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Governments Abroad Are Shaping Our Foreign Policy in Broad Daylight

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Foreign influence in America is the topic du jour. From the impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s request that a foreign power investigate a political opponent to the indictment of associates of his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, for illegally funneling foreign money into US elections, the nation has been transfixed by news of illegal foreign influence in the political process. While such efforts to subvert American elections garner headlines, there remains a treasure trove of perfectly legal ways foreign powers are subverting American democracy. And they’re not waiting for election day—they’re doing it every single day of the year.

“Legislation Is Prepared by Lobbyists All the Time”

Foreign powers have a remarkably direct way of making sure their voices are heard in Washington: Let their lobbyists script what various members of Congress say. That may sound wild, but it’s actually commonplace. Lee Fang of the Intercept reported a typical example of this recently. He discovered that, on November 13, 2017, Representative Ed Royce (R-CA), then chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, read verbatim into the congressional record a set of talking points given to his office by lobbyists working for the Saudi government. As Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA) and a bipartisan group of lawmakers debated invoking the War Powers Act to end US support for the war in Yemen, Ari Fridman, a lobbyist working for Hogan Lovells, itself representing Saudi Arabia, distributed Saudi talking points to Royce and others. In a C-SPAN video from the debate on the floor, Royce can be seen parroting these very talking points, word for word.

This might seem like an extraordinary success for any lobbyist of a foreign power, but it’s actually quite common. A report by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), co-authored by Ben Freeman, for instance, documented multiple examples of foreign agents writing speeches, even legislation, for members of Congress. Most notably, their investigation unearthed documents showing a foreign agent had provided track-change edits on a proposed bill to a staffer working for Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI). When the legislation was finally introduced by the senator, it included the exact language the lobbyist had suggested. Asked about this, that agent responded, “It’s not unusual for us to comment back and forth” with congressional staff about legislation. He added, “Proposed legislation is prepared by lobbyists all the time.”

In our post–Citizens United world where, thanks to that 2010 Supreme Court decision, money is considered speech when it comes to campaign finance, agents working on behalf of foreign governments regularly “speak” with their pocketbooks. The Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy (CIP), where we work, has repeatedly reported on how agents of foreign governments make campaign contributions to the congressional representatives they’re contacting on behalf of foreign powers.

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