Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Will Think Tanks Soon Have to Register as Foreign Agents?

With a number of major US think tanks receiving money from foreign governments, there has been an ongoing debate about whether they should have to register as foreign agents under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

Ben Freeman, a Research Fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, has the latest on where things may be headed:

Late Friday the Department of Justice’s Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) Unit issued guidance indicating that think tanks and non-profits doing work at the behest of a foreign government likely have an obligation to register under FARA.

In a new Advisory Opinion — the FARA Unit’s public, though heavily redacted, responses when organizations ask if they should register or not — the Chief of the FARA Unit argues that the unnamed organization in question should register under FARA as its work for foreign principals included outreach to policymakers in the defense community, facilitating “meetings and new partnerships in the United States, particularly with U.S. government officials,” and has agreed to prepare a study that would “foster bilateral exchange and cooperation between” a foreign government and the United States. 

If the FARA Unit is, in fact, viewing papers published at the behest of foreign governments as grounds for FARA registration, think tanks should most definitely take notice. 


Just like FARA advisory opinions from earlier this year, the newest advisory opinion still leaves some uncertainty as to whether certain think tanks should be registering under FARA.

Law firms note, however, that many interactions that think tanks have with foreign entities could potentially trigger FARA scrutiny. 

On Aug. 16, several US senators, including Senate Judiciary Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-IA), sent a letter asking the US Department of Justice (DOJ) to detail steps being taken to ensure that the Brookings Institution and other think tanks tied to foreign entities comply with FARA.

The letter, which requests a response from the DOJ by Aug. 29, comes on the heels of a DOJ investigation into former Brookings President John Allen, who resigned from his position earlier this year amid an FBI foreign lobbying probe.

Meanwhile, a group of House lawmakers recently introduced a bill, the Fighting Foreign Influence Act (H.R. 8106), which would impose a range of new disclosure requirements on think tanks.

Update: Rep. Jack Bergman (R-MI) tweeted that the American people "deserve to know" who is influencing US policy and said he is working on legislation to bring "greater transparency to how think tanks funded by foreign money impact the US legislative process.