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 repeatedlyreported 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.