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DOJ is stepping up enforcement of a law that regulates foreign lobbying in Washington

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The Justice Department is stepping up enforcement of a law that regulates foreign lobbying in Washington. Now, the issue started drawing attention during the investigation into Russian meddling during the 2016 election. And the latest example is a case against a retired U.S. general for his work with the government of Qatar. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Benjamin Freeman of the Quincy Institute researches foreign influence in Washington, and he sees the case against retired General John Allen, who led the Brookings Institution as a real turning point.

BENJAMIN FREEMAN: What happened with John Allen was really the straw that broke the camel's back for this issue. When you have the head of perhaps the most prominent think tank in D.C. being investigated, I think that really got everybody's attention.

KELEMEN: The FBI is probing whether Allen failed to comply with the Foreign Agents Registration Act, known as FARA, which requires Americans to disclose if they're lobbying on behalf of a foreign government. A spokesman for the four-star general says Allen never acted as an agent of Qatar and that a search warrant that was leaked is, quote, "inaccurate, incomplete and misleading."

That warrant alleges that Allen was paid to meet Qatari leaders about a dispute with Saudi Arabia and then returned to Washington to meet Trump administration officials. Freeman says while the White House was pro-Saudi and probably needed to hear the Qatari point of view, Allen should have been more transparent.

FREEMAN: Had he registered under FARA for that work, none of that would have been illegal.

KELEMEN: Because of this investigation, Allen resigned from Brookings, which has in the past received funding from Qatar. There has been an uptick in cases involving foreign lobbying, according to Brandon Van Grack, who used to run the FARA enforcement office at the Department of Justice.

BRANDON VAN GRACK: One of the themes that you see in many of these recent prosecutions are efforts and activity to influence elected officials or government senior officials. And that's where the Justice Department has clearly signaled that that is the type of activity that it's going to prioritize.

KELEMEN: He says these cases are interconnected.

VAN GRACK: Long webs where one individual gets identified and is involved in an investigation, and that investigation is connected to another one and another one.

KELEMEN: That gets at the culture of foreign affairs networking in Washington. Allen came under scrutiny for connections to a business executive, now in jail for FARA violations, and to a former U.S. ambassador, Richard Olson, who pleaded guilty to violating a rule that requires diplomats to wait a year before they can lobby.

Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette, who's with the Project on Government Oversight, explains why there needs to be strict rules for diplomats, military and intelligence officials.

DYLAN HEDTLER-GAUDETTE: The one thing we ought to be able to expect of our policymakers and decision-makers is that the - you know, the decisions that they're making, are first and foremost on behalf of the American people, on behalf of the American public. The only way we're able to really have any confidence and security in that is if we're able to, you know, have some real transparency and sunlight into who is advocating on behalf of what, and how is that impacting and influencing, you know, the actual policies and decisions?

KELEMEN: He thinks the Foreign Agents Registration Act should be amended so that authorities can impose civil penalties, which is easier than launching criminal cases.

HEDTLER-GAUDETTE: That's part of why we often see those cases not being brought - is because of all the resources required to do a complete criminal investigation and prosecution.

KELEMEN: U.S. lawmakers have proposed changes to FARA. Attorney Van Grack says it's about time.

VAN GRACK: It absolutely has to be updated. It's a statute from the 1930s that's trying to regulate conduct in the digital age.

KELEMEN: Meanwhile, Freeman of the Quincy Institute wants more scrutiny of who's giving money to Washington think tanks.

FREEMAN: We're not necessarily saying that, you know, folks can't take money from, you know, any particular foreign government or that sort of thing. We just hope, at the very least, we can all agree to be transparent about who's funding our work and how and if that does have an impact on the work.

KELEMEN: His latest research includes a study on former U.S. members of Congress now lobbying on behalf of foreign governments. And he's looking into Ukrainian and Russian lobbying in the run-up to the war in Ukraine.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD AND GHOSTFACE KILLAH SONG, "EXPERIENCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.