Saturday November 11, 2017
Though it garnered renewed interest thanks to Robert Mueller’s investigation of the Trump administration and the rise of “Russiagate” hysteria, the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) of 1938 has been irregularly enforced over the course of its 79-year history. Despite nearly eight decades on the books, the law has resulted in only a handful of prosecutions and a single conviction, suggesting that the government’s enforcement of the law has been lax — to say the least.
Originally intended to counter pro-Nazi lobbyists active in the United States in the lead-up to World War II, FARA requires that all agents operating domestically on behalf of a “foreign principal” — that is, a non-U.S. entity operating abroad — must register with the U.S. Department of Justice. Those who register must disclose all of their activities and finances to the federal government, including confidential data and the personal information of employees.
There are, however, many exceptions to those who must register, such as diplomats, artists, priests, and “any news or press service organized under the laws of the United States.” In other words, a law firm lobbying for a foreign government or company must register while news services funded by foreign governments — like Al Jazeera, France24, BBC or Deutsche Welle — are — generally — off the hook.
This last exception is why the U.S. Department of Justice’s announcement on Thursday that the TV news channel Russia Today (RT), which receives its funding from the Russian government and a consortium of Russian banks, must register as a foreign agentcame as a surprise to many. RT, which has been active in the U.S. since 2005, is suddenly being asked to register as a foreign agent under FARA, only after political pressure against Russian entities and perceived state actors reached a boiling point.