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Finding the Foreign Agents

In high school civics classes, Americans are brought up to believe that in their nation a rule of law prevails. Justice is depicted as blind and the rules apply to everyone. All Americans will receive the same fair hearing in court or at the hands of the government. Of course the reality is that experience tells us that those who trust in impartial justice are somewhat delusional as the criminal justice and regulatory systems do not operate in a reliably mechanical fashion. Many factors determine whether a suspect actually goes to trial or whether an organization is regulated or investigated and there are a number of roadblocks along the way that influence the outcome.

One of the federal government regulatory bodies that few have heard about is the board at the United States Department of Justice’s Counterespionage Section that administers the Foreign Agents Registration Act [1] (FARA). The original FARA was passed in 1938 just before the outbreak of war in Europe and was intended to monitor the activities of front organizations being directed by the German and Italian governments. From its inception FARA was politicized and selective. Rome and Berlin were potential enemies while the extremely active British government efforts to draw the United States into what eventually became a European and then a world war were largely ignored.

The original act was loosely worded to include anyone propagandizing for a foreign power but an amended version in 1966 narrowed the definition of whom would be covered to include only actual “agents of a foreign principal” working directly for a foreign government in an attempt to influence U.S. economic or political decision making. Since 1966 there have been no successful criminal prosecutions under FARA and nearly all compliance has been more-or-less voluntary. There have, however, been a number of civil cases and administrative resolutions in which the government asserted the viability of the act. In 2004, for example, Susan Lindauer, a former congressional staffer, was charged with [2] taking payments from an Iraqi government source. Her case was finally dropped in 2009.

There are somewhat less than 2,000 foreign agents registered under the act [3] representing more than 100 countries. Their names and their periodic financial and activities filings are accessible by the public [4] at the FARA Unit office in Washington. Most are associated with law or lobbying firms that represent foreign governments as part of their business. Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert was, for a time, a registered agent [5] for Turkey when he held that account while working for the Dickstein Shapiro law firm, which he joined after leaving congress. Former Congressman Dick Gephardt also headed a company engaged in lobbying for Turkey. Both Gephardt and Hastert were involved in lobbying Congress to oppose pending legislation calling the First World War massacre of Turkish Armenians a “genocide.”

The disadvantage of registering under FARA is that you have to disclose your sources of income and you also have to detail what you are doing on behalf of the foreign government. Organizations that do not consider that they are actually directed by a foreign government or who assess their relationship to be borderline are consequently reluctant to comply.

FARA inevitably is selective in its targeting. Agents of nations hostile to the United States are pursued with some vigor while organizations linked to powerful domestic political lobbies tend to get a pass. This has been historically true of Irish republican groups as well as of the predecessor of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which was founded in 1949 as the American Zionist Council [6]. The American Zionist Council was funded directly by the Jewish Agency for Israel. Attorney General Robert Kennedy ordered the group to register in 1962 [3] but the death of his brother led to an intense lobbying campaign to influence his strongly pro-Israel successor Lyndon B. Johnson who obligingly instructed the Justice Department to stand down.

Since that time repeated efforts [7] to compel AIPAC to register [8] have failed due to White House and Justice Department unwillingness to confront the issue but a new initiative by the Israeli government might well be construed as having crossed the line in violation of FARA. In early January the Prime Minister’s Office of the Israeli government funded a joint project to be run by the government’s National Information Directorate and StandWithUS, which has been described [9] as an “American hasbara organization.” In Hebrew the name, hasbara, means literally “public explanation” but the expression is generally applied to anyone involved in generating pro-Israeli propaganda. It is also sometimes more politely described as a program of “perception management,” a euphemism made popular [10] by the Donald Rumsfeld Pentagon in 2004.

Israel has long been paying students [11] as part-time bloggers or exploiting diaspora Jews as volunteers to get its message out. In 2009 the Israeli Foreign Ministry wrote to a number of pro-Israel organizations emphasizing the “importance of the internet as the new battleground for Israel’s image.” Haaretz reported [12] in 2013 how Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office collaborated with the National Union of Israeli Students to create “semi-military covert units” at the seven national universities organized to work in situation rooms. Students use different names and IP addresses, which enable them to make multiple posts, and are paid [13] as much as $2,000 monthly to work the online targets.

The hasbara program [14] includes recruitment, training, Foreign Ministry-prepared information sheets, and internet alerts to potential targets. It is essentially an internet-focused “information war.” It is supported by a desktop tool called Megaphone that provided daily updates on articles appearing on the internet that are singled out for confrontation or attack. The hasbara commenters flood websites where commentary critical of Israel is observed in the belief that if something is repeated often enough in many different places it will gain credibility and create doubts regarding contrary points of view. They also can hound critics and even destroy careers in journalism. Veteran CNN reporter Jim Clancy was forced to resign [15] last week after an exchange of tweets with hasbara over the Paris terror attacks.

The joint enterprise between the American foundation and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office is more of the same. It reportedly [9] is intended to strengthen “Israeli hasbara on social media platforms,” with StandWithUs running “interactive media war rooms.” The National Information Directorate’s role will be to draft the talking points and monitor the progress of the “war.”

StandWithUs, which was founded [16] to “educate others about Israel,” originated in Los Angeles. It now has 18 chapters in the U.S., Canada, Britain, and also in Israel. Incorporated as the Israel Emergency Alliance, StandWithUs is a 501(c)(3) organization, which means it has successfully claimed to be a tax exempt educational foundation. It is reportedly largely funded [17] by Las Vegas multi billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who also has been active in supporting Republican candidates perceived as particularly friendly to Israel. StandWithUs is aggressive in its defense of Israel, to include a secret program [18] to compile critical dossiers on pro-Palestinian speakers as part of an effort to help “Israel advocates respond to and counter anti-Israel speakers who come to your campus.”

The project is ostensibly being run through the StandWithUs chapter in Israel, but it will include the training of British and American students, and the parent organization is itself American in both funding and its incorporation. As it has no other function than promoting the Israeli government point of view so as to influence decision making in the United States and in the United Kingdom. It would be a clear case where registry with FARA would be mandatory as the political direction and half the funding for the project are coming directly from the Israeli government. If StandWithUS is compelled to register under FARA it will have to reveal all its funding and its tax exempt status will presumably be revoked by the Internal Revenue Service.

And StandWithUs is far from alone. Israel is certainly entitled to make its case to the American and international audience and one might observe that it has done so extremely tenaciously and very effectively. But a number of organizations in the Israel Lobby are little more than fronts for promoting the Israeli right wing government talking points in an attempt to shape American policy, which indisputably makes them foreign agents as defined by FARA. As foreign agents, they should be subject to some supervision of and restraints on their activities and there would also be a certain transparency in terms of who they are and what they represent which just might make the media less inclined to go to them for commentary.

One suspects that the Barack Obama/Eric Holder Justice department has little stomach for going after any organization linked to Israel and that reticence is regrettable, particularly as Israel will undoubtedly be using the upcoming Netanyahu visit to ratchet up the intensity of its own campaign to convince the American public that war with Iran should be a compelling U.S. national interest. If the American public were made aware that much of the war fever is being drummed up by organizations that are actually acting as agents of a foreign government it just might make a difference in how that sales pitch is perceived. But even if that were not the case, it would not be a bad thing to observe that the United States government does indeed, at least occasionally, play by its own rules.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "Finding the Foreign Agents"

#1 Comment By Tom On January 30, 2015 @ 12:47 am

Thank you for your article, I will be referencing it often to educate people about what hasbara is and is about.

#2 Comment By Kurt Gayle On January 30, 2015 @ 2:49 am

@ Philip Giraldi, who wrote:

“If the American public were made aware that much of the war fever is being drummed up by organizations that are actually acting as agents of a foreign government it just might make a difference in how that sales pitch is perceived.”

You’re right. Having that information might make a big difference for many Americans.

Thanks, Philip, for explaining that StandWithUS is essentially run by the Israeli government.

#3 Comment By inside baseball On January 30, 2015 @ 8:21 am

As you say, the problem isn’t the law or identifying the criminals, it is enforcement.

It is somewhat analogous to the illegal immgration problem. Obama refuses to arrest and deport illegal aliens at anything like the rate necessary to reduce total numbers or deter further criminality. Similarly, enforcement of laws governing foreign agents has been inadequate – recent presidents have only rarely arrested and prosecuted Americans who serve as Israeli agents (and Israel is easily the most egregious offender).

As with illegal immigration, the Congress has conspired with Obama to let him shirk his enforcement duty, and the foreign agents have rewarded Congressmen with huge “donations”.

For example, Sen. Kirk of Illinois has just sponsored a bill that would impose additional sanctions on Iran. Senator Kirk has received millions of dollars from “pro Israel” groups – the Iran sanctions bill might as well have been written and introduced directly by the Israeli Prime Minister, who now proposes to come here to demand that Congress support the sanctions that Kirk has proposed. It is a gross, obvious violation of US sovereignty by Israel, a direct effort to sabotage our own president’s diplomatic efforts with Iran.

But Kirk’s blatant corruption (and treachery, really) is, paradoxically, in part a result of Obama’s own failure to arrest, prosecute and imprison unregistered foreign agents, his failure to prevent foreign money and foreign interests from distorting and corrupting our political process.

Obama could do himself a lot of good by unleashing the FBI and federal prosecutors on these people. Americans don’t like foreign countries suborning the loyalties and buying the services of our elected officials. Intelligence and monitoring is good: we know who the perps are and can shut them down any time we like. What has been missing is the political will to mount and sustain a vigorous program of arrests, prosecutions, and prison sentences.

With all the alleged official concern for national security since 9/11 you would think this would have happened long ago. It hasn’t. That needs to change.

#4 Comment By johnallen On January 30, 2015 @ 9:38 am

John McCain should go maverick and tell them “get out low life scum”…oh wait that’s reserved for US citizens not being sheeple and dignified in the halls of the unfallible.

#5 Comment By Johann On January 30, 2015 @ 11:15 am

When he steps foot in this country again, Netanyahu should be arrested, charged, and tried for smuggling US nuclear triggers to Israel back in the 80s.

#6 Comment By James Canning On January 30, 2015 @ 1:32 pm

Great piece. Aipac is allowed to subvert the national security interests of the American people because its operations are protected.

#7 Comment By Kurt Gayle On January 30, 2015 @ 2:52 pm

Hey, “inside baseball”: You and Philip Giraldi are to “the enforcement of laws governing foreign agents” that Bill James is to baseball.

You write: “What has been missing is the political will to mount and sustain a vigorous program of arrests, prosecutions, and prison sentences.”

I couldn’t agree more, “inside baseball”: That’s just what’s been missing. Let’s put it this way: Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, and Nolan Ryan were pitchers who weren’t afraid to throw inside — and right now we’ve got agents of the State of Israel standing right on top of home plate, laughing at us, mocking Americans! Time to throw inside! Throw heat!

#8 Comment By Tom On January 30, 2015 @ 4:34 pm

I often read comments of people, and I have noticed patterns within the comments, patterns that organizations like hasbara, help explain.

I see what I can only assume are hasbara
on liberal/progressive web comment boards, when there are conversations regarding Muslims, Israel, America…you will often find a few commenters, with patriotic names like “USA is Number 1”, or “Freedom Fighter”, who will act like the police of the comment line, attacking anyone who criticizes Israel or America’s support for Israel, as “anti-Semitic”. And they will be on the tread for 6-8 hours at least.

On conservative web sites hasbara has quite a different, far more insidious role. On conservative sites, there is already an implied support for Israel, and America’s support for it. Here the focus is much more on Muslims, and total hate and villainization of them. They act more like the guy in the back of the angry crowd inciting the crowd to act, to hate, to kill. I have taken on these individuals before and they are relentless in their insults and attacks, rest assured, they are hasbara as well.

#9 Comment By Action Required On January 31, 2015 @ 8:55 am

Unlike fascists and communists, conservatives are supposed to understand the importance of respect for and compliance with law. Some of us – inside and outside government – have waited a long time for the executive branch to consistently (rather than sporadically and selectively) enforce the relevant laws, while Israel and its agents have been allowed to repeatedly, blatantly, and contemptuously violated our laws.

Why should we pay taxes or respect any law at all when our government is willfully blind to the crimes of foreigners and their agents? How can anyone claim to be a “conservative” who stands by silently as his country is exploited and endangered in this way?

#10 Comment By Uncle Billy On January 31, 2015 @ 10:37 am

I’ve noticed that Bibi speaks better English than George W. Bush. Of course, that is not really a tall order.

#11 Comment By Fran Macadam On January 31, 2015 @ 12:52 pm

“Americans don’t like foreign countries suborning the loyalties and buying the services of our elected officials.”

To be fair, there is hypocrisy in lambasting Israel for what American government and corporations practice aggressively, too, in other lands. Some of them are even overlapping entities. As long as that continues, there’s really no moral force available to pursue what are normal policies to both Americans and Israelis.

#12 Comment By Jonathan On February 1, 2015 @ 4:42 pm

Tom,
Hasbara simply means public relations with its propagandist implications.
Perhaps a better term for these people is shills.
But I will take note of your warning and look out for patriotic monitors like as the ones you mention as well as anti-Islamic vitriol.

Hmmm Google Translate defines hasbara as
propaganda.

A propagandist is ta’amulan or ta’amulati.

#13 Comment By Rossbach On February 4, 2015 @ 2:12 pm

“As long as that continues, there’s really no moral force available to pursue what are normal policies to both Americans and Israelis.”

While it is true that US politicians and their crony capitalist clients subvert the rule of law in other countries, that would in no way justify allowing foreign agents to do the same here. The problem is not hypocrisy, it is the gradual abandonment of the rule of law by our own government. That government’s practices are corrupt abroad because they are corrupt at home.

#14 Comment By CityEyes On February 4, 2015 @ 3:18 pm

The infamous water-cooler conversations about why our wars?; never takes place. Other folks kids do the fighting and dying (why discuss?) and the mainstream media, Israel’s home grown cheerleaders, wave the flag and dish up the same same GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) year in and year out. Any politician attending the NuttyYahoo speech should be voted out of office.