The US is turning to foreign agent laws to limit Russian influence

During that time, prosecutors have charged five Russians with acting on behalf of the Kremlin without registering as a foreign agent, as the Justice Department banned the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) and a related law known as Code 951 from stricter enforcement.

FARA and 951 allow prosecutors to prosecute broader activities — such as lobbying or media campaigns — than espionage statutes, which target agents seeking classified or military information, experts say.

“The Russian playbook is so much bigger than that,” said David Aaron of the law firm Perkins Coie, a former national security prosecutor.

In the latter case, federal prosecutors in Tampa, Florida, last week charged Russian national Aleksandr Ionov with 951 counts of conspiracy to fund political groups in the United States.

In an interview with Reuters on Tuesday, Ionov – who is in Russia – called the US indictment “complete nonsense” and a “political decision”.

The charges against the Russians come as US prosecutors increasingly use the two anti-foreign influence laws, which they previously rarely used, against a range of suspects.

Since 2018, the United States has charged 52 people — including Russian, Chinese and American citizens — with violating or conspiring to violate FARA, 951, or both, according to a Reuters analysis of Justice Department filings and reports from seven major district courts. In the previous six-year period, only 13 people were charged under these laws, the analysis shows.

Of the 52 people, 13 have since pleaded guilty, including Maria Butina, a Russian student who admitted to the 951 conspiracy in 2018 by trying to create back channels between Moscow and Republican politicians.

Other defendants include Thomas Barrack – a fundraiser for former President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign – who will be indicted next month on charges under 951 for illegal lobbying in the United Arab Emirates. Barrack pleaded not guilty.

Federal prosecutors have also charged several alleged Chinese agents this year and in 2020. Some have pleaded not guilty and others remain at large.

The Ministry of Justice declined to comment. Russia has denied meddling in the US election, calling its campaign in Ukraine a “special military operation”. The Russian Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

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Section 951 was passed as part of the Espionage Act of 1917 – enacted in part to combat resistance to conscription in World War I – and criminalizes acting as a foreign agent without notifying the US attorney general. While the law was previously mainly used against traditional espionage, the cases brought in recent years have targeted lobbying and influence activities.

FARA was enacted in 1938 to counter Nazi propaganda. It stipulates that foreign lobbyists must register with the Ministry of Justice. Prosecutors have brought a handful of FARA cases in the postwar period; in recent decades, they have been wary of bringing charges under an unrevised law, experts say.

But in 2019, a Justice Department official told a legal conference that prosecutors would focus more on FARA in a “major shift https://www.reuters.com/article/usa-trump-lobbying-idINKCN1QO097 spurred by Russia’s alleged interference in presidential election in 2016.

“For national security issues, FARA has become one of the first tools out of the bag,” said Matthew Sanderson of Caplin & Drysdale.

Besides Ionov, other Russians recently indicted are Aleksandr Babakov – a Russian member of parliament with ties to Vladimir Putin – and two of his associates. They were accused in April of hiring advisers to lobby members of the US Congress to represent Russia’s interests.

Babakov directed an unnamed U.S. agent to invite a U.S. congressman to a 2017 conference in Yalta sponsored by the U.S.-sanctioned leader of Crimea, prosecutors said. The unnamed congressman did not attend the convention.

Babakov could not be reached for comment.

In March, prosecutors charged Elena Branson, a U.S.-Russian dual citizen, with violating 951 and FARA by accepting $170,000 in Russian government funds to organize an “I Love Russia” campaign for American youth. She also lobbied Hawaii officials not to change the name of a former Russian fortress, prosecutors said.

In an October 2021 interview with Russian state broadcaster RT following her return to Russia, Branson said she did not communicate with American politicians. In a March 8 Facebook post, the Russian Embassy in Washington called the allegations against Branson “baseless.”

Branson, Babakov and Ionov are believed to be in Russia.

They are unlikely to be arrested by U.S. authorities, but charging fugitives is a message to Moscow to prevent further activity, said Brandon Van Grack, a partner at Morrison Foerster and former head of the DOJ’s FARA unit.

“It’s a way to deter the other government — to say, ‘Look, we know what you’re doing here, stop it,'” he said.

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