Robert Mueller May Bring An End To Jokes Surrounding Old Law

Nov 23, 2017
Originally published on November 23, 2017 6:56 pm
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There's an old law that's supposed to make sure Americans know who in Washington is working on behalf of other countries. It's called the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA. For a long time, lobbyists considered the law a joke. Now it seems a lot more serious. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has brought two indictments under this law as part of his investigation into Russia's attack on the 2016 presidential election. And there could be more to come. NPR's Miles Parks joins us to discuss this.

Hi, Miles.


SHAPIRO: Tell us about the background from this law - the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

PARKS: Right. So it dates back about 80 years to the front end of World War II. Congress was very worried at the time about propaganda flooding in from Nazi Germany and communist Russia. But what's interesting is they didn't enact a law that outlawed that propaganda. Instead, they enacted a law that basically said, if you're going to try to affect our politics, if you're going to try to affect the minds of our American people, we just want you to tell us. So people who are trying to create propaganda - PR campaigns - with connections to foreign entities, they're required to disclose that information and to publicly...

SHAPIRO: Entities means governments, companies.

PARKS: Exactly, corporations, political parties that are not in power, who still probably have - want to have a say in American politics. But it also covers governments, as well. Right now, in 2017, because of Robert Mueller's Russia probe, I think the government aspect of it is getting a lot more play.

SHAPIRO: There are presumably thousands of people in the United States doing this kind of work on behalf of foreign entities. How many of them register?

PARKS: Very, very few, which I think is really interesting. We've seen, over the last 25 years, that number has continued to decline even as we have not seen a decline in other country's opinions about our politics, right? So we're at somewhere around 500 foreign principals are registered under this law, whereas you can imagine people connected to foreign governments, foreign companies - how many thousands of people should be registered right now. They just - this has not been viewed as a priority in lobbying or PR circles.

SHAPIRO: How unusual is it for people to be prosecuted for ignoring this law?

PARKS: It's very unusual. The charges that Robert Mueller brought on Donald Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his business associate Rick Gates, these are just the eighth and ninth prosecutions brought since 1966 using FARA. So it's an incredibly uncommon use of the law. And Manafort's attorney said as much outside the courthouse after one of his client's hearings - said that they were dusting off this law basically for use against his client.

SHAPIRO: Why was it unused for so many decades? Why have prosecutions been so rare?

PARKS: Well, the Justice Department just has not spent its resources investigating claims related to FARA. You've got a staff there - less than 10 people who are devoted to investigating and charging crimes like this, whereas Robert Mueller's team, for instance, is over 25 lawyers. So you can see the discrepancy there - why it makes sense that Mueller would be able to bring charges using FARA.

The law itself is also - many lawyers I talked to said it's too vague. It needs to be less broad. It's unclear for people who aren't registered whether they need to be registered or whether they should have been registered two years ago. So the fact that the legislation itself is broad and the Justice Department has not been enforcing it, I think both those things have combined to make it so people who are lobbying for foreign governments and foreign entities just haven't viewed it as a priority.

SHAPIRO: Now that this law is being used against former Trump associates, do you expect that it'll continue to be the focus of the Mueller investigation, as we look at people like former national security adviser Michael Flynn? Is FARA likely to be a centerpiece of the case that may come against him?

PARKS: Yeah, I think so. Michael Flynn is actually a really good example. He registered late under FARA for work he was doing on behalf of the Turkish government. Now, that's not normally really a problem. The Justice Department actually allows people to register late as a means to get people to register at all. But with Manafort and Gates, for example, Mueller says not only did they register late but that their filings were not completely truthful. So the question with Flynn - was his filing, although it was late, was it completely truthful? An interesting development there. The New York Times is reporting today that Flynn's legal team has actually cut off contact with the president's lawyers. And NPR has not confirmed that, but if it is true, it points to the possibility that Mueller could be pushing Flynn toward negotiations on an agreement to share information. And in fact, legal experts that I spoke with say that Mueller is pushing for a similar sort of agreement with Manafort and that he's using FARA to get there.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Miles Parks. Thanks a lot, Miles.

PARKS: Yeah, thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.