Who Must Register as a Foreign Agent?

Khaled Abdel-Latif Dumeisi, an Iraqi immigrant living outside Chicago, was arrested yesterday for having provided Saddam Hussein with intelligence on opposition figures residing in the United States. He was charged not with espionage, but rather for “acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government.” Who qualifies as a foreign agent, and why do they have to register?

The Foreign Agent Registration Act stipulates that anyone in the United States who “acts at the order, request, or under the direction or control of a foreign principal” must make his connections known to the Department of Justice. The law was passed in 1938, in response to covert efforts by Nazi Germany to spread propaganda through American intermediaries. The most infamous of these was public-relations pioneer Ivy Lee. Ostensibly employed by the German Dye Trust, Lee actually worked for the Third Reich, which was looking to burnish its image in the United States; among Lee’s ideas was a campaign to portray the Nazi rearmament program as integral to “preventing for all time the return of the Communist peril.” FARA was drafted to ensure that the American public would know who was really funding such flackery.

The law requires that people representing “foreign principals”—primarily governments, but also some opposition parties, state companies (such as tourist boards or airlines), and individuals—register with the DOJ, make public all their related income and expenditures, and keep copious records of all activities. Any statements that the registrant publishes on behalf of her client must include a footnote stating that the author is acting as an agent of a foreign principal.

Lobbyists for a few foreign corporations, like Japan’s Hitachi, are registered under FARA, but most such K Street habitués opt instead to register under the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995. This law allows people representing nongovernmental foreign clients to register with Congress rather than the DOJ, and its reporting requirements are considered far less stringent. Diplomats, academics, and charity workers are also exempt from FARA.

Many FARA registrants belong to white-shoe PR firms like Hill & Knowlton or Burson-Marsteller, which specialize in creating positive images inside the Beltway. For example, according to the last FARA report, the DCI Group has the unenviable task of “improving relations between the Governments of the United States and the Union of Myanmar.” (The company was paid at least $100,000 for its communications work.) Also among past FARA registrants is Bob Dole, who signed up in 1998 while advising the government of Taiwan.

Before Dumeisi’s arrest, there had been only three criminal cases involving FARA violations, which now carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison; none of the three ended in a conviction.

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