Leaked Emails Show Cozy Ties Between UAE, Ex-CIA head Michael Morell, DC Firms and Think Tanks

Emails reveal United Arab Emirates ambassador's close relationship with former CIA acting director.

Michael Morell and Yousef al-Otaiba on Charlie Rose
Photo Credit: Screenshot / Photoshop

Leaked emails show Michael Morell, the former acting director of the CIA and Hillary Clinton campaign surrogate, had a closer relationship than he cared to admit with the prominent United Arab Emirates ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba.

Some of the emails suggest that their friendship was mutually beneficial for both. Emails show the son of the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce discussing with the top Emirati diplomat potential UAE investment in a firm linked to the former CIA deputy director.

The leaked messages (embedded below) also show how Gulf regimes leverage their vast oil wealth to pull the strings of influential Washington, D.C.-based think tanks like the Middle East Institute. Perhaps more crucially, the emails show how easily one of the CIA's most visible and politically outspoken former operatives was influenced by the top diplomat of the country driving the world's worst humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen.

Michael Morell made headlines this September when he resigned from his position as a senior fellow at Harvard University in protest of the school’s hiring of whistleblower Chelsea Manning. Morell’s angry resignation prompted a Harvard dean to abruptly cancel Manning’s fellowship. The whistleblower shot back saying she was “honored” to be the first trans visiting fellow to be disinvited by Harvard, condemning the school for “chill[ing] marginalized voices under CIA pressure.”

From 2010 to 2013, Morell served as the deputy director of the CIA under President Barack Obama. He also twice temporarily served as the agency’s acting director, in the transitions after former directors Leon Panetta and David Petraeus.

Since leaving the CIA, Morell has become infamous for defending torture and the U.S. covert drone assassination program. In a 2016 interview, Morell insisted that the U.S. should help kill Russians and Iranians in Syria and make them “pay a little price.”

Leaked messages from Morell's personal email account after he left the CIA in June 2013 demonstrate that he regularly corresponded with Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the U.S. The two discussed business, coordinated trips and frequently traded compliments. Morell became familiar with the interior design of Otaiba’s home, and admired his aquarium of tropical fish and collection of fine wine.

Otaiba is one of the most influential diplomats in Washington, D.C., and notorious in his own way. As previously reported at AlterNet's Grayzone Project, Otaiba has worked the U.S. media to perfection, generating reams of pro-Saudi and pro-UAE op-eds. The Emirati diplomat has been a key figure helping to whitewash and rebrand the UAE, a brutal absolute monarchy notorious for extreme forms of torture and human rights abuses.

Raunchy emails first reported on by The Intercept also show how Otaiba, known in Washington diplomatic circles as “Brotaiba,” has been involved with a network of seamy characters immersed in Las Vegas' subculture of sexual exploitation.

The latest batch of leaked emails, reported here for the first time, expose Yousef Otaiba’s frequent correspondence with Michael Morell.

The emails were released as part of a larger cache of messages from Yousef al-Otaiba’s private Hotmail account, which were posted online at a domain name that was registered on September 10. The publicly available WHOIS information for the domain lists only the registrar and host; it does not provide any details about who is operating the website.

While the source of the emails remains unknown, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have waged a media war against Qatar since June of this year, when the two Gulf kingdoms attempted to impose a de facto blockade on their insufficiently compliant neighbor. Otaiba’s emails have gradually leaked out since this conflict began, the apparent result of a hacking campaign.

In July, Morell and Otaiba were interviewed by Charlie Rose. The duo bashed Qatar while defending Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Morell likened Qatar to Russia and characterized the Gulf nation's media network Al Jazeera as a uniquely malign influence within U.S. society. At the time, the fact that Morell and Otaiba were chosen to appear together seemed insignificant. These newly released messages, however, show that the men have closely collaborated for years.

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The rest of Otaiba's emails are embedded below.

Discussing investments by Abu Dhabi’s huge sovereign wealth fund

Some of the newly leaked emails expose potential business ties between Yousef al-Otaiba and Michael Morell.

In 2014, the son of the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce thanked the UAE ambassador for “assistance” in connecting a firm linked to his family to Abu Dhabi’s enormous sovereign wealth fund, with the former CIA deputy director acting as a mutual contact.

A May 1, 2014 email recalls a meeting that morning between Otaiba and two employees of the D.C. consulting firm Adelphi Capital. Morell was carbon-copied on the message, at his email address at the advisory firm Beacon Global Strategies, where he works as a senior counselor.

Adelphi Capital was founded by Thomas J. Donohue Jr., the son of the president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. According to his bio on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s website, he is also a member of the board of the National Chamber Foundation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s research arm.

Former Chamber of Commerce CEO Thomas Donohue, his son Thomas Donohue Jr. and Michael Morell are all members of the Chamber of Commerce Committee of 100, which the body describes as “an elite group of chamber executives that represents the perspectives and needs of chambers and their members to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.” The three men were named in the Chamber of Commerce Committee of 100’s list of those attending an “island plantation resort” in September 2015.

At the time of Donohue’s 2014 meeting with Otaiba, Alfonso Martinez-Fonts Jr., a vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, was also “affiliated with Adelphi Capital,” according to his official bio.

Thomas Donohue Jr. works at Adelphi Capital with his brother John, who described the firm on his LinkedIn profile as “a Washington, D.C. based merchant banking group that provides principal investing, transaction advisory, and strategic consulting solutions to middle-market companies and investment partners.”

Both Thomas and John Donohue had breakfast with Otaiba on May 1, 2014. In his email after their meal, Thomas Donohue sent Otaiba information about the company Columbia Capital and a new fund it had created. Donohue noted that the state-owned Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds, “was an investor in previous Columbia funds, but it seems personnel changes inside ADIA have caused the two firms to drift apart.”

He hoped to mend that strained financial relationship. “We would very much welcome the change to re-introduce Columbia to ADIA and appreciate anything you might do to help facilitate that process,” Donohue wrote to Otaiba.

The Dohonue family is also linked to Columbia Capital, he made clear in his message: “Importantly, I’d like to stress that John and I have worked with Columbia for over a decade [on] numerous projects and our family has successfully invested side-by-side with them in transactions over the years,” Donohue wrote.

“Many thanks for your counsel and assistance,” he concluded his message.

Otaiba replied to Donohue writing, “It was great to see you again and meet John as well.” Otaiba then said he was going to prepare for Donohue’s “next visit later this month.”

The Emirati ambassador subsequently sent Donohue's email to a man named Mohammad bin Rouda Amri. “This is a fund I believe your team is already familiar,” Otaiba wrote. “Our friend, the former deputy director of the CIA, is now affiliated with them.” He noted, “They will be in Abu Dhabi May 28-29,” referencing the “visit later this month” he had mentioned in the other message.

“Is there any chance we can arrange a meeting for them with the appropriate people at ADIA?” Otaiba asked, connecting the dots.

He also forwarded the message and the names of Donohue and Morell to an email address at adia.ae, the official website of Abu Dhabi's sovereign wealth fund.

ADIA is estimated to have a staggering $800 billion in assets, and perhaps more, making it the second-largest sovereign wealth fund on Earth.

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The Middle East Institute’s UAE boss

More leaked emails from Yousef al-Otaiba demonstrate how the Middle East Institute (MEI), a leading Washington foreign policy think tank, acts as a vehicle for UAE influence in Washington.

In April 2014, Wendy Chamberlin, a former top U.S. diplomat who for the past decade has served as the president of MEI, emailed Morell, inviting him "to join a thought leaders trip to Egypt" sponsored by the think tank. The so-called "thought leaders" would be meeting "with high-ranking Egyptian officials," Chamberlin noted.

Morell forwarded the invitation to Otaiba and asked, "Is this what you wanted me to do?"

Otaiba made it clear that the trip to Egypt was an Emirati project being laundered through the ostensibly independent think tank. "Yup," he replied, "We're doing it through Middle East Institute to make it less problematic for people."  

Other messages in the trove show how the Middle East Institute is bankrolled by the UAE. One 2016 email, which was first reported on by The Intercept, exposes how, between 2016 and 2017, the UAE’s Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR) pledged $20 million to the Washington, D.C. think tank.

President Wendy Chamberlin noted the Emirati funding would help MEI “augment its scholar roster with world class experts in order to counter the more egregious misperceptions about the region, inform U.S. government policy makers, and convene regional leaders for discreet dialogue on pressing issues.”

An archived version of the the Middle East Institute’s website shows that the think tank did not publicly disclose its 2016 contributors until sometime after September 12, after The Intercept reported on its Emirati funding.

MEI’s newly published list of 2016 contributors reveals that Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs donated an additional $2 million for the think tank’s Gulf studies program. And the embassy of the United Arab Emirates gave another $1.5 million.

Coordinating UAE meetings

Just months after Michael Morell retired from the CIA in June 2013, he took a position at the prominent consulting firm Beacon Global Strategies. A powerhouse in Washington, Beacon advises top politicians on both sides of the aisle, from Hillary Clinton to Ted Cruz.

Morell joined former CIA director and defense secretary Leon Panetta as a senior counselor at Beacon Global Strategies. The firm’s founder and managing director, Jeremy Bash, is another U.S. national security state apparatchik: as a senior advisor to Panetta, Bash served as both chief of staff to director of the CIA and chief of staff to the secretary of defense (where he celebrated the sale of U.S. warplanes to Saudi Arabia as a “Christmas present”).

Otaiba’s leaked emails show how Beacon staff regularly corresponded with the UAE ambassador, and appear to have had a financial relationship.

Bash coordinated with Otaiba to plan a February 2015 meeting with Morell, Panetta and Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi (who is referred to by the acronym MBZ).

"You will get an earful from MBZ, but you're used to that now," Otaiba joked in a December 2014 message to Morell, making it clear that the former CIA director was already familiar with the Emirati leader.

Bash also planned for meetings with Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE’s minister of foreign affairs, and other prominent Emirati officials and businessmen. (The meeting with Mohammed bin Zayed was delayed at the last minute, due to a health emergency.)

In July 2015, Jeremy Bash emailed Otaiba again asking to coordinate another meeting with Morell at the UAE embassy. Beacon Global Strategies employees and the UAE ambassador were so close, Otaiba was even keeping track of the founder’s pregnancy.

"Is it 5 days to go on the new baby? If so, good luck to both you and Robyn. Do you have a name picked out yet?" Otaiba wrote in a friendly August 2015 email to Bash.

The Emirati ambassador also referenced a financial transaction. “Regarding the payment, it's under process,” he wrote. Otaiba told the Beacon Global Strategies managing director to inform him if the payment had not been received within two weeks.

​It is not clear if Otaiba was referring to a payment by the UAE to Beacon. AlterNet contacted Beacon Global Strategies with questions and a request for comment. The firm did not reply.

Beacon does not publicly list its clients, so it is not clear if the UAE or any state-affiliated Emirati institution is among its clients. In an email, AlterNet asked if Beacon enjoys any relationship with the UAE.

'Deepest sympathy' for Emirati soldiers

On September 4, 2015, fighters from Yemen’s Houthi movement killed 45 Emirati soldiers who had invaded their country as part of a Saudi- and UAE-led war facilitated by the U.S. and U.K.

Early that morning, Beacon Global Strategies’s Jeremy Bash sent Otaiba a message of "condolences on the loss of life by your forces." Morell also extended his "deepest sympathy."

The war on Yemen has led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Yemenis and generated the largest humanitarian catastrophe in the world, according to the UN, with cholera spreading rapidly throughout the civilian population as Saudi Arabia and the UAE tighten their siege.

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Close friendship

Michael Morell and Yousef al-Otaiba also scheduled home visits, as friends would do.

Soon after leaving the CIA in June 2013, Morell reached out to the Emirati ambassador. In an October message to Otaiba, Morell asked if they could meet "to chat about what the U.S. is doing and not doing in the region, how that is being perceived by our friends and enemies there, etc."

Morell revealed he was planning a trip to Saudi Arabia and the UAE and proposed meeting over breakfast at the Four Seasons.

Otaiba replied alternately proposing that they get a drink at his house on November 7. Morell chose drinks. "I love your fish tank!!" the CIA acting director wrote, making it clear he was familiar with the interior of Otaiba’s house.

The following morning, Morell sent Otaiba a friendly followup message, thanking him “for very good wine last night.” He added, “It was great to see and your beautiful family. Have a good trip.”

Otaiba replied, “Always good to see you mike. I'll work on the issues we discussed right away.”

Yousef al-Otaiba's emails with Michael Morell can be read below:

Yousef al-Otaiba emails with Michael Morell by Anonymous 9DYCcnTmM8 on Scribd

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Ben Norton is a journalist and writer. He was a reporter for AlterNet's Grayzone Project. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton, and his personal website is BenNorton.com.