Legal patchwork does little to keep foreign interests out of American politics

Legal patchwork does little to keep foreign interests out of American politics
© Greg Nash
I first started wondering when I spoke to several top intel officials in 2016 who served under President Obama as well as other Democrat and Republican presidents. 
 
At a time when the news was plastered with stories about Russia, these officials saw more serious national security threats. Ahead of Russia, they named North Korea (which was rapidly developing missiles that it could arm with nukes and reach the U.S.), Iran (the world’s most active state sponsor of terrorism, which would undoubtedly use some of the billions released under the Obama administration to continue funding anti-Western militant groups) and China (for its confrontational actions in the China Sea, its history of interfering in U.S. elections and its growing economic aggression.)
 
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True, they viewed Russia, too, as a serious concern. But somewhere around fourth or fifth.
 
 
So why was Russia getting outsized play in the press relative to comparable or greater perceived threats? 
 
Around this time I happened to interview a noted smear artist for my book "The Smear." He told me something that’s stuck in my mind ever since: Nearly every image that crosses our path in daily life was put there for a reason, he said, often by an interest that paid a lot of money to place it there.
 
Who do special interests — including those that are foreign — pay to disseminate particular messages? Those include think tanks, LLCs, nonprofits, super PACs, opposition research firms, global law groups, PR companies and lobbyists.
 
I began poring through filings at the Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Here is where I —or anyone— can learn which foreign countries have hired which U.S. companies to act as their “foreign agents.”
 
What do U.S. foreign agents do? They connect their foreign clients to U.S. members of Congress and their staff, and to other federal officials as high up as the White House. They help write laws and push U.S. policies to benefit the foreigners. They arrange meetings with news outlets, reporters and think tanks to put otherwise unknown issues in the headlines in a way that helps the foreign client. They press for policies that result in our tax dollars being spent to benefit the foreign interest. 
 
In this way, many foreign politicians and moguls get the kind of access to U.S. government officials that U.S. taxpayers will never be afforded — even though U.S. taxpayers are paying their salaries.
 
Whether all of this should be legal is open to debate. But right now it is — as long as the activities are disclosed in Justice Department filings under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Under special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s investigation, former Trump campaign officials Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortFailings by WhatsApp, Signal and others highlight the need to take back our privacy The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and Congress at odds over Russia The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump eyes second Putin summit MORE and Rick Gates got in trouble for allegedly failing to properly disclose their work for Ukraine, and for related crimes. Manafort says he’s innocent; Gates has plead guilty to several charges.
 
As you might imagine, a lot of U.S. foreign agents are not anxious to discuss their work with me on camera. One spoke to me on the phone on the condition that I wouldn’t name him. He made a statement that took me by surprise considering that he’s a strong opponent of President TrumpDonald John TrumpWSJ: Trump ignored advice to confront Putin over indictments Trump hotel charging Sean Spicer ,000 as book party venue Bernie Sanders: Trump 'so tough' on child separations but not on Putin MORE.
 
I asked whether foreign countries were sometimes getting around the law forbidding them from donating to U.S. officials — by using U.S. foreign agents as “middlemen” who donate money and hold fundraising events for U.S. officials.

“Of course,” he replied.
 
“What would you say to Americans who wonder why that’s legal,” I continued. “Who think that foreign politicians and businessmen are buying the same sort of influence the law aims to prevent?”
 
“They’re right,” said the lobbyist. “It’s the swamp. It’s the swamp. Why do you think they elected Donald Trump? To clean it up.”

Sharyl Attkisson (@SharylAttkisson) is an Emmy-award winning investigative journalist, author of The New York Times bestsellers “The Smear” and “Stonewalled,” and host of Sinclair’s Sunday TV program “Full Measure.”