Pakistan’s ‘foreign agents’ in the US

Author: Jahanzaib Ali

Rudy Giuliani, once known as ‘America’s Mayor’ due to his heroic efforts to get New York City back on its feet following the 9/11 attacks, now stands disgraced. Earlier this month, the FBI raided his apartment and office on charges of lobbying for the Ukraine government in the United States. It seems that the former personal attorney to Donald Trump forgot the law when he failed to register as an “agent of foreign principals” with the US Department of Justice. He is not alone. Another Trump man – Michael Flynn, a former National Security Advisor – also found himself in hot water over ‘clandestine’ work for Ankara.

So, what is all the fuss about?

The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) is a United States’ law requiring agents representing the interests of foreign powers in a political or quasi-political capacity to disclose connections with the foreign government in question; while maintaining transparency about related financial activity.

My curiosity having been sparked, I decided to check the number of “foreign agents” lobbying for Pakistan’s interests in Washington. Imagine my surprise when I found none. A quick call to the Pakistan embassy failed to clear up matters, with the media spokesperson asserting: “At present, there are no FARA registered lobbyists working for Pakistan.” This may be true enough, at least technically speaking. Though a follow-up question about those prosecuted in recent times by the US Justice Department was met with the words that every journalist dreads: no comment.

No matter. These are the known facts.

Back in February, a US federal judge sentenced Pakistani-American venture capitalist Immad Zuberi to 12 years in prison for effectively falsifying records to hide his work as an (unregistered) foreign agent while lobbying high-level US officials. He was fined $1.75 million and ordered to pay $15.7 million in restitutions. It has been widely reported that Zuberi was a front-man for a high-profile Pakistani politician, while the latter was both in and out of power.

This is not the first case of its kind.

In 2011, Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai of the Kashmir American Council was charged with “conspiring to act as an agent of the Government of Pakistan without registering under FARA”, according to the official FARA website. However, this was quashed following a plea deal under which Fai agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy to defraud the US government and tax offences. This also saw his initial 24-month prison sentence reduced to 18 months. Fai continues to head the Kashmir American Council, which is committed to working for the self-determination of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. He has always maintained that the non-profit organisation was an independent forum for Kashmiri voices.

The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) is a United States’ law requiring agents representing the interests of foreign powers in a political or quasi-political capacity to disclose connections with the foreign government in question; while maintaining transparency about related financial activity. Unfortunately, Pakistani-Americans are not upholding the law in this regard

Nisar Ahmed Chaudhry’s case is more recent and dates back to 2018. He claimed his Pakistan-American League was focused solely on education. Yet he, too, entered into a plea bargain with the US authorities, in which he admitted to acting (2012-2018) as an agent of the Government of Pakistan to positively influence US foreign policy towards the country. He also pleaded guilty to failing to register as a foreign agent.

Both of these gentlemen pleaded guilty to almost identical charges.

This led me to try and find out if this reflected something bigger. Thus, I checked with dozens of individuals, Pakistani-American think thanks and advocacy groups which were all involved in doing the same sort of work for Islamabad, even though none had registered as foreign agents. Their ‘duties’ include approaching members of Congress as well as institutes known to hold sway over US foreign policy. The aim is always to obtain in-depth information before passing it on to the Pakistani authorities. As one gentleman explained, “We are Americans and are just working to improve the image of Pakistan. So why do we need to register or tag ourselves as foreign agents?” Another Pakistani- American working for Pakistani interests in the US asserted that registration was only required in the event of receiving financial support from Pakistan.

Yet all these groups and the individuals associated with them are in direct competition with each other and are prone to more than the odd bout of mud-slinging. One wonders how this is of benefit to any Pakistan government of the day. This played out more recently when Islamabad initially failed to secure a seat at President Biden’s virtual summit on Climate Change. Each group blamed the others for this gross oversight. Naturally, when Pakistan was belated invited to the powwow – everyone rushed to claim individual credit for this last-minute change of heart.

The embassy in Washington DC as well as all other diplomatic missions across the country are well informed about these groups operate; not least due to the above-mentioned scandals. However, nothing is done to rein them in or instruct them to work in a cohesive manner and in accordance with US law.

Pakistan’s bilateral relationship with the US has long been a fractious one and while each new White House administration comes in with the pledge to reset ties, nothing much materialises on this front. This may explain how, after a six-year hiatus from hiring US lobbying firms to present the country’s ‘case’ to Washington’s political elite – Islamabad bit the bullet and in 2019 signed a two-year contract with Holland and Knight LLP, at a cost of USD 88,500 per month or a total outlay of USD 2.1 million. It is time, therefore, that American-Pakistanis let thing take their official course. There are no shortcuts to diplomacy.

Editor’s note: Daily Times spoke with Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai before going to press. He maintains that he did not work as a ‘foreign agent’ for the Government of Pakistan. However, he does admit to receiving funding from Islamabad, which was not tax deductible even though he concedes that he and his organisation sought tax deduction. He, nevertheless, terms his reduced sentence as evidence of the US ‘voluntarily’ dropping all charges against him

The writer is a Washington-based journalist and author. He has been covering international politics and foreign policy for the last 15 years. He can be reached at jahanzaibali1@gmail.com and tweets@JazzyARY

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