Thursday, April 2, 2015

Foreign Contributions to Think Tanks Now Searchable

Investigative reporter Brooke Williams, who helped write the influential New York Times piece last year titled "Foreign Powers Buy Influence at Think Tanks," has just created a new website (currently in beta) where one can search and explore foreign government contributions to think tanks.

This past weekend, Ms. Williams led a team called "Open Think Tanks" which worked to create the new website as part of a hackathon at the MIT Media Lab.  The team will be among those presenting their solutions for reducing institutional corruption at a conference at Harvard Law School later this spring.

According to the new site (, it is the first-ever searchable database of foreign government donations to major think tanks in the United States.  It is important to note that it is not comprehensive as some think tanks do not disclose their donors and some governments to not disclose their grant details.

Here are some more details:
Most of the data comes from the think tanks' voluntary disclosures in their annual reports and on their websites. Some of the data comes from the government itself, via public records requests, while others come from Department of Justice filings under the Foreign Agent Registration Act. In one case, a think tank provided the data by email upon request.
Many records of donations do not include amounts. In most cases, it is also impossible to know exactly when the donation was made.
In other words, this tool shows financial relationships rather than detailed transactions.

Through the site, one can also search so-called "Truth in Testimony" reports filed with congressional committees since January 1, 2015.  In the beginning of this year, new rules went into effect requiring those who testify to disclose whether they (or institution they represent) have received money from foreign governments.

The Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University provided funding for the project.