Numerous prominent foreign policy think tanks took millions of dollars in grants from foreign governments seeking favorable research and connections to U.S. policymakers, raising questions over whether the organizations should have filed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
The New York Times uncovered arrangements between 28 U.S. think tanks — including the Brookings Institution and the Center for Global Development — and 64 foreign entities worth at least $92 million.
The Brookings Institution, considered by many to be the most prestigious think tank in the world, comes off especially poorly in the report.
“There was a no-go zone when it came to criticizing the Qatari government,” Saleem Ali, formerly a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, told The Times.
Qatar, which backs the Muslim Brotherhood, paid Brookings $14.8 million over four years to fund the center and for a special project to address relations between Muslims and the U.S.
“It was unsettling for the academics there. But it was the price we had to pay,” Ali said of the partnership, while warning members of Congress to “be aware” of Brookings reports, which he said may not contain the full truth on any given issue.
The Qataris were pleased with the arrangement, which the foreign ministry touted on its website, writing that “the center will assume its role in reflecting the bright image of Qatar in the international media, especially the American ones.”
“Yikes,” Todd Moss, the Center for Global Development’s chief operating officer, exclaimed to The Times after the paper showed him communications between his organization and the government of Norway, detailing plans to lobby the White House and Congress to double spending on a foreign aid program. “We will absolutely seek counsel on this,” said Moss.
The Norwegian government paid the think tank $5 million for their work and saw think tanks as a promising channel through which a small country like itself could promote its agenda.
“In Washington, it is difficult for a small country to gain access to powerful politicians, bureaucrats and experts,” reads a report from the Norwegian Foreign Affairs Ministry obtained by The Times. “Funding powerful think tanks is one way to gain such access, and some think tanks in Washington are openly conveying that they can service only those foreign governments that provide funding.”
The Scandinavian nation has spent at least $24 million total over the last four years with think tanks to advocate “for enhancing Norway’s role in NATO, promoted its plans to expand oil drilling in the Arctic and pushed its climate change agenda,” according to The Times.
The voluminous report details arrangements between think tanks and several other countries.
The United Arab Emirates funded a lecture series as well as private briefings for national security experts for The Center of Strategic and International Studies.
The Times report details relationships between Japan — which sought the help of The Center of Strategic and International Studies to help promote the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade agreement.
The failure to comply with foreign donors’ agenda had ramifications at one organization.
Michele Dunne, a former State Department official with expertise in the Middle East, was named as the first director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. In 2013, Dunne signed a petition and testified in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to voice concern over the ouster of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi.
Bahaa Hiriri, who financed the center, called to complain, according to The Times, and Dunne was out four months later. She was replaced by a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, who was reportedly criticized for being too deferential to former president Hosni Mubarak.
Attorneys fluent in foreign lobbying told The Times that the relationships were troubling.
“It is particularly egregious because with a law firm or lobbying firm, you expect them to be an advocate,” Joseph Sandler, an attorney and expert on foreign lobbying, told The Times. “Think tanks have this patina of academic neutrality and objectivity, and that is being compromised.”
“I am surprised, quite frankly, at how explicit the relationship is between money paid, papers published and policy makers and politicians influenced,” Amos Jones, an attorney who specializes in the Foreign Agents Registration Act, told The Times.
FARA, as the Act is known, was enacted in 1938 to protect against Nazi propaganda.
For their part, the think tanks named in The Times’ piece defended the arrangements, generally saying that their scholars’ work is not effected by donor decisions.
In a statement at its website, the Brookings Institution called The Times’ reporting into question.
“We are not an agent of a foreign government, nor should we register as one, and we reject any characterization of us as such,” the think tank continued, calling Lipton’s characterization “of a few issues” inaccurate.
“The New York Times has not brought to our attention any actual activity which requires registration under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. However, we will continue to review our work as it relates to FARA to ensure both compliance with the law and fulfillment of our mission.”