FLYNN FACTS: What the heck is a foreign agent?

FRIDAY, MAY 26, 2017

Part 4—Exploring a scary term:
Today, let's start with a basic premise:

Crazy people get to be overpaid lobbyists too.

Crazy people get overpaid by firms right here in the United States. That doesn't mean that they're "on the United States government payroll," even if the work they're doing supports the policies of a sitting president.

Crazy people can also be overpaid by firms based in foreign lands. That doesn't mean that they're on some foreign government's payroll although, at exciting times like these, it can be fun to say so.

The "crazy" person of whom we speak is Michael Flynn. Last year, he was overpaid for three months by Inovo BV, a Dutch-based firm operated by Ekim Alptekin, whoever he may actually be.

In this morning's editions, the Washington Post again asserts that Alptekin is "a Turkish American businessman close to top Turkish officials." For whatever it may be worth, that would mean that Alkptekin is an American citizen, though we have no idea if the Post knows what it's talking about.

At times like these, when a chase is on, our newspapers sometimes don't bother.

In President Lincoln's time, we were "engaged in a great civil war." Today, in the reign of President Trump, we are engaged in a newspaper war, and in a very large chase.

Increasingly, our daily newspapers are being scripted by unnamed figures who are, in fact, breaking the law through their carefully parceled, often quite murky disclosures.

This may or may not be a good thing. But at times like these, your newspapers will often serve you novelized tales rather than hard information. In all honesty, these tales are designed to further the chase, not to inform the public.

Michael Flynn, who seems to be crazy, is the object of one such chase. Perhaps for that reason, we're now being exposed to various "Flynn facts"—inaccurate or misleading claims which further the corps' preferred novels.

One such claims was voiced Wednesday night as Brian took a drink. Millions of people heard the New York Times' Glenn Thrush say that Flynn "was on the Turkish payroll" during his lobbying days.

As far as we know, no one has ever produced any evidence in support of that imprecise claim. The claim does support the current novel, in which the apparently crazy Flynn is the object of a chase.

At times like these, exciting claims of that type sell newspapers and attract eyeballs. They don't produce a well-informed public. We can't have it all, it would seem.

Was Michael Flynn "on the Turkish payroll" during his overpaid days? We know of exactly zero evidence in support of that exciting claim.

Today, though, we stand to examine another claim—a thrilling claim which is plainly "technically accurate." We stand to examine the claim that Flynn worked as a "foreign agent" during his overpaid days—a thrilling claim which is technically accurate and also the source of much mischief.

The apparently crazy Michael Flynn worked as a foreign agent! This thrilling claim, which is technically accurate, has spawned other thrilling claims in the past few months.

On Wednesday night, it spawned the apparently inaccurate claim that he was "on the payroll of Turkey." Just last week, it spawned the claim, in a New York Times news report, that he "secretly work[ed] as a paid lobbyist for Turkey during the campaign."

Flynn was a "secret agent man!" To enjoy Johnny Rivers' 1966 hit of that name, you can just click here.

Today, let's explore that exciting "Flynn fact." Did the apparently crazy Flynn work as a foreign agent?

Technically, yes, he did. We know that because, on Tuesday, March 7, Flynn belatedly registered as a "foreign agent" under terms of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Needless to say, this produced a ton of excitement. As of this past week, that excitement had us hearing that Flynn was "on the payroll of Turkey" and had "secretly work[ed] as a paid lobbyist for Turkey," which sounds like much the same thing.

The apparently crazy Flynn worked as a foreign agent! The claim can be said to be technically accurate. For today, let's try to get a bit more clear on what this "Flynn fact" means.

For unknown reasons, the Washington Post and the New York Times didn't report Flynn's registration until Saturday morning, March 11. At the Post, Ashley Parker's front-page report started like this:
PARKER (3/11/17): Attorneys for Michael Flynn, President Trump's former national security adviser, informed the incoming White House legal counsel during the transition that Flynn might need to register with the government as a foreign agent—a phone call that raised no alarms within Trump's team, despite the unusual circumstance of having a top national security post filled by someone whose work may have benefited a foreign government.

The firm Flynn headed, Flynn Intel Group, was hired last year during the presidential race when Flynn was an adviser to the Trump campaign by the Netherlands-based firm Inovo BV,
which is owned by Turkish businessman Ekim Alptekin. Alptekin has close ties to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Although the contract ended after the election, new details about the work Flynn did for Inovo resurrect the controversy over his short tenure as Trump's top national security aide.

The national security adviser is supposed to be an honest broker within the executive branch, pulling together military and diplomatic options for the president so he can decide what policy to pursue. But Flynn's work potentially benefiting Turkey meant he was representing the interests of a country other than the United States at the same time he was advising Trump on foreign policy during the election.
As is often the case with Parker's work, we're already in the conceptual weeds. Consider:

Parker notes that Flynn was hired by a "Netherlands-based firm," not by the Turkish government. (At the time, the firm's owner was said to be Turkish, not Turkish American, as he's described in this morning's Post.)

Parker says that Flynn's work "may have benefited a foreign government," not that it was done on behalf of a foreign government. She says Flynn's work "potentially benefit[ed] Turkey," not that it did benefit Turkey and not that it was done at the direction of Turkey.

But uh-oh! In the same breath, Parker says that Flynn "was representing the interests of a country other than the United States" through his overpaid lobbyist work. That makes it sound like the apparently crazy Trump adviser was working for the Turkish government, or something very much like that.

Already, we were in the weeds; Parker tends to be like this. As time goes on in a matter like this, you'd almost think that major journalists would try to bring more clarity to the discussion.

Pollyanna, please! That isn't the way our "journalism" works when a chase is on.

Parker's basic formulations here were rather muddy. Before long, she added this:
PARKER: On Tuesday, Flynn filed paperwork with the Justice Department identifying himself as a foreign agent who was paid last year to do work that could benefit the Turkish government.
Flynn had been paid to do work "that could benefit the Turkish government?" Do you understand what that means? Frankly, we do not.

Parker tends to be like this. Soon, though, she authored some surprising remarks—remarks which have gone down the memory hole as the chase has continued.

Hay-yo! Parker discussed the law under terms of which Flynn had registered as a "foreign agent." Breaking every rule in the book, she introduced a bit of nuance, even the hint of information:
PARKER: Dan Pickard, a partner at Wiley Rein and an expert in the Foreign Agents Registration Act, under which Flynn registered, said it is unusual but not unheard of for a senior campaign official to also be registered as an agent of a foreign government.

"I've been aware of people who are registered under FARA being involved at relatively senior levels of a campaign,
but in my experience that's more the exception than the rule,'' said Pickard, adding that the legal burden of complying with FARA "is relatively modest.''

FARA was passed in the run-up to World War II as a means of making pro-Germany activists acknowledge whether they were receiving financial support from that country.

For some in Washington, the political appearance of being a paid agent of a foreign government can be more problematic than the actual legal issues, according to others well versed in the law.
Is Parker allowed to do that? She quoted an expert who said it's "not unheard of for a senior campaign official to also be registered as an agent of a foreign government."

It's "more the exception than the rule," the expert unremarkably said. But he's been aware of this in the past!

The expert's comments made this matter sound a bit less nefarious. Meanwhile, though, did you notice what happened there?

In that passage, it suddenly sounds like Flynn has "registered as an agent of a foreign government." But when did Parker ever show that Flynn had done that?

This jumbled work is very typical of our floundering "press corps." For today, let's try to get clear on what a "foreign agent" actually is under terms of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, hereafter known as FARA.

We aren't experts about that act, but we do have access to Google. For that reason, we were able to visit FARA's web site, where we were able to peruse the act's basic provisions.

The basic fact you should know is this. If a person registers as a foreign agent under terms of the FARA, he is not necessarily declaring that he worked for a foreign government. The FARA site starts like this:
FARA SITE: The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) was enacted in 1938. FARA is a disclosure statute that requires persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities. Disclosure of the required information facilitates evaluation by the government and the American people of the statements and activities of such persons in light of their function as foreign agents.
You see a reference to "foreign principals," not to foreign governments. But doesn't that mean "foreign governments?"

We're sorry, but no, it doesn't. Here's an official Q-and-A from the FARA site:

The term also includes foreign political parties, a person or organization outside the United States, except U.S. citizens, and any entity organized under the laws of a foreign country or having its principal place of business in a foreign country.
In registering as a "foreign agent," the apparently crazy Flynn wasn't saying that he'd worked for a foreign government. Unless you're exempt under certain provisions, you have to register if you worked for a wide array of foreign entities or persons.

Back in the fall of 2016, Flynn had registered as a lobbyist under terms of the Lobbying Disclosure Act. It seems that he and his lawyers were later convinced that they had to register under the stricter terms of the FARA. Belatedly, they did so on March 7.

At that time, Flynn's lawyer made several murky statements about the technical reasons requiring this registration. One such statement has been quoted at various times, but no one has actually tried to explain the legalities of this matter. Things like that simply aren't done when a chase is on. As Journalists Ken and Barbie once said, "Explanation is hard."

We're making a small tiny point here. In registering as a "foreign agent" under terms of the FARA, Flynn wasn't saying that he had worked "on the payroll of Turkey."

On the other hand, he had associated himself with a wonderfully scary term. As Parker had murkily seemed to say, this can create "the political appearance of being a paid agent of a foreign government." And indeed: at times like this, when a chase is on, the actors who are cast as our "press corps" will have a grand old time with that term. Everyone will gain from this, except the American public.

Several times, we've mentioned the fact that Flynn is apparently crazy, with lots of semi-crazy ideas. We've done so for a reason.

At times like these, the haplessness of our liberal world tends to get exposed. In a wide array of contexts, we don't explore the crazy ideas of our political opponents.

Instead, we look for ways to say that our opponents have committed crimes. Either that, or we run to the courts, begging them to give us the wins we can't achieve on the ground.

In the case of Flynn, the press corps got busy embellishing the facts involved in his registration. "Foreign agent" sounds especially scary, so the phrase gets repeated a lot. The clowns you see on cable TV were soon repeating inaccurate claims, including the wonderful claim that Flynn was "on the Turkish payroll."

At times like this, few attempts are made to develop real facts. Instead, we're handed pleasing partisan novels.

We liberals have little skill at winning political debates. Rather than confront this problem, we tend to pray that The Others will get into legal trouble.

We're thrilled when a GOP candidate body-slams a reporter; it might let us win a campaign! We exult when the criminal figures behind the screen instruct our hapless newspapers to print the claim that Jared Kushner is now a "person of interest." However murky this claim may be, it lets us suggest that he is involved in crimes.

We love love love love love that stuff! We love it because we're lazy and dumb and are thereby born to lose.

To what extent are we inclined to play it this way? Consider:

Yesterday, two "stories" emerged about Kushner.

In an investigation for the New York Times Magazine and ProPublica, Alec MacGillis presented horrific facts about Kushner's life as a giant slumlord. Also, shadowy figures behind a screen directed our newspapers to print a fuzzy claim about an investigation in which Kushner is now said to be a "person of interest."

In the latter case, those shadowy figures were coming close to conducting a smear of Kushner. In the former case, dogged reporting showed that Kushner had engaged in widespread reprehensible conduct.

Which of these topics was being bruited all over "cable news" last night? Dearest darlings, please!

With compliments to the Times editorial board, did you have to ask?


  1. Here is the bottom line:

    "Today, let's explore that exciting "Flynn fact." Did the apparently crazy Flynn work as a foreign agent?

    Technically, yes, he did. We know that because, on Tuesday, March 7, Flynn belatedly registered as a "foreign agent" under terms of the Foreign Agents Registration Act."

    All the rest of this ongoing garbage is Somerby's attempt to minimize what is going on in Trump's train wreck of an administration.

    Here is another quote, from Winston Churchill:

    “I decline utterly to be impartial between the fire brigade and the fire.”

    Somerby needs to get past his fixation on whether the letter of the law lets evil doers off the hook and recognize what matters in today's world. The cover adopted by the right to excuse its bad actors does not mean they are innocent. There is no obligation inherent in fair mindedness to adopt their excuses, hook line and sinker.

    1. Somernby really, really needs to take a bath of some sort and to try to take the time to get past the heyday of the all the wrath of which he tries to speaks an invents whether it be through Pygmalion nomenclature or the underbelly of all the ad hominem or the reverse of that OR all of that added up and that and everything outside of that then all put together and divided by rancor. It is only then that I will leave this blog and really get flamed out with Maddow on the porch, know what I am sayin? Or roof or whatever. Lower west side represent.

    2. Anon @ 12:09: I disagree with you that Somerby is "attempting to minimize what is going on." The purpose of this site is to "muse on the mainstream press corps." If you would care to remove your blinders and reread the post Bob is saying that the "journalism" is faulty, to say the least. Preferred narratives are advanced rather than to attempt to find out the facts. Tribal propaganda does not advance our interests.
      Also, Greg, you remind me of the south part of a horse facing north.

    3. Isn't one of the media's biggest mistakes not asking, "Is corruption a problem for you?", to those who wailed about Clinton being corrupt?
      Because it sure doesn't seem like any of them have a problem with corruption.

    4. So, Somerby thinks that the media should obsess over things like what exactly is a foreign agent, in the midst of trying to meet their deadlines and fill their pages (air time)? Somerby has supposedly written for print. He should know what the realities are. There is no universe where media writers will meet the standards of amateur philosophers in answering who, what, where, when, and why. Define your terms isn't on that list and I frankly don't think navel gazing belongs in journalism.

  2. Body slamming a reporter should have disqualified that candidate from public office. Why didn't it? Because liberals are dumb? I don't think so.

    1. Why should that have disqualified the candidate? Was the behavior reprehensible? Yes, and he has been charged with an misdemeanor offense.

    2. It represents an attitude toward our nation's institutions, especially checks and balances, that is incompatible with respect for how government works and for the people (who deserve to know enough about candidates and their decisions as legislators to make good choices at the polls). It marks him as unfit for office, not because he committed an assault but because he assaulted a reporter in the performance of his job. That is akin to assaulting the voters, who have the right to know the answers to the questions asked by such reporters. This is Civics 101.

    3. !non 1:01 -- it didn't disqualify him, because he hasn't been convicted.

    4. There is an audio tape and three witnesses (from Fox News) documenting what happened. Now there is even a confession. He shouldn't have been elected.

    5. I'm with David in Cal on this one. Gianforte is no worse a piece of shit than any other garden variety Republican.

  3. Here's another article along the same lines as Bob's post:

    Trump's Allies, Convicted of High Crimes Without a Trial
    Maybe Flynn committed treason. But so far no one has presented any evidence, just innuendo. That's not justice.

    1. The investigation is ongoing, for heaven's sake. Give it a chance to produce incontrovertible evidence of those crimes. I mean, they investigated Benghazi for years, multiple times, so at least let's wait until there have been 9 investigations into Trump, OK?

    2. Oh, and "Whitewater" took, what, 7 years??

    3. Eli Lake? BWAHAHAHAHAHA!

      Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

  4. When I worked for a Bermuda insurance company, I was technically a consultant. But, if my status had been "employee", I wonder whether I would have been required to register as a "foreign agent"? It never would have occurred to me.

    Anyhow, as Bob points out, the word "agent" has several meanings. An employee of a company or non-profit organization can be considered an "agent" of that organization. But, a "secret agent" is a spy. And that phrase is sometimes shortened to just "agent".

  5. "When I worked for a shell American insurance company dodging their patriot taxes in Bermuda..."

    FIFY, you treasonous bastard.

    1. mm - this company RenaissanceRe was founded in Bermuda. It had no US history. It did reinsurance, which is a world-wide business. In no sense was it a "shell American".

      However, the founder Jim S. is American. I think Jim would have started this company in the US if our corporate tax rate were competitive with Bermuda's.

      Bottom line: We can call people who take advantage of favorable foreign tax rates "treason bastards". Or we can reduce the US corporate rate so as to encourage companies to domicile in the US.

    2. People who choose their residence based on tax rates wouldn't add much value to the American populace. We have already met our quota for shallow money-grubbing jerks.

    3. Anon -- I think the corporate income tax rate is more important than the personal rate when it comes to attracting business. The US has the highest rate in the world - 35%. Bermuda's rate is zero.

    4. US has other things too, like an educated skilled workforce, lots of consumers, good infrastructure, access to investors. Certain kinds of businesses and individuals look for low taxes but serious businesses with real products or services value other things. IBM isn't in Bermuda and they could be anywhere. What do they know that you don't?

    5. You are correct, Corby. There are many advantages for a business to be domiciled in the US. Bermuda OTOH has none of the advantages you list. OTOH there are countries other than the US that do have infrastructure, access to investors, etc., such as much of Europe and Asia.

    6. Comrade DinC, you are a treasonous bastard because you voted for and unconditionally support a treasonous bastard who is manifestly unfit for the high office he holds. You are a treasonous bastard because even in the knowledge that Russia committed an act of war on the US by interfering in our Presidential election you don't give two shits.

      You tell your buddy "Jim" that when that fucker gets into trouble to call the fucking Bermuda Navy to help him out, mr. eye shades.

    7. U.S. companies can pay zero in corporate taxes by not incorporating.
      David in Cal is trying to find a solution for a problem which already has an easy solution available.

  6. "In the latter case, those shadowy figures were coming close to conducting a smear of Kushner. In the former case, dogged reporting showed that Kushner had engaged in widespread reprehensible conduct.

    Which of these topics was being bruited all over "cable news" last night? Dearest darlings, please!"

    Somerby, please. If there was not an ongoing investigation into an autocratic foreign goverment's attempt to manipulate our election, you would have written a ten part series attacking the ProPublica/NY Times Magazine piece for biased reporting instead of calling it "dogged." ( See Bob's series on a ProPublic piece on Tuscaloosa schools in April and May of 2014.)

    You are such a whiny hypocrite.

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