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."
Describing itself as a "a non-profit, non-partisan policy institute working to defend free nations against their enemies," the organization once declared 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."
FDD is one of several hawkish pressure groups founded in the wake of 9/11 that helped build support for the U.S. military intervention in Iraq and other "war on terror" policies. Similar groups included the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, the Committee on the Present Danger (which FDD later took over), and Americans for Victory over Terrorism. Shortly after its founding, FDD quickly developed into a prominent member of a group of neoconservative-aligned 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.
In March 2006, during a speech on the "Global War on Terrorism" at an FDD-sponsored event, President Bush lavished praise on the group, saying: "The foundation is making a difference across the world, and I appreciate the difference you're making. … By promoting democratic ideals, and training a new generation of democratic leaders in the Middle East, you are helping us to bring victory in the war on terror—and I thank you for your hard work in freedom's cause."
But FDD's relationship with the Obama administration has been markedly less cordial. FDD scholars like Reuel Marc Gerecht and Michael Ledeen have been among the more vociferous hawks pressing the Obama administration to intervene militarily in Iran and elsewhere, and FDD president Clifford May has charged the Obama administration with being "feckless" in everything from its response to WikiLeaks to its defense of Israel.
In an op-ed for the Huffington Post published shortly after Obama defeated Mitt Romney in the November 2012 election, May listed "seven foreign policy priorities for Obama's second term." He argued that the Obama administration should recommit itself to American exceptionalism (or "American leadership"); "acknowledge that a war is being waged against the West and that it's being waged by Islamists"; strengthen U.S. economic vitality; decrease U.S. dependence on foreign oil (adding that "Wind power, solar power and nuclear power won't do the trick"); escalate U.S. involvement in both Afghanistan and Syria; "re-set the re-set with Russia"; and decline to make resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (which he linked to the "global War Against the West") a priority.
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."
Partisan or Nonpartisan?
Republican Party insiders hold many of FDD's top posts, and many of the group's principals have been vocal advocates of hawkish "pro-Israel" policies. FDD's director, Clifford May, is a former writer for the New York Times who once served as director of communications for the Republican National Committee. May was also the editor of the party's official magazine,Rising Tide, a former vice chair of the Republican Jewish Coalition, and is a member of the Committee on the Present Danger. FDD's board has also been stacked with Republican Party leaders, including the late Jeane Kirkpatrick and Jack Kemp.
As of 2013, FDD's "Leadership Council" included several high-profile neoconservative and Republican Party figures. These included Paula Dobriansky, an undersecretary of state during the George W. Bush administration; publisher Steve Forbes; former FBI director Louis Freeh; the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol; Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT); former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane; and former CIA director James Woolsey. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the late ambassador Max Kampelman are past members.
FDD's Board of Directors has had a similar makeup. 2013 members included the Republican House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), religious right figure Gary Bauer, conservative 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. The FDD has 501(c)(3) non-profit status, which bars it from undertaking political activities. But the new 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," according to a February 25, 2008 statement on the FDD website.
Targeted ads that aired in more than a dozen different 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."
Ackerman described an advertisement produced by the group. "Featuring ominous music," he observed, the ad "showed a picture of Osama bin Laden before saying—again erroneously, according to members of the intelligence community—'new surveillance is crippled.' In the 15 districts [where the ad ran], Defense of Democracies got specific about what it wanted. In one of them, for instance: 'Tell Tim Walz that Congress must do its job and pass the Senate's terrorist surveillance bill.' Walz is a Democrat from Minnesota's first congressional district. The ad flashed his face about 16 seconds after it showed bin Laden's. Similar ads ran in the TV markets of Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire's first district; Ron Klein of Florida's 22nd district; Tim Mahoney of Florida's 16th district; Chris Murphy of Connecticut's 5th district; and Joe Courtney of Connecticut's 2nd district. All are Democrats. Now their faces appear beside bin Laden's."
A spokesperson for Rep. Walz told Newsweek: "To a lot of our constituents, these ads look like fear-mongering and scare tactics designed to persuade the public that the Democrats are soft on national security."
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 Donna Brazile, Al Gore's former campaign advisor.
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 Ledeen and Gerecht joined the foundation after leaving posts at 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.
FDD says it launched the Iran/Hezbollah Project to "educat[e] policy communities and the public both here and abroad about the deadly activities of the Iranian-Syrian- Hezbollah axis." FDD's outreach efforts include frequent media appearances and editorials. The FDD-managed Committee on the Present Danger, with its honorary co-chairs Joe Lieberman and Jon Kyl, aims to "educate" Capitol Hill on Iran and the "militant Islamic terrorism it supports."
The Iran Energy Project, according to its website, "promotes energy sanctions on Iran as part of a comprehensive strategy to pressure the Iranian regime to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons, support for terrorism, and brutal oppression of its own people." Its goals include "advanc[ing] the policy discussion to impose crippling sanctions against the Iranian regime" and "encourag[ing] policymakers to consider stronger punitive measures if sanctions fail."
In 2011, FDD's Iran Human Rights Project, "a multi-tiered program to hold the Iranian regime accountable for its human rights violations by exposing its abusers and facilitators and giving voice to its victims," launched a website called the Iran Channel (http://iranchannel.org/), which provides videos and news and runs advertisements for like-minded publications, including the Clarion Fund's controversial video Iranium.
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."
In addition, FDD has hosted the ShieldAmerica.org project, dedicated to alerting the public and policy makers about the discredited "threat" of an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) terrorist attack stemming from Iran. (For more on the EMP threat, see Robert Farley, "The EMP Threat: Lots of Hype, Little Traction," Right Web, October 2009.)
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 (R-IL), 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.
A fundraising dinner linked to the forum became a matter of controversy when it was revealed that FDD held the dinner at the residence of the Pakistani ambassador without notifying the Pakistan embassy of its link to the forum and the theme. Although FDD disputed the connection between the fundraising effort and the dinner, the dinner was listed as one of the conference events on the FDD website. According to the Inter Press Service (IPS), "The [Pakistani] embassy was unaware even that the conference was occurring, let alone that it featured FDD scholars and fellows who advocate for 'ratcheting up' sanctions and pressure, U.S. support for regime change, and even Israeli or U.S. military strikes against Pakistan's ally Iran. 'Pakistan and Iran are brotherly countries and neighboring countries, brotherly Muslim countries,' Imran Gardezi, a spokesperson for the Pakistani embassy, told IPS. 'Anything against Iran is unthinkable for us.'" IPS reported that the Pakistan ambassador, Husain Haqqani, and May are old friends, and that Haqqani is a former fellow at another neocon organization, the Hudson Institute.
Another core FDD preoccupation is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, about which the organization promotes a view similar to that 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. Although FDD claims to be an ardent critic of terrorism, it has not criticized actions taken by Israel against Palestinians that arguably fall into this category.
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 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, many with track records of producing hawkish policy pieces, especially on Mideast-related issues. Among its more prominent senior fellows and staffers have been 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 the neoconservatives). Rosett and Leeden are both bloggers for PajamasMedia, the rightist news website and aggregator.
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 Woolsey, Gaffney, Kristol, Forbes, Perle, Kirkpatrick, and Krauthammer.
FDD runs many projects and programs, though some appear dormant. In addition to the projects noted above, FDD operates one program explicitly devoted to "promoting regime change in Syria." 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.
The foundation's "National Security Trip to Israel" takes aspiring young DC professionals for private meetings with Israeli political and security officials, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, Ron Dermer, Meir Dagan, Shaul Mofaz, Mark Regev. FDD scholars also accompany the visitors, with the aim of "establish[ing] long-term relationships that will help participants advance their career in government service."
FDD has operated numerous democracy-support programs over the years, including an education program that has 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.
FDD's International Outreach program appears to have been folded into other programs with an aim to build relationships with other organizations, such as the European Foundation for Democracy (EFD), outside the United States. In mid-2006, FDD and EFD, 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."
An effective FDD initiative in drawing media and policymaker attention is its conference program. FDD has sponsored or cosponsored dozens of conferences, mostly in Washington, D.C. Typical themes of FDD conferences are terrorism, democratization, and the Middle East. For example, in early March 2006, FDD sponsored a panel discussion with the Iranian Students for Democracy and Human Rights at the U.S. Capitol, focused on the state of the pro-democracy movement within Iran.
Another was the September 2004 conference titled "World War IV: Why We Fight, Whom We Fight, and How We Fight," in which FDD and the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD) "explored the similarities between the Cold War and the War on Terrorism." An FDD news release about the conference declared: "The Cold War is now being called by some 'World War III' because it was global, had an ideological basis, involved both military and non-military actions, required skill and the mobilization of extensive resources, and lasted for years. Today's 'war on terrorism' has the same elements, hence a broader name, 'World War IV.'"
FDD notes it "was founded shortly after 9/11 by a group of visionary philanthropists and policymakers to engage in the worldwide war of ideas and to support the defense of democratic societies under assault by terrorism and Militant Islamism." A 2003 report published by the American Conservative reports that the origins of FDD can be traced back to an effort to gain support for Israel's response to the Palestinian Intifada and to diminish public outcry against Israeli actions.
Its predecessor group was known as EMET ("truth" in Hebrew), an educational initiative founded in early 2001 by the same donors who provided the initial support for FDD. EMET was conceived as a public relations effort to support Israel through offices in Washington and Israel, although no office ever opened in Israel. In addition to its media work, EMET initiated educational tours to Israel for U.S. university students and professors.
After 9/11, EMET evolved into FDD, with Clifford May as president and Nir Boms, the central figure in EMET, as vice president. Boms, whose writings were promoted by Benador Associates, is now a research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, based in Herzliya, Israel. FDD has operated an educational exchange program, similar to what EMET did but on a larger scale, which accepts students and professors who are interested in being activists in Israeli counterterrorism.
FDD's major donors include high-profile Republican funders like Home Depot founder Bernard Marcus, hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer, and casio magnate Sheldon Adelson. According to 2013 Salon investigation, tax documents from 2011 revealed that Marcus had given FDD nearly $11 million that year, Singer some $3.5 million, and Adelson a little over $1.5 million. Other prominent backers included the Newton and Rochelle Becker Foundation, the Abramson Family Foundation, and the Sarah Scaife Foundation.
FDD funding sources gained attention in February 2008 shortly after its Defense of Democracies offshoot launched its television ad campaigns. Some observers pointed to FDD's State Department funding to argue that any use of such funds for political advocacy would be illegal. Wrote one journalist, "A spokesman for the foundation, Brian Wise, said he did not know the exact monetary worth of the foundation's grants, which it mostly receives from the State Department. 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.'"
An 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."