Foreign governments should not secretly interfere in America’s political process, right? That seems fairly obvious, but only if it’s “secret.” Open access and free communication is a hallmark of any free society, because elected representatives must be allowed to consider any and all facts and opinions before reaching their conclusions.
When deciding whether to regulate oil drilling, they are entitled to hear the perspectives of oil companies, as well as environmental groups. Similarly, in making foreign policy that may affect Russia, they are entitled to know what Russia thinks and how Russia might react. Thus, nothing stops Russia, or any other country, from weighing in on political debates here. It’s just that we want to know about it, so we can considered their views with whatever credibility, or grain of salt, we think proper. When someone pays for influence but hides their identity, though, it is an affront to that open process, and a threat to our democratic republican principles.
The Judiciary Committees in both Houses of Congress are now pushing legislation to strengthen the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). That is a 1930s law requiring lawyers and lobbyists to register if they represent foreign governments, and to disclose publicly how much they are paid. The public has a right to know, with respect to foreign influence, or any other lobbying. That’s why Congress has required such disclosure from all kinds of lobbyists. However, as with all lobbying rules, compliance is a joke, and the law is more a system of loopholes than a genuine public disclosure system.
In light of current investigations of interference in the U.S. political process, it turns out that Russia has, in fact, been meddling for years — not only in the electoral system, but also in the legislative process, and in our internal cultural debates over a wide range of policy issues. According to congressional investigators, a primary focus of their influence-buying has focused on the environmental movement. The committees discovered that Russia has covertly funded opposition to U.S. domestic energy production by funding the environmental opposition. That includes underwriting organizations that work to ban fracking, and even efforts to push ballot initiatives at the state and local level.
It isn’t hard to understand why Russia would want to do that. “Russia has a long track record of funding ‘green’ groups as part of an effort to slow down, if not stop altogether, domestic energy production,” says Luke Coffey, a leading expert on Russia at the Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy. “European governments have also faced similar challenges from Russia, because Moscow knows that each barrel of oil produced in the USA or Europe is one less needed from Russia.”
That’s all well and good, as long as we all understand that Russia has a self-interest in supporting the American environmental industry. Once again, it’s the “secret” part that is the problem. You see, it is perfectly legal for nonprofit organizations to accept anonymous donations. So all a foreign government needs to do (or any other donor who doesn’t want their fingerprints seen) is to make the contributions anonymously. Congressional investigators say that is precisely what Russia has done in funding environmental groups in the U.S., apparently with millions of dollars over a sustained time period.
Before rushing to judgment of the environmental lobby, however, note that actual collusion with Russians has not been proven, or even necessarily alleged by these ongoing investigations. Environmental groups might not always know where various donations come from. If they are made anonymously, as alleged, leaders may not realize they are being used — duped, as the investigators put it. So, Congress is about to crack down on groups that don’t fully disclose ties to foreign governments. It is dangerous territory, because nonprofit groups cannot be required to disclose their donors — such a law would infringe the sacred rights of free speech and free association.
You are entitled to donate to the Sierra Club, or the Heritage Foundation, without threat of being publicly outed. And Congress can’t really require a group to reveal some of its donors, but not others. The better approach, obviously, is to crack down on the foreign governments, not the American groups to whom they funnel money. The special counsel has indicted 13 Russians for a propaganda effort that failed to influence the election. Russia’s effort to influence public policy against fossil fuels has arguably been much more successful — perhaps prosecutors will worry as much about whether there was collusion there, as we all should be.
Greg Walcher is president of the Natural Resources Group and author of “Smoking Them Out: The Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back.” He is a Western Slope native.