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 (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 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 representing more than 100 countries. Their names and their periodic financial and activities filings are accessible by the public 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 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. The American Zionist Council was funded directly by the Jewish Agency for Israel. Attorney General Robert Kennedy ordered the group to register in 1962 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 to compel AIPAC to register 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 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 by the Donald Rumsfeld Pentagon in 2004.
Israel has long been paying students 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 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 as much as $2,000 monthly to work the online targets.
The hasbaraprogram 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 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 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 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 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 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.