Ben Freeman literally wrote the book on foreign lobbying.
The author of The Foreign Policy Auction, which he describes as the “first book to systematically analyze the foreign influence industry in the US,” Freeman is now the director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the progressive Center for International Policy (CIP).
The initiative, which will celebrate its third anniversary on Dec. 1, was created to help bring the $500-million-a-year foreign influence out of the shadows. So it was both surprising and instructive to hear Freeman wrestle with the implications of the Justice Department’s massive expansion of the scope of the decades-old Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) during his recent appearance on The Influencers, the podcast Foreign Lobby Report co-hosts with the LEVICK communications agency.
“I am perhaps one of the biggest critics of FARA in its scope, despite making a living off of analyzing the filings of people who file under FARA,” Freeman said. “And the reason I am is because I think the statute is woefully too broad, and it’s broad on so many levels.”
During the wide-ranging discussion, Freeman pointed out that the statute’s definition of political activities has expanded to cover an ever-expanding range of activities including media and nonprofit advocacy. That recently impacted one of the CIP’s own environmental initiatives because it received funding from the government of Norway.
“It helps to muddy the waters,” Freeman said. “It’s hard to find the bad actors when there’s so many more actors now than there was before.”
At the same time, Freeman recently co-authored a piece in the Council on Foreign Relations’ journal Foreign Affairs opposing President-elect Joe Biden‘s calls for an outright ban on foreign lobbying during the campaign, which he believes would be unconstitutional and could backfire by driving influence operations underground.
“What we’ve learned about lobbying laws in this country is there’s always a work-around,” Freeman said. Instead, he argued for targeted reforms such as greater restrictions on former US officials lobbying their former colleagues and requiring lobby firms to check the sources of their clients’ money.
Freeman also advocates for greater transparency from think-tanks on the source of their foreign funding.
“Think tanks are the wild, wild west of foreign influence right now,” he said, adding that they have more influence than ever. “Think tanks are writing talking points for hearings. In some cases they’re literally writing legislation.”
Finally, Freeman also touted his initiative’s new report on lobbying by Japan and Okinawa. This will be followed up by reports on South Korea and Taiwan, whose influence operations garner little attention despite the astronomical sums involved and their impact on US defense policy.
“Japan and South Korea, year-in and year-out, they are the biggest spenders under FARA,” he said. “We hear all this talk about Russia and China, and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar, but the Japanese and South Koreans dwarf the spending of any of those countries.”