What does Rep. Darrell Issa have in common with Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam?
Both were noteworthy guests at the inauguration of Portia Simpson Miller as prime minister of Jamaica in April 2006. Later that day, a congressional delegation led by Issa met with Miller at a hotel in Kingston, where Issa agreed to explore ways to stop the flow of illegal guns to Jamaica. He also advised Miller to meet with the president before his authority to negotiate trade agreements expired in 2007.
This is the sort of trivia buried in more than 250,000 U.S. State Department cables obtained by WikiLeaks and published online this year. The cables are internal embassy memos—sometimes short summaries, sometimes in-depth analyses and often classified.
Issa may be the most common San Diegan to turn up in the WikiLeaks cable cache, appearing in more than 60 documents between 2002 and 2010. Embassies in Asia, South America and Europe have tracked Issa's travels and meetings. In many cases he's simply noted as a body in the room, while, in others, he is a central figure engaged in heated discussion.
Farrakhan is far from the least controversial figure he's encountered. Issa's journeys, particularly in the Middle East, brought him face to face with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (before he was deposed), Pakistani Prime Minister Pervez Musharraf (before he resigned) and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad (before he began using violence to subdue a popular uprising). Issa also met with former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto less than a month before she was assassinated.
Throughout the cables, Issa, who is of Lebanese descent, displays a constant concern for Lebanon, from combating Hezbollah to engaging the Brazilian Lebanese community (which is, interestingly, larger than the population of Lebanon). The cables also reveal a pattern of applying pressure on foreign leaders with tough questions on issues including election reform in Egypt and Israeli backtracking on peace agreements. Just as often, Issa approaches meetings with an economic agenda, advocating on behalf of industries, including pharmaceuticals and consumer electronics, and in some cases, individual companies, such as Qualcomm.
Issa's spokesperson, Frederick Hill, says the representative consults with State Department officials to make sure that his diplomatic agenda complements the embassy's efforts.
“In speaking with foreign leaders on issues such as democracy, human rights and security cooperation, his focus is often on reinforcing the point that such issues aren't just important to embassy officials who raise them regularly, but are also top concerns of lawmakers who are sometimes asked to vote on questions related to foreign policy and funding,” says Hill.
Hill says the WikiLeaks disclosure will not impact Issa's approach, though he believes it may negatively impact the “the willingness of those inside and outside of governments to speak candidly” to congressional delegations.
“The most serious damage from WikiLeaks has clearly been done to foreign nationals who have helped us and now face possible retaliation from brutal regimes as a consequence,” Hill says.
For example, one of the confidential cables from 2007 includes names and testimony of Syrian dissidents and human-rights activists who met with Issa. Many have since left the country, though one was arrested in Syria earlier this year, prior to the release of the cable.
CityBeat recruited members of the public to analyze the cables related to Issa. Here are some of the highlights:
View WikiLeaks: Issa cables in a full screen map
Kuwait: In 2002, Issa met with members of the Kuwaiti National Assembly as war between the U.S. and Iraq loomed. They found tentative common ground regarding a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine and the detention of Kuwaiti nationals at Guantanamo Bay, but when Kuwaiti Speaker Jassem Al-Khorafi suggested Congress should do something about how Saudi Arabia is covered in the U.S. media, Issa jumped to the defense of a free press.
Citing a British Petroleum analysis, another Kuwaiti legislator expressed concern that regime change in Iraq could result in plummeting oil prices. Issa responded that Kuwait would need to modernize its oil production if it wanted to remain competitive, which then gave the U.S. ambassador the opportunity to lobby for foreign involvement in the development of Kuwait's northern oil fields. Exxon Mobil has since emerged as the primary foreign interest in the fields.
Egypt: Issa visited Egypt on multiple occasions, including a 2005 “relaxed” meeting with a delegation in which he was accompanied by his wife and spokesperson. At the time, Issa asked President Mubarak about his decision to open the presidential election to multiple candidates. Later that year, Issa visited again and expressed alarm over the lack of election observers but spent the eve of the election with Mubarak. In 2008, Issa returned to Egypt with a message that Congress would view Egypt more “favorably” if it put troops on the ground in Iraq. Egypt's foreign minister responded that Iraq is “too dangerous” for Egyptian soldiers.
Syria: In 2007, Issa met with President Bashar Al-Assad and his foreign minister in an attempt to bridge the divide between Syria and the U.S. Syria said it wanted a new ambassador, but Issa said that any new appointment would be difficult to get through the Senate. Issa suggested that Syria and the U.S. strike up an intelligence-sharing agreement, but the Syrians said that was a no-go, arguing that the U.S. bungled previous intelligence-sharing arrangements and cared only about saving American lives.
Israel: In 2004, Issa met with Benjamin Netanyahu, then Israel's minister of finance, to discuss economics. Issa leveled several complaints at Israel, starting with the country's high, 17percent sales tax. Issa told Netanyahu that Israel's decision to hire a Dutch firm to develop a domestic gas pipeline was cutting American firms out of the process. Then Issa turned to telecommunications and asked Netanyahu to craft a policy that would allow Qualcomm, specifically, to compete in the cell-phone market.
The next year later, Issa returned to Israel as part of a delegation led by Rep. Nancy Pelosi.In a meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Issa took an aggressive position on Israel's failure to dismantle outposts in Palestine, saying “democratic governments cannot use the excuse that they are democracies to avoid fulfilling international commitments.” Issa lent his support to Pelosi's statement to Israel that it shouldn't sell weapons technology to China, which they perceived as a potential military enemy of the U.S.
Finland: In 2005, Issa was part of a congressional delegation to Finland to meet with parliamentary officials. Issa had specific questions about a bill that would affect the intellectual-property rights of pharmaceutical companies, emphasizing the need to protect “those who invent and invest.” According to OpenSecrets.org, Issa's largest industrial source of campaign contributions has come from the pharmaceutical industry. Later in the discussion, Issa also argued for reducing carbon emissions through increased nuclear power, while criticizing the Kyoto and Montreal protocols as fatally flawed.
Vietnam: In 2005, Issa was part of the congressional delegation at the Asia-Pacific Parliamentary Forum at the Ha Long Dream Hotel in Vietnam. In a side meeting, Issa told Vu Mao, chairman of the Vietnamese National Assembly's Foreign Relations Committee, that the country should apply for international Military Education and Training (IMET) funds from the U.S. Chairman Mao said he would do his “utmost.” Later that year, Vietnam and the U.S. signed an IMET agreement, which has resulted in approximately $1.5 million in military aid.
Taiwan: In 2008, Issa met with Taiwanese President Ying-Jeou Ma to discussed mainly trade issues. Issa, who made his wealth in consumer electronics, warned Ma that the consumer-electronics market was about to drop out, but would bounce back in mid-2009. He also suggested that Taiwan jump into the photovoltaic (solar-power) market because California “would much rather spend its money on green technology than purchasing carbon credits.” Issa also asked Ma to reopen the Taiwan market to U.S. beef, which had been closed since 2003 due to Mad Cow disease. Ma tried in 2009 and failed due to massive public outcry.