Brookings think tank sidelines retired general amid federal probe

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The Brookings Institution, an esteemed D.C. research firm, on Wednesday placed its president, retired Marine Gen. John R. Allen, on administrative leave amid a federal investigation examining his activities on behalf of the government of Qatar years ago.

Allen, once a prominent military commander who led all U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan, is suspected of secretly lobbying the Trump administration to soften its criticism of the oil-rich nation during a tense period in 2017 when Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf nations imposed harsh economic measures against the Qatari government over allegations it supported Islamic extremists, according to court records. Federal prosecutors also have alleged that Allen sought to impede the investigation by attempting to withhold evidence and lying to authorities, those documents show.

Allen met with senior Qatari leaders in 2017, before his appointment as the Brookings Institution’s president. He was a part-time senior fellow there at the time and, according to law enforcement, used his Brookings email to communicate with officials in the Trump administration, including the White House national security adviser at the time, Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster.

In apprising staff of their decision to put Allen on administrative leave, two members of the institute’s board of trustees, Glenn Hutchins and Suzanne Nora Johnson, wrote in an email: “We want to assure you that Brookings is not a subject of this investigation. Brookings has strong policies in place to prohibit donors from directing research activities.”

The Qatari government was once one of Brookings’ most important financial backers, according to the Associated Press, which this week disclosed the contents of a 77-page search warrant application that details the FBI’s allegations. The group no longer receives funding from the Qatari government, Brookings said, though the country agreed in 2013 to donate nearly $15 million to the institute.

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Beau Phillips, a spokesman for Allen, issued a statement Wednesday evening calling law enforcement’s account detailed in the search warrant application “factually inaccurate, incomplete, and misleading.”

“General Allen has done nothing improper or unlawful, has never acted as an agent of Qatar or any foreign government or principal, and has never obstructed justice,” the statement says. “Through decades of public service in combat and diplomacy, General Allen has earned an unmatched, sterling reputation for honor and integrity. We look forward to correcting the falsehoods about General Allen that have been improperly publicized in this matter.”

The search warrant application, which is dated April 15 and seeks court approval to search the retired general’s digital communications, appears to have been released publicly by mistake, the AP reported. It says Richard G. Olson, a former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates who pleaded guilty last week in connection with the secret lobbying campaign, and political donor Imaad Zuberi involved the retired general in a scheme to brighten Qatar’s image during the diplomatic crisis.

The FBI alleged that, during a 2020 interview with authorities, Allen gave a “false version of events” by saying he was helping to establish a military advisement board. Law enforcement officials also contend Allen did not turn over relevant emails, the search warrant application shows.

U.S. law requires those who lobby on behalf of other governments to be registered with the Justice Department.

The search warrant application includes the text of an email Allen sent to McMaster imploring the administration to issue a statement calling on the gulf countries to end their blockade of vital transit links and “act with restraint.”

“What they’re asking is a follow-on signal to the region from the WH or DOS of a simple statement from the US,” Allen wrote of the Qataris, referring to the White House or State Department, the documents show. Then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson soon made a statement calling for “calm and thoughtful dialogue.”

That was a reversal from statements made by President Donald Trump days earlier, which included accusations of Qatar-funded terrorism.

Zuberi, sentenced last year to 12 years in prison after pleading guilty to tax evasion, campaign finance violations and charges that he did not register as a foreign agent, agreed to pay Allen a $20,000 speaker’s fee for a visit to Qatar and to cover first-class travel to and from Doha, court documents say, but investigators say they found no evidence that Allen received the speaker’s fee.

Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.