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Research Report

AGENT OF INFLUENCE: Should Russia’s RT Register as a Foreign Agent?

Elena Postnikova
Foreword by Alina Polyakova
Copyright Date: Aug. 1, 2017
Published by: Atlantic Council
Pages: 30
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Table of Contents

  1. (pp. 2-2)
    Alina Polyakova

    RT (formerly Russia Today) is a tool of Russian political influence, designed to spread disinformation and undermine Western values around the world. Since its creation in 2005, this Russian state media outlet has broadcasted purposely misleading information about key events, propagated unfounded conspiracy theories, and presented lies as facts. Over the last twelve years, the Russian government has invested significant resources into growing its “disinformation ecosystem,” in which RT plays an important role alongside bot armies, troll factories, the Kremlin-funded Sputnik, and other fly-by-night “news” sites. The January 2017 US intelligence report that assessed Russian influence operations during the presidential...

  2. (pp. 3-3)

    The declassified US intelligence report on Russian interference in the 2016 US elections found that Russia implemented a multifaceted influence campaign. It combined “disclosures of data obtained through Russian hacking operations; intrusions into U.S. state and local electoral boards; and overt propaganda.”² Russia’s state-run propaganda machine is comprised of its domestic media, international television (TV) channel RT and news agency Sputnik, and a network of quasi-government trolls.³ The intelligence community assessed that, in trying to influence the US election, “the Kremlin sought to advance its longstanding desire to undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order,” which Russian President Vladimir Putin views...

  3. (pp. 4-4)

    The Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 requires that every person acting as an “agent of a foreign principal,”⁷ unless otherwise exempt, must register with the Attorney General within ten days of being engaged and before performing any work as such an agent.8 The term “agent of a foreign principal” specifically excludes any US news organization or foreign media organizations engaged in bona fide news or journalistic activities in the United States, provided that specific requirements, discussed infra, are met.9

    A registered foreign agent must submit periodic disclosures outlining his/her agreements with the foreign principal, disclose income from and expenditures...

  4. (pp. 5-5)

    RT, formerly known as “Russia Today,” is a Kremlin-funded 24-hour news network that broadcasts in English, Spanish, and Arabic and claims to have a global reach of 700 million people in more than 100 countries.20 In the United States, it is available via satellite, cable, and internet streaming, and claims to be among the top five of the most watched international TV channels with a weekly audience of more than eight million.21

    “Russia Today” and “RT” are both public names for the legal entity ANO “TV-Novosti,” which was established in 2005 by Russia’s 100 percent state-owned news agency RIA Novosti.22...

  5. (pp. 6-10)

    In order to compel someone to register under FARA, the government needs to present evidence that this person (1) acts “at order, request, or under direction or control, of a foreign principal”; and (2) engages in “political activities in the interest of its foreign principal.”36 The critical threshold question under FARA is whether a foreign principal directs or controls the person in question. As set forth below, RT’s opaque corporate structure obscures who actually decides its management and editorial policy, so RT could deny that the news organization is controlled by the Russian government within the meaning of FARA. However,...

  6. (pp. 11-11)

    The vast majority of foreign media organizations, even state-owned, operate in the United States legally without having to register as agents. The act specifically excludes “any news or press service” engaged in any “bona fide news or journalistic activities,” so long as it is at least 80 percent beneficially owned by citizens of the United States and “not owned, directed, supervised, controlled, subsidized, or financed, and none of its policies are determined by any foreign principal.”79

    RT most likely would not qualify to be exempt from registration as a bona fide media organization. First, the entity that operates RT, ANO...

  7. (pp. 12-13)

    If the United States were to enforce FARA against RT, Russia would likely respond with high-profile allegations of double standards in the US commitment to freedom of speech.81 RT might also bring a lawsuit in the US courts challenging the registration requirement. In public and in court, RT would claim that the US government fears RT’s popularity and influence as an alternative to the mainstream media, and therefore seeks to silence the news organization.82 However, these are not good reasons to avoid enforcement of registration and compelling disclosure.

    RT’s First Amendment arguments are likely to be dismissed. FARA’s constitutionality is...

  8. (pp. 14-15)

    While FARA provides tools to expose RT as an agent of a foreign principal, the fact that RT has not yet registered may be indicative of gaps in the administration and enforcement of the act. Such gaps were highlighted by the DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General in the Audit of the National Security Division’s Enforcement and Administration of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (OIG Report).101 The OIG Report emphasized a number of deficiencies in the DOJ’s administration of the act, including the lack of a comprehensive FARA enforcement strategy, poor control and oversight of FARA registration, and the infrequency...

  9. (pp. 16-16)

    The Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 was adopted in response to what Congress regarded as an information war against the American people. Despite the desire to protect the public from conversion, confusion, and deceit, Congress did not restrain the adversary’s attempts to distribute information. Instead, it required the speakers to identify themselves and disclose the nature of their activities, in order to enable the public to better judge the truthfulness of their materials.

    At a minimum, RT’s activities warrant a thorough investigation by the Department of Justice. Strong evidence supports a conclusion that Russia’s RT is owned, controlled, and...

  10. (pp. 17-17)

    Grant the DOJ National Security Division civil investigative demand authority to compel production of records from potential and current registrants and obtain responses to written interrogatories and oral testimony.

    Create an affirmative duty for persons whose activities trigger registration requirement to inform the DOJ that they intend to rely on a particular exemption and present sufficient evidence that the exemption applies.

    Require lobbyists representing foreign interests and registered under the Lobbying Disclosure Act to make additional disclosures confirming that they represent foreign commercial rather than government or political interests, particularly with respect to interests of foreign government-owned, financed, or subsidized...