How we got the story: Using Foreign Influence Explorer for reporting

President Barack Obama in ornate room with Saudi flag and two men dressed in traditional Saudi garb
President Barack Obama meeting Saudi officials in Riyadh (Photo credit: The White House)

When Sunlight got wind of President Barack Obama’s planned trip to Saudi Arabia on March 28, we knew we wanted to explore what sort of influence the Saudi government was wielding in the U.S. Our reporting team used the still-in-beta Foreign Influence Explorer tool to gain insights into the soft power the Saudi government exerted stateside. Our new tool allows you to easily find foreign lobbying interests by country or region and neatly summarizes their activity in the U.S. We have taken care of the manual data entry, scraping and summarizing, and we want you to leverage our work to improve your reporting on foreign influence.

Want to learn how to use Foreign Influence Explorer to do some reporting of your own? We’ll walk you through the steps we took to uncover some of the Saudi king’s “K Street connections.”

First, we visited the country’s location profile. Search for the country you’re interested in using the search bar at the top of the page.

Click on “Saudi Arabia, Western Asia” to see all of the clients based in that country.

Screenshot from Foreign Influence Explorer showing search results for Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s location profile page lists all of the clients based in the Kingdom and registered in the FARA database. Sometimes, a client’s name will make it apparent what kind of business interests it represents, or, if it is a government entity. Often, however, some Internet research is necessary to clarify.

We knew, for example, that the Royal Embassy represented the Saudi government, but we had to dig a little on the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, also referred to as KACARE. A visit to KACARE’s website confirmed its government ties.

Under each client’s name is a running total of all payments made to foreign agents during 2013 (Note: These figures should generally not be used for comparison with other running totals as they may not cover the same time period, see our methodology for more information). Clicking on the see all payments records link brings you to the itemized list of payments.

These payments show you the amount paid to each firm and the date of the payment. You can download a CSV file of all of the payments by clicking the download button.

Click on the file icon in the far right column to go to a page with summary data from the original filing. This document profile outlines the other details of the FARA document, including all the payments and contacts made during that reporting period.

Make sure to double check figures with the original document (like the supplemental form below) before citing them in a story. The data on Foreign Influence Explorer generally has to be hand entered, as the Department of Justice provides FARA forms in PDFs. If you notice a mistake in our data please let us know.

screenshot from Foreign Influence Explorer showing a document profile for a supplemental form from Pillsbury Winthrop

For our Saudi Arabia piece, the itemized payments page showed us that KACARE paid the Pillsbury Winthrop law firm more than $9 million in three separate chunks over the past year. And this is when that filing link comes in handy — when we clicked through to the document profile (see above), we found that the entirety of this $9 million went toward “legal consultancy services.” No contacts — political or otherwise — were listed.

However, the contacts section usually provides the most interesting — and newsiest — nuggets. Contacts can range from meetings with an official at the State Department, a phone call to a congressional staffer, a policy discussion, or a meeting with a reporter. The full list of contacts for any client is available on the location profile under each client’s name. Click on “see all contact records” for a complete list. Again, these contacts should be cross-referenced with the original document before they are cited.

Screenshot from Foreign Influence Explorer showing the location profile for Saudi Arabia

Because we were curious about the full scope of Saudi Arabian influence we went beyond Foreign Influence Explorer to search for the latest filings available on the Department of Justice’s FARA website. This search turned up some disclosure forms that had not yet been processed in Foreign Influence Explorer. Registrants file FARA forms year-round, making it nearly impossible to process every form in real time. In addition, the data entry process is very involved and detailed, and we are always looking for helping hands.

Questions? Comments? We want your feedback on this new project. Let us know what you think 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.