Foreign Influence at the Witness Table?
Loopholes and Lax Enforcement Water Down Funding Transparency Rule
On any given day, it’s not uncommon to see experts from various Washington, DC, think tanks testify at Congressional hearings. On everything from Middle East policy to nuclear nonproliferation, Congress relies on these experts to provide outside input and help shape future U.S. policy.
A Project On Government Oversight (POGO) investigation into compliance with a rule that requires such witnesses to disclose their financial ties to foreign governments has found numerous loopholes that keep Congress and the public in the dark about the extent of foreign governments’ financial relationships with Congressional witnesses. The House of Representatives had adopted the rule, which obligates non-governmental Congressional witnesses to disclose foreign funding when it relates to the subject of the hearing at which they’re testifying, after multiple investigations revealed some think tanks had been receiving millions in funding from foreign governments, with little or no disclosure.
Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) proposed the rule change in response to a 2014 New York Times investigation by Eric Lipton, Brooke Williams, and Nicholas Confessore, which detailed the extent of foreign government donations to prominent DC think tanks. The piece highlighted questions about whether such organizations would be required to disclose those relationships under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), a law that requires foreign lobbyists and public-relations managers to register with the Department of Justice.
The Times investigation elevated concerns raised in a 2007 Harpers exposé by Ken Silverstein (who is now a journalist in residence at POGO). After the Times story, lawmakers grew increasingly concerned that think tanks might be pushing the perspectives or agendas of their foreign funders without disclosing the relationship.
“While this funding may not distort the testimony of these witnesses, this financial support should be disclosed for Members to appropriately assess potential conflicts,” Representative Speier stated.
All non-governmental witnesses are required to file Truth In Testimony forms disclosing specific information about any U.S. government grants or contracts they have received. The 2015 House rule simply added a requirement that such witnesses also disclose any grants or contracts they or their organization have received in the last two years from a foreign government related to the subject of the hearing. That wording is weaker than Representative Speier intended, as what is related to the hearing can be subjective and compounds the bias problems inherent to self-reporting. Furthermore, the House Rules Committee has issued guidance to some think tanks that if their experts are invited to testify as individuals rather than as representatives of the organization, they do not have to disclose the institution’s funding. This creates a huge loophole in the disclosure requirement. And, aside from the threat of a specific member making a critical statement on the House floor, there is no penalty for those who violate the rule.
The names of some of the biggest DC think tanks are synonymous with independent, fact-based research and writing. However, there is no requirement for think tanks to disclose their funders, foreign or otherwise, to the public, which makes it difficult to know who has a stake in their work.
When these think tanks do disclose their funders, the U.S. government and foreign governments appear as top-tier donors. Those relationships can create at least the appearance of a conflict of interest when the organization is issuing recommendations on foreign policy, underscoring the importance of transparency on funding sources when working to affect U.S. policies.
To determine if the rule works as intended to capture how foreign-government donations to think tanks could color the analysis of Congressional witnesses, POGO reviewed Truth in Testimony forms filed by non-governmental witnesses appearing before three House committees. POGO examined all publicly available forms filed by witnesses appearing before the Foreign Affairs, Armed Services, and Appropriations committees, due to those committees’ focus on international issues as well as U.S. national security.
It is ultimately the responsibility of each committee to ensure that non-governmental witnesses are complying with the rule and disclosing properly. But how think tanks comply with the rule demonstrates that it falls short of truly requiring the disclosure of all potential foreign conflicts of interest.
Ambiguity in Self-Reporting Creates Unintended Loophole
The House rule requires witnesses to disclose “any Federal grants or contracts, or contracts or payments originating with a foreign government, received during the current calendar year or either of the two previous calendar years by the witness or by an entity represented by the witness and related to the subject matter of the hearing.” POGO’s review shows that some expert think-tank witnesses use a very narrow definition of “related.”
For example, in reviewing forms filed by Atlantic Council experts testifying before the House Foreign Affairs, Armed Services, and Appropriations committees, POGO found that none included any disclosure of foreign funding related to the subject of the hearing.
There is more to the story, though. In its 2017-2018 annual report, the Council, which describes itself as “a nonpartisan group of foreign policy change-makers,” lists over a dozen foreign governments or foreign-government-owned companies as major donors of $25,000 per year or more. In fact, the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) donated at least one million dollars to the Council in 2017, more than any branch of the U.S. government did. A conservative estimate of all of the Atlantic Council’s foreign-government donations for 2017-2018 would be approximately $2,585,000, based on the low end of the stated ranges, but one might not know that by just looking at the organization’s Truth in Testimony forms.
In some instances, that foreign funding could be relevant to a hearing’s subject, even if the country of origin is not directly named. For instance, testimony on “Reforming the National Security Council” or “Defeating Terrorism in Syria” may not directly relate to any of the Council’s numerous foreign donors, but some who give money would have an interest in the outcome. The UAE certainly has an interest in Syria, having been involved in supporting both sides of the Syrian civil war. Further, none of the Truth in Testimony forms filed by Atlantic Council witnesses disclose any federal grants or contracts, even though the organization’s annual report lists six U.S. government offices as major donors, including every military branch.
Testimony from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) demonstrates how the rule does not fully capture instances where foreign donors could have interests in U.S. policies. CSIS describes itself as “a bipartisan, nonprofit policy research organization dedicated to providing strategic insights and policy solutions to help decisionmakers [sic] chart a course toward a better world.” Part of that mission includes testifying before Congress: CSIS representatives testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs 21 times between 2016 and 2018.
Out of those 21 instances, 14 of the experts reported no funding from foreign governments related to the topic of the hearing. In six instances, witnesses reported relevant funding (one witness form was missing). The disclosure forms vary in the details of the amounts and sources of funding, but they show that Asian countries have invested significantly in CSIS’s work. CSIS did regularly disclose details of its foreign funding, and unlike the forms filed by some other think tanks, it is possible to get a picture of CSIS’s foreign funding from these forms alone. However, the disclosures do not fully comply with the rule because they failed to break out the amounts by country, instead lumping all relevant foreign contributions together.
“We see congressional testimony as an opportunity to help members of Congress think more strategically about the global environment and full transparency is an important part of that process,” a CSIS spokesman told POGO.
In 2016, the organization reported a $43.8 million operating revenue, with 27 percent of that funding coming from “government,” but it’s one of many think tanks that only provide general information on the sources of their funding. The ranges of funding reported are unusually broad, including all donations between $5,000 and $99,999 in one range before jumping to $100,000-$499,999 and finally to $500,000 and above. A conservative estimate of all CSIS’ foreign-government donations for 2017-2018 would be approximately $1,930,000. One 2016 form states that the organization received $1,739,500 from the governments of Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam since 2014.
Many of CSIS’s top-tier government funders are Asian or Middle Eastern countries, including Japan, Taiwan, United Arab Emirates, South Korea, and Turkey—some of which might have an interest in hearings such as “Iranian Backed Militias: Destabilizing the Middle East,” at which Melissa Dalton, CSIS senior fellow and deputy director of its International Security Program, testified in 2017. Furthermore, several CSIS witnesses participating in other hearings related to Asian countries or issues, like “U.S.-India Relations” or North Korean diplomacy, checked “no” to having received donations from foreign governments related to the subject of the hearing. Though not required to be disclosed under the current House rule, these funders may have an interest in developing certain narratives about those regions.
Some of the hearings CSIS employees testified at were about broad topics like “opportunities in defense reform” or space warfare, which could touch on many different foreign interests but would likely not require disclosure under the House rule.
Other examples introduce further complications. For example, Andrew Shearer, then senior advisor on Asia-Pacific security at CSIS, testified at a 2017 hearing about “The Evolution of Hybrid Warfare and Key Challenges.” His testimony details the Chinese hybrid warfare strategy and China’s role in the Asia-Pacific region. And William A. Carter, CSIS fellow and deputy director its Technology Policy Program, testified in 2018 on “China's Pursuit of Emerging and Exponential Technologies.” Yet there was no Truth in Testimony form posted for either expert. The CSIS website states that China donates between $5,000 and $99,999 to the organization.
But even if the forms were posted, it’s unclear if the financial relationship would have needed to be disclosed. CSIS told POGO it wasn’t a typical grant or donation. “We do not take Chinese government or Chinese corporate money to do policy research at CSIS. We had one visiting fellow from a Chinese government-associated institution with our China program in 2017, which is why there is a listing that references China on our website,” a CSIS spokesman told POGO. “There is absolutely zero ‘Chinese influence’ over CSIS testimony, events, publications, or programming.” The House Rules Committee should make clear if such an arrangement is covered under the “grants or payments” language in the rule and therefore if this kind of relationship is required to be disclosed.
Letting think tanks decide for themselves if a donor is relevant to the subject of the hearing can allow for an overly narrow interpretation of the rule—a determination that is particularly hard to make when a hearing is globally or regionally focused.
The Personal Capacity Loophole
Some think-tank experts distance themselves from their organization’s foreign donors by saying their testimony and statements represent their personal views and not those of their organization. For example, witnesses associated with the Brookings Institution testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee seven times between 2016 and 2018, and in all but one case the witnesses responded “yes” to having accepted money from foreign governments. All witnesses affiliated with the think tank handled the disclosure in the same way. Each Truth in Testimony form filed by a Brookings witness includes a link to reports that outline Brookings’ donors and a statement reading:
Consistent with the Brookings Institution’s commitment to independence (which includes not taking Institutional positions on issues), I am hereby informing the Committee that my testimony represents my personal views and does not reflect the views of Brookings, its other scholars, employees, officers, and/or trustees[…] Furthermore, out of an abundance of caution, I have affirmatively responded to questions 5 and 6 above [the questions asking if the organization received U.S. or foreign government funding], in the event that some of the donors disclosed above are responsive to these questions.
Although the rule explicitly states that disclosures must include payments received “by the witness or by an entity represented by the witness,” some House committees seem to accept the distinction between individual experts and their parent organizations as a reason not to require disclosures. A Brookings Institution spokeswoman told POGO that the organization developed its disclosure language in consultation with the House Rules Committee when the rule was first enacted.
The donor information Brookings links to in the disclosure form provides some detail but wouldn’t actually satisfy the requirements of the rule if disclosure were required. All of Brookings’ financial disclosures are broken down in ten ranges, starting with “up to $4,999” and culminating in “$2,000,000 and above.” Based on these ranges, a conservative estimate of all of Brookings’ foreign-government donations for the first half of fiscal year 2018 would be approximately $3,750,000.
While the Institution and those witnesses who are affiliated with it view their statements and testimony as separate from the views of Brookings itself, that may not be clear to Members of Congress or the public. The notion that they are separate is particularly at odds with how the witnesses are introduced and given credibility based on their position and work with the Institution. In several instances, Brookings-affiliated witnesses referenced Brookings reports or work in their testimony, and they were almost always introduced with their Brookings titles. In some cases, these hearings were directly related to Brookings’ foreign-government donors, such as Brookings Senior Fellow and Center for the U.S. and Europe Director Dr. Thomas Wright’s testimony at a hearing on Brexit the same year the organization received money from the United Kingdom.
The Brookings Institution is far from the only organization to claim this separation. For instance, Atlantic Council Senior Fellow and Strategist Naz Durakoglu presented testimony at a House Foreign Affairs hearing called “Turkey’s Democracy Under Challenge” in 2017. Durakoglu’s written testimony states that “The Atlantic Council takes no institutional positions on policy issues,” and that the information contained in her testimony represents her views alone. But the Council does have a financial relationship with Turkey. The organization’s last annual report lists Turkey’s Prime Ministry Investment Support and Promotion Agency as a $25,000-$49,999–tier donor.
“The expert was not aware at [the] time of completing the form of Turkish funding, and worked in a group that was not connected with any funding from Turkey,” an Atlantic Council spokesperson told POGO. Durakoglu stated to POGO that she, in fact, was not personally linked to any Turkish funding, yet attempted to amend the subcommittee's financial disclosure form to reflect the Atlantic Council's funding received for a conference in Turkey. An updated form was not, however, filed with the subcommittee because the subcommittee staff deemed it unnecessary and impossible to change since the previous form was already in the record.
The Rules Committee provided further clarification. A spokesman told POGO that the requirement to disclose or not actually comes down to how the invitation to testify is worded. If the invitation specifically asks for an expert to testify in an individual capacity then they do not need to disclose the funding sources of their parent organization.
Allowing witnesses to testify in an individual capacity, and therefore not disclose potential conflicts, while maintaining the prestige and credibility that comes with being affiliated with an organization like Brookings or the Atlantic Council, is a huge loophole in the rule. The intent of the rule is to provide transparency into any relationships that may color the analysis presented in Congressional testimony. Regardless of the capacity in which an individual is testifying, they should be disclosing the financial relationships of their current employer.
The Brookings Institution told POGO that its foreign donors have no say in what it publishes and it takes a number of steps to prevent potential conflicts of interest. “No single donor is responsible for more than 5% of our funding,” a Brookings spokeswoman told POGO. “Less than 10% of Brookings’s funding comes from foreign governments, and these donations go through the same review process as all other donations of similar value.”
While that may be true, the public and Members of Congress should be able to see those numbers for themselves when Brookings experts are helping to shape policy. Think-tank witnesses are undoubtedly issue-area experts who should be called upon to share their knowledge and help Congress make informed decisions. But the failure to require full disclose of relationships that could in any way influence not only the content of the remarks but the perception of independence in the witnesses themselves, should raise concerns that the rule does not go far enough.
Poor Compliance by Key Committees
In POGO’s review of how the House Foreign Affairs, Armed Services, and Appropriations committees enforced the Truth in Testimony disclosure rule, we found that in addition to the problems with the rule itself, compliance with the rule as it currently exists was spotty at best, and some committees did not fully adhere to the rule’s requirements.
- The House Committee on Foreign Affairs had by far the most non-governmental witnesses. Approximately 10 percent of those witnesses did not file the required form and 77 percent filed the form but said they had not received foreign funding related to the subject of the hearing.
- The House Committee on Armed Services had the fewest publicly available disclosures. Approximately 77 percent of Armed Services non-governmental witnesses from 2016-2018 did not have any Truth in Testimony forms publicly available at all.
- The House Committee on Appropriations had the fewest non-governmental witnesses testify during the period. Approximately 26 percent of those witnesses did not file the form as required and only seven witnesses, or four percent, answered yes to the question asking if they received foreign funding. Of those seven witnesses who answered affirmatively, only three disclosed the actual funding details as required.
Particularly of note, the House Armed Services Committee told POGO that it had not posted all the forms it received. The rule specifically requires the forms to “be made publicly available in electronic form not later than one day after the witness appears.” The Armed Services Committee retroactively posted at least three of the disclosure forms after POGO’s request for comment, though a recent staffing change made locating all the missing forms more difficult, a Committee spokesman told POGO.
On the other hand, the Foreign Affairs Committee has strengthened the rule to require further transparency. Its form also asks witnesses to disclose if they are an active registrant under FARA, which requires those representing the interests of foreign governments or political parties to register with the Department of Justice. Although the Justice Department keeps public records of all registrants under the Act, this additional disclosure makes it easier for Committee members and the public to see if witnesses are foreign agents.
POGO only found one Foreign Affairs witness who answered “yes” to being a FARA registrant. Mehmet Yuksel, representing the People’s Democratic Party in Turkey, answered affirmatively when he testified on Turkey’s democracy. In 2012, Yuksel registered under FARA for his work promoting information on democracy and human rights in Turkey and Kurdistan.
Non-governmental witnesses are a vital part of the Congressional hearing process and many of those representing or affiliated with think tanks have spent their lives studying and learning the intricacies of their subject matter. Congress should value and utilize their expertise. Furthermore, just because their organizations receive foreign funding does not necessarily mean they are agents of foreign governments sent to infiltrate the U.S. policy making process. Indeed, each think tank mentioned in this piece told POGO that they maintain independence from their foreign donors and have robust conflict-of-interest policies in place.
Still, many of the biggest and most influential think tanks paint a picture of themselves as un-influenced and unbiased ivory towers of information without disclosing much, if any, information about how they maintain multimillion-dollar operating budgets. Most of the time, this lack of specificity in disclosing financial relationships with foreign governments is intentional, and should raise conflict-of-interest concerns when the mission of the organization is to affect policy decisions. There’s no requirement for think tanks or nonprofits to publicly disclose their funding sources, which is why the Truth in Testimony rule is so important. Congress is besieged by special-interest representatives, lobbyists, and “consultants” every day. Understanding who has an interest in the information presented is necessary to making informed decisions.
Require Senate witnesses to file Truth in Testimony forms. Currently the Truth in Testimony rule only applies to nongovernmental witnesses appearing before House Committees. There is no similar rule in the Senate despite the same concerns being present. The Senate should adopt the (ideally updated) House rule to ensure their witnesses disclose any potential conflicts of interests with foreign governments.
Expand the rule to cover all foreign funding, not just that directly related to the subject of the hearing. While the law covers the most direct conflict-of-interest concerns related to foreign governments, it fails to fully capture the world of foreign influence. Many foreign governments, particularly those shelling out millions to think tanks, have vested interests in U.S. posture toward their regions more broadly as well as general U.S. policies on defense, aid, and investment. Non-governmental witnesses should be required to disclose the nature of their relationship with all their foreign donors to prevent even the appearance of a conflict.
Institute a penalty for those who do not comply with the rule. Currently there is not a strong enforcement mechanism to ensure think-tank experts and other non-governmental witnesses are complying with the rule. If a Committee discovers a witness has violated the rule, the expert should be barred from testifying again before Congress.
Eliminate the personal-capacity loophole. Each House committee should enforce the rule to require all non-governmental witnesses to disclose their employer’s financial ties regardless of the capacity in which they are testifying. The purpose of this rule is to ensure transparency in the information Congress is receiving. There should be no loophole around this disclosure.
Research assistance provided by Amelia Strauss.
Disclosure: Mandy Smithberger, Director for the Center for Defense Information at POGO, previously worked for Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) on the proposed rule change.
Update (November 1, 2019): This story has been updated to reflect additional information provided by Naz Durakoglu, then at the Atlantic Council, regarding her truth in testimony disclosure form.
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