March 24, 2017 at the National Press Club, Washington, DC


Clayton Swisher

Excerpts From and Comments on the Al Jazeera Investigative Series “The Lobby”

Grant Smith:  Clayton Swisher is an American journalist and author, and he’s currently working as director of investigative journalism at Al Jazeera.  He’ll be our final speaker.  He’s a former Marine reservist and federal criminal investigator.  I know you’re going to have a lot of questions for him, so please make our ushers—Sebastian, Adrian and Sapphire—work hard for their final half hour.

Swisher’s first book, The Truth About Camp David, was published to extremely favorable reviews in Foreign Affairs.  In 2011 he used his investigative skills to secure 1,600 confidential documents of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.  He broke these for Al Jazeera in what became known as the “Palestine Papers,” the largest ever leak of confidential documents related to Israel-Palestinian negotiations.  His second book is the Palestine Papers: The End of the Road.

In 2016 Mr. Swisher managed a six-month undercover investigation that produced Al Jazeera’s amazing four-part series called “The Lobby,” including on AIPAC’s activities in the UK, the Israeli Embassy’s interaction with allegedly independent pro-Israel groups, and unfounded accusations of anti-Semitism lodged against Labour Party members, including efforts to take down UK lawmakers deemed hostile to Israel.  His series, this investigative journalism, led to the resignation of Shai Masot—a senior political officer at the Israel Embassy—and a full apology by the Israeli ambassador for what had taken place.

What we want to do in this last section is get as many questions to Clayton as possible.  He’s going to stand here and answer every single one of them in the time we have left.  But we’re going to roll—I don’t want to impersonate him here—we’re going to roll a couple of clips that we’ve selected from his investigative series.  Can we do that?

Selected Clips from “The Lobby”

Excerpts from Part 3: An Anti-Semitic Trope

Joan Ryan, Labour Friends of Israel/Jewish Labour Movement demand an investigation of fellow Labour Party member Jean Fitzpatrick.

Jean Fitzpatrick:  I was actually seeking some reassurance that a two-state solution, if that’s what they were promoting, was still possible. 

Joan Ryan:  This is a big picture situation, and we want a two-state solution that is good for all.

Jean Fitzpatrick:  No, I know, you’ve said that a number of times, but what steps—because the Labour Party is saying…

Joan Ryan:  Well, I’ve told you what steps we’re taking.  I’m not going to defend or criticize…  

Jean Fitzpatrick:  But it seems you are defending Israel.

Joan Ryan:  I would defend Israel.  I defend Israel’s right to exist.  I defend Israel as a democracy and a social democracy.

Jean Fitzpatrick:  But at what expense?

Joan Ryan:  I think we have to be very, very careful not to let our feelings about this morph into anti-Zionism.

Jean Fitzpatrick:  So no feelings come into account?  No, I’m not being anti-Zionist…

Joan Ryan:  You have to be very careful, I think.  Don’t we all want a two-state solution based on coexistence and peace?

Jean Fitzpatrick:  But I’m asking you how you are bringing about…

Joan Ryan:  So you make your effort and we make ours.  Thank you, Jean.  I’ve enjoyed the conversation.  I’m leaving it there.

Jean Fitzpatrick:  No, no, I’m asking you about settlements…

Joan Ryan:  Well, I’m not answering it anymore.

Jean Fitzpatrick:  …they’ve totally atomized the whole of the West Bank.  I’m asking you.  I’m really genuinely interested how a two-state solution…

Joan Ryan:  I’m just working for a two-state solution.

Jean Fitzpatrick:  But how can it come about if the whole of the West Bank is atomized?

Joan Ryan:  We’re trying to do everything we can to support and facilitate that solution.

Jean Fitzpatrick:  Okay.  But in practical terms?

Joan Ryan:  That’s what we’re doing as Labour Friends of Israel, that’s what you’re doing as Palestine Solidarity Campaign.  That’s good, isn’t it?

Jean Fitzpatrick:  No, but I’m asking in terms of, if the West Bank is atomized, where will the state be?  That is a genuine, genuine question.  Where will the state be?

Ilan Pappe:  The activist who came to ask her tough questions about the settlements, actually, that was the main point.  She didn’t ask her about Judaism or the existence of Israel.  She just wanted a straight answer, how does anyone who supports Israel justify the settlements?

Jean Fitzpatrick:  We go over there, we witness.  But nothing changes.

Jean Fitzpatrick:  I was quite interested in whatever funds they had and influence they had—how would this bring about a two-state solution?  That was my very basic question.

Jean Fitzpatrick:  You’ve got a lot of money, you’ve got a lot of prestige in the world.

Joan Ryan:  I don’t know where you get that from.

Jean Fitzpatrick:  Sorry?

Joan Ryan:  Labour Friends of Israel have got a lot of power, a lot of money.

Jean Fitzpatrick:  Well, I think so.  That’s what I hear, that it’s a stepping stone to good jobs.  A friend of mine’s son’s got a really good job at Oxford University on the basis of having worked for Labour Friends of Israel.

Joan Ryan:  If you just believe rumors, then I—

Jean Fitzpatrick:  It’s not a rumor.  It’s a fact.

Joan Ryan: It’s anti-Semitic.

Jean Fitzpatrick:  No, it’s not anti-Semitic.  It’s not.

Joan Ryan:  It’s anti-Semitic.  It is.  It’s a trope.  It’s about conspiracy theorists.  Sorry.  It is.  Anyway, that’s my view.  I think we’ll have to agree to differ.

Jean Fitzpatrick:  No, I don’t think we do have to agree to differ.

Joan Ryan:  Well, I’m agreeing to differ.  I am ending the conversation, because I am not really wishing to engage in a conversation that talks about getting involved with this, then you get a good job in Oxford or the city. That is anti-Semitic.  I’m sorry.

Reporter:  That evening, at a rally to combat anti-Semitism organized by the Jewish Labour Movement, Joan Ryan described her day at the stall.

Joan Ryan:  We have also brought three incidents of anti-Semitic harassment on our stand, to the people who are staffing that stall today.  That, I think, tells you something about why we need to be having this Against Anti-Semitism rally.

Reporter:  By the following day, word had spread about Jean’s exchange at the LFI stall.

Jean Fitzpatrick:  I am very shocked about the way she described my words to other people.  I feel very anxious, in that she should be misinterpreting me, totally, to other people.  I find that very, very worrying—going from my comment, which it was, to then saying he got a big job in banking, maybe she believes her own trope.

Reporter:  After Jean had left the conference, she was contacted by a Labour Party investigator.  He would only say that it was about a serious incident.

Jean Fitzpatrick:  I was thinking, had I seen a fire take place?  Had I seen someone throw a bottle?  Had I seen a fight break out?  I was really racking my brains, thinking what incident had I seen, was I aware of, was I witness to something?  Almost by return, came an e-mail that it was my conduct that was being investigated.  I was totally shocked.  That was like a real bombshell.

Excerpts from Part 4: The Takedown

AIPAC UK meeting

Israeli Embassy’s Shai Masot on a new private Israeli front company and taking down Sir Alan Duncan, minister for foreign and Commonwealth affairs.

Reporter:  By now the senior political officer at the Israeli Embassy had become a trusted confidant of our undercover reporter.

Male Voice [in front of store window]:  I really like it.

Shai Masot:  That’s quite funky.

Male Voice:  Yeah.  I like it.

Shai Masot:  I’d rather go for this one, yeah.

Reporter:  Shai invited Robin to attend a meeting organized in part by the City Friends of Israel, a group he earlier said that he was establishing.

Female Voice:  It seems like you get along with the Israelis.  You have this thing with Israelis.  You’re very quick to get along.  That’s amazing how you do that.

Reporter:  Maria Strizzolo was also there.  Discussion turned to Donald Trump.

Shai Masot:  So he’s an unpredictable person.  The only thing that you know you can, from Israel’s perspective, you can think that this guy is steady in this area, the fact that his daughter is Jewish.  She converted to Judaism.

Reporter:  The meeting had been coordinated with AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, perhaps Washington’s most powerful lobby group.  It is not widely known that AIPAC has a presence in London.

Male Voice:  As a European and somebody who lives in the Western world and enjoys its individual freedoms, I also view—and I hope most of you do as well—I view Israel as the battleground where modernity and Western values meet the forces that want to destroy that way of life.

Reporter:  Joe Richards from AIPAC’s Wall Street division summed up their operations.

Joe Richards:  Today we are a pretty robust organization where we have one single mission, which is to make sure that the United States and Israel remain very close together in their relationship, in many different ways.  The way we do that is by relationship building with our 535 members of Congress—100 in the Senate, 435 in the House.

Reporter:  AIPAC’s guests explained to Robin their interest in Britain.

Male Voice:  The real strategic goal is to get the UK to behave more like the U.S. than Europe when it comes to Israel.  Pull them, tug them into the U.S. sphere—

Reporter:  By this point, Robin was well aware of the Israeli diplomat’s close ties with America’s pro-Israel lobby. 

Shai Masot:  I went to AIPAC last year, because I organized the American-British delegation to AIPAC.  It was me and the British donors, which is around 30, 40 rich families who also sponsored the CFI.  The Conservatives with us, and some from the Labour as well, and we all went together to AIPAC.  But the bottom line, we have a donor meeting with the head of strategy at AIPAC.  He met us basically to teach us, you know, and give us some ideas for Britain.

Reporter:  Shai then announced another audacious plan, involving a front company set up by the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, whose mandate is to fight BDS.

Shai Masot:  So the Strategic Affairs, they asked me, they are establishing a new company, a new private company that basically will work for the Israeli government.  It’s like a kind of outside company, whatever.

Reporter:  The Ministry of Strategic Affairs has called it a secret war, potentially involving what this prominent Israeli reporter described as dirty tricks.

Yossi Melman:  When I say dirty tricks, they can smear people, activists, BDS activists, or others.  They can hack their e-mails in order to collect information about what they are up to.  They can, you know, trash people.

Shai Masot:  It’s going to be an office of 20 people, so the position that they suggested to me to do is to be the liaison for the international communities around the world.  So it’s good sometimes, because it’s good to work with AIPAC and all the others, the CFI and LFI, it’s cool, it’s good.  The last position that I applied for, that there is a slight chance that I will get it, actually, is to be the head of the Foreign Affairs Department of the Intelligence Department in Israel.  I’m not a career diplomat.  I am a political posting, which means I came for just one position, to assist in political issues that are specific.  Sometimes you need someone to take care just of them, to be focused on them.  That’s what I do.

Reporter:  At ease, and with the trust of his dinner companions, Shai floated the idea of a parliamentary plot.

Shai Masot:  Can I give you some MPs that I would suggest you would take down?

Maria Strizzolo:  Well, you know, if you look hard enough, I’m sure that there is something that they’re trying to hide.

Shai Masot:  Yeah.  I have some MPs.

Maria Strizzolo:  Well, let’s talk about it.

Shai Masot:  No, she knows which MPs I want to take down.

Maria Strizzolo:  Yeah, it’s good to remind me.

Shai Masot:  The deputy foreign minister. [Sir Alan Duncan is minister of state for foreign and Commonwealth affairs. He has been critical of Israel’s policy on illegal settlements in the West Bank.]

Male Voice:  This exchange between the political officer of the Israeli Embassy and a parliamentary staffer about taking down, is the phrase used, Alan Duncan is outrageous.  It’s shocking.  This is clearly a deliberate attempt by a foreign government to interfere in the workings of British democracy and to secure the destruction of the career of a minister in the British Government.

[End of excerpts from “The Lobby”]

Clayton Swisher:  Thank you very much.  I’d like to thank the organizers for giving this film some more attention.  It was put out by Al Jazeera in January.  At the outset, I should say that we had an incredibly courageous and daring undercover, Robin, if you see the film.  All four parts you can get on YouTube.  He really kept his cool and his wits, and it was extraordinary journalism as a result.  Yeah, I had a great team that worked on it.

I’m happy to be here and answer any questions that you guys have.  I thought at the beginning, I don’t want to have too many remarks, because I think it’s late in the day and actually it would be good to get to your questions.  

If you do watch the series and, just for a moment, go through the intellectual exercise of removing the word Israel and thinking, if this was any other government, if they are behaving in such a way, doing a brazen broad daylight covert influence campaign, Astroturfing, setting up NGOs that are Friends of Israel but actually they are funded by the embassy or created by the senior political officer of the embassy—who they tried, after they threw him under the bus, to pawn him off like he was a summer intern or something—just imagine what the hysteria would be. 

It actually was kind of painful when I tried to imagine what would the reaction be in America, because they really got their backs up in Britain over this.  They know where this ends.  They know which direction the AIPAC train goes, and they don’t want that to happen in their country.  Incidentally, that’s why the Ministry of Strategic Affairs sees London as ground zero, and that’s why they were, I think, probably very careless—I think they’d even acknowledge that—and arrogant to a degree, in how aggressively they were doing this—because it’s lost ground to them.  Here, it’s friendly.  They don’t need to be so brazen, in some respects.  So if you do watch it, just imagine if this was another country, particularly—I’ve been abroad for 10 years, but every time I look at the news here, it’s hyperventilation about Russia and etc.  Just imagine if Russia was doing this,  what would be said.

The clips that were selected by the organizers, that was Jean Fitzpatrick and her very painful experience.  It was the first Labour Party conference she went to, and it ended in her spectacular scene that, by the grace of God, our camera captured.  By the way, it was interesting to note that they accused us later of cooking that up, which was part of the smear that follows a production like this.  But Jean Fitzpatrick had this exchange with an MP, Joan Ryan.  Just moments before, if you watch the film, Shai Masot from the Israeli Embassy was talking to Joan Ryan about giving £1 million to the Labour Friends of Israel.  So her assertion that they have a lot of money was really—and the newspapers in Britain described the LFI as powerful. 

So how does she go from zero to anti-Semitic, it’s a very painful thing to have to go through.  For activists in Britain, imagine if we hadn’t exposed that.  She probably would never have gone to an event again.  It took some great degree of convincing to get her to talk about this.  First to find her, and then to get her to talk about this.  She was hurt by the whole thing. 

These are some of the tactics that they use to reputationally kneecap you from discussing the issue.  Apart from being morally outrageous, it’s offensive on so many levels in that regard.  Actually it diminishes the actual scourge of anti-Semitism when you just throw that around casually because you don’t like the questions you’re getting on the two-state solution.

So to the credit of the Labour Party, they actually exonerated her.  We interviewed her after, and you’ll see in the film, she shared with us the investigator’s letter clearing her.  So due process did work in that case, and we thought it was important to include it in the film. 

I think we should just go to some questions because I know many of you have seen the film.  If you haven’t, you can see it on YouTube.  Just type in “Al Jazeera The Lobby,” and all four parts are there. 

Questions and Answers

Grant Smith:  There is a great comment.  I guess they want you to respond to this.  It says: “How quickly the British government dismissed and ‘forgot about’ this offense after the Israeli apology.  Is any government agency pursuing this, to your knowledge?”

Clayton Swisher:  Yeah, a few people have asked that.  It was not covered up in Britain—I can tell you, I stayed there the whole week it went to air.  It was on the front page of several newspapers.  It was in every single British newspaper.  The day the story broke—BBC, the establishment media, Sky, ITN—there were satellite trucks in front of the Israeli Embassy live, particularly because of the threat to take down Sir Alan Duncan.  So they did not paper over that at all.  Probably here, if I recall, there was something about Trump’s alleged activities/ indiscretions in Russia of a sexual nature that came out about the same time.  So maybe that was missing from the debate here, if you look at and review the media.

Second, in terms of impact, the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, they are forming a committee to study foreign influence as a result of this film.  March 30th is when they called for evidence, so that’s just in a couple of days from now.  As was mentioned, the senior political officer was sent home disgraced.  Maria Strizzolo, the parliamentary officer who entertained the plot, was forced to resign under pressure from No. 10 Downing [St.].  [Foreign Secretary] Boris Johnson even said—when he was asked, I think by Winston Churchill’s grandson, on the floor of the Parliament about this, what are we doing?—he said, well, whatever cover Shai Masot had has well and truly been blown, so we should just move along now.

So, definitely, the May government tried to move it along, but they had picked the wrong victim in Sir Alan Duncan.  He has a lot of supporters.  So the Tories are keeping this issue—and rightfully, I mean it’s outrageous—to try to get to the bottom of it.  So it did have impact there.  Here, the domestic news cycle is anyone’s guess.

Grant Smith:  Great.  Can you talk a bit more about the extent of AIPAC or other group’s linkage to these British groups? 

Clayton Swisher:  Generally speaking, AIPAC—that was one of the surprising things for us, to see that they’ve got an office in London, that they’re trying to take their message there—and that’s just not going to work.  I mean it’s classic American thinking, you know:  We’ll just take it there and they’ll do it.  No.  It’s a different landscape there.  The role of money and politics, okay, we have this abomination that you are all aware of, called Citizens United.  It doesn’t exist there.  They have much more ability and space to discuss this issue than we have here in the United States.  So, yeah, I mean, of course we sent—when he was invited to it, we’re, yeah, that’s something you should definitely attend.

There’s a congressman, I’m forgetting his name now, from South Carolina, who went there to speak.  AIPAC put him on the dog and pony show.  He was talking about the good relationship between Congress and AIPAC.  I don’t think there is any British politician who aspires to see Britain reach the stage that we are here in the United States.  In fact, if anything, they value their sovereignty, and they want to have less of that, as a result of our failed experiment.

Grant Smith:  This question says, “the British government saw Israel as a foreign country.  Would this happen in the U.S., where it’s not necessarily seen as a foreign country but an extension of the U.S.?  Please comment.”

Clayton Swisher:  There’s a paradox there.  So, in Britain, MI5 and in some part of MI6—MI5 is domestic security, MI6 is the foreign—they’re responsible for counterintelligence.  And when I spoke with people, they indicated that because Israel is an ally, they’re not really watched in the same way.  In the United States, that’s not the case.  The Israeli government, the embassy’s activities, are watched, are monitored, and they do step out of line, and people do get arrested from time to time.  They do get expelled from time to time.

And we have something in the United States called the Foreign Agent Registration Act, which sets a bright line of at what point you are working for or against the piece of legislation on behalf of a foreign government, you have to declare it.  You guys know this from Michael Flynn, of course.  So there is a line, and if you touch that, it’s very dear consequences.  In Britain they don’t have that.  The British services don’t monitor this, because they view them as partners, it would be an embarrassing thing.  We wouldn’t necessarily want to bring that to light.  But because it was so flagrant in this case, they are investigating it.  I hope that answers the question.

Grant Smith:  Another question: “did you receive any sort of blowback for your work?  Any retribution?”

Clayton Swisher:  I did the Palestine Papers.  I did the Arafat investigation.  I did Camp David.  I mean, there’s the usual trolls who—but we just tune them out.  If I can say anything, it’s other journalists—and I realize Al Jazeera has good resources, because these kinds of things, they take time, they’re expensive.  But I hope that there’s more journalism in this regard, because exposing injustice is a part of our job.  A lot of people assume that you can never do something like this.  When they just do that, they make that assumption because they never tried.

Actually when we had the grounds to start this case, we didn’t know if it would succeed.  You don’t know, of course, until you step up to the plate and try.  In this case, it did succeed.  So I hope there’ll be more journalism of this kind, and people don’t be intimidated.  In fact, when we put this stuff in there, particularly like what happened with Jean Fitzpatrick, exposing those tactics of trying to silence debate, journalists—again,like I said, reputational kneecapping—it only bothers, it only affects you, if you let it.  If you expose people doing this deliberately in an underhanded way, actually it speaks more negatively about them.

The Ministry of Strategic Affairs has brazenly said in their own Knesset testimony that they’re going to discredit people, okay?  Israeli journalists write about this.  They’re not doing this from Tel Aviv.  They’re doing this in the United States.  They’re doing this in Britain.  I think that that’s a matter of extreme public interest, and journalists should be reporting on it.

Grant Smith:  Excellent.  We’ve got a hard stop in about five minutes for the reception.  But there have been rumors of a certain young person circulating Washington, DC with lots of cash, hosting parties.  Do you plan on doing, or have you done, an undercover series on gatekeepers in the U.S. who do the same thing here?

Clayton Swisher:  Well, one, I wouldn’t be a good investigative journalist if I talked about projects that we do or don’t do.  I knew you were going to ask that.  Yeah, I’m aware of The Tablet article.  Interestingly, they never contacted Al Jazeera for comment.  We always do that, by the way, [with] anyone that we feature in undercover footage.  But I do think that such a program could be done here in the United States—I think it could be done anywhere, if the editorial people at an organization have the will to expose something, there’s nothing to stop them from it.

Grant Smith:  Excellent.  [This question] says, “publicly Binyamin Netanyahu has talked about technology relations with Russia.  He met Vladimir Putin in September 2015.”  I’m not sure where this question is going, but do you have any comments on these ties?

Clayton Swisher:  I don’t even understand that question, so I’m not even going near it.

Grant Smith:  Okay.  Let’s see if we have anything else that’s directly related.  Why hasn’t Al Jazeera—I can't read this question.

Clayton Swisher:  I’m sensing this is fan mail.

Grant Smith:  Okay.  I can’t read it, sorry.  Write clearly people, please.  Is there any shocking thing connected to this series that you simply couldn’t air on Al Jazeera?  It’s a two-part question.  What led you to this story, sir? 

Clayton Swisher:  I’ll say, yeah, there were things that we couldn’t put in that I—had we had sufficient evidence. Everything in there—first off, this kind of work requires not just lawyers, but very good lawyers, to make sure that you’re on the right side of the law, that you’re able to withstand public scrutiny.  And we had that from inception to broadcast.  It’s something that was built into the program. 

Sometimes you get good information, but if you don’t have a second source, it’s tenuous.  Your legal risk goes way up and you have to make a decision.  Do I put that in, because it’s probably—or do I leave it out, and maybe another day it will become relevant again?  So there was an element of that in a few instances.  I’m not going to talk about it, because if I couldn’t put it in my film, I’m not going to talk about it here at the Press Club.

Grant Smith:  What led you to this story?  If you can talk about that…

Clayton Swisher:  Again, the Israeli government is quite open about its countermeasures against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.  Last spring, they said in an INSS—I forget, it was a conference in Tel Aviv—they talked about eliminating Omar Barghouti.  It was vaguely worded: “eliminate”—politically eliminate?  By the way, they talked that way about Yasser Arafat.  When they say they’re going to eliminate someone, that doesn’t mean just take away his ability to travel—which they did, actually.  They’ve also been quite open about the amount of money they’re spending.  They’re hiring former people from the security services—Shin Bet, Shabak.  They’re bringing people in with a security background to counter BDS and treating it as an intelligence matter, as an information war.  They also talk about smearing.  We heard from Yossi Melman, the security expert who was former military intelligence, about how they will try to discredit people through hacking and other unsavory tactics.  Britain is the center of their focus. 

Now, in the very beginning, we are undercover.  I got very lucky, frankly—and a lot of times, like in life, luck is required—in that the person who made his introduction at the very beginning, he started going to these events.  At the Labour Party, he’s Mr. Pro-Israel.  He stood out pretty soon as, wow, there’s not many of you.  The embassy, they spotted him as someone that they could work with, and they actually wanted him to work from the embassy.  When you watch the series, they were pitching him, they were trying to recruit our undercover!  I mean, the lawyer [and I] were talking about what the hell do we do if he is going to work at the embassy, he’s wearing our wire.  I mean, how are we going to get him in?  I mean, all sorts of tactical questions we had to go through.  In the end, we decided, play it along, but we can't accept in the end, because it just—I don’t think it’s ever been done.  Just technically, we wouldn’t have been able to pull it off.  I don’t think anyone can.  But he met Shai Masot from very early on.  And from very early on, Shai Masot wanted to co-opt him, wanted to get him to do things, and was teaching him how to set up organizations, and coaching him.   And yeah, talk on, please.  I mean it worked to our favor.  

Grant Smith:  You’ve got to watch the entire series.  Clayton Swisher, amazing, amazing work.

Clayton Swisher:  Thank you.

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