Tuesday, May 29, 2018

When Think Tanking Becomes Illegal

When most people think of think tanks, they may picture soporific talks on the minutiae of energy policy or foreign affairs, men in suits pontificating about esoteric executive branch regulations, or 100-page policy proposals to update the Merchant Marine Act of 1920.

While all that exists, a much darker side lies just under the surface, one that involves PR gurus, lobbyists, foreign governments, spy agencies, embassies, corporations, trade associations, political hacks, shady consultants, and various categories of movers and shakers all trying to gather information and influence ideas and the thousands of scholars that live in and around Washington.

Here is a recent example from Reuters:

A Maryland man has pleaded guilty to charges that he failed to register as a foreign agent in connection with lobbying work he did for the Pakistani government in an effort to shape U.S. foreign policy, the Justice Department said on Monday.
The newly unsealed case against Nisar Ahmed Chaudhry, a Pakistani national and U.S. permanent resident, marks a rare instance in which the Justice Department has pursued a prosecution under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires people who lobby on behalf of foreign governments or political parties to register with the United States.
In Chaudhry’s case, filed April 19 and unsealed on Monday, the government said he worked to influence U.S. officials on foreign policies toward Pakistan from 2012 through 2018 without disclosing it.
The Justice Department said he represented that his activities were merely educational and not affiliated with Pakistan’s government when he met with think tank scholars and current and former U.S. government officials, including U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents who interviewed Chaudhry when he returned to the United States from travels to Pakistan. 

Here is what the US Justice Department said:
Chaudhry interacted on a routine basis with representatives of the Government of Pakistan, at their Embassy in Washington, D.C. and consular office in New York City.  Chaudhry also interacted with numerous institutes, foundations and organizations operating in and around Washington, D.C., commonly referred to as "think tanks," that played a role in shaping and influencing U.S. foreign policy.  Chaudhry organized roundtable discussions in Washington, D.C. and Maryland metropolitan areas between his American government and think tank contacts and visiting Pakistan government officials to influence United States foreign policy in a direction favorable to Pakistan’s interests.   Chaudhry cultivated contacts within these entities and the U.S. government in order to obtain in-depth information regarding the U.S. government's policies towards Pakistan.  Chaudhry then sought to neutralize unfavorable views of Pakistan held by current and former U.S. government officials by employing certain methods of discussion with these individuals during personal interactions with them and/or by controlling and manipulating discussion at the roundtable events he organized or attended.
In order to be more effective in obtaining information of interest to Pakistan, and to gain a strategic advantage in acquiring information that might not otherwise be divulged to official representatives of the Government of Pakistan, Chaudhry falsely represented that his activities were solely educational in nature and not affiliated with the Pakistan government.  These representations were made not only to American think tank scholars, but also to current and former U.S. government officials, including U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents who interviewed Chaudhry upon entry into the United States from his travels to Pakistan.
According to his plea agreement, Chaudhry regularly traveled to Pakistan to brief high-level Pakistan government officials on information obtained from his American government and think tank contacts.

It has not been publicly disclosed which think tanks Chaudhry frequented, but a link from the Embassy of Pakistan shows that the government of Pakistan has embraced a number of think tanks, including the Heritage Foundation, United States Institute of Peace (USIP), Atlantic Council, Wilson Center, New America, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Even with all of those interactions, US-Pakistan relations have taken a nosedive in recent months.  Most recently, the US and Pakistani governments formally imposed mutual curbs on the travel and movements of each other's diplomats.  Now, Pakistani diplomats and their families cannot travel more than 25 miles from Washington without prior permission.  In other words, they are essentially stuck riding the think tank circuit in DC and nearby environs.  The good news?  There are about 500 think tanks to choose from.

Here is a recent Think Tank Watch piece about fake think tanking.