Sunday’s New York Times had a long and rather nasty article – something a little too close to a hatchet job for comfort, in my opinion – suggesting that “Foreign Powers Buy Influence at Think Tanks” in Washington, DC.

[Full Disclosure: My wife, Nancy Birdsall, is the founder and President of one of the think tanks targeted in the article, the Center for Global Development (CGD), and I know about, and care about, the work it does entirely because of that connection. I doubt I would even have looked at the Times article, and I certainly would not have read it as carefully as I did or cared as much about what it said, had it not discussed CGD’s work. I am not, therefore, an unbiased observer – I freely admit as much, and if that causes you, my reader, to disregard everything I write below I would certainly understand. And needless to say: my opinions here are not those of CGD or anyone associated with it (including my wife).]

According to the article, Norway’s “partner in Washington” (i.e., CGD) agreed to “push top officials at the White House, at the Treasury Department and in Congress to double spending on a United States foreign aid program.” What was this “foreign aid program” that CGD would “push top officials” to adopt? Not until around paragraph 50 do we find out:

“Norway paid the Center for Global Development . . . to persuade the United States government to spend more money on combating global warming by slowing the clearing of forests in countries like Indonesia . . . Norway’s agreement imposed very specific demands on the Center for Global Development. The research organization, in return for Norway’s money, was not simply asked to publish reports on combating climate change. The project documents ask the think tank to persuade Washington officials to double United States spending on global forest protection efforts to $500 million a year. “Target group: U.S. policy makers,” a progress report reads.”

Hard-hitting investigative stuff! Until one realizes that the Times learned all of this because CGD lists on its website all of its funders and the amount and purpose of all of its grants (one of the reasons it was one of two US think tanks earning a 5-star transparency rating from the independent review agency, Transparify.org), and the Norwegian government discloses all grant agreements and related correspondence – and this has been true since the very beginning of the project.

So what, exactly, is the problem here? Is it that the project envisions that CGD will do more than just “publish reports,” but it will actually try to “persuade Washington officials” to do something – in this case, to expand support for a specific approach (known as “results-based REDD+ financing“) to global forest protection efforts? But that can’t be the problem – that’s what CGD does all the time (along with many other think tanks); they do policy research, they sometimes come up with new ways of solving difficult problems, and they advocate to get those implemented. [And CGD has been astonishingly successful at this over the years, and the world, if I may say so, might just be a better place for it]

So if that’s not the problem, the problem must lie in the fact that it is foreign (Norwegian) money funding CGD’s efforts. But what’s wrong with that? What the Times doesn’t mention – and which really is critical to understanding what’s going on here – is that CGD had been working on this project of “persuading top officials” to adopt these specific policies in regard to deforestation long before the Norwegians and/or their funds arrived on the scene. The “result-based REDD+ financing” scheme emerged out of earlier work by CGD staff (and others) on the (very serious) problem of getting “developed” country donors, who are spending billions of dollars on anti-deforestation efforts, to do so in the most efficient and effective way possible. The Times article makes it appear as if the Norwegians came to CGD one day and said: “We have this idea about financing reforestation efforts, and we’d like you to persuade the US (and other countries) that it’s a good idea” and CGD said “Yes, we’ll do that.” But that’s not what happened. What happened was that CGD had the idea, and had been working on it for a long time, and then persuaded the Norwegians to fund their efforts to get it developed further and implemented. Getting things done like that costs money, and CGD was happy to receive money from the Norwegians for that purpose. And CGD and the Norwegians disclosed that relationship for all the world to see. Where’s the problem?

Perhaps, then, the problem is that this kind of relationship raises, in the Times’ words, “troubling questions about intellectual freedom,” with scholars at the affected institutions being “pressured to reach conclusions friendly to the government financing the research.” Well, that certainly could be a problem – and it is precisely why the transparency and disclosure practices of institutions like CGD are so important, so that the world can see precisely where the money is coming from and make its own judgments about scholarly independence. But nobody from CGD is quoted in the article as saying, and nobody as CGD has ever intimated, to my knowledge, that any such pressure has ever been applied to them on any CGD project. It’s a nasty innuendo to suggest otherwise, and the Times should perhaps be a little more sparing of nasty innuendo.

So finally we come to the Big Problem: CGD (and the other think tanks discussed in the article) may be violating US law, because, according to “three lawyers who specialize in the law governing Americans’ activities on behalf of foreign governments,” these CGD activities “appeared to have . . . merited registration as foreign agents of Norway.” The reference is to the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which prohibits any person from acting “as an agent of a foreign principal” without registering with the Attorney General (22 USC 612(a)), and which defines “agent of a foreign principal” as any person who acts as an agent, representative, employee, or servant, or any person who acts in any other capacity at the order, request, or under the direction or control, of a foreign principal . . . , and who directly or through any other person- (i) engages within the United States in political activities for or in the interests of such foreign principal; . . . or (iv) within the United States represents the interests of such foreign principal before any agency or official of the Government of the United States . . .” 22 USC 611. Now, I’m not a lawyer who specializes in this area – but I am a lawyer, and it strikes me as preposterous to suggest that CGD is Norway’s “agent” in this matter, or that it is acting under Norway’s “direction or control,” at least under the meaning of those terms as they are used elsewhere in the law. Agents must do what their principal(s) tell them to do – that’s what makes them “agents.” CGD does not do what Norway tells it to do, and the contract document gives the Norwegians no rights to direct CGD’s efforts in the manner of a principal directing its agent.

But that’s not even the silliest part of this whole kerfuffle. The silliest part of it is that even if you thought CGD was Norway’s agent, all that would happen under FARA is that they would have to register and disclose their relationship with Norway to the public – which they’ve already done, from the very start of the project. Absolutely nothing at all, in other words, would be gained by requiring FARA registration. If the statute has a purpose, it is to alert the US public to activities in the US that are being directed and controlled by foreign governments. But anyone could have seen for him/herself exactly what the relationship between the Norwegian government and CGD is, from perusing the CGD website. So even if there’s been a technical violation of the registration requirement (which I do not believe there has been), the effect was entirely harmless – compliance with the statutory requirements would have resulted in precisely what CGD already had brought into effect, namely knowledge on the part of the American public that the Norwegians were funding this effort. Robin Davies on the DevPolicy blog put it well:

In short, there might be, in fact or in principle, funding arrangements between think tanks and foreign governments that would justify the article’s headline—‘Foreign Powers Buy Influence at Think Tanks’—but the Norway-CGD arrangement certainly isn’t among them. The public policy outcome sought in this case would yield global, not unilateral benefits; CGD’s climate-change-mitigation policy agenda was already clear and its work program well developed; and the funding arrangement was perfectly visible to anyone who cared to look. Norway funded CGD to do more of what it was already doing in a global context; not to take Norway’s side in some bilateral manoeuvring vis-à-vis the US administration.

It is very, very difficult for me to see why the Times is so worked up about this.

[Full Disclosure #2: No Norwegians have been consulted in the preparation of this article, and I have no obligations, express or implied, to do the bidding of any foreign government in the expression of my ideas]