WashPost Muffles Its Own Scoop: Top Obama Aide Plouffe Paid $100,000 for Two Speeches to Group With Iran Ties

The Washington Post has an investigative piece below the fold on the front page Monday: “Obama Associate Got $100,000 Fee From Affiliate Of Firm Doing Business With Iran.” Actually, that’s the online headline. The newspaper headline is more boring, without a dollar figure: “Firm with ties to Iran paid Obama associate for talks.” There's also no photograph.

The “associate” is David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager in 2008 and now a “Senior Advisor” at the White House. Couldn’t the Post have put the words “top aide” in that letter space? It’s shorter than “associate.” Would Karl Rove be an "associate" if this had been a Bush story?  Here’s how the story by Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten began: 

David Plouffe, a senior White House adviser who was President Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, accepted a $100,000 speaking fee in 2010 from an affiliate of a company doing business with Iran’s government.

A subsidiary of MTN Group, a South Africa-based telecommunications company, paid Plouffe for two speeches he made in Nigeria in December 2010, about a month before he joined the White House staff.

Since Plouffe’s speeches, MTN Group has come under intensified scrutiny from U.S. authorities because of its activities in Iran and Syria, which are under international sanctions intended to limit the countries’ access to sensitive technology. At the time of Plouffe’s speeches, MTN had been in a widely reported partnership for five years with a state-
owned Iranian telecommunications firm.

There were no legal or ethical restrictions on Plouffe being paid to speak to the MTN subsidiary as a private citizen. But for a close Obama aide to have accepted payment from a company involved in Iran could prove troublesome for the president as the White House toughens its stance toward the Islamic republic. In recent weeks, Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney has accused the administration of being soft on Iran.

How will Plouffe’s six-figure speeches play? Older pundits can easily remember the way the liberal media trashed Ronald Reagan for accepting $2 million for speeches in Japan just after he left the White House, which is different than a campaign manager rejoining the Obama team to help make policy in the White House.

It also ought to put a bite in the rich-Rafalca-Bain-Richie-Rich narrative, since "working class" Americans don’t earn $100,000 for two speeches in Africa. Obama's speeches about favoring people who "play by the rules" starts to sound tinny. Even NBC asked Plouffe if the Obama team was too aggressive with the "politics of envy."  That sort of balanced out NBC's David Gregory repeating Plouffe's charge that Romney "has no core" -- as if Plouffe looks deeply principled now?

It’s also interesting that it could reinforce the narrative that Obama was very soft in siding with pro-democracy dissidents in Iran as they were shot in the streets. There are charges Plouffe’s enrichers aided in squashing dissent:

In 2005, MTN Group entered the Iranian market by forming a joint venture, Irancell, with an Iranian government-backed consortium. Headquartered in Johannesburg, MTN Group has rapidly expanded its businesses in Iran, Nigeria and other developing economies.

In 2006, Stuart Levey, then undersecretary of the Treasury and the point man on Iran sanction enforcement in the Bush administration — a job he also held for two years under Obama — told Turkish officials that Irancell was “fully owned” by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, according to a State Department cable made public by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.

The corps led a crackdown on protesters after the June 2009 presidential election in Iran and has long been accused of playing a central role in the country’s nuclear program. Some of its officers and business interests have been targeted by U.S. and U.N. sanctions intended to curb Iran’s nuclear program dating back to 2006.

Since Plouffe’s speeches, the U.S. government has become increasingly concerned that the Iranian government has used MTN operations or technology to help monitor dissidents. Company representatives and South Africa’s ambassador to the United States have met with senior executive branch officials in efforts to stress the firm’s compliance with U.S. sanctions, according to U.S. officials familiar with the talks who spoke on the condition of anonymity because no decisions have been reached....

MTN Group’s chief executive, Sifiso Dabengwa, said in a past statement that suggestions that the company has been involved in human rights violations in Iran are “false and offensive.”

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), a leading critic of technology firms operating in Iran, told The Post in a statement late last week that MTN should be “blacklisted” because of evidence that it “provided technology to Iran used to repress the Iranian people.”

On Wednesday, Congress passed new sanctions on Iran with provisions that could apply to technology companies such as MTN. The bill awaits the president’s signature.

Senior U.S. officials have expressed concern that cellular technology is being used in Iran and Syria to track dissidents. Obama signed an executive order in April allowing U.S. officials for the first time to impose sanctions on foreign nationals found to have used new technologies, including cellphone tracking, to commit human rights abuses.

Will the rest of the media pick this story up? After all, Hamburger's June 22 story on Romney's Bain Capital allegedly aiding outsourcing was completely exploited by the Obama campaign and their media allies.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis