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An investigation by
The New York Times
has found that several prominent Washington, D.C. think
tanks have regularly taken donations from foreign entities in
exchange for using their influence over U.S. policy
The damning report, published in the Sept. 6 edition of the
newspaper, revealed that some of the institutions involved have
accepted multi-million dollar donations from foreign governments
seeking access to inside corridors of the federal government,
including Congress, executive branch agencies, and even the White
House. In return, the think tanks pushed agendas favored by the
donor nations and hosted public events in Washington that
featured speakers from contributing countries.
The article describes in surprising detail the arrangements
made between supposedly impartial, scholarly think tanks, and
foreign entities pursuing their own national interests. Several
of the think tanks named defended their impartiality.
"In no case did the reporters show us evidence of activity
that we believe requires us to register under U.S. law as foreign
agents," Brookings President Strobe Talbott said in
a press release
. "The article fails to paint a fair picture of Brookings and its
foreign government relationships."
The Times article explained how it worked at specific think
tanks, such as the
Center for Global
). That group accepted money from the Norwegian Foreign Affairs
Ministry allegedly in exchange for convincing the U.S. government
to spend more on reducing deforestation to slow climate change -
one of Norway's top priorities. In exchange for donations, CGD
allegedly arranged a meeting with officials from the U.S.
Norway also donated to the
Center for Strategic
and International Studies (CSIS)
in exchange for their support for Norway's Arctic agenda.
CSIS even launched an Arctic research program and began
advocating for a greater U.S. military presence in the Arctic and
protection for energy development. Brookings also tried to
arrange meetings between officials from Norway's Foreign Ministry
and officials from the U.S. State Department, according to the
Norway is a major oil producer and has deep economic interests
in the Arctic. Statoil, Norway's partially government-owned oil
company, has purchased leases on acreage in the U.S. Arctic, and
is also active in other regions of the Arctic exploring for oil.
Statoil, and Oslo, stand to gain if the U.S. took a more active
military role in the region.
The intertwined relationships suggest that some think tanks
could be operating in a legal gray area: their work on behalf of
foreign governments might legally classify them as
representatives of foreign countries, and since none have
registered as such, they could be in violation of the Foreign
Agents Registrations Act, according to legal experts who spoke to
Even if there was no quid pro quo, it is hard to deny the
influence that donations have on research done at think tanks.
The donations can be used to hire researchers, fund in-depth
research on a topic (often chosen by the donor), and host events
Think tanks are non-profits, and are allowed to "educate"
government officials, but not "lobby" for specific changes in
policy. Often the line is a blurry one, particularly since
"educational" meetings or events are planned around the same time
that pending legislation or regulations are being considered in
In that sense, the Times report is disheartening.
On the other hand, the cozy relationship between foreign
entities and think tanks is not a new story in Washington.
American corporations and foundations have the same dynamic with
the scholarly world in the nation's capital.
For example, Chevron is a
major donor to CSIS
, which jointly
the "Chevron Forum on Development" with the company
-- a series of events featuring high-level speakers who
talked about sustainable development. CSIS hosted Chevron at a
public event in 2013, at which Chevron CEO John Watson "shared
his views on how U.S.-based multinational corporations can help
expand American influence abroad and be a positive force for
progress, driving economic growth and development around the
world," as the
There is also a
flow of money
going to conservative think tanks from Koch Industries -
the multinational corporation run by Charles and David Koch --
although there is less of a pretense that scholarly research is
being carried out at Koch-funded outfits like Americans for
Groups opposed to fossil fuels are in the game, as well. Tom
Steyer, the wealthiest and perhaps currently most well-known
environmentalist, has turned his fortune into a one-man Super PAC
aimed at ousting politicians who are allies of the oil and gas
industries. Money talks, and despite only recently jumping into
the political fray, Steyer has a lot of doors open to him. For
he partly funded earned him
with White House officials John Podesta and Valerie
The list goes on.
In other words, big money has been influencing the actions of
policy think tanks for quite a while. Access to power is the most
coveted commodity in Washington, and as the Times investigation
proves, there is no shortage of eager buyers.
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Investigation Reveals Surprising Way Foreign
Governments Buy Influence in D.C.
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