Confessions of an exposed foreign agent

This morning, one of my key secret intelligence sources (code name: MOM) alerted me to the appearance of a big New York Times exposé of foreign-government funding for U.S. think tanks seeking to influence domestic policy.

The article starts this way:

The agreement signed last year by the Norway Ministry of Foreign Affairs was explicit: For $5 million, Norway’s partner in Washington would push top officials at the White House, at the Treasury Department and in Congress to double spending on a United States foreign aid program.

But the recipient of the cash was not one of the many Beltway lobbying firms that work every year on behalf of foreign governments.

It was the Center for Global Development, a nonprofit research organization, or think tank, one of many such groups in Washington that lawmakers, government officials and the news media have long relied on to provide independent policy analysis and scholarship.

70 pages of correspondence between CGD and Norway are posted on the NYT site for your perusal—more exciting in prospect than in the reading, I find, even though I know and care about the correspondents. I don’t know how the documents were obtained.

(I worked for CGD for most of its history, and this year it has been an occasional client. I may well “consult” more for CGD, but there are no plans or discussions of such at present.)

The article may well be right in implying that CGD should have registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, as CGD’s Todd Moss is quoted as frankly acknowledging. But I’ll have to leave that for the lawyers.

Is anything deeper wrong with this picture? Not that can I see.

  • It is good for think tanks to try to influence the policies of large institutions—for-profits, non-profits, governments—for the simple reason that they can sometimes do more good per dollar that way. Give money to poor farmers in India and save a thousand lives. Spend it persuading a government to improve crops for those farmers, and save a million or a billion.
  • No matter how efficient as philanthropy, influencing costs money. Someone has to fund it.
  • Every funder has motives. Every funder of a policy-influencing think tank can therefore be described as “buying influence.”
  • If influence costs money and is worth paying for, how can a think tank maintain the reality and appearance of independent, sincere advocacy?
    • Diversify funding sources across and within major categories (foreign, domestic, foundations, corporations, individuals, governments) to limit the influence of any one.
    • Disclose funding sources for transparency.
  • CGD does both.
  • In my 11 years at CGD, I ran the program best designed to annoy, and thereby invite pressure from, governments of wealthy nations such as Norway. It is called the Commitment to Development Index (CDI). A couple of years into the program, we formed the CDI Consortium, a group of about 10 of those governments, who kicked in $20–30,000/year for the project in exchange for the right to join an annual meeting where we discussed the CDI and the issues it raised. The CDI Consortium’s existence was never hidden. That is, we diversified and we disclosed. Government representatives voiced many criticisms of the CDI. Prominent among them was Norway, which repeatedly (though politely) questioned the measurement of its trade barriers and the penalty for fossil fuel production. Yet never did I feel institutional pressure to change the CDI purely to please funders—even when discussions were underway for the multimillion-dollar “deal” now in the media glare. To this day, Norway ranks second-to-last on the CDI’s trade and environment components.
  • I’m more worried about oil and coal corporations funding research centers to explain how we need not worry about climate change than about the Norwegian government using a think tank to try to get the U.S. government on board with paying poor countries not to cut down trees. I hope the New York Times has done articles on the former too.
  • And those corporations, let us remember, can be said to buy influence at the NYT. Along the top margin of my browser’s rendering of the article at hand is a link to a “paid post” from Chevron. Thus the NYT is in a position similar to CGD’s (except it’s for-profit). To maintain the reality and appearance of independence, I suppose it too diversifies and effectively discloses funding sources.

Ah well. The NYT has something worth saying, and played it up for attention. Now that my secret past as a foreign agent has been exposed, I’ll admit that think tanks sometimes do that too.

But no Pulitzer for this one, please.

Agents de Nevers and Seymour explained to me that the Norwegian government publicly posts all correspondence relating to projects it funds. That transparency made possible the NYT’s access.

Official responses from CGD and Brookings.

Enrique Mendizabal, Think tank accountability: are they really just hired guns or is it slightly more complicated than that?

Daniel Drezner, Why I’m not freaking out too much about the foreign funding of American think tanks

Till Bruckner, Fund a think tank, buy a lobbyist?

Robin Davies, Think tanks peddle influence to foreign powers: that’ll be the day

David Post, On foreign funding and U.S. think tanks