Protecting democracy: Modernizing the Foreign Agents Registration Act - AEI



Event Summary

On April 17, AEI and the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School convened a group of experts to discuss the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), an important tool designed to safeguard against foreign influence in the US.

In her introductory remarks, AEI’s Danielle Pletka noted the First Amendment concerns that arise from FARA, including freedom of foreign press reporting in the United States. In response, the Department of Justice’s John Demers argued that, while aspects of FARA are outdated, the statute does not need a complete overhaul to be effective. He explained that FARA is not made to prevent malign influence but to force entities that promote the interests of foreign governments in the US to disclose their actions and intentions.

Covington & Burling’s Robert Kelner disagreed, stating that the language in FARA was unacceptably vague and needed to be updated to reflect 21st-century methods of projecting influence. The Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law’s Claire Finkelstein cautioned against changes to FARA that might prevent legitimate media organizations from operating in the US, but she concluded that more specificity would make the statute more applicable and enforceable in the modern era.

— Lindsey Weiss

Event Description

To say that foreign influence in the United States has dominated today’s political discourse would be an understatement. At the center of this discussion is the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), an important tool designed to safeguard against foreign influence in the US. But FARA, created on the precipice of World War II, is in need of significant modernization to adequately safeguard our democracy.

Please join the American Enterprise Institute and Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School for a discussion on FARA and the steps necessary to make it a more effective tool to correctly identify foreign influence.

Join the conversation on social media with @AEI on Twitter and Facebook.


3:45 PM

4:00 PM

John Demers, Department of Justice
Claire Finkelstein, Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law, University of Pennsylvania Law School
Robert Kelner, Covington & Burling LLP

Danielle Pletka, AEI

4:40 PM

5:00 PM

Event Contact Information

For more information, please contact Lindsey Weiss at [email protected], 202.828.6038.

Media Contact Information

For media inquiries, please contact [email protected], 202.862.5829

Speaker Biographies

John Demers became assistant attorney general for national security on February 22, 2018. In that capacity, he leads the Department of Justice’s efforts to combat national security–related cybercrime, terrorism, and espionage; to enforce export control and sanctions laws; to use the authorities of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act; and to conduct national security review of foreign investments. In November 2018, he was selected to lead the Attorney General’s China Initiative, put in place to counter China’s persistent and aggressive economic espionage, trade secret theft, hacking, and other related crimes. Before rejoining the Department of Justice, Mr. Demers was vice president and assistant general counsel at the Boeing Company, where he held several senior positions including in Boeing Defense, Space, and Security and as lead lawyer and head of international government affairs for Boeing International. From 2006 to 2009, he served on the first leadership team of the National Security Division, first as senior counsel to the assistant attorney general and then as deputy assistant attorney general for the Office of Law & Policy. In addition, he has served in the Office of Legal Counsel and the Office of the Deputy Attorney General. From 2010 to 2017, he taught national security law as an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University Law Center. Mr. Demers worked in private practice in Boston and clerked for Associate Justice Antonin Scalia of the US Supreme Court and Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. He graduated from Harvard Law School and the College of the Holy Cross.

Claire Finkelstein is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Her current research addresses national security law and policy, with a focus on ethical and rule of law issues. In 2012, she founded Penn Law’s Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law, a nonpartisan interdisciplinary institute that seeks to promote the rule of law in modern-day conflict, warfare, and national security. In 2019, she was named senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Dr. Finkelstein is a coeditor (with Jens David Ohlin) of the Oxford Series in Ethics, National Security, and the Rule of Law and a volume editor of its four titles thus far: “Sovereignty and the New Executive Authority” (Oxford University Press, 2018); “Weighing Lives in War” (Oxford University Press, 2017); “Cyber War: Law and Ethics for Virtual Conflicts” (Oxford University Press, 2015); and “Targeted Killings: Law and Morality in an Asymmetrical World” (Oxford University Press, 2012). She is also the editor of “Hobbes on Law” (Ashgate Publishing, 2005). Dr. Finkelstein has briefed Pentagon officials, US Senate staff, and JAG Corps members on various issues in national security law and practice. She is a frequent radio, broadcast, and print commentator and has published op-eds in The New York Times and The Hill.

Robert Kelner is the chair of Covington & Burling LLP’s nationally recognized Election and Political Law Practice Group. He counsels clients on the full range of political law compliance matters and defends clients in civil and criminal law enforcement investigations concerning political activity. He also leads the firm’s prominent congressional investigations practice. Mr. Kelner’s political law compliance practice covers federal and state campaign finance, lobbying disclosure, pay to play, and government ethics laws. His expertise includes the Federal Election Campaign Act, Lobbying Disclosure Act, Ethics in Government Act, Foreign Agents Registration Act, and Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

Danielle Pletka is senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at AEI, where she oversees the Institute’s work on foreign and defense issues. Ms. Pletka writes regularly on national security matters with a special focus on Iran, the Middle East (Syria, Israel, and ISIS), and South Asia. She is also an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. Before joining AEI, Ms. Pletka was a longtime senior professional staff member for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, where she specialized in the Near East and South Asia as the point person on Middle East, Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan. Ms. Pletka has authored, coauthored, and coedited a variety of studies, monographs, and book chapters, including the report “Tehran Stands Atop the Syria-Iran Alliance” (Atlantic Council, 2017); the chapter “America in Decline” in “Debating the Obama Presidency” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016); “America vs. Iran: The Competition for the Future of the Middle East” (AEI, 2014); “Iranian Influence in the Levant, Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan” (AEI, 2012); “Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran” (AEI, 2011); and “Dissent and Reform in the Arab World: Empowering Democrats” (AEI, 2008). A regular guest on television, Ms. Pletka appears frequently on NBC News’ “Meet the Press.” Her broadcast appearances also include CBS News, CNN, C-SPAN, and MSNBC. She has been published in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Hill, and Politico, among other outlets. She has an M.A. from the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a B.A. from Smith College.

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