The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), enacted in 1938 and administered by the FARA Registration Unit of the Counterespionage Section in the National Security Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ), is a little known requirement, statingthat all persons acting as an “agent of a foreign principal” must register with DOJ, unless an exception applies. Criminal penalties can and have been imposed on agents that intentionally and willfully violate the statute. Moreover, unintentional or negligent violations can be met with fines, remedial action, and even negative press, which is often the most harmful to an agent action For instance, just last month, The New York Times shed negative light on a variety of think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Atlantic Council, and the Center for Global Development, who all received funding from foreign governments, including Norway, UAE, Qatar, Japan, and others, without registering under FARA.
The scope of FARA is far-reaching, rendering many unsuspecting political consultants, lobbyists, public relations counsel, etc. subject to registration. The statute defines a “foreign principal” to include not only foreign governments and foreign political parties, but also foreign persons and corporations. Moreover, the statute defines an “agent of a foreign principal” to include any person who has an agency relationship with the foreign entity and engages in public relations, image-making, or political activities for or on behalf of that foreign entity. Notably, the statute broadly defines “political activities” to include “any” activity that the agent believes will, or intends to, in “any way” influence the U.S. government or public with respect to formulating, adopting, or changing U.S. domestic or foreign policy, capturing a significant amount of activity.
Given the broad scope of the statute, and the potential consequences of noncompliance, it is important that individuals and companies representing foreign individuals, governments, or companies in the United States, in a political or quasi-political capacity, carefully evaluate whether their activities may trigger registration under FARA and consult counsel when in doubt.