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Opinion: Congress Must Act to Limit Hostile Foreign Influences

Americans deserve to know when foreign adversaries are trying to meddle

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort leaves the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse after a court hearing on the terms of his bail and house arrest on Nov. 6. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort leaves the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse after a court hearing on the terms of his bail and house arrest on Nov. 6. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)








One of the worst kept secrets in Washington is how frequently lobbyists violate our foreign registration laws by accepting millions of dollars from foreign principals without disclosing a thing about those relationships.

More Americans are becoming aware of the problem now, since special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has focused attention on two high profile failures to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA.

Following allegations he violated FARA, Tony Podesta was forced to resign this week as chairman of the lobbying firm he helped create nearly 30 years ago. Part of the indictment against Paul Manafort also includes a similar charge.

It is no coincidence that a number of foreign agents have recently begun to register under the FARA statute retroactively — in an obvious effort to avoid prosecution for their prior activities.

The American people deserve to know this is only the tip of the iceberg. Government reports dating as far back as the early 1970s have repeatedly exposed serious deficiencies in FARA that have allowed gross abuses of the law to go unchecked.

Congressional records over the years have included some outrageous examples. Consider a case in the ’90s when a lawyer in the United States was discovered to have been employed by a notorious South American drug cartel while lobbying the U.S. State Department and Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Though he never registered under FARA, the statute provided limited authority for the Department of Justice to investigate his crimes further, and the lawyer was not penalized.

In 2014, a New York Times investigative report revealed similar actions by a think tank, Center for Global Development, and a political firm, Climate Advisers. Though it was shown the two groups failed to disclose they were paid more than $5 million by Norway, in part to lobby the White House and the Treasury Department to secure foreign aid dollars for climate change initiatives, the DOJ was limited in its ability to pursue the violations.

Loopholes in the law have allowed questionable activities at the highest levels of government to remain unanswered. During the previous administration, multiple news outlets reported that Sidney Blumenthal, the longtime Clinton aide and unofficial adviser to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, may have failed to disclose his efforts to influence the State Department on behalf of foreign parties. Without stricter laws, we may never know the truth.

Despite decades of acknowledgement, FARA statute deficiencies have remained through each passing year, and foreign agents have become increasingly adept at circumventing the law. Commenting on the growing problem this spring, former Obama administration State Department official Michael Lumpkin noted the U.S. is “still far from where we ultimately need to be to operate in the modern information environment.”

The time has come for us to address this critical issue.

Using common sense and tailored recommendations supported by multiple investigative reports, I authored the Disclosing Foreign Influence Act to correct the glaring shortfalls in FARA. My bill will accomplish a number of long-overdue reforms. It will clarify the registration obligations of foreign agents, add new enforcement tools for federal officials such as granting civil investigative demand authority, and provide new reporting requirements on the implementation of the law.

This legislation will finally put an end to the major ambiguities and exemptions that have been exploited by foreign nations to maneuver around our laws and lobby the federal government without transparency.

Regardless of individual policy preferences, all Americans can agree the integrity of our democratic process and the security of our country should never be compromised. The American people deserve to know when foreign adversaries are attempting to meddle in our domestic affairs, and my legislation will ensure we finally have that information.

Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., serves on the House Judiciary Committee and the Natural Resources Committee. 

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