As foreign influence dominates the news cycle with President Trump's former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, and former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, registering as foreign lobbyists, getting better access to foreign lobbying documents is vital. The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) collaborated with a number of other civil society groups to submit a public comment on ways to improve the collection of and public access to foreign lobbying documents.
These functions are regulated in part by the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which requires U.S. lobbyists who represent foreign governments to register their activities with the Department of Justice (DOJ). But as POGO detailed in our 2014 report “Loopholes, Filing Failures, and Lax Enforcement: How the Foreign Agents Registration Act Falls Short,” there are several significant issues with the law and the Justice Department’s enforcement of it.
The DOJ’s struggles with FARA enforcement were recently thrust into the spotlight when it became clear that President Trump’s former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, failed to register his foreign lobbying activities under the law. Without proper enforcement of FARA it’s impossible for the public to know which foreign entities are attempting to influence U.S. policies and how.
In addition to fighting for improved enforcement, POGO—along with Demand Progress, The Sunlight Foundation, ProPublica, and The Center for Responsive Politics—have been working for years to better facilitate access to and analysis of these documents and offer recommendations to the DOJ. Right now downloadable data is difficult to analyze due to a lack of standardization, reports to Congress are filled with miscalculations and incomputable data, and sensitive or personal information can be accidently released.
While DOJ has made some significant progress in providing greater standardization of documents, more intuitive features, and better methods of collecting information from foreign lobbyists (including DOJ’s effort to develop new online capabilities for the FARA website), there is still a long way to go. Our recommendations are intended to further improve the quality, utility, and clarity of information collected and finally bring the collection of and access to these documents to an effective level.
If enacted, these records would provide the public with better tools and the knowledge needed to understand how foreign governments are attempting to influence U.S. policy, as the law intends.