U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Hanoi this Thursday for a two-day visit. Expect much talk of how the United States and Vietnam have been developing closer security and economic ties — and how Vietnam’s praiseworthy “progress” in improving its human-rights record is making this possible. Hopefully, Vietnam’s feared Ministry of Public Security will be on better behavior this week than back in May. Then, Kerry’s top human-rights advisor, Tom Malinowski, held what he characterized as “productive” meetings in Hanoi with senior Vietnamese officials. On May 11, two days after Malinowski’s visit, thugs wielding metal pipes bloodied a courageous Vietnamese political dissident named Anh Chi. Malinowski deplored the incident, while still insisting that Vietnam has been making commendable “progress” on human rights.
Kerry’s Aug. 6-8 trip comes on the heels of a successful visit to Washington last month by Nguyen Phu Trong, the general secretary of the Communist Party. Trong had a “productive” meeting with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on July 7, after which the two leaders issued a joint “vision” statement that said each country recognized the importance of protecting human rights. The next day, Trong made a major speech at an influential U.S. think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (better known by its acronym, CSIS). “Protecting and promoting human rights is the main objective of our development,” Trong declared. “We want to ensure, promote and protect the rights of all people in Vietnam.”
Well, maybe not all. Once again, a familiar pattern emerged: Shortly before Trong’s speech before a CSIS audience of mainly well-connected Washington insiders, there was another ugly incident behind the scenes. The incident illustrates what’s really going on when American and Vietnamese officials praise Vietnam’s “demonstrable” human-rights progress. Moreover, the CSIS embarrassment offers a glimpse into how the Communist Party has been quietly buying influence to advance its foreign policy agenda in Washington — a sophisticated lobby campaign that appears to be working. Hanoi, it appears, has learned that in Washington, money talks.
But that’s getting ahead of this story, which begins with Trong’s July 8 historic speech — the first-ever such appearance for a senior Communist Party leader — at CSIS’ gleaming modern headquarters a few blocks from the White House. As the secretary general was preparing to speak about his deep interest in protecting human rights, Vietnamese security officials were quietly demonstrating otherwise, even on American soil. It seems that Hanoi’s intelligence operatives had a file on one of the invited CSIS guests — like Anh Chi, another enemy of the state.
Persona Non Grata
When Dr. Binh T. Nguyen, a prominent Vietnamese-born physician (and an American citizen) showed up to hear the secretary general’s speech, she was informed that she was persona non grata.
Binh, an invited guest, cleared CSIS security at the entrance, as she had on several previous occasions. But when she went upstairs to join the audience, a CSIS senior fellow was waiting. Murray Hiebert, accompanied by a CSIS security guard, insisted that Binh leave the premises. An obviously uncomfortable Hiebert explained that he was so sorry, but the communist security operatives simply would not permit Binh to hear Trong’s speech. The apologetic Hiebert told Dr. Binh that he had tried his best to reason with the Vietnamese security officials, but to no avail. They were not interested in negotiating, and were adamant that Binh would not be allowed to hear Trong’s speech, Hiebert related.
Hiebert apologized sincerely to Binh, admitting that it was wrong for CSIS to have given into the pressure. Ejecting her had ruined the event for him, Hiebert told the doctor. I spoke with Binh twice, for nearly an hour, going over the facts carefully, in great detail. Subsequently I was able to substantiate that the doctor’s account was the same as how Hiebert explained the incident to one of his colleagues at CSIS, Benjamin Contreras, the program director for CSIS’ Southeast Studies section.
Dr. Binh told me that Hiebert was characteristically polite. Still, it was intimidating that he had a guard with him to make sure she left the premises, the doctor added. Binh said she does not seek publicity, and looked forward to being invited to future CSIS events. She asked not to be quoted directly in this article.
The Canadian-born Hiebert, 66, is a soft-spoken former journalist with the Far Eastern Economic Review and the Wall Street Journal. He is perhaps the last person one would expect would get caught up in a dubious human-rights episode. In 1999, Hiebert, then the Review’s Kuala Lumpur bureau chief, was jailed for writing an article that raised disturbing questions about the integrity of Malaysian courts. Even though his report was accurate, Hiebert was convicted of “scandalizing” the judiciary, and spent a month in a Malaysian jail.
At CSIS, Hiebert has spoken out against human rights practices in Thailand and Malaysia. Hiebert notes that he approved several recent blogs written for CSIS by respected Vietnam watchers that have been critical of Vietnamese human-rights practices, including curbs on the media. But at the same time, Hiebert seems to have become careful not to cause too much offense to authorities in Hanoi. He co-authored a 2014 study, for example, that treated Vietnam’s human-rights practices rather gently, while not being entirely forthcoming about the fact that the Vietnamese government had paid for it (more on that later in this article).
CSIS Gives Its Side of the Story
Hiebert declined to be interviewed, but he did answer some (but far from all) questions that were submitted in writing — until a CSIS public-relations spokesman sent me an e-mail saying that he had advised Hiebert to cut off the communications.
Hiebert’s written responses did not directly dispute Dr. Binh’s account about what happened. But he attempted to minimize the incident, not mentioning the main human-rights point: how he had been pressured by the Vietnamese security officials to escort Binh from the building, and that did so, knowing that it was wrong for CSIS to give into such pressure.
The CSIS spokesman, H. Andrew Schwartz, first claimed that “Murray’s side of the story is quite different from what you have recounted.” But Schwartz had no further response after being informed that Dr. Binh’s account was, word-for-word, the same as Hiebert had related to his CSIS colleague, Benjamin Contreras. (Schwartz was formerly a spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, known for its hard-nosed dealings with inquiring reporters. Before that, Schwartz was a producer for Fox News.)
While acknowledging that Dr. Binh had indeed been an invited guest, Hiebert seemed to brush off the incident as a sort-of bureaucratic snafu. “No one makes decisions about who attends events at CSIS but CSIS,” Hiebert wrote. “Dr. Binh was not on the initial RSVP list…CSIS made a mistake by allowing her to RSVP late to the event when the registration process had already been closed.” But Binh should have been allowed to attend, Hiebert agreed.
Enemies of the State
A public-record search shows why the Communist Party would have a file on Binh. She is chief of the thoracic radiology section at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and has received awards for her professional accomplishments. Being affiliated with one of the most respected medical institutions in the world, of course, wouldn’t send up any red flags in Hanoi. But what Binh does away from the office definitely would.
On her private time, Binh has worked on human rights issues in Asia with high-profile organizations including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. She has testified before the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, among other respected panels. She serves on the Virginia Asian Advisory Board, which advises the governor “on ways to improve economic and cultural links between the Commonwealth and Asian nations, with a focus on the areas of commerce and trade.”
And on July 1, Binh joined several other respected human-rights champions who were invited to the White House. There, Binh and her colleagues gave advice to the National Security Council on how President Obama might want to handle human rights when Secretary General Trong came to the Oval Office on July 7.
Also, during the Obama-Trong White House meeting, Binh may well have been photographed by communist officials across Pennsylvania Avenue in Lafayette Park, where she joined several hundred Vietnamese-Americans who peaceably protested Vietnam’s lack of democracy.
Vietnam’s ambassador to the United States, Pham Quang Vinh, did not respond to an e-mail asking if he would care to join Hiebert by apologizing to Dr. Binh. It didn’t take much digging to understand why.
On May 24, Amb. Vinh had appeared on a CSIS panel moderated by Hiebert. Vinh was visibly upset when he was questioned by a former political prisoner, Cu Huy Ha Vu. Ha Vu made a short statement criticizing Vietnam’s human rights record, asking when Vietnam would stop its practice of incarcerating citizens whose only crimes were to criticize the Communist Party. The angry diplomat retorted that Vietnam has no political prisoners — avoiding eye contact with Vu. (Asserting that Vietnam has no political prisoners is like claiming that there is no cheese in Paris.)
Vu told me that he was not invited to the July 8 CSIS event with General Secretary Trong. Hiebert declined to explain, but it’s easy to surmise that the Communist Party chief had made it clear he would brook no awkward questions.
Vu is no ordinary political prisoner. He is one of Vietnam’s most prominent pro-democracy advocates today — especially because of his family’s elite revolutionary background. Vu’s father, the poet Cu Huy Can, was close to Ho Chi Minh during the Vietnam War, and served in Vietnam’s first national assembly. The well-educated Vu also earned his doctorate in law from the University of Paris.
Vu became an enemy of the state when he started challenging senior Communist Party officials for their lack of accountability. He even filed lawsuits against Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung on several occasions in 2009 and 2010, charging Dung with complicity in abuses of the environment, and for banning Vietnamese citizens from pressing complaints against the national government. Vu was imprisoned after being convicted in a 2011 show trial. His “crimes” included criticizing the Communist Party in interviews with the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.
Vu was released from prison last year, and exiled to the United States, where he continues to advocate peaceably for the Communist Party to enact democratic reforms. While he was not on the invitation list to hear Secretary General Trong proclaim his deep interest in protecting human rights at CSIS’s July 8 event, Vu has been welcomed at the White House.
On July 1, Vu joined Dr. Binh and several other pro-democracy advocates who were invited to brief the National Security Council ahead of Trong’s visit. Imagine what Vietnamese intelligence officers thought, if they spotted press accounts of that White House meeting.
Also present in the White House that day were two U.S.-based leaders of the Viet Tan, Angelina Huynh and Hoang Tu Duy. Viet Tan — shorthand for the Vietnam Reform Party — is particularly feared in Hanoi because of its skills in using social media to reach its followers inside Vietnam. The organization is also known for its peaceable advocacy of democracy for Vietnam. The Communist Party considers the Viet Tan to be a “terrorist” organization. The Vietnamese government has admitted that it has imprisoned citizen journalist/bloggers for the “crime” of being associated with the group.
A Lobby Plan Comes Together
While the U.S. government respects the Viet Tan’s legitimacy, Hiebert ducked the issue. Asked repeatedly whether he agreed with Hanoi that the Viet Tan is a terrorist group, Hiebert did not respond. That’s about when CSIS spokesman Andrew Schwartz cut off the communications, asserting that “Hiebert has answered all of your questions.”
Why would a respected CSIS political analyst avoid direct questions concerning Vietnam’s human rights record? The suspicion arises that it has something to do with money.
Hanoi has been paying $30,000-a-month to the Podesta Group, a high-powered lobby firm with close ties to major U.S. political figures. David Adams, who has been working on Vietnam’s behalf for the Podesta Group, was Hillary Clinton’s chief of legislative affairs when she served as President Obama’s first secretary of state.
Adams would be valuable to Hanoi because he has an insider’s knowledge to sell: he knows firsthand how U.S. officials at the State Department and the Pentagon tend to think about Vietnamese issues.
For instance, when Adams was with Clinton on Foggy Bottom, David Shear was the U.S. ambassador to Hanoi. Shear is now an assistant secretary of Defense, where he is helping shape U.S. military policies regarding Asia — including the issue of how to respond to Vietnam’s request for U.S. sales of lethal weapons that Hanoi wants to help fend off Chinese intimidation in the South China Sea. (Shear, when he was the U.S. ambassador, routinely assured Vietnamese-American audiences that before Vietnam would be allowed to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, Hanoi must make “demonstrable progress” on human rights. He never explained what that might mean.
The Podesta Group and Amb. Vinh declined comment on the Vietnamese foreign policy agenda they have been advancing. But it doesn’t take much digging to discover the three top priorities: Hanoi wants the U.S. arms embargo lifted. The Vietnamese also want to convince Obama and Congress that they have indeed been making enough “demonstrable progress” on human rights to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. And they have been lobbying for Obama to visit Vietnam, hopefully by the end of 2015.
Is it a coincidence that Hanoi’s agenda is generally shared by CSIS? The Podesta Group’s website boasts of its ability to help controversial clients boost their credibility. “We recruit allies from left-and right-leaning think tanks…to validate our clients’ messages and build an echo chamber of support,” Podesta boasts. It’s far from an unusual practice in today’s Washington lobbying scene.
Hiebert insists that he is unaware that the Podesta Group has been lobbying for the Vietnamese government. But Hiebert knew enough to invite someone from the Podesta Group to hear Trong speak on July 8; he says that CSIS does not disclose its invitation list.
(Hidden) Money Talks
Nor is CSIS completely transparent about where it gets its financing. CSIS is one of 150-plus think tanks around the world that are rated by an impressive non-profit named Transpacific on their willingness to disclose — or not — where they get their money. The well-regarded Transparify, based in Tibilisi, Georgia, is part of the Open Society Foundations that were founded by George Soros. In 2014, Transparify gave CSIS poor marks, awarding it One Star, near the opaque bottom of a Five-Star transparency scale. This year, CSIS earned Three Stars from Transparify — neither fully opaque nor transparent, but at least moving in the right direction.
The CSIS website now lists donors on a general range. It discloses that the Vietnamese government gave CSIS somewhere between $50,000 and $500,000 in 2014. But the site does not disclose what the money was intended for.
Hiebert co-authored a major 2014 CSIS study of U.S.-Vietnamese relations: “A New Era in U.S.-Vietnam Relations. So who might have paid for that?
Readers couldn’t tell from the study’s acknowledgments. “We would like to acknowledge the thoughtful and generous support and counsel received from the Embassy of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, and the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City.” But who, exactly, paid for it?
Hiebert — after being asked twice — confessed that the Vietnamese government paid for the study. He said that there was no U.S. government funding for that study.
CSIS spokesman Andrew Schwartz insisted that it is “mean-spirited” to suggest that anyone who read the acknowledgment would not have known that it was “clearly” the Vietnamese who paid for A New Era. “[I]f you decide to write that CSIS didn’t acknowledge the support of the government of Vietnam, you will be in error,” Schwartz declared. CSIS always discloses the sources of funding for its studies, the CSIS media analyst declared.
Mostly always, might be more apt. A recent CSIS study focusing on human rights in countries like Russia, Venezuela and Ethiopia was forthright about where the money came from: “This report is made possible by the generous support of the Oak Foundation” it discloses. And still another CSIS study on U.S.-Japan relations discloses that the money came from Japan’s Sasakawa Peace Foundation. The contrast with the misleading acknowledgment to Hiebert’s New Era study is about as clear as it gets.
In that study Hiebert criticizes U.S. congressional human-rights champions for being an ineffectual name-and-shame crowd. He further criticized many Vietnamese-American pro-democracy advocates for being out of touch with realities in today’s Vietnam.
But when it came to Vietnam’s human-rights record, Hiebert seemed to pull his punches. There is no mention of Hanoi’s non-compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Vietnam is a signatory to. There is no mention of the provisions of Vietnam’s penal code that criminalize free speech and assembly — and criticizing the Communist Party. Instead, the study basically acknowledges the obvious: that human rights is the most difficult issue between the U.S. and Vietnamese governments. Instead of suggesting that Vietnam could help improve its credibility by modernizing its offensive penal code, Hiebert merely recommended more meetings between the U.S. government and Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security.
Hiebert vehemently denied that he softened his tone because of who paid for that study.
Meanwhile, Hanoi’s lobby agenda seems to be working. The U.S. government and Congress are leaning toward allowing Vietnam to purchase the lethal arms it seeks. There is little talk in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal about Vietnam’s first making “demonstrable progress” on the core human-rights issues involving the freedoms of speech, assembly, religion — and the offending provisions of the penal code that mock the international rights covenants that Hanoi has signed. (The precise details of the TPP deal, which has not been finalized, remain classified.)
President Obama has said he would like to accept Secretary General Trong’s invitation to visit Vietnam, although the president has not yet set a date. Hiebert pointed out in our exchange of e-mails that he has recommended that when Obama does fly to Vietnam, he speak forcefully on human rights.
A skeptic might observe that this is what Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski, Secretary John Kerry, and so many other U.S. officials have done — so many times, over so many years, to such little avail.