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Foreign Governments Are Greasing U.S. Think Tank ‘Experts’ With Millions

New swamp report:$174 million was poured into the D.C. influence game over four years—that's double earlier estimates.

UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard speaks about her report on journalist Jamal Khashoggis killing at Brookings Institution in Washington DC, United States on July 02, 2019. (Photo by Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The top 50 think tanks that shape policy direction and legislation in Washington received over $174 million in foreign money from 2014 to 2018, according to a new analysis conducted by the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the  Center for International Policy. That’s more than double the foreign funding discovered by the New York Times in 2014.

The top recipients of foreign funding from 2014 to 2018 were the World Resources Institute ($63 million), the Center for Global Development ($37.5 million), and the Brookings Institution ($27.3 million). Nearly 900 different foreign donations went to these three think tanks from over 80 different countries and international organizations. The top donor countries were Norway ($27.6 million), the United Kingdom ($27.1 million), and the United Arab Emirates ($15.4 million), according to the report.

What does all this money buy? Think tanks contribute to the Washington ecosystem in a variety of ways: their writers and influence-peddlers appear as experts on news shows and pen op-eds, they conduct in-depth research on policy, they draft legislation, and they write talking points, memos and Congressional scorecards. Think tanks are homes for former and future government officials: they employ former former senators, representatives, executive branch officials, and their staff. The Brookings Institution is headed by retired four-star General John Allen and they employ two former Chairs of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen and Ben Bernanke, among over 300 experts.

Think tanks also cultivate scholars and bureaucrats for future administrations. When Ronald Reagan was elected president, the Heritage Foundation provided his administration with over 1,000 pages of policy prescriptions. According to Heritage, Reagan’s administration eventually adopted or attempted to adopt over two-thirds of them. Think tank experts even appear as witnesses on important policy matters during congressional hearings. And they do all this without disclosing the powerful countries that are paying their bills.

There’s no legal requirement to disclose foreign or domestic funding sources; so the research this new report reveals is only the tip of the foreign funding iceberg. Ben Freeman, who lead the study as director of the Foreign Policy Transparency Initiative, believes the real foreign funding total may actually exceed half a billion dollars.

Many think tanks release only partial information about their donors, placing them into large bracketed donor categories. Qatar appears on the Brookings Institution’s $2 million per year “and above” category for donors; how much did Qatar actually contribute? We only know that it was at least $2 million in 2018.

The data in the report comes largely from publicly available information like IRS tax forms and annual reports, supplemented with media reports of funding, as well as information disclosed to Freeman after a series of emails and phone calls with the think tanks themselves.

Most of the countries that appear in the list of top foreign funders are Western democracies, who probably have nothing to hide by disclosing their contributions. Top donor Norway uses a lot of its foreign influence buying to protect forests, for instance. 

Countries that don’t appear on the list, like China and Saudi Arabia, may be using less direct means of influence, like pass-through donors that disguise the real origins of the money. After the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, some think tanks announced they would no longer accept Saudi donations. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t receiving Saudi dollars through round-about means. Recently, the think tanks Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Hudson Institute both hosted conferences on Qatar’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, without realizing they were being secretly bank-rolled by the United Arab Emirates. “FDD says it does not accept money from foreign governments and Hudson only accepts money from Democratic countries allied with the U.S.,” reported the AP. 

The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires lobbyists to make fairly extensive disclosures if they work on behalf of foreign governments or officials. But these requirements don’t extend to think tanks and the “soft lobbying” they engage in.

“A significant amount of foreign funding at think tanks comes from authoritarian regimes whose aims often diverge significantly from U.S. interests. In a variety of instances… we’ve learned that this funding can significantly influence the work being done at think tanks,” states the report.

Think tanks “rarely mention any potential conflicts of interest in their published reports or speeches and think tank experts often fail to report financial ties to foreign governments when testifying before Congress. In fact, a Project on Government Oversight (POGO) analysis of think tank experts testifying before Congress found that many don’t report their employer’s foreign funders even when the rules of the house require them to.”

Americans deserve to know what countries are spending millions of dollars to influence policy discussions in Washington, as well as how much is being spent. Funding transparency would allow the media and the American public to more accurately assess think tanks’ policy prescriptions. 

If think tanks are recommending certain policy outcomes, we deserve to know who is paying them to make those recommendations and whether there are conflicts of interest.

about the author

Barbara Boland is TAC’s foreign policy and national security reporter. Previously, she worked as an editor for the Washington Examiner and for CNS News. She is the author of Patton Uncovered, a book about General George Patton in World War II, and her work has appeared on Fox News, The Hill UK Spectator, and elsewhere. Boland is a graduate from Immaculata University in Pennsylvania.  Follow her on Twitter @BBatDC.

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