Foreign agent registration is no magical shield against Russian propaganda

Foreign agent registration is no magical shield against Russian propaganda
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Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn have dragged the country through the muck, and policymakers are grasping wildly at solutions for Russia’s information war. Washington’s elixir for both unrelated ailments? Strictly enforcing FARA — the Foreign Agent Registration Act of 1938. But this bears caution. FARA is not an information warfare defense and making it the boogeyman of the Russia investigation deters welcome foreign engagement in American politics.

President Roosevelt signed FARA into law in 1938. The original purpose of the law was to curtail Nazi propaganda. After multiple alterations, the law settled on tracking foreign lobbying and public relations.

The latest FARA permutation is a stick to beat the Russian propaganda channel RT. This is grasping at straws. And it simply obscures the fact that we still have no policy to defend against information warfare.


Despite the scary name, FARA is a D.C. insider issue. Voters outside of the Beltway do not visit the FARA registry. Nor does RT, during its broadcasts, carry a footnote: Russian agent. Anyone informed enough about FARA knows that RT’s FARA registration does nothing but saddle RT with paperwork; anyone foolish enough not to realize that RT is propaganda probably wouldn’t be swayed by an asterisk, anyway.


But it sure allows politicians to appear tough. They are doing something! Washington is finally grasping the threat posed by Russian information warfare. But come up with some tools that actually counter it rather than just throw bureaucracy at the problem.

FARA is also making news through free association with Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn. It is unfortunate that FARA keeps popping out of the swampy muck with them, because FARA-regulated work should not be treated like an inherently bad thing because, usually, it is benign. Often, it is beneficial. 

Doing PR for, say, the German Tourism Board should not be compared to someone running interference for Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Not making that differentiation and demagoguing FARA actually harms national security. Consider the two current conflicting FARA narratives. On the one hand, we are using FARA as a toothless attempt to combat Russian information warfare. On the other, we risk treating FARA as a dirty word, which will only scare away friendly foreign governments — so, Russian information warfare gets a free pass and we constrain our allies’ attempts to counterbalance it.

And that is the point: As a global leader, it is important that other countries have a rules-based system through which they can participate in U.S. leadership. Mutual interests bring allies together. Yet, our allies need to know that Americans understand what those mutual interests are. They should have communications channels other than State Department cables. Our diplomats are not the only stakeholders in our alliances.

When our allies chime in, it can have domestic benefits. For example, our allies are undoubtedly using FARA-regulated work to push back against the inward-looking nationalism that fuels today’s conservative populism. We should welcome Canadian and Mexican voices countering President Trump’s trade scapegoating and NAFTA bashing, for example.

With a president so prone to giving Russian President Vladimir Putin the benefit of the doubt, our NATO allies’ voices are important.

To be sure, we should know when one of our own is in the employ of an enemy trying to undermine the county. But that only underscores that the client and the work are important differentiators and that not all foreign influence on our country is insipid. 

When beneficial, we should welcome it. The tough part is creating a rule that judges that. We cannot simply strictly enforce FARA when it involves our enemies. That injects too much uncertainty into the law. President Obama would not have classified Russia an enemy during the “reset” days but certainly would have changed his mind by 2016, and who knows how the current administration would classify them? At the same time, we want the regulation uniform enough so that Treaty Allies, for example, feel safe making their voices heard.

So, we must tread carefully. FARA is not a potent weapon against Russia’s information warfare. Using FARA to combat RT’s poison betrays a lack of policy tools to combat that problem — Putin got off easy. Nor should we want to tighten the screws on all FARA work just because Paul Manafort abused the system.

FARA is important. The country should certainly track foreign government activities in the U.S., and it seems logical that we will see new adjustments to the FARA legislation in light of recent events. But any adjustments must be made with the understanding that most foreign influence is healthy for our democracy. Now is not the time to choke that off.

Kristofer Harrison worked for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and was a foreign policy advisor to Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign. He is a co-founder and principal of ITJ Strategies, a grassroots PR consultancy.