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A recent investigation by the New York Times reveals that more than a dozen of D.C.’s major think tanks have received millions in funding from foreign governments. In return, many of the organizations promote donor country priorities and work to influence U.S. policy. Though few publicly report the funding or the terms, legal experts say that under American law, it’s likely the money should be disclosed. We explore the legal and ethical implications.
- Joshua Rosenstein Partner, Sandler, Reiff, Lamb, Rosenstein & Birkenstock, P.C.
- Bill Allison Editorial Director, Sunlight Foundation; Coordinator, ForeignLobbying.org
- James Mcgann Director, Think Tanks and Foreign Policy Program; Asst. Director, International Relations Program, University of Pennsylvania; President, Mcgann Associaties.
- Eric Lipton Reporter, New York Times
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. A recent New York Times investigation revealed that more than a dozen of Washington's biggest think tanks have received tens of millions of dollars in funding from foreign governments in recent years. In many cases, the funding is accompanied by implicit or explicit expectations that the organization will further the goals and priorities of the donor country. Some legal experts say this amounts to lobbying on behalf of those governments. Such arrangements also raise questions about transparency, about scholarly independence.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss the article and the response that it has gotten is Joshua Rosenstein. He's a partner with the law firm of Sandler, Reiff, Lamb, Rosenstein & Birkenstock here in Washington, D.C., where he specializes in advising the advocacy community. Josh Rosenstein, thank you for joining us.
MR. JOSHUA ROSENSTEINThank you for having me.
NNAMDIBill Allison is also with us. He is the editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, where he also oversees the foreign lobbying influence tracker. Sunlight is a nonprofit focused on transparency around money in politics. Bill Allison, thank you for joining us.
MR. BILL ALLISONThank you for having me on.
NNAMDIJoining us by phone is Eric Lipton. He is a reporter for The New York Times. He was co-author of an article investigating the relationship between think tanks and foreign governments, along with Brooke Williams and Nicholas Confessore. Eric Lipton, thank you for joining us.
MR. ERIC LIPTONThank you for having me.
NNAMDIEric, you and two co-authors examined the relationship between think tanks and foreign governments. Can you talk about what you found?
LIPTONWhat we found is that foreign governments see think tanks as a vehicle for them to promote their foreign policy agendas in Washington. And so, of course, they have their diplomats here, they have their ambassador, their ministers come and visit Washington. But the think tanks offer them a way to amplify their efforts in Washington to essentially have events in which topics that they think are important receive attention, or to, you know, have specific studies done in areas that are, you know, foreign policy that matter to them.
LIPTONThe open question is whether or not the think tanks themselves are sort of active participants in this lobbying campaign. And that's sort of the core of what we examined. And what we found was that in some cases they do appear to be sort of actively acting as almost, essentially, foreign agents for these foreign governments. They're taking money and they're working under the direction of the foreign governments. In other cases, they're simply sort of tools, essentially, of the efforts by the foreign governments to try to influence Washington.
NNAMDIHow transparent, Eric, was the information about where funding is coming from and how the money is used?
LIPTONWell, that's one of the things that's certainly improving in Washington is that more and more think tanks are publishing information about who their donors are and, generally speaking, how much they're getting. So, for example, CSIS, as we were working on the story, provided to us for the first time a list of their foreign and major corporate donors. And, you now, you have more and more organizations -- because essentially there's been a greater call for transparency -- for, you know, more and more of these think tanks are in fact listing who their donors are. And that's what's allowed to us to compile this information and to get greater visibility into just how many foreign governments are donors to these organizations.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're discussing foreign governments and think tanks and inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Are you surprised at the extent of the ties between think tanks and foreign governments? Do you think foreign money could compromise the independence of scholarly work at research institutions? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Go to our website, kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there. Or send us a tweet @kojoshow.
NNAMDIBill Allison, this article has gotten a great deal of attention, particularly here in Washington where most of these think tanks are based. Can you talk a little bit about the role, about the importance of think tanks here in Washington and for that matter beyond?
ALLISONSure. Well, think tanks, I mean, one of the key things they do is come up with policies, come up with positions, come up with -- on a whole range of issues -- everything from education to foreign policy. But another thing that think tanks do is they've become almost, you know, for the party out of power, it's perches for the people who will be in the next administration, and also for the party that is in the White House. A lot of folks who go to think tanks end up being in the next administration. So we're not just talking about people who are, you know, disinterested academics. I mean, a lot of these people are political players and have an interest in getting back into the power and into Washington.
ALLISONThey will host events. They will bring together all kinds of people. They will try to get government folks. I mean, you see the invitations that go out from think tanks. They go to nonprofit sectors. They go to law firms. They go to corporate interests. And they will go to government people. And they're most interested in influencing the debate in Washington.
NNAMDIEric, you focus in particular on Norway and that country's relationship with U.S. think tanks. Why Norway?
LIPTONWell, it's -- to some extent, it's sort of unfortunate for Norway. And the reason that we spent so much time looking at Norway is because the government of Norway has such a strong open-records law. So we were able -- my colleague, Brooke Williams, who collected many of these documents over a series of many months, did a series of essentially freedom of information requests to the government of Norway for copies of emails and contracts, project documents. And so we got great visibility into the very detailed relationship between the government of Norway and quite a number of think tanks in Washington.
LIPTONAnd we also got a copy of an internal report, which was prepared for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in which it said explicitly that they donate so much money to think tanks in Washington, A, because it gives them greater access to policymakers in Washington, and, B, because it allows them to influence foreign policy and to help move their agenda in Washington. So they, themselves, said that.
NNAMDIIn other cases, specific objectives and agreements were spelled out. Can you talk about some examples?
LIPTONYeah, I mean, the most explicit example was an organization called Center for Global Development and one of its subcontractors, Climate Advisers. And in that case, the government of Norway gave them approximately $5 million over a three-year period -- the money is still being distributed -- with the explicit intent of lobbying the White House, Congress, the Treasury Department, the USAID, you know, the Agency for International Development, other players in Washington, in an effort to try to double the amount of funding that's available for a particular environmental program that the government of Norway supports, that tries to limit the clearing of forests in countries like Indonesia and Brazil.
LIPTONAnd it's an alternative way to try to attack climate change. And the government of Norway was particularly, you know, strong -- had strong feelings about it. And the thing, you know, you can think that's good or bad. That's sort of indifferent to us. But it was really interesting to see how they had specifically tasked the Center for Global Development with lobbying the White House and these other agencies of the federal government, without them -- this organization -- filing what's called a Foreign Agents Registration Act Disclosure that indicated that it was actually working as a foreign agent for a foreign government.
NNAMDIEric Lipton is a reporter for The New York Times, co-authoring an article investigating the relationship between think tanks and foreign governments, along with Brooke Williams and Nicholas Confessore. You can find a link to that article at our website, kojoshow.org. It includes a database of the money that the reporters were able to track. Josh Rosenstein, beyond transparency issues, there are also legal issues here. As an attorney, you advise advocacy groups as to their legal responsibilities, including in this area. What does the law say?
ROSENSTEINWell, the Foreign Agents Registration Act is actually a very old law from the 1930s that was sort of a remnant of Congress' attempts to weed out Nazi infiltration. The law is still on the books. And largely what this law is, is simply a disclosure statute. What it says is that, in many cases, if you are representing in the United States a foreign government, a foreign political party, certain other foreign entities, and on their behalf, you agree to undertake certain political activities, you're required to register with the Justice Department and periodically thereafter disclose your activities and your funding from those foreign governments or foreign political parties.
NNAMDII guess we should be clear. The law does not say you cannot do these things. It simply says that if you are doing these things, then you have to register with the Justice Department.
ROSENSTEINThat's exactly right.
NNAMDIAre there laws around disclosing the terms of agreements with foreign governments?
ROSENSTEINYes. One of the provisions in the Foreign Agents Registration Act provides that when you file your initial registration with the Justice Department, you are required to disclose -- if you have a written contract -- you're actually required to disclose the written contract, which then becomes a matter of public record. It's searchable on DOJ's website through a database. In addition, if you don't have a written contract -- if all you have is an oral or a verbal agreement -- you are required to describe the terms of that agreement, the services you'll be providing, the scope of your work, so on and so forth. And you're written description of your agreement would also become a matter of public record.
NNAMDIAgain, if you have a question or comment, you can call us at 800-433-8850. What kind of transparency do you think, think tanks owe the public? 800-433-8850. We'll go now to Burt in Washington, D.C. Burt, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BURTThank you, Kojo. I have a recommendation about transparency. But the denial or assertion by the heads of various think tanks like Strobe Talbott at Brookings, that they don't get direction, misses the point. They're not going to bite the hand that feeds them. So if they get large money from a country, it's very unlikely that there's going to be a report or even a panel discussion with a heavy focus criticizing that country. They don't need to get detailed directions. My recommendation is that the disclosure has to be co-located with what they do. To merely have a fairer filing -- and I've filed foreign agents reports -- or somewhere else where they get their money for aficionados, is not enough.
BURTWhat there needs to be -- at the end of a report or in connection with publicity of a panel discussion -- disclosure for the general public or congressional staff that they are getting money from a country which is significantly involved as a subject of the report or of the panel discussion. So that the public sees it as they read it and weigh the report. To merely have it filed in a government office that super experts look up is not the appropriate disclosure. It needs to be co-located with what they're producing.
NNAMDIGlad you brought that up, Burt, because we invited a number of think tanks to join this conversation. All declined. But several have come out with strong statements defending the integrity of their work. The Center for Global Development says it stands fully behind the independence of its research and policy work, which has never been and never will be compromised. The Atlantic Council's chief executive, Frederick Kempe, said our currency is our credibility. Most of the governments that have come to us, they understand that we are not lobbyists. We are a different entity. Bill, Josh, clearly many think tanks don't see what they do as lobbying. Is there ambiguity here? Starting with you, Bill.
ALLISONI think that what -- I think that the statute is really clear. And of course, Joshua can talk to you about it much more succinctly than I can. But I think the real question is, if you're taking money from a foreign government or you're one of the covered entities of that FARA describes, and you're trying to influence Washington -- I mean it doesn't matter -- I think what they're argument is, is that, well, our scholars are saying what our scholars would say regardless of where the money is coming from. They agree with themselves and that's what's important. But I think the real issue is, do they agree with the clients?
ALLISONAnd what matters is, you know, are they advancing the clients' interests? And, you know, in several of the examples that The Times came up with, that appears to be what these scholars were doing.
ROSENSTEINWell, I think one of the fundamental concepts here is that of agency. And that, as Mr. Lipton pointed out in his article and as Bill just pointed out, is exactly what some of these documents appear to show. If a think tank is knowingly accepting responsibility and accepting funding and accepting a scope of work where they will produce certain output at the end of their process, and they're being paid and controlled and directed by a foreign government, then the law is clear.
ROSENSTEINBut let me make one other quick point and that is the Foreign Agents Registration Act applies to more things than traditional lobbying. And I think that that could be a source of some confusion. Under the Lobbying Disclosure Act which governs domestic lobbying of congress and certain federal executive branch officials, lobbying is frankly a sort of limited definition of activities. Trying to advocate directly with a federal official to influence some sort of policy outcomes. And then there are all these triggers that have to be met.
ROSENSTEINFARA however has a more broad definition than actively advocating and meeting with or contacting federal officials. What FARA applies to is agreeing or actually doing political activities. That includes not only direct things that we would think of as traditional lobbying but it also includes strategizing. A foreign government hires you to help them just draft a government affairs strategy. How can they interact with the United States to further their interests? That would be an activity that the statute covers and for which it requires registration.
NNAMDIWhat does the Justice Department have to say about all of this?
ROSENSTEINWell, I haven't spoken to the Justice Department about this. I don't know if Mr. Lipton has. But the Justice Department does take a look periodically at entities that it believes for one reason or another should or might likely have been under its auspices -- under the auspices of FARA. And, you know, my position here is quite simple.
ROSENSTEINI don't mean to denigrate the work -- the important work that the think tanks are doing at all. They serve a valuable -- they are quite valuable here in the United States, however if what they are doing is what some of the documents appear to make them out as doing, that is acting on behalf of foreign governments with specific tasks set forth or specific outcomes indicated by those foreign governments at the outset, then just Justice Department frankly should treat them just like it treats any other entity in this country. And that is, send them an inquiry, ask them what's going on. And in many cases maybe the Justice Department will say, you know what, you're right, there's nothing here. But the law is the law.
NNAMDIEric Lipton, any indication of what the Justice Department is saying about all of this?
LIPTONThey're being pretty tight-lipped about the matter. I did speak with them a number of times last week addressing this exact question. And all that they would say was that if there is a potential violation that is brought to their attention, that they will examine it. And so I also, you know, did ask the Center for Global Development if they had had any contact with Justice in recent days. And they said they had not. But they also did say that they were reviewing the matter with their lawyers.
LIPTONI mean, again, I mean, Joshua makes this point, and I do, in the defense of the think tanks, the most important line in the far law for them is the language that refers to that they're acting under the direction, the request or the control of the foreign government. So, you know, even -- they argue that even if the outcome of their research happens to reflect the objectives of the foreign government, they argue that they are not acting under the request, you know, or direction or control of the foreign government. So therefore they're not foreign agents.
LIPTONIt's just essentially coincidental that the outcomes reflect the same policy goals of these foreign governments. And, you know, that's a hard thing to prove. And in some cases we have some documents and it has to -- again, it goes back to Norway in which it does, you know, very explicitly look as if they're acting under at least the request of the foreign government. But that's what really it hinges on and that's the question that Justice is going to have to examine.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll be joined by James McGann who has been -- whose scholarly work has focused on think tanks for more than 25 years. You can still call us at 800-433-8850. What kind of transparency do you think think tanks owe the public, 800-433-8850? You can send email to email@example.com or send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about foreign governments and think tanks. We're talking with Eric Lipton, a reporter for the New York Times who co-authored an article investigating the relationship between think tanks and foreign governments, along with Brooke Williams and Nicholas Confessore. You can find a link to that article at our website kojoshow.org. Joining us in studio is Joshua Rosenstein, partner with the law firm Sandler, Reiff, Lamb, Rosenstein and Birkenstock here in Washington. He specializes in advising the advocacy community.
NNAMDIBill Allison is the editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation where he also oversees the Foreign Lobbying Influence Tracker. And joining us now from studios at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School is James McGann, director of the Think Tanks and Foreign Policy Program at the University of Pennsylvania where he's also assistant director of the International Relations Program. James McGann, thank you for joining us.
MR. JAMES MCGANNI'm glad to be a part of the discussion.
NNAMDIYour scholarly work, as I mentioned earlier, has focused on think tanks for more than 25 years but you raise concerns about this article. First, about the methodology used.
MCGANNYes. I think if we're looking at what are basic standards for journalism and research, there are three dimensions. One that we all should ask ourselves, is it honest, is it accurate and is it fair? And in all of these areas the article fails miserably. It is -- it reflects major biases in terms of the source. The lawyers and the lawyer that's on the show has a direct benefit from hyping the FARA controversy as he suggests and uses language that the think tanks are paid and controlled by these institutions, which is a distortion.
MCGANNThere is a -- the co-author Brook Williams came to my office over a year-and-a-half ago with the same basic premise. And when I challenged her on the findings or conclusions she had already came to, she was unmoved by the evidence. It is a selective use of facts. There are serious submissions. And, in fact, when evidence countered to what was suggested in the article was provided to the authors, they ignored it.
MCGANNAnd there is an interesting absence of any dissenting opinions or counter evidence, which is unusual in terms of what we've come to be accustomed to in terms of effective and high quality journalism. It is more -- has a tenor of attack journalism, not journalism that is seeking the evidence, seeking the truth and dong it in a fair and transparent way.
NNAMDIWell, I hear the argument that it isn't fair but can you be more specific about it not being accurate? Where is the inaccuracy in the article?
MCGANNWell, first of all, I mean, the suggestion by two of the panelists that they're taking the money and acting on behalf of governments and that they are paid and controlled by governments is totally without any shred of evidence.
LIPTONI'm sorry. You know...
NNAMDIOkay. Eric, one second, please.
NNAMDIOnce second, Eric. I'll get you in.
MCGANNAnd, you know, and I'm very pleased that Eric has dispensed with using and starting every conversation that the evidence presented is irrefutable. I'm sorry. It's very easily refutable. And if he allowed the evidence to be presented, if he were open to that fact as any journalist would, investigative journalist, then we might have a different picture here.
MCGANNThe reality is that there are over 1800 institution think tanks in the United States with 20,000 scholars. To suggest that these institutions and these scholars are, you know, being controlled and acting as agents of foreign governments when they have quite diverse interests, thousands of supporters, financial supporters, scholars within institutions have conflicting points of view, so does Brookings or CIS or the Council on Foreign Relation have a policy on the Middle East, I don't think so. Absolutely not.
NNAMDIEric Lipton, I haven't heard you suggest that these think tanks are controlled by foreign governments, but you can speak for yourself.
MCGANNWell, they said that -- I have the quotes. They said it on this show today.
LIPTONI mean, what I said was that the question of control or request or direction is harder to design. But what is irrefutable...
MCGANNWell, I'm sorry. The exact quote was...
MCGANNNo, no, no. The exact quote was "paid and controlled" and Eric's statement was, taking money and acting as an agent for foreign governments. There's no...
LIPTONI think of case of the Center for Global Development, the documents -- and you say that there's no evidence. There's extensive emails back and forth between the government of Norway and the Center for Global Development in which they discuss the specific assignments that Center for Global Development and its subcontractor's going to undertake. And explicit, you know, goals and, you know, doubling federal funding, the specific targets of federal people.
LIPTONAnd then there's also a follow up, a status report which says we had this meeting with the Treasury Department in November of 2013. And then there was an email from Norway which said, will you please confirm for us that all of these activities that you describe were directly supported by our funding? And then the Center for Global Development writes back, we just want to confirm that yes, all of these activities that we described were directly supported by your funding.
LIPTONSo, I mean, I think in that case there's some pretty good evidence. And now it's up to, you know, the Justice Department and the lawyers to decide whether or not that's a FARA file-able event, but, you know, to suggest that there's no evidence. Now, what is irrefutable to me, and there are other FARA filings that show this because sometimes the foreign governments hire, you know, official lobbyists. And what's irrefutable is that foreign governments see think tanks as a way to try to influence foreign policy.
LIPTONThey target think tanks, they try to influence them so that they can get their positions echoed and they can then, you know, create a conventional wisdom that the policy that they're advocating is sort of widely held. That is something that they do. Now again, whether or not the think tank is an active participant in that and a conscious participant is another question. But think tanks increasingly, both for corporations and for foreign governments, are becoming vehicles for lobbyists to try to help move their agendas. And that's an interesting thing.
NNAMDIJosh Rosenstein, you stand accused of having it in your interest. You stand accused of having a conflict of interest, if you will, by participating in this broadcast because it is in your financial interest to make these allegations.
ROSENSTEINWell, first of all, let me say I don't represent any think tanks whatsoever. And I certainly didn't come on this broadcast with any intention to drum up business from the think tank community. Let me leave it at that.
NNAMDIAny comment from you before we get back to Jim McGann, Bill Allison?
ALLISONOh, I'm just -- you know, one -- having looked at an awful lot of FARA filings myself -- and I sympathize with your caller, Burt, who has looked at them -- an awful lot of them will have a line in it that say that they're filing out of an excess of caution because there may be a gray area in which they fall into. They don't want to run afoul of the Department of Justice. And that seems to be a pretty good standard.
ALLISONAnd, you know, when you look at FARA filings and some of the events that they have where there'll be a meeting where they're bringing together tons and tons of people, you know, and the -- with a purpose to -- for a -- you know, to advocate on the interest of a client, you know, that this is why they're having this event. And if a foreign entity is funding something and it's bringing together policy officials, there's going to be contacts between the government and the think tank, that's the kind of think you should disclose out of an excess of caution.
NNAMDIAnd Jim McGann, back to you again. Beyond the methodology, what about the issues raised in the article? You suggested several years ago that think tanks should get a head of the foreign funding issue. Why?
MCGANNNo, not at all. I mean, not at all in terms of focus exclusively on foreign government funding. It's more a question of how do you ensure the quality and integrity of public policy research. And part of the problem I have with this discussion is that it focuses on a narrow set of institutions. It does not focus at all on advocacy groups like MoveOn.com or activist stoners or PACs or lobbyists or consulting firms, who have -- their practice is built around advising foreign governments.
MCGANNWhat I have suggested and what I have dedicated my research to, or a portion of it, is to essentially identifying what policies and procedures these institutions have in place. And the reality is, despite what has been suggested here is that they have a longstanding, well-established policies and procedures regarding donor contributions, conflict of interests, peer review of their publications.
MCGANNSo to suggest that these institutions would put their reputation and force their scholars to bend their adherence to the scientific method and to standards of scholarly research is really absurd.
MCGANNI mean, there is a need for greater transparency, absolutely. And I'm the first to support that. And the project that I'm working on and have been working on for the last several years is to essentially create the best policies and practices and make them available to the community. That, I would suggest, is a much more productive way to approach it than to focus on a narrow set of issues. And it's interesting that Eric suggests that, you know, the only clear evidence involves one institution.
MCGANNSo to paint the entire think tank community where there are, you know, 20,000 scholars or more who are dedicated to analyzing public policy and doing it with the highest standards and integrity, to do that is just plain wrong and unfair.
NNAMDIBefore Eric responds, allow me to broaden the issue as you indicated that you would like to. You point to a major shift over time in how think tanks are funded. Can you talk about how that relates to this discussion?
MCGANNCertainly. And that's -- I mean, that's the -- I don't have a problem with the issues that are raised if the evidence is there and if -- you know, and something needs to be done about it. What the article does not do is -- and doesn't even suggest that there are larger issues driving this. And one of the largest and most important issues that are driving whether it's in basic research, and it was identified yesterday on W -- or on NPR and within the think tank community, is the nature of funding.
MCGANNFunding has moved from providing general operating support for these institutions to what I describe as micro grants, where it's supporting just the book or just the conference and not the core activities of these institutions that -- for a very important set of institutions that are critical to this country.
MCGANNAnd I would point to the 9/11 Commission. If you look at that closely, we turned, at one of the most important issues facing the country, not to government officials, not to bureaucrats but to think tanks. The vast majority of that commission is comprised of executives and scholars from think tanks. That's how important they are. And to besmirch the credibility and the quality of what's going on in this institutions with a very thinly-supported investigative report to me needs to be challenged. And that is why I am willing to be on the show and talk about these issues.
NNAMDIEric Lipton, many of the major research institutions have defended their financial transparency when it comes to sources of funding. The Center for Global Development, for example, notes that it got a five-star rating from Transparify. Can you talk about that?
LIPTONYeah, it is an organization that is doing a great deal right now to disclose its donors. And it did get a very good rating. And I don't agree that they, you know, are quite transparent now in terms of where their money comes from. I think that Mr. McGann and I agree on one thing which is that one of the issues that emerged in our reporting was when the think tanks take money that is specifically targeting a very narrow research area, I think that creates the potential for -- you know, this is -- maybe he's saying this or not -- to me it creates the potential for more problems.
LIPTONIf they were simply saying like the government or the United Arab Emirates or Qatar or some other foreign government was saying, we like the work that you do, Mr. Think Tank, and we'd like to donate $4 million to you, and you can do with it whatever you want, I think that there would be fewer problems here. But what's happening, and we see a lot of it in the reporting that we did, is that they are donating for a specific topic which is the topic that is of interest to them on their foreign policy agenda. And so that's when it creates the potential for more problems.
LIPTONAs to his point that the story only focuses on potentially one organization, that's just not the case. And there's, you know, hundreds of pages of documents that accompany the story that are online. And we look at, you know, Brookings and Center for Strategic International Studies, the Atlantic Council, among others. And in each of those cases we identify, you know, an overlap between the foreign policy agenda of the donor and the actions by the think tanks. And it raises a question about the role that the think tank is playing.
NNAMDIAs we said earlier, you can find a link to that article at our website kojoshow.org. It includes the database that Eric Lipton mentioned, of the money the reporters were able to track. That's at our website kojoshow.org. Bill Allison, what about the point that Jim and many of the institutions are making that they already have strong disclosure and policies in place related to funding and activities for years?
ALLISONWell, I, you know, I think that it -- there's a wide variance in how these organizations disclosed their donors. Some were better than others. I mean, I think that, you know, I think across the non-profit board we need better disclosure. Sunlight Foundation, where I work, has disclosed its donors. Before that I worked for a nonprofit called the Center for Public Integrity that always disclosed its donors. But we often don't find that's the case.
ALLISONAnd, in fact, the reporting that Eric Lipton and his colleagues did has actually spurred some of these groups to start disclosing that information. And I think, though, that it is a legitimate question that you have, you know, if you think about some of the things that have come out of health -- out of a -- or think tanks, you know, among them, you know, everything from the Affordable Care Act, which was, you know, originally the components of that were part of different works by think tanks.
ALLISONYou know, land-grant colleges back in the 19th century, that was a think tank idea. I mean, you know, major things that influenced U.S. life for, you know, all of our citizens come from think tanks. So having, you know, more transparency about where the money is coming from and who are the interests that are funding these things I think is important for the public to know.
NNAMDIHere is Ken, in Gaithersburg, Md. Ken, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KENThank you for taking my call, Kojo. First, to preface my statement, I have worked as a consultant for various think tanks, one of which, very prestigious, in the Georgetown area, during the era of No Child Left Behind. And to suggest that think tanks do not produce material based on conclusion and working backwards is disingenuous.
KENIt was very clear at the time that the -- some of the projects that we were working on or that I was consulting to, were expected to support a policy decision or to provide some sort of a buttressing for a policy decision that may or may not have really been particularly strong.
MCGANNWell, sure there are those advocacy-oriented think tanks that engage in opinion mongering and advocacy, but the vast majority of think tanks in the U.S., the 20,000 -- 1,800 institutions and more than 20,000 scholars are committed to producing evidenced-based policy oriented public policy research. And they are the envy of the world. These institutions, cited in the article, have global reach and impact. And Mr. Lipton does them and the U.S. a great disservice by suggesting otherwise.
MCGANNI agree that more could be done. And the efforts that I've launched with the support of many of the institutions, are to address this problem well ahead of when this article came out. So it's not like people aren't concerned about it. It -- and I would suggest -- and I was not suggesting that it was one institution. I'm saying that the only real evidence he has is with one institution. And that's unfortunate. But those things will happen and the community will police itself in order to address them.
MCGANNBut to suggest that the -- and indict the entire think tank community is just not correct.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back Eric Lipton you can respond to that. And we'll take your calls at 800-433-8850. Are you part of an independent research institution in Washington? Has your work been influenced by funding to your organization or not? Give us a call, 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing foreign governments and think tanks with James McGann, director of the Think Tanks and Foreign Policy Program at the University of Pennsylvania, where he's also assistant director of the International Relations Program. Bill Allison is the editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, where he also oversees the Foreign Lobbying Influence Tracker.
NNAMDIAnd Eric Lipton is a reporter for the New York Times, who co-authored an article investigating the relationship between think tanks and foreign governments, along with Brooke Williams and Nicholas Confessore. Also joining us in our Washington studio is Joshua Rosenstein, Partner with the law firm of Sandler, Reiff, Lamb, Rosenstein & Birkenstock. He specializes in advising the advocacy community.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Steve, in Arlington, who writes, "Most think tanks are 501 (c) organizations and so do not have to reveal their funding sources. Therefore these organizations can be used as fronts by corporations seeking to influence public opinion. For example, defense contractors essentially paying think tanks to advocate for specific weapon systems.
NNAMDI"The National Institute for Public Policy, a tiny niche think tank that pays its president over $400,000 a year, has advocated heavily for missile defense systems by planning op-ed pieces in the media with pseudo objectivity." Well, we're talking also about strong disclosure policies in place related to funding and activities for years. And voluntary disclosure is great, but it's not the same as meeting your obligations with the Department of Justice.
NNAMDIJosh, if you're trying to influence public debate, you should be clear about where your money is coming from. You represent the advocacy community as a lawyer and you see registration as a good thing, though not everyone does. Talk about that.
ROSENSTEINWell, the advocacy industry, broadly, has a pretty bad reputation. I think that should go without saying. In my opinion -- and I think there are a number of folks who do what I do who share this opinion -- anything that we can do to make the industry look better, that is to say this is not all smoky backroom deals with envelopes of cash sliding across the table is, frankly, a good thing. And let me add that because there is legitimate value that the advocacy industry adds to the public policy process, whether we're talking about think tanks, to the extent that they can be called advocates -- whether we're talking about lobbying firms -- they add value.
ROSENSTEINBut that value has to be out in the open. It has to be clear what their goals are, who they represent, so that the public has the right to make their own decisions about the validity of the viewpoints that the advocates are expressing.
NNAMDIAnd we got this email from Paul in Oxen Hill, Md., who writes, "My favorite part of the original New York Times article, despite constant media chatter about how the Israel lobby dominates Washington, Israel was not among the 56 countries listed in a graphic as contributing funds to nine major think tanks, such as Brookings, the Atlantic Council, the Center for Global Development, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, CSIS, the Middle East Institute, and the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. Well, so much for that sort of Israeli influence." Eric Lipton, what did you find?
LIPTONIt was notable to us as well that Israel was not in that graphic. And one of the realities is that Israel has an incredibly strong presence in Congress through various American-Israeli -- Israeli's who have dual citizenship and also the Jewish community in the United States. And so it does not need the think tank community as much, because it has such a strong presence through, you know, registered lobbying and through advocacy groups in Congress itself. That said, it also sometimes is hard to trace money back to individual countries.
LIPTONAnd it's possible that the government of Israel is giving through an affiliate that we couldn't identify and tie back to the government itself. So that -- we can't definitively say that Israel is not contributing to those major think tanks. I mean, going back to the first email that you read. I think one of the things that's happening is that as there are more and more think tanks in Washington -- and they're becoming more and more part partisan -- there's greater sort of pressure on the think tanks to be able to demonstrate to their donors that they not only do good scholarship, but that they have impact and that they influence policy.
LIPTONAnd I think that that's another thing that sort of creates some risk for think tanks increasingly in Washington, is that as the promote the roll that they play in terms of influencing policy, or at least that their scholars play, you know, they enter a potential danger zone of actually becoming, you know, lobbying vehicles. And I think that that's, you know, that's one of the issues that emerges here. And, you know, the last sort of tangent on this is that, you know, surrogates are an incredibly important sort of force in Washington.
LIPTONThe corporation's saying don't do this, is one thing. But if they can have surrogate say it's not a good idea to do this, it's much more important for the corporation or for the foreign government to have a surrogate saying it, especially a surrogate that is presented as sort of an academic, independent, sort of, you know, impartial voice. So those players, you know, are important in Washington. And I think that's why the think tank is worth looking at, and the role that it plays in sort of the policy debate here.
NNAMDIJim McGann, hold your thought for a second, until we hear from John in Olney, Md. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNYes. I don't think the donating country is overly interested in something being written against it or for it. If you're China and you contact -- you pay $10 million to a company that's got some Chinese dollars, they're going to be half sympathetic with you. I think they want your -- they want their name going forward from somebody that's considered an independent agency. And if you want to criticize them, that's fine. If you want to praise them, that's fine. Your name goes forward on an independent agency, the think tank. And they're happy.
MCGANNWell, I mean the -- I would hope, in terms of U.S. foreign policy or even domestic policy, that we would have the single-mindedness and complete coherency and control that is suggested. What is the reality is that it is the -- within the think tank community and with the other policy actors in Washington and throughout the United States, there's incredible diversity. It's a cacophonous environment. They are competing in off-setting interests. So to suggest that one institution, one scholar is going to overly influence the process, and that these institutions by -- in terms of their very purpose would be subject to that is just inaccurate.
NNAMDIBill Allison, the point that John was making has to be seen in the context of how loud the conversation has gotten in Washington and the competition merely for attention. John seems to be suggesting that what foreign countries are interested in is not so much think tanks that approve of their positions, but think tank that by mere -- by their mere presence in Washington, by their - by the fact that they are well known in Washington, merely being associated with that think tank's name is good for the country's foreign policy.
ALLISONWell, I think that, you know, I don't think you're ever going to see a situation where somebody's going to rely on just one actor to push their cause in Washington, when you have a, you know, whether it's a country looking for a single think tank or a corporation looking to influence Congress. I mean, they don't give to just one member of Congress. A PAC will spread its money over several members of Congress. And I think in the same way that people put together lobbying campaigns and as they look at think tanks they're looking to fill particular niches.
ALLISONI mean one of the things that's just come out in England recently is that the British tobacco companies were using some of the economic think tanks, particularly Libertarian ones, to push back against the nanny state for regulation of cigarette packaging. And this came out in disclosures that would require the tobacco industry in England.
ALLISONBut basically, the tobacco companies said, we couldn't sell -- do this because the corporation wants to do it, but we could rely on this Libertarian leash group's think tanks to present the case in a Libertarian that, you know, that you don’t want the nanny state telling you what to do. And it gets -- it accomplishes our purpose, that we get the packaging we want, but it's sold as a different kind of policy to particular types of voters, younger voters.
ALLISONAnd I think that that's exactly what happens in Washington, where you have -- if you're an interest that's trying to influence the debate in Washington, you might pick the think tank, you'll pick the lobbying firm, you'll pick the public relations firm. And so there's a much broader thing. So, you know, to get to James' point that, you know, one scholar -- well, of course there's a lot of scholars working a lot of different areas. But influence or people that want to influence the policies will pick a broad range of people to do that.
ALLISONAnd the problem we have with the lack of transparency is we don't know whose paying the freight, we don't know who's paying for which particular studies or which particular think tanks, and so you can't really track those kinds of big policy pushers.
NNAMDIWell, Steve, in Montrose, Va., wants to reference one individual now in the news because of his unfortunate death, who apparently worked this system, so to speak, very well. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVEThank you. Yeah, Tommy Boggs is on the front page of the Post today. You know, buried in it they talk about the money he took from foreign governments and he would send it over to Brookings or to Heritage or whatever. And they'd write the piece for him and he'd present it as a scholarly piece. And isn't it Richard Haass over at Brookings? He was -- he's our Mid East expert. These countries, they don't -- they get to Brookings for his advice. And if his name's on there, and it gets up to the Hill, it means something.
STEVEI think that's probably why Frank Wolfe blew his top last week.
NNAMDIWell, Jim McGann, for those who say, well, look, this kind of thing has been going on for a long time, you say that does not necessarily undermine the independence of think tanks.
MCGANNAbsolutely not. And I would, you know, I think we have to be careful in terms of citing facts. Richard is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, not at Brookings. Additionally, I think if we want to understand the problem, next week the U.N. General Assembly is meeting. And there are 193 countries, many of which -- since we're the leading power in the world -- are interested in the United States, but they can't come to agreement on many issues.
MCGANNSo to suggest that there's collusion and major influence, there are 1,800 think tanks with incredibly set of diversity that are conflicting and offsetting. I don't -- I just don't see that as a problem. I see a more important problem is how do we get Congress and think tanks to deal with the political policy paralysis and partisan bickering that is occurring in Washington and identify solutions to the key policy problems we face.
NNAMDII'm afraid we're…
MCGANNThat's the main challenge from my standpoint. And this is a distraction of sorts and is unsubstantiated.
NNAMDII'm afraid we're…
MCGANNAnd I would, you know, suggest in terms -- let me just finish one point. That in terms of the evidence that -- the only evidence that Eric can cite is from Norway. And the only evidence he has is for one institution. The other evidence, when you look at it, is not there.
NNAMDIWe're just about out of time. Eric, any plans to distract us some more?
LIPTONI'm always looking for ways in which individuals and corporations and foreign governments try to influence Washington. So the answer is yes.
NNAMDIEric Lipton is a reporter for the New York Times, who co-authored the article investigating the relationship between think tanks and foreign governments, along with Brooke Williams and Nicholas Confessore. Joshua Rosenstein is a partner with the law firm of Sandler, Reiff, Lamb, Rosenstein & Birkenstock here in Washington. He specializes in advising the advocacy community.
NNAMDIBill Allison is the editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, where he also oversees the Foreign Lobbying Influence Tracker. Sunlight is a nonprofit focused on transparency around money and politics. And James McGann is the director of the Think Tanks and Foreign Policy Program at the University of Pennsylvania, where he's also the assistant director of the International Relations Program. Thank you all for joining us and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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