The Russian hacking story has all the intrigue of a Christmas blockbuster spy plot. A former K.G.B. agent-turned-autocrat is out for revenge against a Western foe in her history-making bid for president of the most powerful country in the world, which he seeks to destabilize. A shadowy hacker group is thought to be his tool, known only as Guccifer 2.0. A brash mogul-reality star-turned-politician, long dismissed as a joke, wins the presidency in a flabbergasting finish.
The reality is still so hard to believe that, had it been pitched as fiction a few years ago, the script wouldn’t have made it out of a Hollywood writer’s room for its sheer implausibility.
The tale, still unfolding, of the great hack of 2016 is indeed a story that’s hard to resist in shock appeal. But covert influence is not just a spymaster’s game.
The fact is that foreign lobbying in the United States, often with American A-list former politicians as hired hands, has become business as usual over the past several decades. Most recently, private P.R. professionals, along with an array of unexpected players you’ll read about below, are also taking foreign contracts, bent on shaping not just legislative policy but also public opinion. (An analysis of evolving patterns in foreign influencing was part of my 2014 book, Unaccountable.)
Foreign lobbying is a kind of paid “privatization of diplomacy,” leaving little room for accountability. Former public servants and the motley crew of influencers I examine here are supposed to register as foreign agents with the Justice Department, but not everyone files (how many remain “stealth” is not easily determined) and the filings themselves often reveal very little.
Once considered unpalatable, if not treasonous, foreign lobbying has flourished as embassies have withered. Countries still do advocate through their embassies in the United States; that is, if they still have a powerful, well-staffed outpost. But “many, if not most” do not, according to foreign lobbying expert John Newhouse. That’s why countries of every variety, established, “emerging,” and perhaps especially those with “rogue” dictators, as well as oligarchs and even organized crime figures, look to former public servants for privileged knowledge of how to navigate the corridors of power.
Note a piece by Politico this past October: “Want to be a ‘foreign agent’? Serve in Congress: Former members of Congress make millions of dollars representing countries that straddle the line between allies and headaches for U.S.” One “foreign agent” most recently in the news is former senator and presidential nominee Bob Dole, who took in six figures from Taiwan. His lobbying efforts culminated in President-elect Trump taking a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s president, in a sharp break from decades-long U.S. protocol that rattled all of Asia.
Dole provides an example of what the Sunlight Foundation’s Josh Stewart, interviewed by the Washington Post, aptly calls the “inside game”—namely access lobbying.
There’s also the “outside game,” as Stewart puts it: influence that involves public relations and newer venues for overseas powers to sway opinion.
Here’s a sample of some of those venues I examined in Unaccountable that are now involved in that “outside game:”
Social Media Platforms:
The reports of Russia’s apparent involvement in generating fake news spread socially, an especially pernicious example of the outside game, came shortly before word of the CIA probing the cyber-attack on the Democratic National Committee. It was hard not to notice, as someone who trained as a social anthropologist in Eastern Europe in the late years of Communism, that some of this fake news involved outlandish accusations of Clinton-connected child sex crimes. This was reminiscent of what Russians call Kompromat, compromising material collected to use against political enemies at an opportune moment (with the crucial difference that, in some cases, kompromat was sometimes true, whereas the accusations involving the Clintons and their associates are quite obviously preposterous. A recent article in the New York Times shows kompromat under Putin as a “Kafkaesque” nightmare, with digital tools now able to invent baseless claims with ease.) Perhaps the most troubling takeaway from the fake news uproar is just how many people seemed to believe it. This guarantees that fake news will proliferate in the years ahead.
Foreign donations to the Clinton family philanthropy was, of course, a signature issue of the 2016 campaign, damaging Hillary Clinton’s integrity. While it is unclear how many, if any, foreign governments were truly seeking favor, or feathering the nest to do so later, it is clear that taking these donations tarnished the good works the foundation does carry out, and, of course, the reputation of the candidate who simply couldn’t escape the question of foreign influence. The Clintons are not the only players whose charitable endeavors have grown intertwined with questions of stealth influence. These players include billionaire financier George Soros and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, among many others.
Think tanks, with their impartial, scholarly veneer, have also become a favorite of countries seeking a prestigious beachhead of influence. As the New York Times wrote in 2014:
“More than a dozen prominent Washington research groups have received tens of millions of dollars from foreign governments in recent years while pushing United States government officials to adopt policies that often reflect the donors’ prioritie[s].” Perhaps even more disturbing is that, as John Judis of the New Republic points out, the Times focused on some of the most venerated think tanks, ones that in an increasingly competitive environment for think tank funding are likely to be best able to fend off foreign influence. Slide down from those top think tanks and there’s no telling what you might find. “It could probably have come up with more chilling examples of foreign influence-peddling if it had investigated those think tanks that have function as surrogate business lobbies.”
I put the word in quotes because these are firms that nearly defy categorization, straddling various areas—a bit of public relations, reputational buffing, and geopolitical advising that might flirt with lobbying. One such firm connected to Bill Clinton in the early years of his post-Presidency is sometimes (self) described as a “chief executive’s best friend.” What does that mean? Another one of these hard-to-describe “consulting” firms shows how foreign powers can ply stealth influence.
Monitor Group, now Monitor Deloitte after its purchase by Deloitte in 2012, sprang from high-profile Harvard Business School professors. In 2006, Monitor secured a multi-million dollar contract with Gaddafi’s Libya to burnish its rogue image, reportedly failing to register with the Justice Department. The firm assembled a group of star academics and policy players to visit the late dictator. (Some of the luminaries admitted to being paid; at least one said he received nothing and was proud to be part of the program, while another said he wasn’t aware he was part of an orchestrated P.R. campaign.) Upon returning to the United States, some wrote cautiously upbeat reports in prestige outlets or relayed their impressions to powerful figures within the foreign policy establishment. Their defense is one that you’ll hear frequently from players engaging in foreign lobbying efforts, particularly when taking money from a repressive regime: that their engagement actually pushes the rogue down a path to reform. No such luck for Libya, which soon plunged into civil war, taking Gaddafi and thousands of innocents down with it.
P.R. firms are far easier to understand than “consulting” firms, but that doesn’t mean that their influence on behalf of foreign powers is easier to fully trace. From gaming search results to posting third-party blogs that appear independent to whitewashing Wikipedia to organizing Twitter attacks on opposition voices to setting up mouthpieces for dictators cloaked in benevolent-sounding organizations, all these efforts are designed to deceive. Saudi Arabia is seen as one of the early adopters in its use of P.R., and the country surely needed plenty of it following 9/11. The Washington Post reported earlier this year that the Kingdom was on a tear in terms of hiring both traditional lobbyists (the “inside game”) and public relations firms (the “outside game”). Various other reputationally challenged countries employ P.R. firms, including Russia, which had a nine-year relationship with one U.S. firm that appeared to have ended in 2015. It was remarked then that Russia’s P.R. blitz was a flop, and relations were at a nadir. Oh, how times have changed. As President Obama said on Friday, “Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave” if he learned that more than a third of GOP voters approve of Vladimir Putin. Did Russia hire a better firm(s) back home? Thanks to the Internet, the “outside game” can be played as well in some barren spot in Siberia as it can be on Madison Avenue.
You might be wondering at this point why I have not mentioned foreign influence and Donald Trump. I wrote last week of the various pro-Russian players arrayed around him, but, of course, that’s just one country with which Trump has glaring conflicts. With his sprawling business, hotels, and assorted family members and family “philanthropies” involved, it would seem patently obvious that foreign players are going to find innumerable access points in hopes of swaying policy. The President-elect seems remarkably, though characteristically, unfazed by possible conflicts. I did not include the Trump business because few people overseas expected a Trump win. While questions of foreign influencing began in earnest November 9, the story is just beginning and warrants constant scrutiny. The situation is truly unprecedented in the history of American politics. Or as Mr. Trump might say, unpresidented.