Q: What is FARA?
A: In the years preceding World War II, Congress passed the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) of 1938 to unmask Nazi propaganda and identify foreign efforts to shape public policy and opinion in the United States. FARA requires any individual operating at the behest of foreign interest to register with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), filing forms that document agreements, income, and expenditures on behalf of a foreign country or entity. The law doesn’t prohibit lobbying or limit speech; it simply requires disclosure to provide transparency about who the foreign client is and the activities are undertaken for them. Sunshine laws, such as FARA, help shed light on the people’s business. When foreign entities are trying to interject in our political processes, we ought to know about it. Transparency brings accountability and helps policymakers and the public make informed decisions.
During the Obama administration in 2015, I began oversight of FARA and raised concerns about Americans failing to register as foreign agents. As then-chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I held a congressional oversight hearing to examine lax enforcement of FARA and later commended Special Counsel Mueller for dusting off the long-ignored law. A 2016 audit by the DOJ’s Office of Inspector General found widespread compliance gaps and lack of effective enforcement. It issued more than a dozen recommendations to ensure the federal law works as Congress intended.
Q: What changes are you proposing to strengthen the foreign lobbying disclosure law?
A: Congress is called the people’s branch for good reason. Elected into public office by voters, federal lawmakers are tied to the most fundamental level of self-government. The sanctity of the ballot box hinges on an informed citizenry. Federal campaign finance laws are one example of electoral transparency to help inform voters. FARA is an important tool to root out secrecy. Used effectively, it can help prevent foreign powers from using a back door to infiltrate and influence American politics and public opinion.
Lax FARA enforcement has resulted in the criminal prosecution of only 15 violations since the law was last updated in 1966. Nearly half of those stemmed from the recently closed Mueller investigation. The American people ought to breathe a sigh of relief the Mueller investigation put to rest the overheated claims that the nation’s 45th president was somehow in cahoots with the Kremlin. On the other hand, the Mueller investigation did expose the need to strengthen transparency and more effectively monitor foreign influence efforts that target the entire federal government, to include Congress. If lobbyists or public relations firms are peddling policies at the behest of foreign powers, the American people and their elected representatives have a right to know. I’ve introduced bipartisan legislation to give federal investigators and prosecutors stronger tools to help identify covert foreign operations that are seeking to influence U.S. policy, politics, and public opinion. It would beef up investigative tools to catch violations and increase penalties for failing to properly register as a foreign agent. It also would require the Government Accountability Office to examine existing FARA exemptions that may create loopholes to conceal foreign influence.
What’s more, the DOJ recently required foreign state-owned media organizations to register under FARA, including Russian-owned RTTV America and media outlets Xinhua News Agency and China Global Television Network which are owned by the Chinese government. I’ve asked the DOJ to consider whether Al Jazeera, owned by the Qatari government, should also register as a foreign agent.
Throughout my years of oversight, I’ve found sunshine is the best disinfectant. American voters have a right to know if foreign interests are paying to infiltrate, influence and undermine our system of self-government. It’s no secret foreign powers want to steal our trade secrets and intellectual property to gain a competitive advantage in the global economy. They also are seeking to influence Americans in our universities, our elections and even in the halls of Congress. Enough is enough. Rest assured, I’ll keep speaking at the top of my lungs to protect the interests and the voice of the American people.