Interim Georgian President Nino Burjanadze, right, and the President of the US Committee on NATO, Bruce Jackson, talk to the press at a joint press conference after their meeting in Tbilisi in November 2003. Photo by BESO GULASHVILI/AFP/Getty Images
Last September, a man named Bruce Jackson hosted a party for his vineyard's 2014 wines at his 18th-century Chateau Les Conseillans, which sits in the rolling hills of Bordeaux. The afternoon before the party, he took some guests, among them a documentary filmmaker and a former colleague of mine, for a tour of the estate ground, wearing a bland blue suit that matched his mild, drab persona. With his short, carefully combed gray hair, he resembles the conservative columnist George Will, or any number of the people floating around Washington DC's interlocking social circles of foreign policy think-tankers, defense contractors, and lobbyists, which are in fact the exact circles he moves seamlessly in.
There was a smell in the air of grass, lilacs, and grapes from Jackson's vineyard, which includes a Merlot plot dating back to 1953. Much of the chateau itself was erected in the 1700s, but it now boasts haute bourgeois furnishings with a 2,000-square-foot kitchen (with brand new steel sinks and Swedish faucets). The property includes a pine forest and an impeccable pool whose water appears a dark, warm blue.
For the guests that evening, there would be duck confit, crawfish canapés, and a three-piece jazz band.
"I like the quiet of the Bordeaux and the pace of the wine growing," Jackson said when asked about his new hobby while strolling through the $4 million estate, which is surrounded by springs and woods that are on France's list of ecologically protected sites (he purchased the land in 2011). "It's a slower-paced environment, and you get actually more thinking done."
My former colleague, hoping to prod Jackson on foreign policy, turned the conversation to Iraq, where that very day 17 people had been killed in bombings and shootings and a mass grave containing the bodies of 15 truck drivers had been discovered. That sort of bad day has been horrifically common since US troops deposed Saddam Hussein in 2003, with the Islamic State recently beheading American journalists, conducting mass executions of Iraqi soldiers, and attracting recruits from across the West with horrific propaganda videos.
Jackson has more history with Iraq than your average rich-guy dilettante grape grower. The year before the US invasion, Jackson—then a Lockheed Martin executive—founded, with encouragement from White House officials, a group called the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, which helped advocate for the war. He agreed to serve as the chairman of the board of the Committee, even though he later acknowledged, in a 2007 Playboy interview, that at the time he "knew nothing about Iraq."
In the run-up to the Iraq War, top advocates forecast that the whole thing would be a "cakewalk" and swore up and down that they were motivated by a heartfelt desire to alleviate the suffering of the Iraqi people. Saddam Hussein's ouster would only be a first step in "the reconstruction of [Iraq's] economy and the establishment of political pluralism, democratic institutions, and the rule of law," Jackson pledged on the day the Committee was announced in late 2002.
When asked about the outcome of the American invasion on that afternoon, Jackson acknowledged that America's fateful excursion there was "just a complete screw-up" and laid the blame on Bush administration officials. "The greatest mistake was letting [Donald] Rumsfeld run the damn thing," he said. "He didn't talk to anybody, didn't talk to our allies."
Unlike Rumsfeld, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and other high-ranking officials who have been blamed for the disaster of the Iraq War, no one has ever protested against Jackson. There are few pictures of him online, and hardly anyone outside select corridors in DC seems to have paid him much mind. But the man has had a long, cushy career circulating in the halls of power—banging the drums of war, profiting from foreign adventures, and playing a key role in NGOs that have paid him and his loved ones generous salaries. He's a sort of neocon Forest Gump who's been hanging out in government circles for decades, assistingwith the expansion of the ever-larger military industrial complex while amassing the kind of fortune that allows him to buy a vineyard in France and maintain an estate in DC.
He's not uniquely rich or uniquely powerful or uniquely evil by the standards of the crowd he runs with, but it's worth looking at the life and times of Bruce Jackson to see how one maintains power in DC, and what one does with that power.
Bruce Jackson's father was an investment banker and senior CIA official who specialized in psychological warfare; his mother was a socialite who would later marry a US Senator. Jackson grew up thoroughly inside the Beltway and came of age during the Reagan years. By 1986, he was a military intelligence officer working in the Pentagon on nuclear weapons policy and renting a modest apartment at 1711 Massachusetts Avenue NW, according to public records and that year's DC White Pages. Four years later, he left his government job to take a position in New York with Lehman Brothers, where he was a strategist forproprietary trading. (Basically, that's the often shady practice where a bank or financial institution trades on its own account or money rather than that of a customer.)
He returned to Washington in 1993 to work as an executive at Martin Marietta, which merged with the Lockheed Corporation two years later to become the defense contractor behemoth Lockheed Martin. In 1997, Jackson was put in charge of finding overseas markets for the company's military toys.
A decade later, it wouldn't be controversial to argue that both the US and Iraq came out as losers in the war, but it was a win-win for Jackson and Lockheed.
One useful tool was the Committee to Expand NATO, an NGO that Jackson had formed in 1996. He never disclosed who funded it—he's claimed that he paid the bills himself with the money he made on Wall Street—but a few news reports have said that arms manufacturers backed the organization.
That a weapons manufacturing executive headed the committee led to some skepticism in Congress. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa called NATO expansion "a Marshall Plan for defense contractors" and a Republican aide on Capitol Hill joked that arms dealers were so intent on lobbying for expansion that, "We'll probably be giving landlocked Hungary a new navy."
The Senate approved NATO admission for Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in 1998, and for ten other former Soviet Bloc states later, exactly as Jackson's group proposed. This was probably one of the biggest arms deals of all time, since new NATO members were required to junk their old Soviet military hardware and replace it with Western arms—like the stuff made by Lockheed Martin.
Meanwhile, Jackson was pushing for war with Iraq in his capacity as executive director of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), the neocon think tank that was created in 1997 and called for a return to "a Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity." Its other members included subsequent Bush administration officials like Cheney and Rumsfeld, and war hacks like William Kristol and Richard Perle. In 1998, PNAC wrote aletter to Congress calling for Hussein's ouster and laid out what became the blueprint to achieve it. Nine days after 9/11, the group issued a public letter, addressed to President Bush, calling for regime change in Iraq—whether Saddam Hussein had anything to do with the attacks or not.
In late 2002, Jackson founded the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq at the request of then-deputy national security advisor Stephen Hadley (who was later the author of a 2014Wall Street Journal op-ed, "Americans Can Be Proud of What Was Achieved in Iraq"). The Bush administration had already decided to go to war it but it was still "struggling with a rationale," Hadley told him, according to the Playboy article.
US Army personnel pose under the "Hands of Victory" in Baghdad in 2003. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
The rest is literally history: The White House won that struggle with rationale, the invasion was launched, Poland sent 2,500 troops to support it, and in exchange the former Soviet state was able to buy $5.5 billion worth of Lockheed's F-16 fighters, in what Euromoneylater revealed to be an "off-balance-sheet deal" arranged by JPMorgan and guaranteed by the US government.
A decade later, it wouldn't be controversial to argue that both the US and Iraq came out as losers in the war, but it was a win-win for Jackson and Lockheed. The company's stock price more than doubled in the first five years after the invasion, and in the summer of 2006, Jackson bought a property in Northwest DC—assessed at $1.95 million—which has five bedrooms, a fireplace, and a deck.
Since then, Jackson has run or had a key role in three entities, all registered to the address of his DC estate: Bruce P. Jackson Consulting, the Project on Transitional Democracies (PTD), and We Remember Foundation. It's impossible to know all that much about his private consulting business, but the PTD and We Remember are nonprofits, and are therefore required to file annual IRS disclosure forms that offer some information.
The mission of We Remember, which operated as a tax-exempt 501c(3) between 2002 and 2009, was to fight for "justice" for dissidents disappeared or murdered by the government of Belarus, such as the first husband of Jackson's second wife, Irina Krasovskaya, who was the group's president.
The PTD's stated mission has been to promote "democratic change" in Euro-Atlantic governments, primarily the former Soviet bloc. According to its 2012 IRS disclosure forms, it "provided multiple briefings" on Russia and Eastern Europe to the Obama White House, State Department, and National Security Council, and Jackson regularly met with foreign and US officials. According to 2013 disclosure forms, the group devoted a notable chunk of its time to Ukraine and has apparently prepared "numerous policy briefing papers" on the country.
IRS-designated nonprofits are supposed to have independent boards that provide oversight and make sure that they don't misspend their tax-free money. But Jackson was on the board of both nonprofits, and the other members have been his friends and loved ones.
The PTD's original board from 2002 was composed of Jackson, Randy Scheunemann (a former Rumsfeld adviser with whom Jackson founded the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq), and Julie Finley, a major Republican fundraiser. She had been a founding member of the US Committee on NATO—in 2002, she and Jackson met with a senior Vatican official to ask for the Pope's endorsement of NATO expansion—and of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq.
These nonprofits brought in serious cash—about $6 million for the PTD and $500,000 for We Remember. Of that, Jackson saw about $1.2 million, and his wife nabbed another $200,000. The PTD spent nearly $2.6 million on travel, of which a good amount seems to have been primarily used to fly Jackson around the world first class and put him up at luxury hotels while he spoke at conferences, according to sources with knowledge of his activities. His destinations in recent years have included Montenegro, Germany, Belgium, Poland, Slovakia, England, Morocco, Wales and Bordeaux, his second home, where he claimed to have lectured at a "Georgian seminar."
"You have an influential person who founded a nonprofit and lines up friends and they treat the nonprofit as a spending pool." - Notre Dame Law Professor Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer
The nonprofits also apparently served as personal piggybanks. The PTD once fronted Jackson a $150,000 advance on salary and on another occasion offered him a $70,000 interest-free loan. In 2008, We Remember loaned him $25,000 for "home office construction" at his DC estate and in 2006, PTD signed a lease that paid Jackson $36,000 annually to rent the space with tax-exempt money. The PTD also agreed to pick up 38 percent of the Jackson family's utilities, insurance, maid service, property taxes, security, and maintenance.
Check out the award-winning VICE News documentary on the Islamic State.
Jackson's wife received approximately $130,000 in salary from her role as president of We Remember, and when the group dissolved as a 501c(3) in 2009, it transferred its $146,000 in remaining assets to the PTD. But We Remember didn't completely ignore victims of government repression in Belarus: During the course of its existence it made three grants totaling about $5,000—1 percent of the $500,000 it raised—to "families of political prisoners and those that have disappeared."
When I described the way these nonprofits operated to Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, a law professor and associate dean at Notre Dame Law School, he said, "What you're describing is not uncommon. You have an influential person who founded a nonprofit and lines up friends and they treat the nonprofit as a spending pool. They pay themselves a nice salary and travel. But it's supposed to be a charity, and the government has an interest in how these nonprofits are run. There might not be any red flags here, but there is definitely a perception problem. There are at least yellow flags and maybe more, it would depend on getting full information. And even if this doesn't violate tax law, that doesn't mean the public shouldn't be concerned about this type of thing."
Nonprofits don' t have to disclose their donors, but We Remember's 2005 filing to the IRS that included a list of contributors appears to have been accidentally made public. By far the biggest donor to We Remember, which had begun the year with $358.97 in cash, was a company controlled by Ukraine oligarch Rinat Akhmetov that kicked in $300,000. Akhmetov, who has a fortune estimated at $7.6 billion, "is reputed to have emerged from a bloody power struggle among organized crime groups in the 1990s that sought to control the mighty coal and steel assets of the Soviet Union," according to the New York Times.
For decades, Akhmetov supported the fabulously corrupt Viktor Yanukovych, the two-time Ukrainian Prime Minister who was elected president in 2010. Yanukovych was forced from power by popular protests in February of last year, which triggered near civil war in Ukraine and an ongoing confrontation with Russia. Soon thereafter, in a move rather obviously required by political realities, Akhmetov broke with his former beneficiary.
Jackson has been periodically identified in US and Ukrainian press accounts as an adviser to Akhmetov, Yanukovych, and their shared political party. In 2007, Jackson and Paul Manafort (a lobbyist whose other clients have included two of the most corrupt rulers of modern times, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire and Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos) arranged meetings for Yanukovych in DC with US government officials, including then US Vice President Cheney. Two years ago, after Yanukovych's election as president, Jackson set up DC appointments for the Ukrainian foreign minister, who "kept interrupting everybody" during meetings with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. (It should be noted that Yanukovych's opponents are reportedly as corrupt as he is and have paid millions over the years for their own American lobbyists.)
At around the same time, a reliable source told me, Jackson was holding court at a private club in Washington and loudly boasted, while drinking scotch and smoking a cigar, that he and Manafort were working together on Yanukovych's PR efforts, but that Jackson himself was the real brains behind the operation.
All of which may explain how Jackson's views on Ukraine have shifted over the years.
Back in 2002, the Associated Press reported that Jackson, who was identified as "a Washington-based political adviser," had recently met with a pro-Western opposition leader and criticized the first Yanukovych government. Three years later, during February 2005 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jackson said Russia had spent $300 million "to basically rig the outcome" of an election that Yanukovych had won the year before and hailed the "Orange Revolution "that swept aside his "autocratic regime."
We Remember's 2005 IRS form doesn't provide a date for Akhmetov's contribution, but by the following year Jackson was introducing Yanucovych to Cheney and other Washington VIPs, and has never, as far as I can tell, had a bad word to say about him since.
In a March 2010 speech to the US-Ukraine Business Council, Jackson said the Obama administration should "wholeheartedly engage" with Yanukovych, who had been inaugurated as president the prior month. Whereas in 2005 Jackson had urged the US Senate to shun Yanukovych's "corrupt business allies," he now declared that engagement needed to include "the so-called oligarchs."
Islamic State fighters are all over Iraq and Syria. Photo courtesy of VICE News
A story the following year in a pro-government Ukrainian newspaper said Jackson—described as a "renowned American expert"—considered Yanukovych to be a determined reformer who was "really tormented by the corruption that is killing his country." Jackson said that people in Yanukovych's administration "aren't really bad people... They are not stone-cold killers."
Jackson was still on Yanukovych's side early last year, after his government killed dozens of protesters and he'd fled to Russia. "What worries him, Mr. Jackson said, is that the new government is too beholden to the people's movement on the Maidan," the New York Timesreported in March 2014.
Through it all, Jackson has kept coming back to his French chateau. "We've done pretty well; these are all are Bordeaux trees," he told his guests as he led them through his vineyards. "We... went back to indigenous stuff." He even dreams that his estate might eventually be the site of a famous international declaration. "It's a little pretentious, but someday we'll write a treaty here on something," he said. "And actually, the 'Treaty of Les Conseillians' has a nice ring to it."
When I called Jackson for comment on the nonprofits in February, he declined to give any, other than to say that he was in the process of shutting down the Project on Transnational Democracies.
"We haven't had a grant in two years," Jackson told me before hanging up. In a follow-up email conversation in late April, he said the nonprofit was dissolved.
"It had not received any contributions for at least a couple of years and has not paid salaries since the early years of the last decade," Jackson wrote.
And by the way, a warning about the wine Jackson produces: It's pretty shitty, I'm told by one person who sampled it, so whatever you think of the Iraq War, don't buy it—or anything else he's selling in the future.