"Think Tank and Foreign Agent?"

by Brooke Williams

"In Washington, it is difficult for a small country to gain access to powerful politicians, bureaucrats and experts. Funding powerful think tanks is one way to gain such access, and some think tanks in Washington are openly conveying that they can service only those foreign governments that provide funding."

That's an excerpt from a study intended for "internal use" at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and later released publicly. It provides a window into how the government views its donations to think tanks in the United States as mechanisms for access and influence.

While this perspective might not raise an eyebrow of those following a largely pay-to-play think tank industry in Washington, D.C, it does raise the question of whether or not the activities fall under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

The May 2012 report titled "From Contributor to Partner?" says the MFA donates to think tanks "to advance the priorities of Norwegian foreign policy."

"Some diplomats interviewed for this report even emphasise that the level of funding a government such as Norway's provides will determine what level of access it gets."

Enacted in 1938, FARA was in response to an influx of German propaganda agents leading up to World War II. The law is meant to make public the identity of those acting in a "political or quasi-political capacity" on behalf of foreign governments to influence public opinion, policies and laws.

Joseph Sandler, a FARA expert and former counsel for the Democratic National Committee, said language in the Norwegian report suggests some think tanks might need to register as foreign agents.

"That's awfully close, if not over the line," he said. "This is what these guys are going to be thinking about over the holidays."

Norway has given money to "some 45 U.S. think tanks and research institutions as well as a number of policy implementing non-governmental organisations," according to the study, which the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre conducted for the MFA. In 2011, Norway donated about $250 million NOK to think tanks and foreign policy shops in the U.S., according to the report. Among the think tanks are the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Center for American Progress, and the World Resources Institute.

The report states that Norway's funding of Brookings "is the clearest example" of how the amount of money it gives determines the amount of access it gets.

"Norway is, after Qatar and the UAE, the largest foreign government contributor to Brookings, and Norwegian funding is less restricted than that of the two Arab partner countries," it says. "This is of great benefit to Norwegian delegations visiting Washington, and the flexibility of the framework agreement makes it possible to have Norway influence policy on many levels."

David Nassar, vice president of communications for Brookings, said in an email that Brookings routinely meets with diplomatic delegations regardless of whether or not they are donors, and its scholars often reach out to government officials.

"Many of them have served at various levels of government and bring with them insights and experiences that lead to high quality and policy relevant results," he stated. "We also invite senior policymakers and leading public figures to speak at various public and private meetings and conferences and convene dialogues among experts and policymakers to discuss policy issues."

Brookings publishes a list of foreign government donors in its annual report with fairly broad funding ranges and plans to increase the level of transparency in 2014 in response to a letter from the Lab at Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics requesting voluntary disclosure.

Nassar provided copies of Brookings' donor recognition guidelines and conflict of interest policies, which he said are meant to ensure donors, including foreign governments, do not interfere with or determine the "final direction, conclusions or recommendations" of its work.

He said, "Given the independence of our research, we do not now nor have we ever believed that Brookings needed to register with FARA."

The Department of Justice, which oversees FARA, declined to comment on specific organizations.

Martin Torbergsen, adviser to the MFA's Section for Human Rights and Democracy, said in an email that the ministry is preparing to "make public and regularly update information online about support to foreign policy research at think tanks outside Norway." He said the details should be available on the Norwegian embassy's website in January 2014.