Does America Really Need the Foreign Agents Registration Act?

The U.S. has an interest in protecting its political system from manipulation by foreign enemies or their paid agents. But treason and espionage are already illegal, as is bribery.


What do President Obama's White House counsel, President Trump's national security adviser, and campaign chairman, and a finance chairman of the Republican National Committee under George W. Bush have in common with an Iranian-American political scientist who has been a frequent op-ed contributor to The New York Times?

All five of them have been ensnared by the Foreign Agents Registration Act. That federal law, enacted in 1938 amid anxiety about German influence as World War II loomed, carries criminal penalties including prison time and fines for noncompliance.

Obama's White House counsel, Gregory Craig, was charged in 2019 with making false statements about work that he and his law firm at the time did for Ukraine and a private Ukrainian individual. A judge dismissed one count and a jury acquitted him in 2019 of the other one.

Trump's national security adviser, Michael Flynn, pleaded guilty in 2017 to making false statements in a Foreign Agents Registration Act filing about his work for Turkey. Trump pardoned Flynn in December 2020.

Trump's 2016 campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was charged in 2017 with, among other things, failure to properly register as a foreign agent of Ukraine. Manafort, too, was pardoned by Trump in December 2020.

George W. Bush's RNC finance chairman, Elliott Broidy, pleaded guilty in October 2020 to a count of conspiring to violate the Foreign Agents Registration Act by advancing Chinese and Malaysian interests without properly disclosing the representation. Trump pardoned Broidy in January 2021.

And now Kaveh Afrasiabi, who has had more than a dozen letters and opinion pieces published in The New York Times, has been arrested and charged with being an unregistered foreign agent of Iran. Afrasiabi acknowledged to me that he had "received checks" from the Iranian U.N. mission's bank account, but said he had done nothing illegal and did not believe the Foreign Agents Registration Act applied to his activities. The Department of Justice press release announcing the charges said he had been paid about $265,000 by the Iranian U.N. mission since 2007 and had been covered by its health insurance plan.

The law requires registration by agents of foreign principals if the agents engage in "political activities" for or in the interest of the foreign principal, or if the agents act within the United States as a "public relations counsel, publicity agent, information-service employee or political consultant."

The U.S. has an interest in protecting its political system from manipulation by foreign enemies or their paid agents. But treason and espionage are already illegal, as is bribery. Our political system is gridlocked and unpredictable. Foreign governments or foreign firms that think hiring the right political consultant or public relations counsel will assure success are deluding themselves.

Requiring registration might seem like a moderate compromise between the two extremes of banning foreign-funded influence campaigns altogether or allowing them to proceed entirely unregulated. But that's misleading. No one is talking about repealing the laws against treason, bribery, or espionage, so "entirely unregulated" is a straw man. And U.S. and American companies conduct public relations efforts overseas, so banning them here entirely would be hypocritical.

American anxiety about foreign influence long predated the passage of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The existence of the act hasn't done much to quell that anxiety, let alone extinguish it. For all the concern, though, foreign-paid or foreign-controlled publicity campaigns are minor relative to advocacy efforts that are conducted by Americans for ideological, ethnic, religious, or business reasons.

When so many prominent people run afoul—or are accused of running afoul—of the same law, it raises the questions of whether the law itself is the problem, or whether prosecutors are being overly zealous in enforcing it. Even those tempted to chalk the issue up to a corrupt crowd around Trump are then stuck having to explain somehow the Craig and Afrasiabi cases.

For Congress, there may not be a big political upside in easing rules against foreign political influence in the U.S. All the pressure is in the other direction—tighter restrictions, especially after Russia's efforts to sway U.S. politics. A bipartisan group of senators has backed an even tougher law.

The existing statute is antiquated, as evidenced by the pre-internet language guarding against the transmitting of "informational materials" by mail, but not by email or social media platforms, or the internet.

Unless Congress does rise to review, repeal, or revise the existing law, though, if the pattern holds the statute may eventually wind up entangling some Biden administration figure. A week after the 2020 election, Senator Grassley, Republican of Iowa, was asking the Justice Department to evaluate whether Hunter Biden and James Biden should register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act "for work on behalf of the Chinese government or other foreign governments or foreign principals." If Grassley wants to accuse the Bidens of being soft on China, it may yet be a fine political line of attack. But let us debate the foreign policies themselves on the merits, rather than pursuing potential criminal penalties against people for failing to fill out the right paperwork.

NEXT: Biden, Republican Senators Quibble Over Whether To Spend Billions or Trillions

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  1. First, define "America."

    1. The territorial jurisdiction of the federal government of the United States of America. Now, define "American". I'm assuming, with Joe Biden in the White House, an American is anyone currently residing in the territory of the United States, regardless of any absent legal paperwork.

      1. Unless that person ever thought about voting for Trump, or knows someone who thought of voting for Trump.
        Those are not Americans, they are seditionists.

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  2. I think the federal government needs to distinguish between foreign agents from allied / friendly countries versus hostile countries. It makes no sense to persecute a poor Israeli-American for advocating for the defense of the Jewish people in the Middle East. On the other hand, we must do everything within our lawful power to root out foreign Russian agents in the Republican party who have attempted or are presently attempting to subvert American democracy. We need loyal Republican politicians, like those at the Lincoln Project, who put country above party and don't sell our country out for a few Russian rubles.

    1. There are far more foreign agents within the the Democrat Party just from China (and Hunter/James Biden, Sen Diane Feinstein's chauffer for 20 years, and Eric Swallwell's Chinese squeeze are just the tip of a huge iceberg) than in the Republican Party.

      But this is a bipartisan problem, so blaming either party is not productive (and only makes matters worse).

    2. [laughs in Jon Pollard]

  3. Well, if none of the Bidens or Clintons had to register, considering the millions paid to them by foreign governments, why indeed should anyone have to register?

    1. When did Joe Biden get paid by a foreign government? His son got money from foreign businesses but that is not illegal. Trump has foreign business interests as well. The Clinton foundation did get contributions from foreign governments but that is not illegal. This was investigated extensively including by the justice department under Trump.

      1. "The Clinton foundation did get contributions from foreign governments but that is not illegal."

        Depends on how those 'contributions' were solicited.
        "Emails reveal how foundation donors got access to Clinton and her close aides at State Dept."

  4. Anyone else find it odd that this headline is coming out now and not, for example, a couple of years ago when there were some high-profile cases related to foreign agent registration?

    1. That would of involved putting aside his personal distaste and openly supporting principles as an end goal instead of a means.

    2. There were similar articles back then.

  5. Highly-highly relevant here...

    Donald Trump
    ‘The perfect target’: Russia cultivated Trump as asset for 40 years – ex-KGB spy
    Donald Trump’s election win in 2016 was welcomed by Moscow.
    Donald Trump’s election win in 2016 was welcomed by Moscow. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
    The KGB ‘played the game as if they were immensely impressed by his personality’, Yuri Shvets, a key source for a new book, tells the Guardian

    1. Flag, refresh

      1. Amen.

    2. I saw that but am skeptical when these ex agents come out with this stuff.

  6. Yes. As well as border control and trade restrictions. Even the lefty CHAZ insurrection pulled a 180 on that principle. It's impossible to define a country without land borders and without a country there is no civilized society (law & order).

    I starting to think Libertarians aren't very smart after all. Maybe Ron Paul, Rand Paul, Tom Masse are more Republican then Libertarian.

    1. Kinda hard to refute Amash's descent into libtardation.

  7. Well I don't think that acting as foreign agent is the same thing as treason or espionage. I don't think it is wrong for any country to hire some American to promote its interests. I do think it is important that the relationship is understood. The problem maybe in in the definition of political activity. If country A hires an American Citizen to help promote products in a state what activities are political and what are not. If the US citizens talk to other companies than easy nonpolitical. If the US citizen talks to a local Chamber of Commerce, again nonpolitical. But what if the US Citizen is talking to the state's Commerce Department or the state's Governor, is that political? I would keep the Foreign Agent registration act, insist that any income from a foreign country must be reported on taxes, and have a specific list of activities that require registration.

    1. "...I would keep the Foreign Agent registration act, insist that any income from a foreign country must be reported on taxes, and have a specific list of activities that require registration."

      TDS-addled shit here just thinks the law could somehow get some tweaks and all would be just ducky.
      S/he assumes that "income from a foreign country" would be easy for the law-enforcement agencies to identify, and hard for anyone receiving it to hide.
      And then we have a "have a specific list of activities that require registration"! Gee, can I speak with...?
      The problem isn't M4e's inability to think above grammar-school level, it's that S/HE represents 'the majority'. Many, many idiots presume this sort of opinion has some actual value other than making it clear that the idiot offering it is to be ignored.

  8. "When so many prominent people run afoul—or are accused of running afoul—of the same law, it raises the questions of whether the law itself is the problem, or whether prosecutors are being overly zealous in enforcing it."

    What do you mean "so many"? Maybe it's "so few."

    And maybe there's an explanation *other* than excess of zeal for the targeting of those who got targeted.

  9. "And maybe there’s an explanation *other* than excess of zeal for the targeting of those who got targeted."

    It's a lot easier to get a conviction for filing fraudulent paper work than it is for treason, espionage or bribery.

    1. Stopped clocks.
      Re: Tony's 'they've got a bunch of convictions of people who know Trump!!!'.
      Unpaid parking tickets, late library returns and other matters of serious concern!

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  12. This seems a perfect article for conflating bureaucratic silliness/overreach with necessary legislation.

    Foreign attempts to influence distort and corrupt self governance date back to at least George Washington's presidency with the British and French each trying to involve us in their multi-decade wars. I don't suppose many Americans ever take a history course that delves at all into foreign/diplomatic issues. But the notion that transparency is not really very important is beyond just fucking stupid Stoll.

    I'm convinced there is no such thing really as a libertarian perspective re how the US views/acts with the rest of the world. Rather there are corrupt people who view libertarians as particularly useful idiots to undermine everything related to self-governance. Stoll you are fucking evil.

  13. Does America Really Need the Foreign Agents Registration Act?

    If the law was repealed (as suggested by this author), all Americans would be required to learn, speak and write Mandarin within a few years.

  14. The writer failed to mention Tony Podesto (the brother of Obama's White House Chief of Staff John), who represented hundreds of foreign companies (including those controlled by communists and dictators) while his brother ran the White House.

    He also failed to mention Biden's appointing one of the Richetti brothers, while his brother generates millions of dollars from foreign companies (including those controlled by communists and dictators).

    But of course, General Flynn was smeared by this author, who failed to acknowledge that Flynn was unlawfully framed by corrupt FDA and DOJ officials (who repeatedly lied to FISA judges) who were trying to unlawfully remove Trump from office.

    1. So what. The Trump family has a ton of business overseas and owns property there. Nothing wrong with that.

      Flynn did register after the fact for some work he did for the Turkish government but the case had nothing to do with that.

      The act requires registration if one is paid by a foreign government, not a business. Can you imagine how many people would need to register if it were business.

  15. Seems more like Ukraine and China need a foreign agent registration act.

  16. Hunter Biden agrees, FARA should be done away with—the sooner the better.

  17. No, we need a "libertarian registration act", along with internal passports, travel controls, and abusive censorship, maybe even re-education camps, deprogramming and child confiscation, so the government can know who it's enemies are and where they are at all times. (sarc)

  18. Then register Tim Cook of Apple. If the CCP wants something done, Apple complies. And how about all the American execs on the board of Tsinghua University in Beijing, including Cook and ex Fed reserve chairman Paulson. Corruption everywhere..

  19. Look at all the commies that work at unreason.

    Trump last presidency for the USA did one great thing by having these commies out themselves.

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