Trump administration demands think tanks disclose foreign funding

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What happened: The Trump administration is demanding that U.S. think tanks and academic institutions publicly disclose what funding they receive from foreign governments or otherwise risk losing access to State Department officials.

The move, unveiled in a statement Tuesday by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, comes amid growing bipartisan concern about the role outside governments, ranging from China to the United Arab Emirates, play in shaping academic and policy debates in the United States.

“To protect the integrity of civil society institutions, the [State] Department requests henceforth that think tanks and other foreign policy organizations that wish to engage with the department disclose prominently on their websites funding they receive from foreign governments, including state-owned or state-operated subsidiary entities,” Pompeo said in the statement.

“Disclosure is not a requirement for engaging with such entities,” he added. “Department staff will, however, be mindful of whether disclosure has been made and of specific funding sources that are disclosed when determining whether and how to engage.”

The background: It’s not clear what immediately prompted the demand for disclosure, but critics have long raised concerns about think tanks and universities being a conduit for foreign funds. The Trump administration has cracked down aggressively in recent months on Chinese funding in particular, even prosecuting several academics for allegedly lying about their links to China’s Thousand Talents Plan, an effort to recruit foreign expertise. The State Department also has been critical of so-called Confucius Institutes that work with American universities, accusing them of operating as Beijing’s “foothold” in U.S. academia.

Some think tanks and academic institutions eschew foreign government funding, but others take it. The subject is increasingly murky given the role of intermediaries, such as foreign-based businesses, that give funding but which also have links to their home governments. The U.S. institutions are not necessarily legally required to disclose the sources of their funding, adding to the murkiness.

In his statement, Pompeo named China and Russia as two examples of foreign governments that “seek to exert influence over U.S. foreign policy through lobbyists, external experts and think tanks.” But all manner of foreign governments try to affect policy thinking in Washington.

Earlier this year, The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative news outlet that first reported State’s new disclosure demand, and examined the questionable role Turkish government, often through intermediaries, has played in affecting programming at the Atlantic Council think tank.

A major 2014 investigation by The New York Times detailed how governments such as Qatar, Norway and the United Arab Emirates had spent large sums to fund programs at prominent think tanks such as the Brookings Institution and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

POLITICO reached out to several leading Washington think tanks for comment on Tuesday morning, but most did not immediately offer any.

In a statement, the Brookings Institution said: “Consistent with our policies on research independence and careful scrutiny of foreign funding, Brookings does not accept any funding from the governments of China or Russia, or from any of their state-run or affiliated enterprises. Brookings is proud of our strong track record of transparency in our funding relationships.” The statement also pointed to the think tank’s annual report, which lists donors.

The Trump administration also has cracked down on Chinese media outlets based in the United States, saying they are effectively propaganda arms of the Chinese Communist Party. That has led China to push out or restrict the activities of American reporters on its soil, even when those reporters work for independent news organizations.

“We hope one day soon that U.S. efforts to promote free and open dialogue about economic and personal liberty, equal citizenship, the rule of law and authentic civil society, will be possible in places such as China and Russia,” Pompeo said in his statement.

Spokespeople for the Chinese and Russian embassies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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