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The Privatization of US Foreign Policy: An Interview with the Author of The Foreign Policy Auction
Ben Freeman. (Photo: Joe Newman / Flickr)

The Privatization of US Foreign Policy: An Interview with the Author of The Foreign Policy Auction

Ben Freeman. (Photo: Joe Newman / Flickr)

Part of the Series

U.S. foreign policy is being sold. Not just altered, shifted, manipulated, or influenced – sold. Every single day the agents of foreign governments and businesses work to not only monitor U.S. foreign policy, but actively change and even create it. Lobbying for foreign interests is a half billion dollar industry in the U.S. and nearly every country in the world devotes considerable resources to lobbying officials in Washington, or has done so in the past. In fact, just one lobbying firm, Patton Boggs, lobbies for nearly half of the world’s population. And, one in every ten dollars spent on lobbying in the U.S. comes from foreign governments.

Ben Freeman.Ben Freeman. (Photo: Joe Newman / Flickr)

The opening paragraph of Ben Freeman’s The Foreign Policy Auction launches the reader on a fierce exposé of the massive yet relatively unknown foreign-influence industry, whose explicit goal is to bend US foreign policy to the will of foreign powers. Many of these lobbyists work for the type of rulers you don’t want associating with your elected officials. More often than not, Freeman finds that the most money flows from the most repressive regimes, and it flows right into the pockets of our politicians.

I interviewed Freeman, a national security investigator with the organization I founded – the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) – on his new book and what it means for US foreign policy.

Truthout: How did you get interested in foreign lobbying?

Ben Freeman: I was looking into military aid and foreign military sales, and noticed a pattern. Really it was the lack of a pattern – how we decide which countries to give weapons to really doesn’t make sense. It was surprising to find out that we give fewer weapons to military allies, often give weapons to countries we have little economic interest in and sometimes give weapons to countries that we know don’t like us very much.

So, how do we decide where to send our weapons? The countries that lobby for them. I looked at all the countries receiving military aid from the US during a five-year period and found that only one country (Haiti) wasn’t given any weapons. This pattern is perfectly clear – foreign leaders know to send their money to K Street; we then send them weapons. The worst part is that the US, which was already the leading arms distributor in the world, doubled overseas arms sales in the last four years. With Pentagon budget cuts looming, the big defense contractors have already announced that they’re looking to foreign markets to keep sales up. So, all signs point to increasing foreign military sales, and we’ll be selling to whoever has the best lobbying or public relations teams working for them.

It is disturbing that the defense contractors are already looking to cash in on this bazaar. How does this whole process work? Walk us through the process. How would a country that wants to get something from the US go about doing so? Where does the money come from? Where does it go?

The process is remarkably simple. A foreign government or political group that wants to influence US foreign policy can just hire a lobbying firm, like any well financed interest group in the US, or multinational business. In fact, nearly all of the foreign lobbying firms also work for US interest groups as well.

Solutions - Making Government Work

But lobbying isn’t the only service foreign governments need. Dictators often hire public relations firms for “image management.” Translated from public relations speak, this means they’re looking to convince the US that, despite all the messy torturing and violating of human rights, they’re actually great guys that the US should be friends with!

Whether a foreign government is looking for lobbying, “image management,” or both, the money comes directly from the government. And a disproportionate amount of money comes from regimes that aren’t exactly the Boy Scouts of the international arena. Libya, Egypt, Liberia, Sudan, Iran and even North Korea have had agents working on their behalf in the US. Often, when relations with the US sour, a country will dramatically increase its lobbying efforts, like Pakistan’s advocates did after the death of Osama bin Laden. The whole foreign influence industry is really pay-to-play diplomacy, and a lot of countries can’t afford to pay, so their voices aren’t heard in D.C. Meanwhile, some of these dictators – who’ve siphoned billions from their citizens – are speaking over the loudspeaker on Capitol Hill. This provides a radically distorted view of the world to US policymakers. While you’d hope politicians would do something to mitigate this undue foreign influence, they don’t, because this influx of foreign money ultimately makes its way to them.

The foreign influence industry is a perfectly legal way for foreign money to get into US politics. Foreign nationals cannot directly make contributions to US politics, but the US lobbyists they hire can. In a nutshell, here’s how foreign money flows from a foreign government to US politicians: A foreign government signs a contract with a DC lobbying firm; the firm pays its lobbyists, at least partially, with that foreign money; then, lobbyists make campaign contributions or organize fundraisers with that money. In fact, I’ve found dozens of instances where foreign lobbyists made contributions to legislators on the exact same day they meet to discuss the needs of foreign governments. While this may look a lot like bribery to you and me, it’s, unfortunately, perfectly legal.

You might wonder why the major media hasn’t exposed all of this – perhaps it is because they also profit from it. These PR firms and lobbying shops buy ad space in major media outlets. They hire journalists that once worked at The Washington Post or The New York Times. They finance the writing of op-eds and pay pundits for favorable mentions on TV.

So, from the lobbying and PR firms, lobbyists, elected leaders, to the media, everyone – except the US citizens – are benefitting from the foreign policy auction.

Our country has had a history of worrying about foreign invasions or imported terrorism, but this is a new type of invasion; this time they come from just about every country, wear expensive suits and are armed with briefcases full of money.

That’s really accurate, actually. Why would a country ever risk war or any type of conflict when they can just buy off our government? And at such a cheap price! It’s alarming to me that our leaders can be bought for pennies on the dollar.

The most glaring example to me is the lobbying campaign for Libya’s former leader Muammar Qaddafi. Up until the mid 2000s, Qaddafi was largely considered the second-most wanted terrorist in the world, having claimed responsibility for several terrorist attacks that killed US citizens, including members of our military. Yet, due in no small part to a multimillion-dollar lobbying and PR campaign, he was pardoned during the War on Terror. The lobbying campaign was also successful in reducing the amount Qaddafi owed to families of the victims of his terrorist attacks by billions of dollars.

If the number-two terrorist in the world can be pardoned in the middle of the War on Terror, there is no telling to what the foreign influence industry can do.

We need to wake up to the reality that our representatives are, literally, being bought off by dictators. We need to inform the public and raise the alarm about this.

The real irony here is that a nation forged from resistance to foreign influence has a government filled with politicians ready and willing to sell out to foreign governments. Bob Livingston, whom I discuss in great detail in The Foreign Policy Auction, is the perfect example of this. The former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee became a lobbyist after his marital infidelities were unearthed by Dan Moldea in the Larry Flint-financed hunt for Republican cheaters after the Clinton impeachment. Fast-forward ten years and his firm, The Livingston Group, is one of the top lobbying shops for dictators, including Qaddafi and former Egyptian dictator Mubarak. Livingston has deep roots in American politics and is actually related to Philip Livingston, who was on the committee responsible for drafting the Declaration of Independence and signed it. Ironically enough, Bob Livingston, whose ancestor signed the clearest document establishing American sovereignty, now makes millions promoting foreign powers in America.

This all sounds pretty dire. Is there any good news here?

Fortunately, there are some good guys in the foreign-influence world. One of the most seasoned foreign advocates also happens to be arguably the most outspoken world peace advocate – the Dalai Lama. He’s been a registered foreign advocate in the US since 1964. That’s longer than many of the Congressional staffers turned K-street lobbyists have been alive. He’s lobbied key politicians, even presidents, and has been incredibly successful at PR – eliciting the support of countless celebrities to increase awareness of Tibet.

There’s also Independent Diplomat, founded by a former British Diplomat, Carne Ross. The organization represents countries that would not otherwise have a voice at the United Nations and other political venues, often providing services free of charge. Independent Diplomat helps to insure that even the smallest players in the international stage have a say in deciding their own fate.

I know at POGO, your motto is, “Exposing corruption. Exploring solutions.” You’ve definitely exposed some corruption here. This is a column about solutions. What can we do to get our foreign policy out of the hands of foreign and US mercenaries?

Needless to say, we’ve got a lot of work to do. The first step is to stymie the flow of foreign money. Lobbyists working for foreign governments should not be allowed to give money to the same politicians they’re contacting on behalf of foreign governments. At the very least, there should be a cooling-off period between when a lobbyist meets with a representative and when the lobbyist makes a contribution to that representative. Three months might be sufficient to eliminate the semblance of quid pro quo, but the longer the gap is, the more it would insulate lawmakers from foreign money.

Second, the revolving door from Congress and the executive branch to lobbying firms that represent foreign governments should be closed. Fortunately, there’s already a proposal on the table that does precisely this. Earlier this year, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Virginia) introduced the Foreign Lobbying Reform Act, which would prohibit high-ranking government officials from lobbying for foreign governments for ten years after leaving office. Had this law been in place, Bob Livingston could not have represented Qaddafi, Bob Dole couldn’t have turned foreign lobbyist less than a year and a half after losing the 1996 presidential election, and Dick Gephardt couldn’t be using his clout as a former House majority and minority leader to lobby on behalf of foreign governments.

Third, enforcement of foreign lobbying laws needs to increase dramatically. The US is blessed to have one of the most stringent foreign lobbying laws. Unregistered foreign agents face steep fines and even prison sentences, as former congressman Mark Siljander (R-Michigan) found when he was sentenced to a year in jail for obstruction of justice and acting as an unregistered foreign agent for an Islamic charity designated as a terrorist group. Unfortunately, Siljander’s case is an anomaly, as enforcement of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) is virtually nonexistent and the unit responsible for overseeing the industry encourages “voluntary compliance.”

The problem is that the FARA unit is grossly underfunded. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) employs more than 20,000 people, yet the FARA unit has fewer than 20 people to oversee a half-billion-dollar-a-year industry whose stated objective is influencing the policies and opinions of our government. If we’re serious about combating foreign influence in the US – not just undocumented workers – we should put our money where the influence is and increase oversight of the foreign influence industry.

You can help by telling your Congressperson to stop taking money from the agents of foreign governments (nearly all do) and tell them to eliminate the incentives for other politicians to sell out to dictators.

It’s time for us to close the auction.

Thank you, Ben. Good luck with your work.

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