On June 5, 1947, then-Secretary of State, George C. Marshall, would give what was billed as a minor speech while accepting an honorary degree at Harvard University. That speech would soon become the Marshall Plan, economic aid for a post-World War II Europe. Marshall provided no advance warning to the media or representatives of other countries, not even a head’s up to the Harvard president. Marshall did not want to upstage others, and he didn’t want the attention of a major speech. Just a quiet introduction of a rather radical idea.
Last week, I was giving a speech at the American Conference Institute’s (ACI) Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) conference in Washington, DC, shortly after Brandon Van Grack, the new Chief of the FARA unit in the US Department of Justice spoke. Apparently motivated by the 2016 election interference, he made news when he discussed that he is interpreting the FARA statute to now require foreign PR firms to register under FARA when representing companies, countries and interests trying to influence policy in the United States. While still somewhat narrow, this means that the DOJ FARA unit is likely to go after foreign PR agencies whose activities are directed into the US, with an attempt to influence US policy or the US public. The DOJ is saying that a foreign agency sitting entirely abroad, running an online campaign directed at the US public or US policy makers is now within the scope of the law.
This is a broad interpretation of the statute and has never been employed before. While it may eventually be struck down in the courts, you can no longer assume that the FARA responsibility is that of solely US communications agencies.
There is a new sheriff in town and you better take his warning seriously.
Enjoy the more detailed read of this and other FARA implications by a host of FARA lawyers in our latest Forbes column.