. “Knowing veterans were being used and flat out lied to. You can’t really mitigate this issue or explain it away. You don’t want to piss off a Marine, and they pissed off a group of Marines. We don’t care about politics or money. We have a dog in this fight for the truth, or we betray everything that we should stand for.”
Reprinted with permission from 28Pages.org.