Russian meddling in U.S. politics has dominated the political conversation since the 2016 elections, but far less attention has been paid to the large sums of money sent to Washington’s expert class in search of sway with lawmakers and other elected leaders.
That foreign influence poses a threat to national security and is costing the U.S. economy billions of dollars, experts say.
Almost $175 million in foreign funding flooded the top 50 American think tanks from 2014 through 2018, according to a recent report from the Center for International Policy. The countries with donors sinking the most money into the U.S. policy hubs were Norway, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates and Germany, each of which sent more than $12 million to the leading think tanks over the five years, the report found.
The top five think tanks in the U.S. that received the most foreign funding, according to the report, were the World Resources Institute, Center for Global Development, Brookings Institution, Atlantic Council and the Aspen Institute.
What exactly did the foreign donors purchase? Silence in many cases, said study author Ben Freeman.
“A lot of the folks that are working at these think tanks, none of them would speak on-the-record, but I got a lot of interesting stories about folks who were telling me that the funding definitely does matter,” Mr. Freeman said. “At a very basic level the common thread I got from people was that if they had a big foreign funder that was giving them a lot of money, they were explicitly forbidden from writing anything negative about that foreign country.”
The report singled out the Atlantic Council, the think tank with the most foreign funders, for flattering its benefactors. Thirty foreign funders sent a total of $12 million to the organization, including at least $4 million from the UAE. The report identifies UAE as showering more than $4 million on Brookings and the Aspen Institute as well. The report says all three organizations responded with “work that was either decidedly uncritical or outright flattering of the UAE.
The Atlantic Council said its initial review of the report raised some concerns with the study and that the council was conducting a full fact-check review of the report.
“We are fully committed to transparency about our funding, and all sources are acknowledged on our website and in our annual report,” said Alex Kisling, Atlantic Council spokesman, in a statement. “In addition, all non-U.S. government funding is reviewed by a governance committee made up of members of the Council’s board of directors. All financial support for the Atlantic Council is conditional on acceptance of the Council’s intellectual independence.”
Foreign influence operations aimed at the academic, research, and think tank communities have drawn the attention of the Trump administration and federal law enforcement. Adversaries prey upon America’s open research environment to steal U.S. intellectual property, said David Laufman, a former Justice Department official who oversaw the probes of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s private email server.
“I don’t think it’s a frivolous concern that think tanks could be vulnerable in certain circumstances to attempts to use them as an agent of foreign influence operations,” Mr. Laufman said. “But to the extent that is a problem, I think it is minuscule in nature to the foreign-sponsored rapacious assault on U.S. intellectual property that the Chinese in particular are behind.”
China was absent from the Center for International Policy’s list of top donor countries, but the study did find Chinese donors supporting the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Inter-American Dialogue, and the World Resources Institute.
China has not escaped the watch of the U.S. federal government, which announced a new national counterintelligence strategy on Monday that describes China as “more powerful and emboldened.” The number of “threat actors,” including nations and non-state groups, is growing, according to the strategy, authorized by President Trump and organized by head of U.S. counterintelligence William R. Evanina.
“Foreign intelligence entities have embedded themselves into U.S. national labs, academic institutions and industries that form America’s national innovation base,” the new report states. “Adversaries use front companies, joint ventures, mergers and acquisitions, foreign direct investment, and talent recruitment programs to gain access to and exploit U.S. technology and intellectual property.”
Such foreign influence operations have cost the U.S. “hundreds of billions of dollars,” according to the counterintelligence strategy.
Mr. Evanina told The Washington Times the intelligence community “can’t be more excited and happy” with how the academic community is self-policing, but he still has concerns about foreign influence efforts aimed to exploit people with no training.
“It might be that 26-year-old who went to an American university and works at the Department of Labor or her sister at an American think tank,” Mr. Evanina said.
Experts say the threats posed by foreign funding of think tanks include counterintelligence concerns and the effect of foreign influence on research that provides the basis for policymaking, government contracting and regulation. Think tanks largely enjoy a disclosure exemption available to scholars from the Foreign Agents Registration Act [FARA], which is the law determining the disclosure requirements for those representing foreign interests inside the U.S.
The Project on Government Oversight’s Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette said the foreign funding poses a risk to the national interest, particularly when it comes to funding from America’s adversaries.
“There are large gaps in [FARA] that allow for a lot of the types of foreign influence we’re talking about here to continue to occur and it goes unregistered and unrecorded,” Mr. Hedtler-Gaudette said. “We also see this in the academic space a lot where there are a lot of universities and colleges here in America who are receiving a lot of money from foreign entities.”
Mr. Freeman said a goal of the Center for International Policy’s study was to provide transparency so that when think tanks help write laws, testify before Congress, and appear as experts in media that the audience will have a fuller picture of their work and potential conflicts of interest.
The top 50 think tanks analyzed were identified by the University of Pennsylvania’s “Global Go To Think Tank Index” that relies on a broad criterion to rank think tanks. The University of Pennsylvania’s annual evaluation includes measures such as a think tank’s staff, leadership, reach, access, and reputation with lawmakers and academics, among many other factors.
The Center for International Policy’s report tracked 900 foreign donations to those think tanks over five years. Norway’s donors contributed the most, more than $27.6 million, followed by the United Kingdom at $27.1 million, UAE at $15.4 million, and Germany at nearly $12.3 million.
More than 60% of the $174 million tracked in the report came from European countries and Canada, and sources say Norway’s preeminence on the list appears reflective of a broader European push to address environmental and climate change issues globally.
The World Resources Institute, an environment-focused group, amassed a “whopping $63 million” from at least 27 sources, including a sizable contingent of donors in Asia, according to the report. The World Resources Institute said it is an “independent, global organization” with more than 50% of its staff living outside the U.S.
“WRI receives funding from a diverse array of sources who trust us to be responsible stewards of donations to carry out our vision to wisely manage neutral resources and improve people’s lives around the world,” spokesman Michael Oko said in a statement. “WRI research undergoes a rigorous internal and external review process. WRI is fully committed to transparency — we list our funding sources on our website and in our annual reports and other financial reporting.”
WRI’s website does not explicitly break down its funding percentages, but its “recognized donors” webpage reveals a long list of foreign and domestic organizations and governments that provided at least $750,000 or more.
The Center for Global Development, an economic- and poverty-focused organization that received more than $37 million from foreign sources, according to the report, and the Brookings Institution, a public policy research group that garnered at least $27 million in foreign funding, did not respond to requests for comment.
The Center for Global Development’s website provides a detailed accounting of active funding agreements, including from foreign sources such as a series of ongoing grants totaling more than $4.5 million from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
The Brookings Institution’s 2019 annual report states only: “Unrestricted funding is the foundation for all that Brookings accomplishes each year.”
The Aspen Institute raked in millions from Middle Eastern donors, according to the report, which identified Saudi Arabia as a “sizable” donor.
Upon reviewing the report that showed $8 million in foreign funding to the institute, Aspen Institute spokesman Jon Purves said his organization was committed to transparency about its finances and funding sources. He also said the institute has stopped accepting donations from Saudi Arabia.
“All our foreign government funding proposals are committee reviewed to ensure that they align with our principles and standards, which state that the Institute does not act to advance the interests of any foreign government or political entity,” Mr. Purves said in a statement. “In December 2018, the Institute decided not to solicit or accept funds from any government entity in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, or from any other entity closely associated with the Saudi regime.”
That move is consistent with changes other think tanks are making. The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank receiving nearly $2.5 million in foreign funding, said it has taken “additional steps” to take foreign government funding under strict conditions and only from democracies. CAP said such foreign funding accounts for 1% of its overall 2019 budget.
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