Should you need one of these to think?

Think Tanks Aren't Foreign Agents

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The New York Times published an investigation on Sunday that made me wonder if the U.S. might be heading for its own version of Russian President Vladimir Putin's paranoid isolationism. The article asked whether think tanks that get funding from foreign governments shouldn't register as foreign agents under the laws that govern Washington lobbyists.

Lawyers consulted by The New York Times say influential think tanks such as the Brookings Institution, the Atlantic Council and the Center for Strategic and International Studies might need to register in this way, because foreign governments expect them to lobby for their interests in exchange for funding. The article cites the following examples:

"One Brookings senior fellow, Bruce Jones, offered in 2010 to reach out to State Department officials to help arrange a meeting with a senior Norway official, according to a government email. The Norway official wished to discuss his country’s role as a “middle power” and vital partner of the United States.

Brookings organized another event in April 2013, in which one of Norway’s top officials on Arctic issues was seated next to the State Department’s senior official on the topic and reiterated the country’s priorities for expanding oil exploration in the Arctic."

The Foreign Agent Registration Act was adopted in 1938 to fight Nazi and Communist propaganda, and later amended to curb foreign lobbying. The examples in the article would appear to fit the law's definition of a foreign agent as someone, who among other things "represents the interests of such foreign principal before any agency or official of the Government of the United States."

Besides, The New York Times article alleges that some foreign government donors expect the think tanks they fund to produce research that fits their policy goals. There's talk of pressure, self-censorship and sponsors making phone calls to complain about research they don't like. In other words, the U.S. think tank world has a major church-and-(foreign)-state problem.

I'd be worried, too, if the alternative to this conflict of interest weren't even more unsavory. The U.S. FARA legislation inspired Putin's recent crackdown on Russian non-governmental organizations that receive foreign funding. A 2012 law passed by Putin's docile parliament contains a lot of similar wording to FARA's. For example, it requires recipients of foreign donations to provide detailed information to the government about their funding and its uses. In calling for the law's passage, Putin said that "structures directed and financed from overseas inevitably service someone else's interests."

Enforcement has made all the difference between the U.S. and Russian approaches to "foreign agents." Putin's repressive machine has hit non-governmental organizations with ceaseless inspections and demands for more documentation, sometimes making it impossible for them to function. The choice of targets has been telling, too: Moscow prosecutors demanded that Memorial, an organization founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov to study Josef Stalin's reprisals, register as a foreign agent. Many Russian think tanks also have been forced to register.

In the U.S., by contrast, there hasn't been a successful FARA prosecution since 1966, and the U.S. government has not recently attempted to use the law against organizations pushing dissenting agendas. Although it is the Justice Department's Counterespionage Section that collects submissions under FARA, public relations companies and lobbyists that routinely file these reports are not treated as spies.

The reports that U.S. lobbyists do file are perfunctory. One might conclude from PR firm Ketchum's latest FARA filing, for example, that in January-May, 2014, it received $2.5 million from Russian natural gas monopoly Gazprom and $1.5 million from the Russian government, just for fielding press inquiries and sending out press releases. Perhaps the Russian state really is clueless enough to pay $4 million for such simple services, but it seems unlikely.

U.S. think tanks have until now been spared the ignominy of filing even such uninformative reports. So no wonder the Brookings Institution is up in arms: It does, after all, already properly disclose its funding sources to the public.

A researcher, or an activist with a non-governmental organization, is not a foreign agent -- even when her group or think tank receives funding from foreign governments. Such donors have their own reasons for pushing certain lines of research, and they will use the results to further political agendas. In the end, though, any academic study furthers knowledge.

The narrow view that whoever pays the piper calls the tune only applies to academic researchers -- or journalists -- if they allow those who pay them to censor them. In a society where a free exchange of opinions exists, those who work diligently for a master soon diminish and marginalize themselves, because their facts are skewed and their conclusions biased, not because their funding sources are suspect. Labeling think tanks as foreign agents in Russia did not create a convincing "pro-Russian" or "independent" alternative -- it just strengthened Putin's propaganda effort.

The U.S. should hang on to what differentiates it from repressive regimes like Putin's, and lightly applied FARA legislation is one such differentiator. The U.S. government shouldn't care who funds research, or sponsors events at which U.S. officials sit next to those from foreign countries. What matters is whether rival points of view also get a hearing.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net