[co-author: Lauryn Hardy*]
On June 7, 2022, the media published a request for search warrant seeking access to the electronic communications of a retired four-star Marine Corps general, General John R. Allen, as part of a criminal investigation into potential violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act ( “FARA”).1 Originally adopted in 1938 but rarely applied until recently, FARA has drawn attention during the last years as the US Department of Justice (“DOJ”) has increasingly engaged in high-profile prosecutions and investigations. This most recent investigation signals the DOJ’s willingness to aggressively investigate and convict individuals in connection with FARA cases and, in the future, that the DOJ may begin investigating other activities covered by the law in the broad sense.
The Foreign Agents Registration Act
FARA requires agents of foreign principals who engage in certain political or public relations activities in the United States to register with the DOJ. Activities covered include overt political activities, such as attempts to influence government officials or the public on matters of public policy, but also less overt activities, such as the dissemination of information for or in the interest of a foreign principal, or the solicitation or distribution of funds within the United States on behalf of the foreign principal. Although there are a number of exemptions available to excuse registration in certain circumstances, FARA’s scope remains broad. Failure to register when required by law subjects a person or company to civil penalties and, if the conduct was willful, to criminal penalties.
General Allen’s investigation
The warrant application provides rare public insight into an ongoing criminal investigation. As noted in the warrant request, the government’s investigation appears to be quite advanced, as the government has conducted interviews with members of Congress and other US government officials, obtained documents through subpoenas a grand jury and obtained guilty pleas from two of the main participants in the investigation. alleged lobbying effort. The warrant application alleges that General Allen and others engaged in covert political activity by lobbying US officials on behalf of the Qatari government without registering with the DOJ, as required by FARA.
In 2017, Qatar was in the midst of an economic dispute with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates over alleged Qatari support for Hamas and other militant groups.2 At the time, the Trump administration reportedly supported Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates over Qatar, but all three asked for US support.3 According to the warrant application, a business executive named Imaad Zuberi sought to influence American political opinion in favor of Qatar.4 To do so, Zuberi reportedly called on former US Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan, Richard G. Olson.5 Zuberi reportedly hired General Allen to meet with Qatari and American officials, including members of Congress and then White House security adviser HR McMaster, to bolster American support for the Qataris.6 According to the warrant request, General Allen did not disclose that he was paid by Qatar to meet with these officials.seven
The warrant application further alleges that General Allen provided a ‘false version of events’ when questioned by law enforcement in 2020 and failed to produce relevant email messages in response to a subpoena. to appear before a grand jury. These allegations probably explain why the government is asking for a search warrant in this case. A statement released by General Allen’s spokesman said General Allen had done nothing improper or illegal.8
Zuberi has previously pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 years for violating FARA, tax evasion, illegal campaign contributions and obstruction of justice.9 Similarly, Olson recently pleaded guilty in June 2022 to unlawful lobbying on behalf of Qatar.ten The government investigation into General Allen is ongoing.
Increase in FARA enforcement practices
The revival of FARA cases began with the special counsel investigation and conviction of former Trump campaign officials Paul Manafort and Richard Gates, but more recent FARA cases, such as General Allen’s investigation, indicate that the law becomes a mainstay of the DOJ’s enforcement landscape. The investigation into alleged lobbying by senior US officials on behalf of the Qatari government involves the quintessential national security concerns that FARA was designed to address. However, FARA is broader than just cases reaching out to foreign lobbying campaigns designed to influence US foreign policy. Indeed, the wide scope of the law extends to a number of ordinary activities that persons or companies with foreign employers, business partners or parent entities could carry out without a second thought in the absence of the foreign party.
Although the bulk of FARA’s criminal activity to date appears to be focused on cases with larger national security implications, companies and individuals involved in foreign affairs should ensure that their activities do not s do not deviate from the scope covered by FARA, unless one of the law’s exemptions (such as the commercial or registered lobbying exemptions) applies. As FARA becomes a more regular tool in prosecutors’ toolkits, it becomes more likely that the government will push the boundaries of the law and use FARA more aggressively in future cases.
*Lauryn Hardy is a summer associate in the Washington office of Vinson & Elkins.
1Mark Mazzetti and David D. Kirkpatrick, Retired general investigated over undisclosed lobbying for QatarNY Times (June 7, 2022), https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/07/us/politics/general-john-allen-lobbying-qatar.html [hereinafter “NYT Article”].
2Request for a warrant by telephone or other reliable electronic means at 14-15, in the matter of finding information stored in the iCloud account associated with DSID/Apple account number 1338547227 and/or email address -email [email protected] at Apple Inc., One Apple Parkway, Cupertino, CA 95014, No. 2:22-MJ-1530 (CD Cal. April 15, 2022) [hereinafter “Warrant Application”].
4Warrant request at 10−11.
sevenIdentifier. at 22−23.
8Alan Suderman and Jim Mustian Brookings furloughs retired general amid FBI investigationAP News (8 June 2022), https://apnews.com/article/qatar-middle-east-persian-gulf-tensions-lobbying-government-and-politics-8c660b2906a0311228c59c4f539fae57.
9Press Release, Department of Justice, Political Donor Sentenced to 12 Years for Crimes of Lobbying and Campaign Contribution, Tax Evasion, and Obstructing Justice, (February 18, 2021), https://www.justice.gov /opa/pr/politic-donor-sentenced-12-years-prison-lobbying-and-campaign-contribution-crimes-tax.
tenSpencer S. Hsu, US ex-diplomat pleads guilty in Qatar lobbying plot, appoints generalWashington Post (3 June 2022), https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2022/06/03/richard-olson-qatar-lobbying-allen/.