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Filthy Lucre

Congress Takes Aim at Think Tanks and Their Corrupt Money

A new piece of bipartisan legislation seeks to purge This Town of foreign influence peddling—all of it.

Michael Brochstein/Getty Images
John R. Allen, the former president of the Brookings Institution, has been accused of participating in an illicit financial arrangement with Qatari officials.

Years after Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign thrust the threat of unregistered foreign lobbying back into the national spotlight, Congress is finally pushing to end some of the loopholes that have transformed Washington into a cesspit of foreign influence. At the tip of the spear is the Fighting Foreign Influence Act, a bipartisan measure aimed at cleaning up a broad swath of American industries that are currently bankrolled in part by foreign governments. The bill, devised by Representative Jared Golden, would implement a range of disclosure requirements, as well as a new series of bans on entities that have spent years gorging on illicit wealth. The proposed requirements are some of the boldest that have ever been proposed. But what’s truly unprecedented about this bill is the spectrum of organizations that its supporters hope to cleanse of perfidious foreign influence.

Golden’s bill—which has co-sponsors ranging from Democratic stalwart Katie Porter to Trumpist acolyte Paul Gosarhas three primary prongs, any one of which would be worth passing on its own.

First, the bill “would prevent all registered foreign agents from fundraising for political campaigns.” There is currently no prohibition on any foreign lobbyist donating significant sums to political campaigns, including those they’re targeting on behalf of foreign governments. While foreign governments themselves are theoretically barred from such donations, these American firms and figures provide convenient cut-outs as ways to bankroll susceptible politicians.

And it’s not as if this is theoretical. One study from foreign lobbying expert Ben Freeman found that representatives from the Livingston Groupone of the primary foreign lobbying outfits in the United States, working on behalf of various dictatorships in Washingtondonated directly to dozens of members of Congress whom they simultaneously lobbied, including “the most important players in the foreign policy arena.”

The new bill would also ban all former members of Congressas well as presidents, vice presidents, military officers, and senior executive branch officialsfrom becoming foreign lobbyists after they leave office. Currently, these officials are allowed to work on behalf of whichever foreign principal they’d like, so long as they abide by certain “cooling off” periods. This legislator-to-lobbyist pipeline has been lucrative in recent years, flooding the foreign lobbying apparatus with former officials eager to cash in on their contacts. Even supposed patriots such as the late Bob Dole took part in the foreign lobbying carousel, opening the floodgates for other American officials to follow.  

But the most innovative part of Golden’s bill would force all American think tanks and nonprofits to disclose any notable donations from foreign governments or foreign political parties. This measure is long overdue, not least since American think tanks spent the past few decades effectively transforming into foot-soldiers for a range of foreign governments—especially dictatorships seeking to access influential lawmakers for the sake of upending American policy. Such well-known think tanks as the Brookings Institution, the Aspen Institute, and the Baker Institute have spent years taking millions from autocratic and despotic governments, without any requisite disclosure requirements. The same goes for all manner of American nonprofits, from universities to cultural centersincluding such entities as the Clinton Foundation, which has spent years acting as the go-to group for donations from foreign regimes and oligarchs.

On their face, think tanks and related nonprofits appear distinct from the broader lobbying apparatus that foreign governments turn to in Washington; as think tank executives claim time and again, their work focuses largely on research, rather than advocacy for any of the governments funding their work.

It’s a nice line. But it’s also a lie. As investigation after investigation after investigation has uncovered, American think tanks routinely do the bidding of their foreign patrons, pushing pro-regime messaging and policy among audiences and policymakers in Washington and whitewashing dictatorships in order for them to continue their heinous reigns. Even America’s porous foreign lobbying disclosure requirementsthose that went largely unenforced until Trump’s 2016 campaigndon’t apply to think tanks, which are free to keep their foreign donations secret.

But with the bill’s introduction, that could soon change. And it couldn’t come a moment too soon. While Trump’s corruption brought unregistered foreign lobbying to the fore, revelations and investigations have only continued in recent months, outlining just how open Washingtonand the groups targeted in this new billhave been to foreign funding.

The most spectacular and scandalous foreign lobbying accusations came earlier this month, when a search warrant filed by the FBI detailed how John Allen, who served for years as the head of the Brookings Institution, allegedly acted as a lobbyist for the government in Qatar. This was hardly the first time Brookings’s relationship with Qatar had caused headlines. Nearly a decade ago, The New York Times revealed that Brookingsconsidered to be the first think tank formed in the U.S., over a century agohad taken millions of dollars from the Gulf dictatorship, the biggest single source of funds at the organization. While Brookings executives denied that any of the group’s work pushed pro-Qatari policy, multiple affiliates cited an atmosphere of “self-censorship,” with one describing a “no-go zone when it came to criticizing the Qatari government.”

But that atmosphere appears almost quaint compared to the allegations against Allen, who recently resigned from his position as Brookings president. As the search warrant details, Allena retired four-star general who once oversaw all American and NATO troops in Afghanistaneffectively became a bagman for the regime in Qatar. In numerous meetings with Qatari officials and other pro-Qatari lobbyists, Allen directly advised Qatar on how to craft its messaging. This included pushing the use of “black” information operations, which, as the AP detailed, “are typically covert and sometimes illegal.”

In return for his efforts, Allen requested tens of thousands of dollars as a “speaker’s fee” and setting up a “fuller arrangement of a longer-term relationship.”  Meanwhile, back in Washington, Allen took part in a range of high-level meetings with White House officials, pushing pro-Qatari policywithout ever bothering to disclose his financial arrangements. Nor was it just requests for things like “speaker’s fees.” As the affidavit details, “at the same time he was lobbying U.S. government officials on behalf of Qatar, Allen pursued at least one multimillion-dollar business deal with the Qatari government on behalf of a company on whose board of directors he served.”

It didn’t stop there. When American investigators began poking around Allen’s work on behalf of Qatar, subpoenaing documents from the former general, Allen failed to turn over “documents that revealed his financial interest,” including “incriminating documents” linking him directly with other lobbyists working for Qatar. During questioning, Allen further laid out a “false version of events” about his links to Qatar. (Allen’s spokesperson has denied these allegations.)

The allegations would be enough to make Paul Manafort blush. And they hardly come in a vacuum, following other similar revelations about prominent Americans secretly working at the behest of foreign governments. There’s the recent news about Steve Wynn, the former finance chair of the Republican National Committee, allegedly working as a secret agent on behalf of Beijing. And there’s the recent charges against Tom Barrack, who allegedly spent his time as a Trump adviser simultaneously working as an agent for the United Arab Emirates.

Regardless of the outcome of those cases, one thing is clear: The openings for foreign influence in Washington have been far wider than even the most cynical assumed. Which is why the new bill introduced is a breath of fresh airand a long-overdue salve for the sieve of unchecked foreign lobbying still saturating Washington.