Bergman Introduces Think Tank Transparency Act of 2023, Requiring Transparency of Non-Profits Lobbying for Foreign Governments

Today, Rep. Jack Bergman introduced legislation to require greater transparency on the part of think tanks and other non-profit entities engaged in influence campaigns on the behalf of foreign governments.

The Think Tank Transparency Act of 2023 requires all contracts and agreements between non-profits and foreign entities to be submitted to the Department of Justice. It uses the definition of "foreign principal" found in the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA).

Increasingly, think tanks have an enormous influence on the passage and enforcement of policies, particularly those related to foreign policy. At the same time, think tanks and other non-profits are receiving more and more funding from foreign entities, which directly impacts the policies they espouse and the legislation for which they lobby.

“The American people deserve to know what these think tanks are up to, and who they’re working for,” said Bergman regarding the new legislation. “The assumption that they are non-political, pseudo-academic entities advocating for policies that are in the national interest is no longer accurate, given the increasing amount of funding they receive from foreign governments, often earmarked for specific projects."

In June, Rep. Bergman sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland regarding disturbing reports of a potential criminal case against retired four-star Marine General John R. Allen for his role in an apparently illegal foreign lobbying campaign on behalf of Qatar. The filings document that General Allen, shortly before he was appointed President of the Brookings Institution, engaged in aggressive, behind-the-scenes efforts in 2017 to help Qatar influence U.S. policy in the midst of a diplomatic crisis without registering as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). According to the filings, General Allen misrepresented his role in the lobbying campaign to officials of the U.S. government, failing to disclose that he was “simultaneously pursuing multimillion-dollar business deals with the government of Qatar.” The FBI says that Allen gave a “false version of events” and that “there is substantial evidence that these FARA violations were willful.”

The reports, based on Department of Justice documents, indicate that as General Allen was “pursuing multi-million dollar business deals with the government of Qatar,” he led a “behind-the scenes efforts to help Qatar influence U.S. policy in 2017 when a diplomatic crisis erupted between the gas-rich Persian Gulf monarchy and its neighbors,” and that he “played an important role in shifting the U.S.'s response.” According to authorities, Allen “lobbied then-National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster to have the Trump administration adopt more Qatar-friendly tone.” In one instance then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a statement calling for restraint the same day Allen made that request on behalf of Qatar to McMaster. The warrant application also indicates that he “joined in the secret lobbying plan along with Richard G. Olson, a former United States ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan,” Olson pleaded guilty to lying in ethics paperwork and violating revolving door laws on June 3.

Today, it is the norm for think tanks to employ lobbyists, pursue partisan politics, and even draft legislation. This shift in focus is critical when it comes to the question of foreign funding, because if the organization in question is, in effect, working as the agent of a foreign principal to advance another nation’s interests, this should be known to the public.

Last year, as a result of previous illicit Qatari lobbying activity, Bergman sent another letter to the Justice Department requesting an investigation into possible FARA violations on the part of the Stimson Center (given their extensive Qatari funding).

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