Founded in the wake of the 9/11 attacks with the goal of pushing an aggressive "war on terror" in the Middle East and a hawkish "pro-Israel" line in Washington, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) is a neoconservative think tank that claims to defend democratic countries from "radical Islamism." It is the successor organization of a group called EMET, an education initiative founded earlier in 2001 as part of an effort to gain support for Israel's response to the Palestinian Intifada and to diminish public outcry against Israeli actions.
Describing itself as a "a non-profit, non-partisan policy institute working to defend free nations against their enemies," the organization at one point declared on its website that "a global war is being waged against democratic societies. While the military fights with arms, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies fights with ideas. … We fight militant Islamism and other anti-democratic forces with information, policy research, investigative journalism, strategic communications, and democracy and counterterrorism education."
Shortly after its founding, FDD quickly developed into a prominent member of a group of neoconservative think tanks and advocacy groups—including the American Enterprise Institute and the Hudson Institute—that were influential in shaping the early foreign policy priorities of the George W. Bush administration. At the height of the so-called "war on terror," FDD also absorbed the Committee on the Present Danger, a Cold War-era anticommunist group that been reconstituted to push for hardline policies in the Middle East.
Today, FDD's experts are leading advocates of a U.S. military strike on Iran, tougher sanctions over Tehran's nuclear enrichment program, U.S. intervention in Syria's civil war, and one-sided U.S. support for Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Partisan or Nonpartisan?
While FDD purports to be nonpartisan, Republican Party insiders hold a number of its top posts, and many of the group's principals have been vocal advocates of hawkish "pro-Israel" policies. FDD's president, Clifford May, is a former writer for the New York Times who once served as director of communications for the Republican National Committee. May is also a former editor of the party's official magazine (Rising Tide), a former vice chair of the Republican Jewish Coalition, and a member of the Committee on the Present Danger. FDD's chairman is former CIA director and longtime neoconservative activist James Woolsey, a self-described "Scoop Jackson Democrat" who advised George W. Bush and John McCain on national security issues. Senior fellow John Hannah is a former national security aide to Dick Cheney.
As of early 2014, FDD did not make available on its website information about its board of directors or "Leadership Council." However, as of mid-2013, the Leadership Council included several high-profile neoconservatives and Republican Party figures. Among them were Paula Dobriansky, an undersecretary of state during the George W. Bush administration; publisher Steve Forbes, a former GOP presidential candidate; former FBI director Louis Freeh; the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol; Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT); and former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is a past member, along with the late Jeane Kirkpatrick, Jack Kemp, and Max Kampelman. Its board of directors had a similar makeup. In 2013, members included the Republican House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), religious right figure Gary Bauer, neoconservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, Reagan-era Pentagon official Richard Perle, and the Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens.
FDD's claims of nonpartisanship were severely damaged in February 2008 after it created a spin-off organization, the now-defunct Defense of Democracies, to run an aggressive television ad campaign aimed at pressuring the Democratic-led House to "pass the Senate's version" of the "Terror Surveillance Bill." The controversial bill was aimed at providing retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that had cooperated with the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance programs. FDD has 501(c)(3) non-profit status, which bars it from undertaking political activities. However, according to a February 25, 2008 statement on the FDD website, the spin-off organization, which operated out of the same offices as FDD, was "a nonprofit, nonpartisan 501(c)(4) advocacy organization affiliated with, though separate from, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Its mission is to support and encourage policies, procedures and laws necessary to defeat terrorism."
Targeted ads that aired in more than a dozen different Democratic-held congressional districts left the impression that if the House didn't pass the bill in question, the United States would lose clearance to "intercept Al Qaeda communications." Spencer Ackerman, reporting in the Washington Independent, wrote, "In fact, the intelligence community has the authority to intercept Al Qaeda communications under other laws; the expired Protect America Act allowed the National Security Agency to intercept communications between any two persons of interest to a foreign intelligence investigation, even including U.S. citizens, without a warrant."
Noting that FDD had received State Department contracts in the past, some observers pointed out that any use of State Department funding for political advocacy would be illegal. "A spokesman for the foundation, Brian Wise, said he did not know the exact monetary worth of the foundation's [State Department] grants," reported Ackerman. "But he said one grant was worth $487,000 for an unspecified democracy-promotion program. Wise conceded that the foundation had founded the Defense of Democracies organization last week 'for tax purposes,' adding that 'Defense of Democracies [provides] issue advocacy, whereas the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies is a policy institute and academic institution.' … Wise said he was '100 percent sure' that no federal funds received by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies went to the Defense of Democracies. 'They are completely separate organizations with separate funding sources.'"
FDD's efforts to distinguish itself from Defense of Democracies did not satisfy many Democratic supporters of the foundation, some of whom expressed outrage that FDD would target their colleagues. Within days of the ads' airing, nearly all the Democrats who had served on FDD's board of advisors quit, including Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, Rep. Jim Marshall of Georgia, and former Al Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile. Asked about the resignations, FDD's Clifford May told Newsweek, "I'm disappointed that the political pressures have been such that several Democratic members of FDD's board of advisors—including several who I'm pretty sure agree with us on the substance of the issue—have decided to resign. The Senate bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, which persuaded us this was not a partisan issue."
FDD's activities on Iran have increased considerably since 2008, when leading hawks Michael Ledeen and Reuel Marc Gerecht joined the foundation after leaving the American Enterprise Institute. By 2011, FDD had launched three projects directly focused on Iran: the Iran/Hezbollah Project, the Iran Energy Project, and the Iran Human Rights Project, which helped found iranchannel.org.
Of these, the Iran Energy Project has been arguably the most influential. Led by FDD executive director Mark Dubowitz, the project has become a clearinghouse for research and talking points in favor of a crippling U.S. and international sanctions regime on Iran. "As the Iran issue turned into a hot-button foreign policy problem for Obama," an OZY profile noted in January 2014, "Dubowitz and FDD colleagues like Jonathan Schanzer, a former Treasury Department official on terrorist financing, have become go-to sources for the New York Times, AP and others," including for "sanction hawks" in Congress.
In particular, Dubowitz has pushed for sanctions that would cause domestic hardship and turmoil inside Iran and argued against adapting U.S. laws to ease the import of sanctions-exempt U.S. medicines. "Political and economic isolation is designed to nurture Iran's convulsive internal contradictions," Dubowitz wrote in a 2011 Weekly Standard piece coauthored with Gerecht. "The issue is timing: Can we put enough pressure on [Iranian Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei and his praetorians to either crack the regime or make the supreme leader believe that the nuclear program actually threatens his rule?"
Dubowitz staunchly opposed any lapse in economic pressure after Iran renewed its nuclear negotiations with the six world powers known as the P5+1, including Washington, in late 2013. "The efficacy of sanctions depends on the threat of escalation, where an ever-expanding web of restrictions scares off foreign businesses," he and Gerecht wrote in a November 2013 Wall Street Journal op-ed. "The sanctions game with Iran has been as much psychological as legal," they added. "When the Obama administration sends a signal that it is willing to reduce economic sanctions for little in return, the general impression abroad…is that the White House's resolve is waning." Dubowitz was a staunch supporter of sanctions legislation introduced during the talks by Sens. Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez, which observers argued were designed to scuttle the process altogether by violating a U.S. pledge not impose new penalties during the negotiations.
In November 2012, FDD added a fourth Iran initiative funded by the Targum Shlishi Foundation called the "Iran Corruption and Social Media Project." According to a Targum Shlishi email bulletin, "The project will use military grade social media technology to comb through hundreds of thousands of social media conversations to determine whether the economic sanctions are broadening anger against the regime from a cross section of the population, ranging from middle and upper class to lower working class Iranians. The results will help FDD allies in the government both to gauge the impact of the sanctions and help them counter accusations that sanctions hurt only the average Iranian."
"Iran is an existential threat to Israel, and time is running out," noted Aryeh Rubin, director of Targum Shlishi. "While the sanctions have been a heavy blow, they are not enough. We hope this FDD project will provide valuable information about what is going on in the minds and hearts of the Iranian people and that it will also help to identify examples of regime corruption—ultimately, we hope this project will contribute to countering the threat a nuclear Iran poses to Israel. We applaud the FDD's use of state-of-the-art technology to further the cause of democracy, of all people of goodwill, and of Israel and the Jewish people."
FDD has also promoted providing direct support to Iran's opposition "Green Movement." In 2010, at its annual forum on the theme "Countering the Iranian threat," then-newly elected Sen. Mark Kirk, the event's keynote speaker, argued that President Obama should reach out to exiled members of the Green Movement, increase aid to Iranian democracy groups, and make Iranian political prisoners "household names throughout America" like President Ronald Reagan did with Soviet detainees in the 1980s.
Many figures associated with FDD have been vocal proponents of direct military action against Iran. "We are in a big war, and Iran is at the heart of the enemy army," wrote Ledeen in 2009. "Most of the time, our leaders have refused to accept the fact that Iran will do everything possible to dominate or destroy us. Instead of trying to defeat the mullahs, every president has sought rapprochement, just as Obama is doing now." Remarking on his own longtime advocacy for war with Iran, Gerecht once quipped, "I've written about 25,000 words about bombing Iran. Even my mom thinks I've gone too far."
Another core FDD preoccupation is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, about which the organization promotes views similar to those of Israel's right-wing Likud Party. An early example of its advocacy on this issue came in Spring 2002, when in an apparent effort to thwart Bush administration initiatives to reopen Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations, FDD aired 30-second television spots conflating Yasser Arafat with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The video's producer was Nir Boms, FDD's first vice president and a former officer for the Israeli Embassy in Washington.
In late February 2004, FDD submitted a supporting brief to the International Court of Justice, which was considering a Palestinian petition to have the massive wall Israel is building in the West Bank condemned as a breach of international law. FDD claimed that the wall, which has been at the center of violent disputes between Palestinians and Israelis as well as a campaign of nonviolent resistance, was a first step toward resolving the conflict: "The terrorism prevention barrier can benefit the Palestinians because with it in place, Israel's re-occupation of West Bank cities and towns will no longer be necessary. Tanks, troops, checkpoints, and roadblocks will be removed as terrorism declines. Under such circumstances, the chances for renewed negotiations leading to a settlement can increase."
In October 2010, FDD released a report called "Palestinian Pulse: What Policymakers Can Learn From Palestinian Social Media." Similar to the Iranian social media project it launched in 2012, the project purported to use "military-grade software to cull information from social networks" to "determine Palestinian public sentiment and its potential impact on U.S. foreign policy." Report coauthor Mark Dubowitz suggested that the results showed a lingering Palestinian antipathy toward Israel. "If the online environment is even a remotely accurate indicator of Palestinian public sentiment," he said, "the Obama administration's Middle East peace initiative may encounter more challenges than expected. The United States cannot discount the impact of deepening Palestinian rejectionism."
Although the report seemed to suggest that attitudes tracked through social media could shed some light on the outcome of peace talks, no corresponding analysis of Israeli social media postings was apparently conducted (though the authors did acknowledge toward the end of the report that such research "could be carried out").
Staff and Projects
The FDD has a stable of policy wonks with hawkish track records, especially on Mideast-related issues. Prominent senior fellows and staffers have included Andrew C. McCarthy, a contributor to the National Review and former federal prosecutor; Toby Dershowitz, a former spokesperson for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and fundraiser for the Brussels-based European Foundation for Democracy; and journalist Claudia Rosett, a winner of the Eric Breindel Award for Excellence in Opinion Journalism (which was established by Rupert Murdoch, a close ally of many neoconservatives). Other notable FDD scholars have included Emanuele Ottolenghi, Walid Phares, Lee Smith, and James Kirchick.
Many FDD principals were associated with the Project for the New American Century, a now-defunct neoconservative institute that was one of the leading promoters of the Iraq War and the Bush administration's aggressive agenda in the Middle East. These include James Woolsey, Frank Gaffney, Bill Kristol, Steve Forbes, Richard Perle, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Charles Krauthammer, among others.
FDD runs many projects and programs, though some appear dormant. In addition to the projects noted above, FDD operates a program explicitly devoted to "promoting regime change in Syria" and another dedicated to ensuring U.S. support for Israel's "quantitative military edge" in the Middle East. Other projects have included the Center for Terrorism Research, at one time headed by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Walid Phares; the Center for Law & Counterterrorism, headed by Andrew McCarthy; the Future of Terrorism Project; and the Radical Islam in Africa Project focusing on the Horn of Africa, which FDD calls the "forgotten front" in the war on terror. In addition, FDD hosts the Shield America project, dedicated to promoting elaborate "missile defense" projects and alerting the public and policy makers about the discredited "threat" of an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) terrorist attack from Iran. (For more on the EMP threat, see Robert Farley, "The EMP Threat: Lots of Hype, Little Traction," Right Web, October 2009.)
The foundation directs a number of projects at young people. It operates a Campus Program, a "National Security Fellows" program for "up-and-coming members of the policy community, and a "National Security Trip to Israel," which takes aspiring young DC professionals for private meetings with Israeli political and security officials."
FDD has operated numerous democracy-support programs over the years, including an education program with the "goal of advancing democratic values of liberty, tolerance, pluralism, and individual rights in the Greater Middle East"; a program that promoted "democracy activists" in the Middle East; and one that focused on South Asia. During the George W. Bush administration, FDD expanded its democracy programs in the Middle East with U.S. government funding. One such program was the Iraqi Women's Educational Institute (IWEI), a joint initiative of the American Islamic Conference, FDD, and the conservative Independent Women's Forum. The mission of this short-lived organization was, according to FDD, to promote the participation of women in Iraqi society through programs on democracy education and coalition building. Between 2004 and 2006, the IWEI ran two initiatives with funding from the U.S. State Department.
In mid-2006, FDD and the European Foundation for Democracy, both of which listed Walid Phares as a fellow, created a joint project called the Center for Liberty in the Middle East (CLIME), "a non-profit organization that supports individuals and civic groups that are spreading democratic values of liberty and tolerance in the Middle East." With headquarters in both Brussels and Washington, D.C. and a multinational staff made up of scholars from Europe, the Middle East, and the United States, CLIME's website claims to advocate "peaceful transitions to political systems that protect individual liberties, enable full political participation, and respect ethnic, religious and political diversity."
FDD has long been secretive about its sources of funding, with May insisting that the organization enjoys the support of "all kinds of donors who are interested in defending democratic societies around the world from their sworn enemies." But an August 2013 Salon report revealed that FDD subsisted primarily on the largesse of a "handful" of the Republican Party's "heavyweight donors, fundraisers, and outspoken critics of the Obama White House's foreign policy." Key donors have included Home Depot founder Bernard Marcus, hedge fund billionaire and Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs board member Paul Singer, and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, also a well-known funder of right-wing "pro-Israel" pressure groups. All three are prominent backers of the Republican Jewish Coalition who donated heavily to Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign. Singer, moreover, is the former hedge fund boss of leading Romney foreign policy adviser Dan Senor, a key figure behind the neoconservative pressure group Foreign Policy Initiative.
Although FDD's 2011 990 filing reported only a little over $8 million in revenues, Salon reported that the group's Schedule A form from the same year reported nearly $11 million in receipts from Marcus, $3.6 million from Singer, and over $1.5 million from Adelson. Rounding out the list were million-dollar contributions from both Newton Becker and his family foundation, the Abramson Family Foundation, and the Sarah Scaife Foundation—all of which have supported the work of other neoconservative groups in the past. Journalist Eli Clifton concluded for Salon that the numbers belied FDD's claims to bipartisan support. "FDD's right-wing national security work," he wrote, "has long corresponded nicely with the politics of the nation's right-leaning political party."
A 2011 investigation by Think Progress revealed the dozens of donors who helped launch FDD and keep it afloat during its formative years. According to tax documents obtained by Think Progress, which were combined into one PDF with addresses deleted, among the main funders during the 2001-2004 period were the Abramson Family Foundation, led by the founder of U.S. Healthcare Leonard Abramson. It provided the largest portion of FDD's startup funding with a $222,523 grant in 2001. Abramson continued funding the group with an $600,000 in contributions during 2002-2004. The heirs to the Seagram liquor company fortune, Canadians Edgar M. and Charles Bronfman, gave $1,050,000 to FDD during this period. According to Think Progress, "Edgar M. Bronfman served as president of the World Jewish Congress from 1979 to 2007. Charles Bronfman, along with fellow FDD donor Michael Steinhardt, cofounded Taglit Birthright which offers free trips to Israel for young Jewish adults. Steinhardt is a hedge fund mogul who contributed $850,000 to FDD from 2001 to 2004."
Other donors included "Home Depot cofounder Bernard Marcus who contributed $600,000 between 2001 and 2003; mortgage backed securities pioneer Lewis Ranieri contributed $350,000 between 2002 and 2004; and Ameriquest owner, and Bush administration ambassador to the Netherlands from 2006 to 2008, Roland Arnall contributed $1,802,000 between 2003 and 2004. … [M]edia mogul and Democratic Party donor Haim Saban, a surprising donor considering FDD's Republican bent and Clifford May's former role as an RNC spokesperson; The Israel Project director Jennifer Mizrahi; and Dalck Feith, father of former Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith."