New app shines light on foreign influencers database

Secret meetings.

Kuwait has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying on behalf of two Guantanamo detainees – it’s a story that, until now, would have been difficult to find if not for a new version of a long-standing database.

Somewhere, in the depths of the US Department of Justice, there exists 76 years of data that tells a compelling story of foreign nations’ efforts to influence policy and opinion in Washington.

In theory, the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) database is open to the public. In reality, it has been so difficult and cumbersome to access that it has been largely under-utilized over its lifetime.

But that might be about to change, with the launch of a new, searchable web app by an open government advocacy group last month.

The Sunlight Foundation’s Foreign Influence Explorer provides easy access to the information contained in the FARA database. It makes searchable the details of payments, disbursements and contacts of foreign governments, political parties and other official agencies seeking to influence US federal policy, all from filings that are mandatory under FARA. 

The law mandates transparency from non-Americans who come to do business in the US, so the explorer offers an effective snapshot of how lobbying in Washington works.

A quick look through records of Kuwait’s lobbying provides a great example of the potential usefulness of the database.

Long-time detainees Fouzi al Awda and Faez al Kandari are the last Kuwaitis in Guantanamo, and had been designated for indefinite detention by the Obama administration’s 2010 task force. This month they were in a group of nine detainees to have their cases for release reviewed by a Guantanamo board. 

A search of the Foreign Influence Explorer reveals that the Kuwaiti support organization, the International Counsel Bureau, Kuwaiti Counsel For The Families Of Kuwaiti Citizens At Guantanamo Bay, has reported payments to their representatives totaling $745,960 in 2013 alone. The total spent is likely to be much higher, however gaps in the data means an accurate total using Sunlight’s web app is not yet possible. 

The supplemental reports which describe these details are filed every six months and show the work done by the agent, including names, dates and details of contacts, like meetings with officials (including within Senators’ and House Representatives’ offices, and with State Department officials) and reporters.

You can also track fund-raising in the United States by foreign political parties like Pakistan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Ireland’s Sinn Fein. Even the Dalai Lama’s support from US donors is detailed through filings from the Office of Tibet. Dolia Estev of Forbes drilled down and found: Mexico Is Among The Top 10 Countries Paying Washington Lobbyists

An added feature is a feed of press releases of proposed foreign military arms sales from the Defense Security Cooperation Agency. The Sunlight Foundation notes that the sales mentioned in this feed are only proposed sales and may not happen. But it may be interesting to investigate the proposed sales in relationship with the dates and names of contacts by the country’s hired representatives. 

Spending and Influence

You can also see disbursements made by the representative for meals, taxis, office expenses and other expenses. Information in filings regulated by FARA (foreign government agencies, foreign political parties and “quasi-governmental” agencies) is much more detailed than the filings under the Lobbying Disclosure Act found at the Senate Office of Public Records which includes foreign companies and non-governmental organizations.

Leading the project is data journalist Lindsay Young, who recommends the database as “a great tool for adding context to a story.”  She suggests that global journalists match the timing of events in their countries with the contacts made by foreign representatives in the US and the payments made by governments to these agents. 

These stories are naturals for reporters overseas, and largely untapped in the U.S.  Kathy Kiely, Sunlight’s managing editor, said: “Foreign reporters have much more on the ground knowledge. Somebody who knows the cast of characters can immediately recognize and get a story.”

Young points out the database also includes big dollar entities which are not lobbying Congress or the executive branch but still must register under the law, including foreign government-owned shipping agencies or publications like the China Daily. And some of the entities may also be contacting agencies and officials in the US states, which would not be reported in the FARA filings. 

What is FARA?

The Foreign Agents Registration Act, enacted in 1938 to track Nazi propaganda in the years leading up to World War II, required agents of foreign powers to report their contacts with US government officials and members of Congress. It was the first federal lobbying disclosure attempt, predating the Lobbying Disclosure Act by more than half a century.

It wasn’t until 2007 (and after many requests for the database to be more open, including FOIA requests from the Center for Public Integrity) that an online database was made available by the Department of Justice Foreign Agents Registration Unit, which has its offices on E Street in Washington DC.  

On the official site, the Document Search provides only for a search by the registrant (which is the representative hired by the foreign government, business or organization in the US.) Sometimes the foreign organization represents itself, but most often it’s a lobbying firm, law firm, or public relations firm. The Quick Search allows you to find the registrants for the foreign entity, but then a search through the representatives’ semi-annual filings is needed to retrieve the details of contacts and payments. Representatives’ filings may include their work for six or seven countries in a single document. 

What’s new from Sunlight is that the details from these documents have been sliced and diced and manually entered into a structured database, with the help of Sunlight staff, hackathon volunteers and crowd-sourcing. “It’s a man and womanpower challenge,” Sunlight’s Kiely said. “We’re always looking for someone to whitewash the fence.”

Data from 2008-2011 is available for searching and download from an earlier version of the project, ForeignLobbying.org, which was a partnership between Sunlight and ProPublica. From 2013 to present, the data is complete, with some time lag in processing the most recent daily filings. But between 2011 and 2013 there is a “doughnut hole” in the coverage as Sunlight marshals volunteers to help continue filling in the gaps. 

Because of these holes in the data, users of the service should take care in describing the totals of payments and disbursements and the number of contacts found in spreadsheets. You can judge the activity of the agents for their clients in general, but not with exactitude. 

Recent filings may not have been processed for all the details, so you need to check for most recent filings on the Foreign Agent Feed page, which will indicate which documents have been processed. And if you are reporting on the details, be sure to look at the actual document and any later amendments for changes or corrections. 

 

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