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Congress needs to rein in foreign influence in US think tanks, experts say

Several bills in US Congress, if passed, could increase transparency around foreign funding, much of which stems from countries in the Middle East
There are currently several bills introduced in Congress to increase transparency around the foreign money given to think tanks.
There have been several bills introduced in Congress to increase transparency around foreign money given to think tanks (AFP/File photo)
By Umar A Farooq in Washington

With foreign influence in the United States becoming a rising issue ahead of a pivotal midterm election, experts say Congress needs to rein in the foreign funding of think tanks, much of which stems from Gulf states in the Middle East.

During a webinar hosted by the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, experts on foreign influence operations raised concerns about how think tanks in Washington play an "outsized role" in shaping US foreign policy, despite many receiving money from foreign governments.

"It's really crucial right now in an era when public trust in institutions is slipping," said Eli Clifton, an investigative journalist with the Quincy Institute.

"And think tanks, if they fail to take steps to bring themselves in line with how academia, journalism science, scientific research is conducted in terms of those ethical standards, they may teeter on the brink of becoming perceived or in reality, an extension of the dark money politics that have increasingly defined the modern political debate."

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In July, one of the most prominent think tanks in the country, the Brookings Institution, had to cut ties with its president, retired US Marine General John Allen, after it was revealed that he was under investigation over alleged illegal lobbying for Qatar.

A 2020 report by the Center for International Policy found that out of the $174m in foreign funding poured into US think tanks, several countries in the Middle East were among the top benefactors.

The United Arab Emirates and Qatar were among the top ten countries donating to these organisations, donating $15.4m and $8.5m respectively, according to the report. Morocco, meanwhile, was included in the top 20 countries, with donations totalling $2.8m.

Most think tanks organised as nonprofits are not obliged to disclose their funding, though some do so voluntarily.

Earlier this month, The Washington Post released two long-term investigative reports showing that hundreds of retired US military officers were using their work experience to cash in on lucrative jobs and contracts with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The reports found that 280 military retirees sought authorisation to work for the UAE, either as military contractors or consultants, and the highest-ranking officer was retired General Jim Mattis, who served as former President Donald Trump's secretary of defence.

Recent polling from Cast from Clay, a UK-based public relations firm, found that think tanks ranked among the lowest when it comes to the US public's trust in various institutions.

Only 48 percent of people polled found think tank experts to be "valuable to society", while an even lower 15 percent of those polled trusted think tank experts to come up with ideas to improve the country.

Katy Murray, insights and relationships lead at Cast from Clay, noted during the webinar that other experts who were more trusted included universities and local community groups - institutions that generally have more connection to the public.

"Regular citizens don't really have a kind of connection to think tanks. And I think that we would say that this is an important part of the piece," Murray said.

Unintended consequences

There are currently several pieces of legislation that have been introduced to either curb the foreign money given to these think tanks or increase the transparency around this funding.

Last November, Republican Congressman Jim Banks introduced a bill seeking to close a longstanding loophole and require experts giving congressional testimony to disclose foreign contributions that their employers receive.

'There's no such thing as a think tank in the law'

- Nicholas Robinson, International Center for Not-for-Profit Law

In June this year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation that would impose a lifetime ban on members of Congress, senior military leaders and senior executive branch officials from lobbying for a foreign government or political party.

The legislation, led by Democrat Congressman Jared Golden, would also compel tax-exempt groups, including think tanks, to disclose large monetary donations and gifts from foreign powers.

These bills, if passed, would help to curb the use of foreign funding in the think tank sphere.

But Nicholas Robinson, senior legal advisor at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, said that they could have unintended consequences given that any legislation would have to target all non-profits as a whole, because that is how think tanks are categorised.

"There's no such thing as a think tank in the law," Robinson said during the webinar.

"So you're not just regulating think tanks, but also environmental advocacy groups, trafficking groups, pro-life groups, pro-choice groups, potentially religious organisations, humanitarian organisations, and I think there's a real danger in some of these proposals."

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