Foreign Agents Can Be Washington, D.C., Lobbyists

A piece of legislation governing Washington, D.C., lobbyists is the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Enacted in 1938, FARA requires persons acting as agents of foreign principals (meaning any foreign government, political party, individual, corporation, or other entity) to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with that principal.

When Congress enacted FARA, it was trying to ensure that the U.S. government and the American people would be informed of the identity of persons engaging in political activities on behalf of foreign principals so that their statements and activities could be put in the context of their associations. The law is administered by the Counterespionage Section in the National Security Division of the United States Department of Justice.

Diplomats and other official foreign government representatives are excluded from registering per FARA, and an exception exists for anyone engaged in transactions of a solely commercial nature — creating a loophole for people operating in a purely business (nonpolitical) capacity on behalf of a foreign principal.

Until the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) came along, anyone engaged in political lobbying for a foreign individual or corporation was required to register under FARA; today, those people can instead register under LDA. However, anyone who acts as the agent of a foreign government or political party still must continue to register under FARA.

Agents must register with the U.S. Department of Justice, disclose detailed financial and business information, and maintain detailed records that are open to public inspection. The definition of an agent under FARA compared with the definition of a lobbyist under LDA is much broader and can include, for instance, work to influence public opinion.

Acting as the agent of foreign powers can be a unique business, partly because your most challenging clients are not your average greedy corporations but, perhaps, blood-stained despots. Yet as with any business, supply will always rise up to meet the demand.

One Washington journalist, Ken Silverstein, decided to test this premise to its logical extreme: With fake business cards in hand, Silverstein approached several Washington lobbying firms to gauge their interest in representing the great nation of Turkmenistan, which, as the State Department notes in its 2010 Human Rights Report, engages in arbitrary arrest and detention, denies due process and fair trial, and engages (reportedly) in torture.

Silverstein’s phony contract sparked plenty of real interest from lobbying professionals.

But this fiction pales in comparison with some actual lobbying conducted by foreign governments. During the course of his more than two-decades-long career in lobbying and public relations, the late Washington lobbyist Edward von Kloberg III represented such eminent democrats as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Zaire’s Mobuto Sese Seko, and Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu.

According to von Kloberg, the only dictator he ever refused was the Somali warlord General Mohammed Farrah Aidid (whose capture was the objective of the 1993 American military operation in Mogadishu that ended tragically and was later chronicled in the book and movie Black Hawk Down).

Perhaps not surprisingly, von Kloberg fell victim to another journalistic attempt to test the limits of Washington’s lobbyists, expressing interest in taking on the case of a phony German neo-Nazi organization.

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