Carol Felsenthal
On politics

A Look at Sam LaHood, One of 19 Americans on Trial in Egypt

The third son of Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, Sam LaHood attended graduate school in Lebanon and was an advance man for John McCain’s campaign in 2008…

Ray LaHood, 66, former Peoria congressman and current secretary of transportation (and the only Republican in the Obama cabinet), has said that all four of his children have “done well.” One daughter is a physician in Indianapolis, and a son is a newly appointed Republican state senator representing Peoria. But LaHood has said he is particularly proud of his third child, 36-year-old Sam, who, along with a couple of his American colleagues working for the International Republican Institute (IRI), an NGO, sought refuge last week in the American embassy in Cairo. LaHood feared that if he remained in his apartment near Tahir Square, Egyptian officials would arrest him and perhaps even throw him in prison while he awaited trial on bogus criminal charges that involve receiving illegal funding and using the money to instigate protests.

Things turned dark for Sam and NGO workers on December 29 when the interim military government raided and closed 17 NGOs, confiscating computers, cell phones, files, and cash. Then, in January, LaHood and several other Americans (as well as several Europeans) were stopped from boarding a plane at Cairo International Airport. Next came Sunday’s announcement that Egypt’s military government would prosecute LaHood and 18 other Americans, as well as 23 people of other nationalities, on charges that they funded and supported anti-government protests.   

This is serious stuff with worldwide implications: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has threatened to withdraw the annual $1.3 billion in military aid that the U.S. gives to Egypt.

In response to my request for a few minutes on the telephone with Secretary LaHood, his spokeswoman, Meghan Keck, told me via email, “We are referring all questions regarding Sam to the State Department. Secretary LaHood is not doing any interviews about it.” My email to State Department spokesman Mark Toner was not returned by post time.

Here, much condensed, is what I’ve learned about Sam LaHood. He attended graduate school in Lebanon, at the American University of Beruit, and earned a master’s in Middle East studies—not surprising given his father’s Lebanese roots. From 2005 to 2006, he worked for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, where, according to a story in Monday’s Tribune, “…he toured the war-torn country with reporters and helped with coverage of the trial of Saddam Hussein.”  He had been an advance man for McCain during the 2008 campaign, popular with reporters, who saw him as smart, calm, cool, fun, and friendly. (Earlier he worked as a volunteer in George W. Bush’s personnel office and then for the Department of Energy.) 

Most recently young LaHood went to Cairo, where he directed that city’s office of the IRI, remaining through the Tahrir Square riots, the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, the imposition of military rule, and the civilian unrest that has followed. His former employer, John McCain, has spoken out about the NGO raids. The senator’s communications director, Brian Rogers, said via email today, “Senator McCain has been very engaged on this issue.” 

In a statement on his Senate website, McCain said, “I have watched with growing alarm and outrage how the Egyptian government is treating U.S. [NGOs] that are working peacefully, to support civil society in Egypt.” The senator castigated Egyptian officials for “raid[ing]” offices and “harass[ing] and intimidat[ing] their American and Egyptian staff.” and prohibiting them from leaving Egypt. “One of these citizens,” McCain wrote, “is Sam LaHood. It is worrying enough that Sam and his fellow NGO workers have been singled out by name in Egyptian state-owned media; it is outrageous that these individuals would be held against their will.” 

In December 2005 when Sam was in Iraq, Ray LaHood told a reporter for the State Journal-Register, “we worry about him every day because it’s dangerous.” The family Christmas card carried the message, “We pray for his safety every day.” Sam, who is now appearing on the front pages of newspapers around the world, was married last fall to a woman from Baltimore; Politico reported that she was with him in Egypt, but I could not confirm whether she is with him at the embassy.

The Washington-based IRI, which counts John McCain as chairman and Mark Kirk as a member of its board, describes itself as dedicated to “…advanc[ing] freedom and democracy worldwide by developing political parties, civic institutions, open elections, democratic governance and the rule of law.” Earlier in January, Kirk, who remains hospitalized at Northwestern more than two weeks after suffering a stroke, had joined with nine Senate colleagues to threaten Egypt with a cutoff of aid if the NGOs were not allowed to reopen. Were Kirk in Washington, given his close attention to such powder-keg countries as Egypt, Iran, and North Korea, he would be speaking out on the senate floor and working every backchannel imaginable to find a solution to this vexing situation.

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