In case you hadn’t noticed (and not to notice you’d have to be blind), we’re not exactly alone in this country anymore. We were true pioneers in what might be considered a great American tradition of interfering in the affairs of other nations — think about just how radically the U.S. meddled in other democratic lands like Iran or Guatemala once upon a time. Now, it’s being taken up big time here by others. Whether we’re talking about the Russians in the 2016 elections, the Ukrainians in the upcoming one, or Saudi royals looking into the Twitter accounts of possible critics to suppress while conducting espionage here on American soil, there seems to be quite a crowd of countries and interested foreign parties jostling illegally for advantage in the good old U.S. of A.
Worse yet, much of that jostling is happening in ways hardly noticed that still pass for perfectly legal, ones that won’t land any country’s representatives (or their lobbyists) in trouble, no less in the clinker here. TomDispatch regular Ben Freeman has been following the all-too-legal part of the growing story of foreign interference in American domestic affairs for some time now. Back in February 2019, for instance, he wrote for this site about the money trail that leads from autocratic allies in the Middle East directly to Washington’s most prestigious think tanks and so into the heart and soul of the Washington establishment. Today, he and Ryan Summers, both with the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy, consider just how ripe the country’s political system is for foreign interference in ways that don’t even faintly break the law. Believe me, it’s a hell of a hellish tale to tell. Tom
Foreign influence in America is the topic du jour. From the impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s request that a foreign power investigate a political opponent to the indictment of associates of his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, for illegally funneling foreign money into U.S. elections, the nation has been transfixed by news of illegal foreign influence in the political process. While such efforts to subvert American elections garner headlines, there remains a treasure trove of perfectly legal ways foreign powers are subverting American democracy. And they’re not waiting for election day — they’re doing it every single day of the year.
“Legislation Is Prepared by Lobbyists All the Time”
Foreign powers have a remarkably direct way of making sure their voices are heard in Washington: let their lobbyists script what various members of Congress say. That may sound wild, but it’s actually commonplace. Lee Fang of the Intercept reported a typical example of this recently. He discovered that, on November 13, 2017, Representative Ed Royce (R-CA), then chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, read verbatim into the congressional record a set of talking points given to his office by lobbyists working for the Saudi government. As Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA) and a bipartisan group of lawmakers debated invoking the War Powers Act to end U.S. support for the war in Yemen, Ari Fridman, a lobbyist working for Hogan Lovells, itself representing Saudi Arabia, distributed Saudi talking points to Royce and others. In a C-SPAN video from the debate on the floor, Royce can be seen parroting these very talking points, word for word.
This might seem like an extraordinary success for any lobbyist of a foreign power, but it’s actually quite common. A report by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), co-authored by Ben Freeman, for instance, documented multiple examples of foreign agents writing speeches, even legislation, for members of Congress. Most notably, their investigation unearthed documents showing a foreign agent had provided track-change edits on a proposed bill to a staffer working for Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI). When the legislation was finally introduced by the senator, it included the exact language the lobbyist had suggested. Asked about this, that agent responded, “It’s not unusual for us to comment back and forth” with Congressional staff about legislation. He added, “Proposed legislation is prepared by lobbyists all the time.”
In our post-Citizens United world where, thanks to that 2010 Supreme Court decision, money is considered speech when it comes to campaign finance, agents working on behalf of foreign governments regularly “speak” with their pocketbooks. The Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy (CIP), where we work, has repeatedly reported on how agents of foreign governments make campaign contributions to the congressional representatives they’re contacting on behalf of foreign powers.
Sometimes they even make such donations on the very day they meet with the member of Congress. In investigating the Saudi lobby in 2018, we found at least five instances when lawmakers received campaign contributions on the day they or their staff spent time with someone working for the Saudis. Firms representing Saudi Arabia gave this way to Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK), Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Senator Tina Smith (D-MN), Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), and Representative Mike Conaway (R-TX). Even more striking are contacts (and contributions) made just prior to important votes on Capitol Hill. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), for instance, received a total of $3,000 from Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, a firm representing the Saudis, in the four days before a March 20th, 2018, vote on a War Powers Resolution introduced to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. (One of those contributions came on the day of the vote.) Nelson, who has since lost his Senate seat, ended up voting against the Yemen resolution in line with Saudi interests.
While foreign nationals are prohibited from making campaign contributions — exactly what presidential lawyer and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani’s Ukrainian associates are accused of orchestrating — nothing prohibits citizens working on their behalf from such donations. Some would argue that gestures of this sort look remarkably like bribery, but they are perfectly legal, according to the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), as long as any contributions an agent reports are “from your own funds and on your own behalf.”
Buying Think-Tank Thinking
Foreign powers have ample ability, through their lobbyists, to directly influence congressional legislation. They also have at least three indirect, perfectly legal avenues for trying to shift U.S. foreign policy in their favor: think tanks, the media, and academia.
As CIP’s recent report on the influence of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in America documented, lobbyists hired by foreign powers often work directly with influential think tanks to shape the narrative about the countries they represent. They meet with think-tank experts, provide them with talking points, offer research assistance, and sometimes even give them all-expense-paid trips to the country in question.
Such talking points are disseminated to think-tank pundits in part to influence what they’ll write or say. Their work, in turn, is often shared by various congressional offices. This process is effectively talking-point laundering. A foreign power’s message is communicated to sympathetic think-tank experts who then echo the talking points in their work, speeches, or even testimony before Congress without having to disclose their connections to that country.
For example, as our UAE report documented, Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has an extremely close relationship with lobbyists working on behalf of the UAE and his public comments often echo their talking points. An article Knights wrote on June 14, 2018, on the UAE’s move to “liberate” the Yemeni port of Hodeidah, deeply embroiled in the Saudi-UAE war in that embattled land, closely mirrored an article disseminated by Hagir Elawad & Associates, a firm working on behalf of that country. It, in turn, had been written by Anwar Gargash, the current UAE minister of state for foreign affairs.
FARA filings show as well that Knights has a very close relationship with Richard Mintz, managing director of the Harbour Group, which also represents the UAE in Washington. He reportedly coordinated with Knights on four separate trips to visit UAE forces in Yemen. Afterward, Knights would write a distinctly uncritical analysis about UAE operations in Yemen, never, for instance, mentioning the targeted-assassination program that UAE officials oversaw there or the fact that those same forces gave U.S.-supplied weapons to al-Qaeda and other militant groups in that country. He also dismissed accusations of war crimes by UAE forces as just the work of “local proxies.”
While registered foreign agents legally have to declare anything they distribute on behalf of a foreign power, there is no such requirement for think-tank experts. In fact, such institutions don’t even have to disclose that they receive funding from foreign powers. Under current law it’s perfectly legal for scholars whose work is funded by a foreign government to craft an article with that government’s registered foreign agents without disclosing any of their ties.
This can become particularly problematic when such experts testify before Congress without disclosing their potential conflicts of interest. The House of Representatives requires witnesses to fully reveal foreign funding before testifying, but in many instances, such experts don’t disclose the money their institutions receive from foreign governments. A POGO report found that the existing House rule relating to testimonial transparency is remarkably weak, allowing many witnesses to adopt a particularly narrow interpretation of the “issues related” to their testimony. In the process, they simply don’t disclose their foreign ties.
Experts from the Atlantic Council, which received at least $2,585,000 in foreign funding in 2018, for example, failed to disclose this funding when appearing before Congress. Perhaps most notably, two Atlantic Council experts who testified on “reforming the National Security Council” and “defeating terrorism in Syria” didn’t reveal the more than $1 million dollars the Atlantic Council received from the United Arab Emirates embassy in Washington, even though the UAE undoubtedly had an interest in each of those issues.
Shaping the Media Narrative
Media outlets are another prime target of foreign influence operations. Some governments, of course, run their own media outlets in America and many of these are required to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. China’s CCTV and Russia’s RT, which was deemed “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet” in the Director of National Intelligence’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, are obvious examples. And, of course, foreign powers continue to engage in a number of illegal Twitter and Facebook activities meant to influence domestic politics, as well as American views of their own countries. In early November, for example, two former Twitter employees were charged with spying for Saudi Arabia and accessing the private information of the Kingdom’s critics in the U.S.
Generally ignored, however, are the ways in which foreign powers often engage in legal media manipulation that neither they, nor such outlets, are required to tell viewers or listeners about. One of the most common tactics is simply to work closely with reporters covering issues of importance to them. No surprise then that the Center for International Policy’s investigations have consistently found journalists among the top targets of registered foreign agents. In some cases it’s fairly easy to see how this influence gets converted into extremely positive spin on their behalf.
Take, for example, OZY, which brands itself as “news for the disruptive.” Its reporters were contacted repeatedly by UAE agents in late 2017 and early 2018 regarding “story ideas” and to arrange interviews. This courtship culminated in two extraordinarily flattering OZY pieces, one describing Dubai’s “Museum of the Future” and the other portraying Dubai as “one of the world’s new fashion capitals,” ignoring the fact that you can face up to three years in prison, especially if you’re a woman, for dressing inappropriately there.
Foreign Influence in the Ivory Tower
While foreign influence in Washington has consistently made front-page headlines, it’s arguably just as pervasive at American universities. Chinese influence has, for instance, garnered considerable attention in recent years. That country’s Confucius Institutes, ostensibly language and cultural centers at American colleges paid for by the Chinese government, have been the focus of eye-opening congressional investigations on the role foreign governments can play on campus. As a Senate investigation reported in early 2019, “Confucius Institute funding comes with strings that can compromise academic freedom,” allowing the Chinese government to play censor at academic conferences on U.S. soil and even censor course materials critical of China.
Chinese influence on campus has garnered headlines, but that country is just one of more than 100 that have funneled $9-plus billion in foreign money to U.S. college campuses in the past five years, according to the Department of Education — and China isn’t even the biggest player among them. That honor, believe it or not, goes to little (but wealthy) Qatar, which has given more than $1.3 billion to American universities since 2014, nearly three times as much as the Chinese. Its officials, in turn, have gone to great lengths to ensure that the strings attached to such funding aren’t known to the public. They even sued the state of Texas to prevent Texas A&M, one of its top grantees, from having to disclose the details of its relationship with Qatar.
While at least two dozen universities are severing ties with Confucius Institutes, schools have been far more reluctant to cut ties with other authoritarian governments. After the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, for example, universities and think tanks faced considerable pressure to sever ties with Saudi Arabia, but few did. Since 2014, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one of the most prestigious universities in the country, has received the most money from the Saudis — at least $77 million, according to Department of Education records.
Following outrage after Khashoggi’s brutal murder, MIT began a reassessment of its financial ties with the Kingdom. However, in February, when that assessment was finished — and outrage over Khashoggi’s murder was no longer front-page news — a letter sent to the school’s students and teachers concluded that the faculty should be able to “continue their current engagements with colleagues, students, and public and private research sponsors in Saudi Arabia… as long as these projects remain consistent with MIT policies and procedures and U.S. laws and regulations.”
Saudi influence on campus can be even more direct than funding. In at least one case, a registered foreign agent working on behalf of that country was a professor on a college campus. According to a report by Brian McGlinchey, an expert on Saudi influence in America, in 2018 Bill Smullen, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, was more recently a registered agent working on behalf of Saudi Arabia while serving as director of the Maxwell School of National Security Studies at Syracuse University. FARA filings show that Smullen was paid to provide “public relations support” for the Saudis, while serving as the head of that prestigious national-security program. When asked if the Saudi money might lead him to show them in a more favorable light at Syracuse, Smullen quickly dismissed the idea, saying, “I don’t think there is any conflict of interest.”
Expanding the Spotlight to Perfectly Legal Foreign Influence
The scrutiny placed on malign actors like Rudy Giuliani’s associates and their alleged dealings with Ukrainian elites to compromise an American election is certainly warranted. We live in a world in which the ability of foreign powers to undermine American democracy (as this country once undermined democracies elsewhere) remains a genuine threat. Seldom, however, does anyone even think about the influence operations of foreign powers — operations that are perfectly legal and don’t garner headlines.
The American political system, which has always been vulnerable to outside influence, is arguably more susceptible to foreign meddling now than it has been in decades — and most of it is perfectly legal. From woefully inadequate disclosures regarding conflicts of interest by witnesses testifying before Congress to foreign agents filling campaign coffers and literally writing our laws, as well as influencing think tanks, media outlets, and universities, there remain a host of legal ways for foreign powers to try to bend our policies and thinking to their will. While it’s imperative that we be vigilant in rooting out illegal foreign influence, if American democracy is to remain “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” a bright light should be directed onto all forms of influence that seek to undermine it.
Ryan Summers is a research associate with the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy.
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Copyright 2019 Ryan Summers and Ben Freeman