WASHINGTON (AP) – The Justice Department is opening up about the advice it has given to lobbyists who work for foreign governments and political interests.
For the first time, the public will be able to read advisory opinions the department has issued to lobbyists, public relations professionals and others about whether they need to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA.
The department had kept the opinions secret for decades, a point of contention for transparency advocates and lawyers who specialize in advising clients on complying with the law. The opinions provide an unprecedented view into the thinking of a specialized Justice Department unit whose influence has grown in recent years, propelled by more aggressive enforcement and a special counsel investigation focused on foreign influence operations inside the U.S.
The Associated Press obtained copies of dozens of opinions, which were to be posted online later Friday. Those who have requested the department’s guidance include a television host who worked for a company with foreign connections, people negotiating with other governments over the release of prisoners and a firm that planned a U.S. fundraiser for a politician in another country. The department removed the names and other identifying details from the opinions to allow for their public release.
In disclosing the opinions, Justice Department officials say they want the public to better understand how they interpret a decades-old law meant to allow Americans to know when foreign entities are trying to influence public opinion or policymakers. The law, enacted in 1938 to unmask Nazi propaganda in the United States, requires people to disclose to the Justice Department when they advocate, lobby or perform public relations work in the U.S. on behalf of a foreign government or political entity.
“Today is the law’s 80th anniversary, and it remains a vital tool to combat this threat,” Assistant Attorney General John Demers, the department’s top national security official, said in a statement. “To enhance compliance, we are making these advisory opinions available publicly and online for the first time. By posting these advisory opinions, the Department of Justice is making clearer how we interpret some of FARA’s key provisions.”
The heightened enforcement and some high-profile registrations have coincided with special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
In the last two years alone, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn have had to register under the law, as has Tony Podesta, a top Democratic lobbyist and brother of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. Manafort is set to go to trial later this year on charges that he concealed his lobbying and influence work on behalf of Ukrainian interests, including a pro-Russian political party.
The Justice Department also required the U.S.-based operations of RT, an international television network funded by the Russian government, to register as a foreign agent, a move that angered Russian leaders late last year. U.S. intelligence agencies have alleged RT functioned as a propaganda outlet for the Kremlin as part of an effort to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The opinions obtained by the AP show the wide array of requests the Justice Department receives from people and companies trying to determine if they’re obligated to register.
In August 2015, for instance, the department determined that a U.S. firm would have to register as a foreign agent if it wanted to host a fundraiser for a candidate running for president in another country.
Last February, though, lawyers told a consultant for a foreign government that registration was unnecessary because the work was being done almost entirely outside the United States.
That same month, a U.S. organization coordinating with foreign governments in the release of prisoners abroad was told it wouldn’t need to register because the work was humanitarian in nature and not funded by foreign money.
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