Think Tankers Gone Bad

This seems suboptimal.

The FBI has seized the electronic data of a retired four-star general who authorities say made false statements and withheld “incriminating” documents about his role in an illegal foreign lobbying campaign on behalf of the wealthy Persian Gulf nation of Qatar. (AP)

It’s one more instance of what’s been going on for years. People have posts in government and then sell themselves to another country to use what they’ve learned in government to make it favor that country. Members of Congress and their aides. Military personnel. Or they join defense contractors to help them get federal money. Sometimes they edge over the legal line.                                            

Or they join think tanks. General John Allen, referred to above, became the head of the Brookings Institution when he retired from the military in 2017. There are at least two issues here.

First, how people in government monetize their service after retirement and what that might do to their judgment before they retire.

Second, where think tank money comes from.

Allen looks like he’s in big trouble.

It’s part of an expanding investigation that has ensnared Richard G. Olson, a former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan who pleaded guilty to federal charges last week, and Imaad Zuberi, a prolific political donor now serving a 12-year prison sentence on corruption charges. Several members of Congress have been interviewed as part of the investigation.

The purpose of think tanks is to influence governmental policies. So it makes sense that those who want to influence the government would choose to fund a sympathetic think tank. But those who take money to influence the government directly are generally called lobbyists, who must register as such and if it’s from a foreign country, they have to register as agents for that country under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

There’s a need for policy development outside the government. Many think tanks like to believe that they’re doing principled work, and many people who work for them do principled work, in which they make their assumptions and preferences clear. Others, not so much. The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, for example, claims to be an honest broker looking for the best nuclear agreement with Iran, but it has acted to trash any and all such agreements and has pushed a line not distinguishable from that of the Israeli hard right.

Brookings, where Allen has been the head, is more even-handed, as is the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Carnegie think tanks, along with others. But most are not fully transparent on their funding.

There’s not necessarily a one to one relationship between funding and policy, but organizations that shelter likely future officials of the party out of power must be more transparent about their funding.

And former government officials shouldn’t be paid by other countries. Not. At. All. A bill has been introduced along those lines (bipartisan!) which probably won’t become law under Republican obstructionism.

A final question: Why do Brookings and CFR so often choose military men to lead them?

Photo: John Allen in better days.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money