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KINSHASA, Congo — An important client needed help, and it didn’t matter to Mer Security and Communication Systems that he was an authoritarian ruler who had crushed peaceful protests and enriched himself at the expense of his own citizens.
Joseph Kabila, then the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, had already relied on Mer for monitoring technology and intelligence training to help him spy on his own people. Now he needed the company for services it didn’t advertise — and he needed it to perform those services on American soil.
Kabila wanted Mer to win over the Trump administration.
It was a tall order. The US government had recently frozen the bank accounts of senior Congolese security officials who had overseen the crackdowns against protesters, and had threatened to reduce economic aid to the country if Kabila didn’t step down at the end of his term limit in December 2016. In order to prevent international intervention against his plans to keep power, Kabila needed Mer to sell the idea that an election would happen soon, that it would be credible, and that the US should soften its hardline stance against him.
Lobbying was new territory for Mer, but the $9.5 million effort it launched in late 2016 and continued for more than two years was one of the biggest political consulting contracts by any single government during the Trump era. Mer would eventually assemble a team of 27 American consultants, including a former Trump adviser, a campaign staffer, and two former members of Congress who were early endorsers of the president’s campaign.
Seven of Mer’s American consultants who spoke to BuzzFeed News said they hadn’t even heard of the firm until its representatives reached out to them, offering well-paid work. Officials, longtime lobbyists, and advocates at nonprofit organizations who have worked on Congolese issues told BuzzFeed News that Mer was unknown to them too.
Mer’s team directed its efforts toward officials in the State Department and the National Security Council, as well as members of Congress involved in foreign policy. But a primary target, according to multiple sources, was a member of Trump’s inner circle: the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.One American consultant hired by the firm said that if they had known of its ties to Kabila’s surveillance state, “I absolutely would not have said yes.”
Even by the standards of Washington lobbying, this double act — promising a free and fair election in Congo while selling the very tools that could undermine the country’s democracy — was audacious and unheard of.
One American consultant hired by the firm said that if they had known of its ties to Kabila’s surveillance state, “I absolutely would not have said yes.”
A BuzzFeed News investigation, based on thousands of pages of documents and more than 100 interviews in the US, Congo, and Europe, provides a first-ever look inside Mer’s aggressive campaign to influence the Trump administration and serve Kabila’s interests. It shows how such efforts can shape foreign policy in ways unbeknownst to both the public and senior government officials, through meetings and phone calls that leave few witnesses and little trace of the private influences involved.
In this case, the most powerful nation in the world swept aside authoritarian abuses — even when many of its own top diplomats thought such a decision flew in the face of US interests.
Despite all the promises that Kabila’s proxies made in Washington that year, Congo’s election, ultimately held in December 2018, was neither free nor fair. Citing voting data that leaked after the election, international observers said that it was brazenly rigged in favor of a candidate with whom Kabila had struck a secret power-sharing deal. Kabila would officially step down, but he would still command Congo’s security forces, his allies would still hold top Cabinet positions, and his party would still wield a legislative majority.
Within days of the election, the leaked voting data sparked protests across Congo. Heads of state in Europe and Africa called for an international investigation. The US echoed the denunciation.
Mer’s efforts in Washington looked doomed.
But a month after the election, in January 2019, the Trump administration suddenly dropped its objections and instead praised “Kabila’s commitment to becoming the first president in DRC history to cede power peacefully through an electoral process.” The decision to reverse course came from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, BuzzFeed News has learned. But it shocked veteran diplomats and rank-and-file State Department officials who had crafted the initial policy. And it put an end to the international coalition that was forming to examine the election.
Omer Laviv, former CEO of Mer SecurityOmer Laviv via LinkedIn
The State Department declined to answer questions for this story. But the Mer executive who oversaw the lobbying campaign, Omer Laviv, was happy to accept credit for the US’s policy change.
“The fact is that the US accepted the results of the election,” Laviv, an executive vice president for Mer Security’s parent company, Mer Group, told BuzzFeed News. “So I would say we succeeded.”
Laviv said that the election results were valid, that Mer’s surveillance products were used not for repression but for law and order, and that Kabila’s reputation as an autocrat is unfair. “I have only good things to say about President Kabila,” he said. “The results of the election in the DRC were widely accepted in the DRC and in the rest of the world, including by the US government.”“The fact is that the US accepted the results of the election. So I would say we succeeded.”
The goal of Mer’s lobbying campaign, Laviv said, “was to make people in Washington understand that the Congolese are serious about a peaceful transfer of power. The opinions in the State Department are so biased against the DRC and the Kabila regime, and we brought an argument showing them the process of how the election was being done.”
Kabila, who remains head of his political party, could not be reached for comment.
When the history of the Trump administration is written, much will be made of the president undermining democracy at home. But as the Congo episode shows, he also did so abroad.
“The confluence of lobbying work and security experts is really concerning but not surprising,” said Jeffrey Smith, executive director of Vanguard Africa, a nonprofit that supports democracy movements on the continent. “For so long US foreign policy has been based around this notion of stability and security, oftentimes at the expense of human rights and democracy. But when you deny a free and fair vote, you’re planting the seeds of instability in the long term. It’s reinforcing this notion that leaders who steal elections are somehow good or somehow provide stability and security.”
Mer says it is no longer doing lobbying in Washington. But it has left its mark, there and in Congo.
Though the vast majority of voters cast their ballots for a regime change, the fate of their country was decided by powerful interests negotiating behind closed doors. The US gave its blessing and millions in foreign aid, Kabila kept a large share of his power, and the company at the center of the arrangement walked away richer.
SPYING ON HIS OWN PEOPLE
As Kabila knew all too well, since Congo’s independence from Belgium in 1960, every head of state before him had met an ignominious end, either driven into exile or killed. He had become president in 2001 after his father, Laurent Kabila, was assassinated in the presidential palace.
Taking over at age 29, Kabila opened up Congo to the West and cultivated alliances with European powers and the US. He declared his country “open for business,” enacting new mining laws allowing foreign citizens to purchase rights to Congo’s minerals — reserves of copper, coltan, cobalt, diamond, and lithium.
These changes benefited Kabila and his allies immensely. Kickbacks were standard, according to international observers and businesspeople who have worked in Congo. One mining consultancy firm warned that some foreign businesses illegally received “preferential treatment by government at all levels.” Over the course of Kabila’s rule, his wealth mushroomed. By 2016, he and his siblings owned shares in at least 70 companies that collectively brought them hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, according to a Bloomberg investigation.
Among the entrepreneurs who thrived was Dan Gertler, an Israeli mining baron who had befriended Kabila years before he took office and secured a series of favorable deals from the government, including access to Congo’s diamond reserves — an estimated market value of $600 million — for $20 million a year. In all, Gertler “amassed his fortune through hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of opaque and corrupt mining and oil deals,” US Treasury officials later found. During a single three-year span, Gertler reportedly made $1.36 billion in revenue that should have gone to Congo’s taxpayers, Treasury stated.
Through his lawyer, Gertler declined to comment but said his business dealings were always above board.
By contrast, most of Congo’s people continued to live amid some of the most difficult conditions worldwide, lacking access to electricity and clean drinking water. On most health metrics, from infant mortality to malnutrition, Congo languished near the bottom of global rankings. As Kabila’s regime wore on, a protest movement emerged.
When Kinshasa, Congo’s bustling riverfront capital, was selected to host the 2012 Francophonie summit — a gathering of dozens of world leaders — Kabila anticipated that protesters would use the global spotlight to draw attention to his regime’s failures.
Kabila’s security forces had already managed to assemble plenty of on-the-ground spies. But it lacked the technology to intercept phone calls, track the movement of protesters, and remotely monitor opposition leaders.
Congo’s intelligence agency, known as the ANR, sought help from private contractors and other governments. For some potential vendors, the nation’s record of human rights abuses, including imprisoning dissidents and using violence against peaceful protesters, was a deal killer. “It was difficult to support ANR because they were participating in oppression,” a Belgian official based in Kinshasa told BuzzFeed News.
Mer signed a $17.75 million contract to install surveillance cameras and build a command center in the capital city for intelligence and police agencies, according to the company’s financial statements. Its work in Congo was part of an ambitious expansion by a company that began as an Israeli metal shop shortly after World War II. Chaim Mer, a retired military intelligence officer who is a son of Mer’s founder and now chairs the company’s board, hired a roster of other ex–intelligence agents and invested heavily in new technology for its security branch.
By 2012, Mer was a conglomerate with offices in 30 countries, mostly in Latin America and Africa. It managed event security for the Olympics in Athens, installed citywide surveillance cameras in Buenos Aires, sold data mining software to local law enforcement agencies across Mexico, and built the emergency radio network for One World Trade Center in New York City.
Many of Mer’s security contracts are kept under wraps. Financial reports to shareholders from 2011 through 2017 make no mention of any work in Congo, instead only referring to the country as an unspecified “State of Central Africa.”
In 2013, the Kabila regime paid Mer an additional $8.5 million for more security cameras as well as technical maintenance and spycraft training programs — and for its proprietary algorithmic tracking software, according to the company’s financial documents, a Congolese ex–military official, and a Congolese security technician who helped install the tools.“Everything they knew in advance. Everywhere we are going, everything we are planning.”
Mer’s services constituted the “biggest upgrade” in surveillance capabilities that Congo had seen, according to the security technician, and the government soon expanded its arsenal through other companies. In 2015, the Chinese telecom giant Huawei donated a cellular network — along with an interception system able to eavesdrop on nearly any mobile phone call made within the country, according to the security technician and an agent with the Republican Guard, the presidential security service. Huawei didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Dissidents in Congo began noticing that the government’s surveillance state was targeting them more effectively.
In March 2015, after escaping a police raid at a meeting with other anti-Kabila activists, Sylvain Saluseke was spending a cold, damp night at a safe house in Kinshasa when his cellphone rang. The man on the line identified himself as an agent with the ANR, Saluseke said.
“We know where you are,” Saluseke recalled the man saying.
Saluseke decided to turn himself in to protect those who were with him. He walked to the ANR headquarters, an eight-story red-and-yellow stone fortress flanked by a row of palm trees and a steel antenna that rises more than 200 feet. There, he said, he was shown a thick stack of papers — call logs and text message transcripts spanning at least a month.
After 38 days in an overcrowded cinderblock cell, Saluseke said, he was released without charges but given an order to check in at the ANR headquarters three times a week.
“Everything they knew in advance,” said another activist, Felly Kongavi. “Everywhere we are going, everything we are planning.”