Here’s an encouraging development for anyone hoping to curb the role of big money and special interests in American politics: The Mainstream Media is starting to shine the spotlight on the too-long-overlooked influence-peddling role played by leading think tanks that continue portraying themselves to policymakers, the media, and the general public as disinterested seekers of the truth.
As I wrote in September, the current wave of interest in these institutions was kicked off by a ground-breaking New York Times expose of foreign government contributions to major tanks like the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Atlantic Council. The findings were so stunning (even to me) that Virginia Republican Congressman Frank Wolf has asked the Justice Department to investigate whether these contributions are efforts to circumvent federal laws monitoring foreign government lobbying activities.
Just as important, California Democratic House member Jackie Speier has proposed requiring any witness before a Congressional committee, including think tank staff, to disclose the sources of financial support for their work – which would include the domestic interests that have long used think tanks for “idea laundering” purposes. These corporations, trade associations, and other contributors benefit greatly when proposals from which they would benefit are disseminated by organizations generally assumed to be motivated by the broader national interest.
Two days after the Times piece appeared, moreover, the Washington Post broke the story that, thanks to contributions to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the ambassadors from Britain and the United Arab Emirates were able to buy their way into a classified meeting at the Pentagon. The ambassadors were invited by CSIS President John Hamre, who troublingly remains chair of a key Defense Department advisory group called the Defense Science Board even though his think tank duties obviously involve rattling a tin cup in front of prospective foreign government supporters. As previously reported in the Times article, one of these governments is China.
This morning, media scrutiny resumed with a long article in the Post detailing the growing tendency of projects at Brookings to dovetail with the interests of particular domestic and foreign donors, including foreign governments. Especially welcome about this article was its description of technology industry funding for Brookings research on the H-1B program that admits immigrants with special talents – many of which work in information technology.
The program has been extensively used to help depress wages in the U.S. technology sector, and expanding quotas has long been a key goal of American technology companies. But this nexus is only the tip of the iceberg of corporate funding for think tank globalization-related activities, as I’ve detailed in Congressional testimony linked in my previous post.
The Times and Post coverage, however, raises a tough question for these and other Mainstream Media pillars themselves. Now that they’re starting to understand how compromised so much think tank research is, will they report such apparent (at least) conflicts of interest when they use the work of think tank specialists, as Rep. Speiers has suggested when it comes to Congress? Or will they continue to perpetuate the myth, even if unintentionally, that think tank analyses and perspectives originate on the mountaintop?
By the way, in researching this post, I came across two useful-looking sources of information about think tanks: Think Tank Watch and Transparify. I’ll be keeping track of them regularly now, and you may want to visit their sites, too. And if you find other sources in this field, please let me know!