Thursday, January 26, 2006

Foreign Agents Registration Act

ya know how there's all this focus on lobbyists and whatnot, and ya know how foreign influence is presumably more dangererous than domestic lobbying? well, way back in the last century - 1938 in fact - the USG established the Foreign Agents Registration Act where lobbyists for foreign groups must register the details with the USG - the client, the $ amount, the activities and so on. well, as it happens, the DoJ is behaving all "pre-911-y" (TM, Driftglass) and doesn't really care about foreign influence...

read this from the Center for Public Integrity (june, 2004) and weep.
"WASHINGTON, June 28, 2004 — Justice Department officials say a huge database that serves as the public's lone window on lobbying activities by foreign governments has been allowed to decay to a point they cannot even make a copy of its contents.

Responding to a recent Freedom of Information request from the Center for Public Integrity, the Justice Department's Foreign Agent Registration Unit said it was unable to copy its records electronically because their computer system was "so fragile." In a letter, the head of the unit's Freedom of Information office said that simply attempting to make an electronic copy of the database "could result in a major loss of data, which would be devastating."

The database details millions of dollars spent on lobbying activities by foreign governments, companies, and foundations.

Those activities include everything from wining and dining lawmakers to broadcasting issue ads on American television and radio stations.

Unlike foreign governments and political parties, foreign companies can file their lobby forms with the Senate Office of Public Records on Capitol Hill. Under the 1995 Lobbying Disclosure Act, private companies based outside the United States need only to fill out much shorter forms for Congress instead of the substantial information required by FARA.

As the primary collecting point of information on foreign lobbying, the database is vital to tracking the actions of foreign governments in Washington. Yet the system remains susceptible to "a crash that cannot be fixed" if its files were to be copied, according to Justice's Criminal Division Freedom of Information/Privacy Act office.

"The information itself still is very accessible," said Bryan Sierra at the Department of Justice's Office of Public Affairs. "The basic mandate of the office is to provide information to the public."

Sierra and other officials at the Justice Department public affairs office refused to answer follow-up questions on the state of the FARA database. Sierra, through his receptionist, said he would not discuss the subject any further.

It's true that the information contained in the database can be obtained, as long as those seeking it know the precise files they want and have a substantial copying budget.

The Justice Department's Foreign Agent Registration Unit, which is responsible for the records, has a public documents room located in a windowless office on New York Avenue in downtown Washington.

Congress's investigative branch, the General Accounting Office, has looked into the FARA office over several decades, culminating in their last report in 1998. More than once, the GAO has found that FARA lacks the resources to fulfill its responsibilities. As a result, several former high-level federal officials lobbying for foreign interests have not adequately disclosed their activities.

The ancient computers the public and staff use often break down, however, and the printers malfunction. The system's document handling software, itself an antique, operates on Microsoft Windows 95.

Copying charges are also incomprehensibly high—50 cents a page for documents that can easily include hundreds of pages each.

Further, none of the actual filings are available online, although a bare-bones index of registrants does appear on the office's website. However, the most current index posted on the site is 18 months old.

Asked why the database had been allowed to deteriorate so badly, Sierra did not provide an explanation.

"I do know every effort is being made to improve it," he said. "That office is dealing with a large amount of data."

One Freedom of Information Act expert called the situation with the FARA database unprecedented and baffling.

"I have never heard of anything like this," said Rebecca Daugherty at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Washington. "It sounds crazy. They have an obligation to give you this information. It's as simple as that."

Counterespionage to lobbying

As part of Justice's Criminal Division, the Foreign Agent Registration Unit is tasked with maintaining the records. Created by the 1938 Foreign Agent Registration Act, the office was originally intended for counterespionage against Nazi agents. By tracking their activities within American borders, the United States government felt it could better combat propaganda.

These days, FARA registers lobbyists who act on the behalf of a "foreign principal," such as a government or a political party. All individuals and firms who represent a foreign interest and engage in political activities before a U.S. official or conduct public relations are required to register with the office.

The firms and individuals appearing in the database read like a who's who of the Washington lobbying machine. It includes powerhouse law firms, such as Patton Boggs (representing Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Angola, among many others). The Livingston Group, a government affairs shop headed by the former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Bob Livingston, is listed representing the governments of Turkey and the Cayman Islands. Giant public relations shop Hill & Knowlton Inc. is shown representing SABIC Core Communications, which is part of a Saudi-controlled international petrochemical company based in Riyadh.

Despite its importance, Justice Department officials describe the database itself as virtually on life support. Even attempting to copy the database could irretrievably damage it, they say.

Saudis spent millions

While the FARA office may be under-funded, the lobbying activity it is supposed to track and make freely available to the public is extravagant.

One of the chief beneficiaries of the Saudis' largesse has been Qorvis Communications L.L.C., a public and government affairs consulting firm located in the Washington, D.C. area.

Qorvis's Saudi business has spiked since the 9/11 terrorist attacks as the kingdom and its ruling royal family have battled against negative public opinion.

In 2002, Qorvis was given at least $14.6 million to raise awareness "of the Kingdom's commitment to the war against terrorism and to peace in the Middle East." Qorvis representatives then fanned out to Capitol Hill, the White House, as well as to major newspapers and television networks to spread the kingdom's message.

"We help them manage a public affairs and government affairs program in design to support the U.S.-Saudi relationship," said Michael Petruzzello, managing partner at Qorvis. "We are in an environment now where the pillars of this relationship need to be reinforced."

The breadth and intensity of the PR campaign is remarkable. From April to September 2002, Adel Al-Jubeir, an advisor to the Crown Prince and chief Saudi spin doctor, made more than 80 media contacts, appearing more than 50 times on television.

Petruzzello and a colleague met with the White House communications staff as well as aides to the House Government Reform Committee. Pat Roush, whose daughters were allegedly abducted by their father to Saudi Arabia, believes the firm's representatives coached her children through a television interview that aired while Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., visited the kingdom in 2002. Qorvis lobbyists were particularly concerned about "Child Abduction/Burton Delegation visit to Saudi Arabia" in their discussions with federal officials, according to filings.

"My heart goes out to her as a parent myself," Petruzzello said. "The issue itself was Qorvis was not really involved. That is a government to government issue."

Qorvis also produced issue ads and conducted focus groups. Broadcast during weekend talk shows, commercials showed a variety of Saudi royals shaking hands with American presidents, past and present. The ads were fronted by the Alliance for Peace and Justice, which was funded by the Saudi Royal Embassy and the Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce and Industry's Committee for the Development of International Trade in Riyadh.
Justice's refusal

Nearly all of the information above was gleaned from records in the FARA database. Yet according to DOJ officials, any attempt to copy the database could cause irreparable damage, rendering it unusable.

Justice officials say they are working to upgrade the document handling software for the FARA database. According to Justice's response letter to the Center's FOIA request, the FARA database is in the process of being transferred to a more modern system by information technology contractors hired by the department. They say the completion date for the upgrade is December 2004.

Until then, the database cannot withstand a "mass export" as requested. The Center has appealed Justice's refusal to honor its Freedom of Information request and is considering taking the matter to court."
Things have changed a lot since that article was written - for example, at FARA's website you can now learn a bunch of useful stuff - for example their business hours are 11am to 3pm. You can also download your choice of 14 different 10meg pdfs - so long as you choose between 1997 and 2003. and if you are a lobbyist, you can download a bunch of pdf forms that you can fill in - although apparently there is widespread non-compliance with the registration regulations - so the lobbyists apparently haven't learnt how useful the website is...

it almost looks willfully intentional, no?

soj has a bit more on the same issue:
In 2005, Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee were debating asking the GAO to conduct an inquiry due to widespread non-compliance of filing as foreign agents. As far as I am able to tell, the GAO never investigated and the DOJ's FARA files are still being maintained on the same old computer system.
more to c ome

8 comments:

Miguel said...

Just another thought about Sibel's cryptic comment on the Alex Jones show about the Turkish Republic "not paying" Robert Livingston's lobbying fees. Maybe she was trying to say that it is the American taxpayer, through giving aid to Turkey, that is ultimately paying for all this. I can't see how Sibel would differentiate the Turkish Embassy from the Republic of Turkey, so I am throwing that idea out for discussion, if anyone is interested.

viget said...

Miguel--

Or maybe she means that it's some org like the ATC that pays the fees, even though the Livingston group lobbies "on behalf of" the Turkish gov't?

You know, sort of like Mommy and Daddy paying for your brand new Porsche?

lukery said...

hmmm - better than anything that i came up with, but still not particularly convincing...

Miguel said...

Viget,

"it's some org like the ATC"

I thought of that possibility too, though it would be stunning to me that the nation of Turkey is so bankrupt they couldn't come up with a million dollars for lobbying fees.

Another thought I had was that she is trying to differentiate betweent the Turkish Republic and the Turkish military- that the money is ultimately coming from the military's budget.

I hope she does a call-in interview where one of us can call in and try to get more clues on this important point. But please don't let it be Alex Jones again...

viget said...

Miguel --

On second thought, you may be right on the money. I just read the Public Citizen case study on Livingston's lobbying group, and what struck me was that it was only after Rep. Schiff introduced the amendment to the foreign operations appropriations bill, did Livingston's lobbying against the Armenian genocide resolution shift into high gear.

Schiff's amendment specifically prohibited the use of United States foreign aid money to Turkey for lobbying purposes against the Armenian resolution. Supposedly there is already a law that prohibits using US aid for lobbying purposes, but this specific prohibition really got into Livingston's craw. It seemed also to be the genesis of the Hastert bribes, as it required the personal intervention of Hastert, Delay and Blunt to kill the amendment in conference committee.

So, even though the law was already on the books, and the Armenian resolution was unlikely to pass, Livingston went apes*it over this seemingly "symbolic" amendment. Why? And why did this have to go the highest levels to kill it? Could it be that his $1.8 million p.a. cash cow would now be in jeopardy because in reality that money was just redirected US aid? It's worth noting that according to public citizen, Livingston was paid $1.8 million each year from 2000 to 2004 to represent Turkey, regardless of whatever lobbying efforts he did (and what exactly WAS he doing for Turkey in 2000, 2001 and 2002?).

When you add to the mix that Livingston was one of only a few K street types to attend the May 2005 soiree for Tom Delay hosted by the American Conservative Union, and the gossip we've heard regarding Scanlon's and Abramoff's alleged role in axing Livingston, what the heck is going on here?

Oh, and then there's the strangest (to me) thing of all, that Duke Cunningham was the one to introduce the amendment to axe the $1 Billion supplemental appropriation for Turkey. Yet he was the recipient of Livingston's two PACs' largesse in the 2000-2004 election cycles, to the tune of $3000 ($2000 of which comes from the Livingston Group PAC, whose contributors are presumably Livingston's clients). Not something you'd expect of someone who was actively trying to undermine one of your best clients, no?

lukery said...

thanks viget - that's great.

here is sibel's direct quote: "he (livingston) is charging $1.2m - he's charging turkey - and this is not the government of Turkish Republic, this is umm - who are these people who are paying him $1.2m per year? to do what? that is the question."

btw - the report that viget is talking about is here

fwiw - sibel says that it's $1.2m - livingston actually has 3 lobbying companies - at least 2 of them got paid by 'turkey'

lukery said...

" But please don't let it be Alex Jones again..."

SE: alex, there are criminals in the USG who were directly involved in the murder of 3000 americans. i cant name these people directly - but i can tell you which positions they hold. specifically, and i have proof of this, the Undersecretary of

AJ: yeah - i know. white slavery! KBR and Halliburton! duke cunningham - 800 million!

SE: Alex - listen carefully. the reason they did 911 was...

AJ: its the illuminati! bohemian grove!

SE: listen alex! there are 6 people i'm gonna name for you. number one - the undersecretary of

AJ: clinton got his own personal delivery of blow from the airport...

SE: goodbye alex.

Miguel said...

Lukery,
You beat me to the punch! I was thinking of writing a dialogue like that. In fact, the other day I was at my desk at work and just started laughing out loud when I remembered Jones asking Edmonds if her case had anything to do with white slavery.

It helps to keep a good sense of humor. It's about the only weapon we have left against this horribly corrupt Bush Administration...