Two of the main players in the campaign funded by the Malaysian government that placed undisclosed propaganda in the American press did not file with the Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), an omission that lawyers say could place them in legal jeopardy.
David All, a Republican online operative whose David All Group originally contacted conservative writer Joshua Trevino, Trevino said, to conduct a PR operation on behalf of the Malaysian government, is not listed in the records. Nor is Jerome Armstrong, a pioneering liberal blogger whose MyDD was for a time a key site; Armstrong also took a leading role alongside Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas in Matt Bai's 2007 book on how bloggers and billionaires were remaking the Democratic Party, who Trevino says was engaged by All at the same time as him to run the website MalaysiaMatters.com as part of a paid media push that backed the country's ruling party and attacked its critics.
A defunct "about" page for MalaysiaMatters listed Armstrong among the founders: "Those working on this project include David All, Jerome Armstrong and Joshua Treviño," the page said.
Trevino, who last week belatedly filed his own foreign agent registration, told BuzzFeed on Sunday that Armstrong was hired to be his liberal counterpart on MalysiaMatters.
"David All also brought in Jerome," Trevino said. "I stopped working with him when I stopped working with APCO. He did not transition over to FBC [Media]." APCO Worldwide was in charge of the contract with Malaysia and ultimately David All and the writers, and continued working on Malaysia projects after Trevino's editorial pursuits transitioned under the aegis of FBC Media.
Armstrong did not reply to repeated requests for comment. In 2011, he told BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith (then at Politico) in an email:
I worked on it and blogged about it back then, iirc [if I recall correctly], it was mid 2008, and it was with the former PM, not Najib. Mine was just a temp contract, did a trip over there as a precursor for having other bloggers there; and then they had a shakeup, it never materialized, and I moved on. I didn't work for Trevino on it (he was there before and much longer after my brief stint), but through David All and .... (I can't remember the DC PR group, but there was a big press dust-up about it in 09 iirc).
Malaysia has a really strong blogosphere, and I subsequently got involved on my own with continued conversations with some of the activists and political groups there, but is not a country with a free press. That all changed with the internet by the middle of the decade, and there as a brief moment when it was feared that things would go the way of Singapore. In 2008, bloggers were being thrown into jail, and Badawi was hearing from many that he should outlaw blogs/online political speech. So, when I was there talking with him, it was about praising his initiative, and telling him that would be a very good legacy for him to have initiated.... and showed him how Malaysia Matters worked, and tried to get across to him that it could be used by any political party; that he should be meeting with antagonistic bloggers and try to win them over. Badawi seemed to get it, but his communications director listened in, and by the 'online outreach' results of the next special election, and his subsequent blogger outreach, it definitely turned out that way.
When asked to comment further, Armstrong said, "I don't recall the contract, and ours usually have a nondisclosure type of clause in there."
The David All Group was partly owned by APCO before he closed it in October 2012, he told BuzzFeed.
All's status as someone working on behalf of the client would normally have been registered with FARA either as a short-form registrant or listed on APCO's filings regarding the Malaysian contract.
"It's so long ago," All said when reached by phone on Monday. "The David All Group was owned in part by APCO Worldwide and [Malaysia] was their client, so I just worked with APCO."
"I'm sort of gathering more information and looking into this a little bit more," All said. "My goal is not to hide anything. It was not a covert operation."
All corroborated Trevino's account of being engaged on the project at the same time as Armstrong, though Armstrong's involvement ended earlier than Trevino's.
Armstrong and Trevino were in Malaysia at the same time, according to Flickr photos. They met with the prime minister.
The photos above picture Armstrong and Trevino in Malaysia and were posted to Armstrong's Flickr feed, picturing a trip to Malaysia in June 2008. The prime minister at that time, Abdullah Badawi, made his guests porridge, according to an email from Trevino passed along to BuzzFeed by a source that describes the incident and links to a now-broken MalaysiaMatters post: "Have you ever had a head of state make you breakfast? I found myself in that unusual position on Sunday morning, when Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi made me his unique Malay porridge."
Cached versions of posts Armstrong wrote about Malaysia are still available online (see here, here, and here).
According to the FARA website, federal law requires that agents "register within ten days of agreeing to become an agent and before performing any activities for the foreign principal."
The act specifies that "failure to register, keep accounts, mark informational materials, provide a congressional committee with a copy of the agent's most recent registration, and agreeing to a contingent fee based on the success of political activity are violations of the Act."
"If he's employed by his own company, he should have filed as an agent," Joseph E. Sandler, a lawyer and FARA expert, said of All. "If he's not an employee, if he's a consultant, he should do his own FARA filing."
APCO, he said, "should have shown their payments to him on their FARA filings."
"And secondly he should have registered himself as an agent for him because he's indirectly working for a foreign principal," Sandler said. As for Armstrong, "if he knew they were acting indirectly on behalf of the Malaysian government, and knew that's where the money's coming from, he should have registered."
Another lawyer who specializes in FARA law and who wished to speak on background said, "It sounds like they're at least close to the line."
"Generally, you have a registration for the agent itself and for the persons who are directly providing a service for the foreign principal," the lawyer said. "If you are writing informational materials at the direction or control of a foreign principal," he said, registration is required.
Adam Williams, spokesman for APCO Worldwide, said the firm, which appears to have orchestrated the propaganda campaign, could not immediately comment: "We're looking into it so we make sure that we have all the facts straight. We want to make sure that we're 100% honest and accurate."
UPDATE, 3/7/2013: Armstrong has responded in an email to BuzzFeed, saying that his involvement with the project ended before any other bloggers apart from him and Trevino were hired:
At the time when I worked with David All on this project, and as was noted in the About section of MalaysiaMatters at the time, the venture was funded by business and trade persons. It was entirely disclosed in the About section of the website. My relationship ended in March 2009 with DAG and this project. I never hired any other bloggers, and I never posted any stories on other websites than MM, other than my own personal blog at the time, at MyDD. I did not work for the Malaysian government, nor was I paid as a journalist to write stories on other news sites.
My time working with this project involved doing outreach to Malaysian political professionals & Malaysian bloggers on campaign strategy, arranging for US bloggers to go to Malaysia (we had about 20 committed to going on the left and right but the timing didn't work out), and writing about Malaysian interests as they intersected with mine (I focused on elections and the Malaysian blogosphere) on Malaysia Matters.