Politics

Foreign Influence in the U.S. Cloaked in Unnecessary Obscurity, Watchdog Groups Say

Outdated technology creates roadblocks to basic research on Americans lobbying for foreign governments

Recent revelations about former national security adviser Michael Flynn, center, have raised questions about loopholes in a law that requires U.S. citizens who lobby for foreign governments to register with the Department of Justice. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Want to know how much money a foreign government has spent to lobby members of Congress? How many times a lawmaker met with a lobbyist representing a foreign government? What if that person made a political donation on the same day?

Good luck finding the answers from the federal office charged with tracking American citizens who get paid to represent foreign interests in the U.S.

Documents that would provide clues to all of that information are required by the so-called Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, to be collected by the Justice Department, which provides a searchable database on its website. But the technology the government uses to catalogue and store the data is so outdated that it is next to impossible to quickly find the answers to many basic questions, according to nonprofit groups familiar with the database.

Lax enforcement and loopholes in the law have recently come to light amid controversy over the Trump administration’s alleged ties to the Russian government.

Under scrutiny for his consulting work, former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn belatedly registered in March for work he did on behalf of the Turkish government. 

Hard to use

But nonprofit groups that have spent years working with the data that the government does collect say much of it is unnecessarily hard to access and analyze — creating a roadblock for journalists and other researchers who want to shed light on foreign influence in the U.S.

“This is a little database in a tiny unit that no one ever thinks about,” said Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress, a group that advocates government transparency and opposes special interest money in Washington. “But it is what makes it possible to catch people who are doing bad stuff. It’s a watchdog sleeping with one eye open.”

Fixing the problems would require senior DOJ officials to make it a priority, and they could be nudged along by congressional lawmakers, who could put clear guidance in appropriations bills, committee reports, or even by writing letters, Schuman said.

“This doesn’t require a change in the law, it requires an incremental increase in willpower,” he said.  

The United States has required American citizens who lobby on behalf of foreign governments to register with the Department of Justice since 1938, when Congress became alarmed at the rise of European communist and fascist propaganda circulating in the U.S.

Registrants are supposed to periodically update the government about their activities, including the materials they have distributed, meetings they have attended, and the payments they have received.

The result is a large volume of paperwork that, if properly collected and maintained, could provide a window into the attempts of foreign governments to influence American lawmakers.

The Justice Department has said it is working on improving its system. It announced in 2014 that it had begun to “assess the feasibility” of adding features to its website that would “enable the public to search, sort, and print information from the database more easily.”

That notice said it would spend the following two years reviewing its website and filing system, and would solicit recommendations from the public. The review, the DOJ said, would focus particularly on whether information should be collected and published in a format that would be easily processed by computers.

That work is still underway, Department of Justice spokeswoman Sonya Keshwani said Wednesday.

She said the National Security Division, which oversees the FARA office, was working on improving the Web site, and that providing more advanced search functions was among the project's highest priorities.

"The goal is to provide an improved, standardized web form that will provide greater uniformity in the responses and information received from registrants, as well as allow for significant improvements in search capability by the public and interested groups," she said.

Daniel B. Pickard, a partner at Wiley Rein and an expert on foreign agent registration law, said the office has already gone a long way in improving how accessible its information is to the public.

“While every program can be improved upon, the registration unit at the Department of Justice has been making great strides as far as e-filing and making more documents publicly available,” he said.

Pushing for changes

But some groups who regularly work with the data have come to the opposite conclusion. They have banded together with Demand Progress to request that the Justice Department address the flaws in its system. They have outlined their recommendations in a letter sent Friday in response to a public request for comments from the department.

Along with 11 nonprofit groups, the letter was also signed by former Obama administration ethics lawyer Norm Eisen, George W. Bush ethics lawyer Richard Painter, liberal politician Zephyr Teachout and James A. Thurber, founder of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington.

Some of the recommendations have been made repeatedly by various groups for years, and have apparently gone unheeded.

A 2014 report by the Sunlight Foundation, for example, pointed out that spreadsheets downloaded from the FARA website appear to contain a link to access source documents. But if you click on the cells that say, helpfully, “Click here,” nothing happens. The glitch has yet to be fixed.

Keshwani, of the Department of Justice, said the access link was not added because of cybersecurity concerns, but that the office was reviewing that issue.

And while the Justice Department does require filers to submit their registrations electronically, the way it gathers the information and presents it to the public is antiquated and cumbersome.

The forms are stored as PDFs or images instead of files that can be opened in computer spreadsheet programs, such as Excel. That means users looking to compare the answers to questions on multiple forms must open each file individually instead of using the computer to do calculations and sort.

“You almost have to know what you are looking for to find it, which is not what we want to see,” said Dan Auble, a senior researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics. “It would be nice to be able to click it and get everything you need straight from the Department of Justice. But the fact that so much of this is locked, trapped in these attachments, and what are essentially printouts of Excel spreadsheets, it really limits what we can do at this point to analyze things.”

Some nonprofit groups have tried to make the information more accessible on their own, taking the data from the FARA office website and converting it, with the help of specialized programs, IT professionals, and interns painstakingly typing data into new forms, into formats that can be used to answer specific questions.

The Center for Responsive Politics in January unveiled a project called Foreign Lobby Watch that allows visitors to their website to search the text of the registration forms.

And the Project on Government Oversight launched a Foreign Influence database in 2014 that provided electronic access to years of supplemental filings that had previously been stored only as hard copies at the Justice Department. In an accompanying report, the organization said those documents included draft speeches, scripts for hearings, and proposed legislation written by lobbyists for congressional lawmakers. 

Lydia Dennett, an investigator who co-authored the report, said the FARA office began posting the so-called informational materials on its website in 2017, but it was not clear whether more historical material would be added.

She commended the agency for trying to make the information available online, and said it is easy to use the website to answer narrowly focused, specific questions — those that target one country, one lobbyist or one time period. But any deeper investigation will quickly reveal gaping holes.

“There is still a lot that we don’t know about what these lobbyists are doing for their clients,” she said. “The public deserves to know. This is a multimillion-dollar industry.”

Projects that attempt to make the documents more accessible to the public depend on the investment from outside groups to make available what is essentially public information, Auble said.

“These are foreign governments who have their own interests in mind and not the best interests of the United States,” he said. “It’s important to know who is trying to influence policy and how much they are spending and what they are going to do — all of that is found in these FARA filings.”

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