A better way to explore foreign influence

Image of world map on home page of Foreign Influence Explorer

Our new Foreign Influence Explorer tracker makes it easy to analyze filings at the Department of Justice. Click on the image to go to the page.

Whom did Russia’s state-owned Gazprom pay to spread the word about the Ukraine’s overdue bills? What former members of the House and Senate leadership are lobbying on behalf of foreign governments? How much did the Saudi royal family spend polishing its image stateside last year? Which State Department officials have met with agents of Ukrainian dissidents?

These are some of the questions our new, improved FARA tracker can answer. FARA stands for the Foreign Agents Registration Act, passed in 1938 as a way to limit the influence of German propaganda just before World War II. It set in place stringent reporting requirements for foreign governments, political parties, businesses and other organizations that try to influence policy in the United States. The Department of Justice has hosted these reports on a public website since 2007, but the agency’s reliance on PDF format makes it difficult for the public to search and analyze this information.

So Sunlight has built a website to change that. After months of research, development and manual data entry by Sunlight staffers, consultants and volunteers, we are proud to unveil Foreign Influence Explorer.

We undertook the labor-intensive effort of wrangling FARA data because we believe it provides a uniquely detailed view of the way Washington works.

Lobbyists who represent foreign interests must give the government — and, by extension, the public — a far more detailed accounting of how they spend their time than do those who represent domestic interests. For instance, public relations firms — which increasingly do everything that lobbyists do except register with Congress — don’t have to file any accounting of their work for domestic clients. But they do for those who are foreign. Since many of big K Street players represent both foreign and domestic clients, the FARA data gives us some inkling of how much we don’t know about the domestic lobbying business.

FARA requires any individual or organization advocating on behalf of a foreign principal in a “political or quasi-political capacity” to report to the Justice Department every six months the details of the work done on behalf of its clients — including the names of government officials, members of Congress and their aides and even members of the media who have been contacted and the issues they discussed. In addition to these granular details about meetings with government officials and story pitches to news outlets, foreign agents are required the report their income and other payments from their clients, expenses incurred representing them and their own contributions to politicians.

In developing this new section of our flagship Influence Explorer site, we incorporated many lessons learned during our building and use of our earlier FARA tracker, which we launched in 2009 in partnership with ProPublica. The 2.0 version grew out of the successes and frustrations that Sunlight’s Reporting Group had using the original site to produce stories, such as:

One member of our Reporting Group who was active using the original FARA tracker, Lindsay Young, picked up enough programming skills at Sunlight to begin work on a new version of the website, designed to tackle some of the problems that she and her colleagues encountered with the original one.

The new website, which Sunlight is launching today, is the result of her efforts, aided and abetted by her colleagues on our Labs team, where Lindsay has now migrated. We believe the new site is far more user friendly and offers far more ways to track and analyze the wealth of data that lobbyists and other agents for foreign clients must provide the Department of Justice.

Another important new addition: Our feed of proposed arms sales, which we take directly from the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency. We are including this in our Foreign Influence tracker because so much foreign lobbying revolves around arms sales, creating a nexus of influence between foreign governments that want to buy arms and U.S. arms manufacturers who want to sell to them.

Some caveats
  1. Our FARA tracker is still a work in progress. It includes more than 7,000 records dating back to 2008, but we are continuing to enter data to close the gap between records entered in our old foreign lobbying tracker and the new one. As of this writing, we are continuing to enter data for records covering 2011 and 2012. Until we complete that work, the running totals of payments made to FARA registrants, listed on each of their individual profile pages (see example here), reflect money they collected for 2013 only. Further, this total may not reflect all of their revenues for 2013, because some may be reported in forms filed early in 2014 which we have not yet been able to enter into our database. Want to help? Find out how here.
  2. Lobbyists and other entities representing foreign interests must report any campaign contributions they make to the Justice Department. These numbers do not always match those on file at the Federal Election Commission. The amounts reported to the FEC come from the campaigns; the amounts reported to the Justice Department come from the contributors. Discrepancies may make for interesting news, or simply reflect errors; be on the lookout.
  3. We do our best to avoid mistakes, but with so much hand-entering of data some are inevitable. So if you are doing a story using this data, it always pays to double-check against the original documents (which our FARA site makes easy to see and download). See an error or other problem on the website? Email us here.

Want to learn more about Foreign Influence Explorer? Join us for a free webinar on Tuesday, May 13th at 1pm ET and we’ll walk you through the tool and explore its functionalities. Register here.