Susan Rice, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is one of the leading contenders to become presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s running mate. If the ticket wins, she would make history as the first Black person and woman to serve as vice president, and she would bring decades of experience working in government to the post.
It’s unclear ― and potentially worrying ― what she would bring from another portion of her career. Rice worked in private consulting in 2001 and 2002 after serving in the White House and State Department under President Bill Clinton. That’s a common line of work for former officials in Washington, but it can involve morally dubious choices, like defending violations of human rights or democratic norms, and create conflicts of interest when these figures return to power and make decisions affecting the same clients who were recently paying them millions of dollars and could do so again in the future.
Even in the event that prior relationships do not have a bearing on one’s actions in a public office, just the perception of a conflict of interest can undermine the effectiveness of U.S. policy and faith in government.
In Rice’s case, public scrutiny of potential conflicts is especially hard because she has largely hidden who her clients were when she was a part-time consultant for Intellibridge, a now-shuttered firm that conducted geopolitical research. Her closeness to one client whose identity is publicly known ― Rwandan strongman Paul Kagame, the country’s president since 2000 ― has previously raised concerns among human rights groups and fellow officials.
It appears Rice concentrated on contracts with African countries ― approaching some of the same officials she had already built ties to as a diplomat, now on behalf of private interests. She and Gayle Smith, another former Clinton administration official, “worked to sell Intellibridge services to African government clients,” wrote Hamilton Bean, a former Intellibridge employee, in a 2011 book.
Intellibridge was a successful enterprise. Founded in 1998, the firm attracted $10 million in financing in 2001, the year Rice began working with it, and an additional $1.85 million in 2002, according to The Washington Post. The firm was planning to double its revenue in 2002 and had 140 clients already, offering them intelligence swept up through internet research and then analyzed by national security experts.
A spokesperson for Rice declined to say if she would share details of her clients if chosen to run with Biden, who will announce his selection within days.
“This remains a hypothetical but, as always, Ambassador Rice will fully comply with the law and any disclosure requirements,” Erin Pelton, the spokeswoman, said in an email.
As a vice presidential candidate, Rice would not be required to disclose work from two decades ago. And though she had foreign clients, she never registered as a foreign agent ― meaning she did not try to shape U.S. policy on their behalf, but eliminating another possible route to learning who she was working for.
Pelton claimed Rice’s sole role with Intellibridge was to arrange business relationships between Intellibridge and some of its future clients.
Transparency would then be a matter of ethics more than law ― and of good politics.
Ben Freeman, a researcher tracking foreign influence in the U.S. at the Center for International Policy think tank, noted that Biden “has come out and said that he would like to ban lobbying on behalf of foreign governments, so how would that mesh, then, with having as his vice president somebody who has at the very least worked on behalf of foreign governments,” though she was not a registered lobbyist.
“Would it be okay for his vice president but not for other people in the future?” Freeman added. “Because of Biden’s stance on this, it would be incredibly important for her to clarify exactly who her clients were and exactly what her role was.”
Even if Rice faced a legal hurdle like having signed a non-disclosure agreement about her Intellibridge work, she could describe it to the public in broad terms, Freeman said.
In 2012, rights advocates and some U.N. officials expressed concerns that Rice, then the envoy at the international organization, was doing too little to prevent atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo because she was reluctant to pressure neighboring Rwanda and her former client Kagame, The New York Times reported.
“At no point in Ambassador Rice’s government service did her work in the private sector influence her decisions as a policymaker,” Pelton said. “The premise of this story is baseless because when Ambassador Rice worked on African affairs in the Clinton administration she had no relationship to (Intellibridge), and when she returned to government in the Obama administration the firm was defunct and she hadn’t had ties to it for many years.”
Her defenders also note that the perception that she was soft on Kagame had existed in Washington’s policy community prior to her consulting work.
In Bean’s book, he described Intellibridge as a fast-growing company that had to expand into a neighboring apartment and still didn’t have room for enough desks, leaving staff working from a kitchen counter. Particularly after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, international consultancy and intelligence-gathering mushroomed, enabling lucrative careers for many international relations analysts amid increased global anxiety for governments and businesses.
“The environment which we now live in is very hyper-focused on foreign influence”
Rice returned to government after her Intellibridge work and a years-long stint at the Brookings Institution when President Barack Obama tapped her for the U.N. post. It’s unclear what she had earned at Intellibridge, but by that time she was worth $27.65 million, per the Center for Responsive Politics.
Her consulting did not appear to cause a problem for the Obama administration or Congress at the time, which her supporters cite as proof there was nothing untoward about it. Tens of thousands of people who work in consulting, including former government officials, keep their client lists private.
“She was unanimously confirmed by the Senate in 2009, following close scrutiny of her record,” Pelton wrote.
Public awareness and political concern about people with U.S. government experience working with foreign governments have grown significantly, however, Freeman said.
“The environment which we now live in is very hyper-focused on foreign influence. … In the early 2000s, people were just woefully not conscious of this issue,” he said, pointing to the ongoing controversy over Russian interference in U.S. politics and increased Justice Department pressure on former officials and others who failed to report work for foreigners.
Many of the officials who Rice worked with in the Obama administration ended up becoming consultants themselves after President Donald Trump’s election. Some progressives, good government groups and Democratic leaders say that private work should be better examined before such consultants gain positions of public trust.
Given that Rice has never before faced the scrutiny that comes with running for elected office and, as vice president, would become a top contender to succeed Biden as president, a full understanding of her record is especially important.
“I really think it would behoove Biden and Susan Rice, if she ends up being his vice presidential pick, to be very clear about what she did,” Freeman said.