Foreign powers spend millions of dollars every year trying to influence U.S. government policy. People who fail to register as foreign agents risk jail time.
In one high-profile case, U.S. authorities accused Maria Butina of infiltrating the National Rifle Association and other groups to promote Russian interests during the 2016 presidential election. She pled guilty to conspiring to act as a foreign agent of the Russian Federation. She served 15 months in prison before being deported to Russia in October.
She denied trying to influence U.S. political affairs.
“You cannot judge a person based on appearance,” she told 60 Minutes on Nov. 3.
Prosecutors charged Butina under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, or FARA. Congress passed the act in 1938 after German propaganda agents flooded the U.S.
Today, the act provides a window into the sprawling, multimillion-dollar foreign-influence industry. By law, people who act on behalf of foreign individuals, political parties, organizations or governments are required to register and report their activities and spending.
FARA filings provide a wealth of information for anyone trying to understand how foreign powers influence the U.S. government. In an October report, for instance, the Center for International Policy said the United Arab Emirates has run a “vast and influential lobbying and public relations campaign in America.” Twenty firms working on behalf of UAE interests spent more than $20 million, made more than $600,000 in campaign contributions and carried out 3,168 political activities. The effort helped the UAE maintain a “privileged status” in the U.S. despite a poor human rights record and a role in a targeted assassination program in Yemen, the CIP said.
In September 2018, seven U.S. senators asked the Department of Justice to investigate whether Donald Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, had failed to register under FARA. The former New York City mayor denied representing foreign interests. “I do not lobby, I do not do foreign representation,” he told Roll Call.
FARA registrants must detail their activities. In an Oct. 2 filing, for instance, lawyer Marcus Cohen said he was advising Volodymyr Zelensky, the former comedian who is now president of Ukraine. Cohen said his “collaborations” with Zelensky “during these efforts were made with the hope (but not expectation) that any eventual new Ukrainian administration might formally hire” him for a position in the Ukraine government.
Cohen represented Signal Consulting Group, a government affairs firm that assisted Zelensky during his campaign. He wrote that the company planned “outreach to U.S. government officials, U.S. media, and U.S. think tanks for meetings with agents of the Zelensky campaign who were traveling to the U.S. for three days shortly before Zelensky’s election.”
I went through 16,008 FARA filings from 1942 through 2019 and found that Japan, Canada and Mexico had the most filings. See interactive graphic below.
There were no FARA filings related to Cuba after 1966.
The firms with the greatest number of FARA filings from 1942 to 2019 were: Hill+Knowlton Strategies, North American Precis Syndicate, Gebhardt, H.A., Modern Education Services and Ruder Finn Inc.
Foreign filings dropped in the late ’90s. I wonder if that is because more influence operations began going online.
This interactive map shows the sources of foreign influence operations from 2009 to 2019.