Last week a bipartisan bill was introduced in the House of Representatives to curb foreign influence in the US political process. This bill comes on the heels of Ret. Gen. John Allen’s resignation from his post as president of the Brookings Institution—the most prominent left-leaning think tank in the US—after being accused by the FBI of secretly lobbying on behalf of Qatar and obstructing the government’s investigation into his alleged lobbying and influence activities on behalf of the Qataris. This bombshell news and congressional action should send shockwaves through the national security community.
Think tanks are supposed to be the intellectual backbone of D.C. Their rigorous research guides policy discussions, and their staff shape media narratives, lobby Congress and the executive branch, and even help to write our nation’s laws. We know—we’ve worked at multiple think tanks for more than a decade and have done all of these things
But this influence comes with an unspoken assumption: US think tanks are advising policy-makers on the best policies to advance US interests. If other interests, especially the undisclosed desires of other nations, are being represented, think tanks may have a conflict of interest. In some cases, that conflict may pose a danger to national security itself.
This risk is particularly high given that think tanks are awash in foreign money. In fact, foreign governments donate tens of millions of dollars to the United States’ most prominent think tanks every year, and there are myriad examples of how this money influences what these institutions do (or don’t) say. In some cases, think tanks have exploited loopholes in US lobbying laws, like the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Yet few in Congress or law enforcement have seemed to care—until now.
The accusations leveled against Allen represent the first publicly known Department of Justice investigation of a think tank staffer or leader for FARA violations since FARA enforcement began ramping up after Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
The Allen allegations do not implicate anyone else at Brookings or the institution itself, but do raise the flag that Qatari funding has flooded Brookings’ coffers for years. While funding records are incomplete as Brookings, like all think tanks, is not required to disclose any of its funders, publicly available information indicates that the think tank has received more than 30 million from Qatar in just the past 15 years, with the Embassy of Qatar regularly appearing in Brookings’ contributors list in the “2 million and above” category.
Brookings certainly isn’t alone in accepting foreign government funding. In fact, with few exceptions—like the Council on Foreign Relations, Human Rights Watch, and the Quincy Institute, where we work—most US think tanks accept foreign government funding, with some accepting millions annually. Many of these think tanks have also been accused of bending to the desires of their foreign funders. Foreign funding has, allegedly, paid for a research report for the Center for a New American Security that recommended policies beneficial to the foreign funder. In other circumstances, it has financed conferences denigrating a foreign funders’ geopolitical rival. Think tanks have been notably silent about the misdeeds of their foreign funders. At Brookings, for example, one former employee alleged that he was not permitted to write negatively about Qatar.
None of these incidents has resulted in a publicly known government investigation of a think tank or its staff, which is precisely what makes the accusations against General Allen extraordinary. The Justice Department investigating the head of the most prestigious think tank in the world will serve as a cautionary tale to any think tank working with foreign governments.
The Allen allegations were cited by the bipartisan cosponsors of the Fighting Foreign Influence Act as evidence of the urgent need for new laws to better protect the American political process from foreign funding of think tanks and elections. Among other important provisions, the bill requires tax-exempt organizations, including think tanks, to disclose large contributions from foreign governments or foreign political parties.
In a report called “Restoring Trust in the Think Sector,” published in May 2021, we recommended that think tanks of all kinds adopt precisely this level of transparency, and cautioned those accepting foreign funding about conflicts of interest and the risk of engaging in work that would appear to necessitate FARA registration.
The rationale is simple: A think tank that foreign governments see as an easy and relatively low-cost way to influence US policy poses a threat to our national security and erodes good-faith debates about the national interest.
With great power over policy comes great responsibility to ensure compliance with all applicable lobbying and influence laws. Think tanks that ignore these guidelines risk being the next door the FBI knocks on.