Foreign Powers Buy Influence at Think Tanks

More than a dozen prominent Washington research groups have received tens of millions of dollars from foreign governments in recent years while pushing United States government officials to adopt policies that often reflect the donors’ priorities, an investigation by The New York Times has found.

The money is increasingly transforming the once-staid think-tank world into a muscular arm of foreign governments’ lobbying in Washington. And it has set off troubling questions about intellectual freedom: Some scholars say they have been pressured to reach conclusions friendly to the government financing the research.

The think tanks do not disclose the terms of the agreements they have reached with foreign governments. And they have not registered with the United States government as representatives of the donor countries, an omission that appears, in some cases, to be a violation of federal law, according to several legal specialists who examined the agreements at the request of The Times.

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DOJ IG Calls for More Aggressive FARA Enforcement

IG Report: Main Findings

  • The eight-person FARA team is poorly funded and lacks power to compel possible violators to produce information, relying instead on voluntary disclosure.
  • 62 percent of new registrants filed documents late; 50 percent of registrants failed to file required supplemental statements; 15 percent of active registrants “had ceased filing altogether or were over six months delinquent.” The IG concluded that “these compliance rates are unacceptable.”
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) counterintelligence agents, prosecutors, and DOJ’s National Security Division (“NSD”) officials have different understandings of what factually constitutes a “FARA case.”
  • The IG made 14 recommendations, which include: (1) expanding information sources to help DOJ identify potential or delinquent foreign agents; (2) strengthening DOJ’s tracking system for registration files and timely compliance by foreign agents; and (3) coordinating FARA enforcement with DOJ’s national security initiatives.

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Justice Department Records Show Dramatic Rise in FARA Enforcement

But in recent years, Justice’s prosecution of individuals for failing to register under FARA has made headlines (this is separate from the increase in FARA audits described above). In an interview with The Hill, Kelner said Justice has been using FARA as “a convenient tool in espionage and terrorism cases.” And many of the recent cases appear to support that.

The statute has been used against suspected Russian spies, a nonprofit allegedly directed and financed by Pakistan’s spy service, and a Syrian accused of videotaping protests in the U.S. on behalf of Syrian intelligence. All of whom did not register under FARA.    

The distinction between spies and lobbyists may not be so clear, however. A July 2010 article in Intelligence Online, a publication devoted exclusively to covering the public and private intelligence world, suggested that the line between espionage and foreign lobbying has been blurring. The article asserted that foreign governments are now using lobbyists to gather background intelligence on other governments, a function that was traditionally carried out by spies.

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Foreign lobbying enforcement ‘lax’

Loopholes range from lobbyists who are “promoting policies that are not intended to conflict with any existing U.S. domestic or foreign policies,” if the informational materials are “’believed’ by them ‘to be truthful and accurate,’” or the lobbyist is representing the “government of a foreign country the defense of which the President deems vital to the defense of the United States.” 

These contracts can also be more lucrative than LDA fees, netting firms anywhere from a couple thousand dollars to upwards of $120,000 per month. Some FARA contracts are not specifically focused on lobbying lawmakers, and aim to provide PR services or increase business and tourism to other nations. 

“Lobbyists working on behalf of foreign clients occupy a significant, but often overlooked, portion of the U.S. lobbying marketplace,” the POGO report says. Foreign lobbying became a half a billion industry in 2012, making up more than $1 of every $7 spent on registered advocacy that year.

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Civil Society Provides Public Comment on Collection of Foreign Lobbying Documents

POGO and the Sunlight Foundation have issued reports with recommendations on how FARA should be improved. The Sunlight Foundation report focuses on how the DOJ should fix the FARA website, which is broken in many different ways, and also release the data in a structured format. POGO’s report, Loopholes, Filings Failures, and Lax Enforcement, does a deep dive into the lobbying data and highlights the failings of FARA and how it is enforced, with recommendations on how the underlying law should be changed. Those recommendations and additional calls for updates are summarized in the article “Tracking Lobbying by Foreign Governments,”published by Demand Progress.

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POGO Report on FARA Misses the Larger Point

POGO also appeared to criticize DOJ for not requiring more detailed disclosures of lobbyists’ contacts with public officials, observing (incorrectly) that registrants are “not explicitly required to provide specific information about their meetings or contacts with policymakers, such as who they met with or what they discussed, though some registrants choose to provide these details.”  Under guidance issued by DOJ, however, FARA registrants are required to provide a “description of all activities undertaken on behalf of, and all services rendered to, each foreign principal.”  When “reporting contacts with U.S. Government officials,” registrants must provide “the date of the contact; the name and title of the U.S. Government official contacted,” along with “the manner in which the contact was made . . . and a description of the subject matter discussed.”

POGO may not have been aware of this guidance because it is not published by the Department and is instead distributed directly to FARA registrants.  It would be helpful if the Department simply posted this guidance on its website.  Similarly, the Department over the years has issued written guidance in response to advisory opinion requests from registrants, which has been helpful in clarifying FARA’s reporting requirements.  Those opinions are not publicly available, however.  Publishing them on the Department’s website might help clarify the agency’s interpretation of the statute’s more ambiguous provisions.

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The Fall of the House of Boggs

The tale of Patton Boggs’ being brought low illustrates how even the most sophisticated law and lobbying firms are willing to gamble with their reputations and balance sheets in the face of stiffening competition. Other vaunted firms hit even harder than Patton Boggs include Washington antitrust ace Howrey, defunct as of 2010, and New York-based Dewey & LeBoeuf, which collapsed two years later.

The end of Patton Boggs’ half-century as an independent firm brought down the curtain on a style of Washington influence-peddling that Tommy Boggs , who died at age 73 on Monday, helped invent and rode to phenomenal success and riches. Last May, when an enfeebled Patton Boggs — reduced to 330 lawyers from a peak of 550 — announced its merger into 1,300-attorney Squire Sanders, the PR spin was unpersuasive. Patton Boggs boasted that it had been “an industry game-changer” and “through our combination with Squire Sanders we are doing it again.” Hardly. The formation of the new Squire Patton Boggs revealed how a storied D.C. institution risked its standing for a quick score — and lost.

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The Privatization of US Foreign Policy: An Interview with the Author of The Foreign Policy Auction

U.S. foreign policy is being sold. Not just altered, shifted, manipulated, or influenced – sold. Every single day the agents of foreign governments and businesses work to not only monitor U.S. foreign policy, but actively change and even create it. Lobbying for foreign interests is a half billion dollar industry in the U.S. and nearly every country in the world devotes considerable resources to lobbying officials in Washington, or has done so in the past. In fact, just one lobbying firm, Patton Boggs, lobbies for nearly half of the world’s population. And, one in every ten dollars spent on lobbying in the U.S. comes from foreign governments.

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