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Hunting 'foreign agents' in Russia, Israel, and the US

One of the methods used by the Putin regime in Russia to harass and discredit its domestic critics without resorting to open and direct repression is to stigmatize them as 'foreign agents' of the United States and other Western powers. But governments and political establishments in many other countries use exactly the same method. It has recently been adopted with some enthusiasm by the bipartisan political establishment in the United States itself.

True, there is nothing new about stigmatizing domestic political opponents is 'foreign agents'. In the past, however, this practice has been characteristic of wartime rather than times of peace. During World War One, for instance, the Allied Powers perceived Lenin and the Bolsheviks, as well as homegrown socialists like Eugene V. Debs, above all as German agents. Who views them in that light now? But at the time, when the war dominated people's consciousness almost to the exclusion of everything else, it seemed self-evident. Anyone who doubted it was dismissed as naive, if not suspected of being a German agent himself. 

The recent resurgence of concern about Western agents (in Russia) and Russian agents (in the West) is a sign of how close the world has again come to war among the great powers. In this article I focus on the use being made of the 'foreign agent' theme in Russia, Israel, and the USA.


The 'foreign agents NGO law' was passed by the Russian parliament at the end of November 2012. It is described on the Rights in Russia website by Jens Siegert.1 The law stignatizes domestic non-governmental organizations (NGOs) receiving funds from abroad as foreign agents and requires them to register as such, pay a special tax, and indicate in any public statement that they 'operate as a foreign agent' .

In November 2017, after the US Justice Department compelled Russia Today, an international media network controlled by the Russian government, to register as a foreign agent in the United States, Putin signed a new law requiring foreign media outlets in Russia also to register as foreign agents.

An even more offensive term has come into use to refer to Russian citizens who express agreement with the position of Western governments on Crimea and other foreign policy issues -- 'national-traitors' (natsional-predateli). This term first appeared in the speech that Putin delivered to the Russian parliament on March 18, 2014 in connection with the admission of Crimea to the Russian Federation. Natsional-predateli is a new coinage. According to one conjecture, it was derived from the German word Nationalverräter, used by Hitler in Mein Kampf. The new term was immediately picked up by pro-regime commentators.2


In June 2015 MK Bezalel Smotrich of Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home), an extreme nationalist party in the current governing coalition, submitted a bill to the Knesset (parliament) that would have required NGOs receiving funds from abroad to declare the sources of such funds and indicate in all publications and adverisements that they operate with foreign funding. Their representatives would have been required to wear identification tags when visiting the Knesset or meeting with government officials.3

A revised version of the Smotrich bill was passed into law in July 2016. Any NGO receiving more than half its funds from abroad is now required to indicate this fact in any publication or letter to elected officials or civil servants. NGOs falling under the law's purview are listed on a website maintained by the NGO Registrar, indicating the countries from which they received donations.4 The resemblance to the corresponding Russian law is striking -- and perhaps not coincidental.

Although formally the Israeli law applies to all NGOs receiving funds from abroad, the general assumption is that it is aimed against 'leftists,' which in the context of Israeli politics means people who care about the human rights of Palestinians. It is not clear from press reports whether 'rightist' NGOs, which use foreign funds for such purposes as creating new Jewish settlements in the occupied territories or preventing mixed marriages, are registered.

In Israel as in Russia, 'foreign agent' is not the harshest term used to smear critics of the political establishment. Any contact with representatives of 'enemy' organizations -- which before the Oslo Accords included the PLO -- is regarded as evidence of treason. Just meeting the 'enemy' is a crime.    

United States

The legal position

The United States has had a law requiring the registration of 'foreign agents' -- the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) -- ever since 1938. The register is maintained by the FARA Registration Unit of the Counterespionage Section in the National Security Division of the Justice Department. However, the FARA defines the term 'foreign agent' much more narrowly than do the corresponding Russian and Israeli laws -- as a person who represents the interests of a foreign government 'in a political or quasi-political capacity.' Receiving funds from abroad, especially from non-governmental sources, does not suffice to identify someone as a 'foreign agent.'

Amendments made to the FARA in 1966 shifted its focus from propaganda to political lobbying and changed the definition. In one sense the definition was broadened: a 'foreign agent' may represent the interests of any 'foreign principal' -- not necessarily a government. But in other respects the definition became even narrower. The purported agent must be shown to be acting 'at the order or request or under the direction or control' of the foreign principal and engaged 'in political activities for or in the interests' of that principal, including by 'represent[ing] [his] interests ... before any agency or official of the Government of the United States.' This definition is so restrictive that since 1966 there have been no successful criminal prosecutions under the FARA.5

The American law, unlike its Russian and Israeli counterparts, cannot be used against domestic critics because it does not require registration of a media outlet unless it is demonstrably controlled -- and not just partly funded -- by a foreign entity. International media outlets registered as agents of foreign governments include China Daily, NHK Cosmomedia (controlled by the Japanese government), the Korean Broadcasting System (South Korea), and now Russia Today.  

Foreign agents' in political discourse

Thus the legal position in this area does not currently threaten the civil liberties of US citizens. Recenly, however, the theme of 'foreign agents' has acquired salience in American political discourse concerning relations with Russia. Political rivals are condemned as Russian agents merely for talking with representatives of the Russian government or expressing opinions that coincide to some degree with views professed by the Russian government. Conceivably the legal situation too may change for the worse over the medium term.

This is not the place to assess the propriety of dealings that Trump and his associates have had with Russian officials. Unfortunately there is no generally agreed demarcation between permissible and impermissible forms of outside involvement in a country's elections. It might help to negotiate an international treaty to prohibit or at least limit such involvement. Such a treaty would of course constrain all its signatories -- including the United States, which is hardly in a position to complain given its own long history of interference in other countries' elections.6

We should bear in mind that it is not only Trump and his associates who have been accused of acting as 'Russian agents' in connection with the 2016 presidential elections. The Senate Intelligence Committee is also investigating Dr. Jill Stein, leader of the Green Party, for possible 'collusion with the Russians.' The 'evidence' against her is that in 2015 she attended the tenth-anniversary conference ('gala') of Russia Today in Moscow, where she participated in a panel on international relations and sat at the same dinner table as Putin and Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn. A staffer of the committee who worked for Hillary Clinton in 2016 has disseminated multiple tweets to the effect that 'Jill Stein is a Russian agent.'7 No doubt she or he found this intellectually less taxing than trying to respond to Stein's substantive arguments.

The hunters of 'Russian agents' appear to be operating on the assumption that any contact between Americans and Russian officials is illegitimate. The result can only be to increase the isolation of Russia from the outside world, with all its attendant dangers, and to thwart all attempts at citizen diplomacy that might otherwise contribute to improving relations between Russia and the West.         

Internet censorship

The hunt for 'Russian agents' is giving rise to new forms of internet censorship. A special algorithm is now used to censor material posted on Facebook. Suspect websites are being deleted from lists of websites generated by search engines, reducing traffic to the affected sites by up to 75 percent.8 The scope for discrimination against certain kinds of websites is greatly expanded by the recent (December 2017) decision of the Federal Communications Commission to repeal net neutrality rules (unless the decision is reversed). In particular, telecommunications companies are likely to place such sites in the lowest priority category, significantly increasing the time required to access them.

In order to assist anyone seeking to counter websites that 'echo Russian propaganda' a special site has been created at the address (PropOrNot). The anonymous persons responsible for this site describe themselves as 'an independent team of concerned American citizens with a wide range of backgrounds and expertise, including professional experience in computer science, statistics, public policy, and national security affairs.' The centerpiece of the site is a list of (currently) 200 'sites that reliably echo Russian propaganda.'9 Also included are an explanation of the purpose of the site, some information on methods used, definitions, and advice to people wishing to protect themselves from the baneful influence of Russian propaganda.

The information provided on methods used does not suffice for a full critique. Clearly sites that display texts or videos from official or other pro-regime Russian sources will get caught in the net. So will sites that draw directly or indirectly on such sources. What about sites that present arguments similar to arguments found in pro-regime Russian sources but expressed in their own words and without any reference to such sources? The answer is unclear.

My objections

My main objections to these attempts to 'weed out' Russian propaganda are:

1) You cannot reliably identify propaganda solely by examining material and noting the presence or absence of specific markers. You have to conduct an in-depth independent investigation to establish the truth, but that is often infeasible.

2) Propaganda too has value: it often cites true facts and makes valid arguments.

3) Russian propaganda is not the only kind that needs to be guarded against -- there is also Ukrainian propaganda, Zionist propaganda, the propaganda of the Western extablishment, etc.

All possible sources of information, whether judged to contain propaganda or not, should be approached with care and caution. This is consistent with the definition of 'propaganda' given on PropOrNot, which speaks of 'deceptive, selectively-omitting, and one-sided messages (which may or may not be factual).'10 In other words, propaganda does not tell the whole truth but it need not contain lies. I would go further and say that the most effective propaganda contains no lies at all. Lies are too easily exposed. And they are not necessary in order to deceive people. Selective omission can do the job perfectly well on its own. If independent investigation is infeasible, a first approximation to truth can therefore be reached by combining propaganda from opposing sources.

Take as an example the upheaval in Ukraine that overthrew President Yanukovych and set in motion the still continuing conflict in eastern Ukraine. Russian propaganda calls this event a fascist coup; Ukrainian nationalist propaganda, reproduced more or less uncritically in Western establishment media, calls it a popular uprising. My own investigation showed that it was something in between.11 Ukrainian and Western propaganda ignores or downplays the role played by extreme Ukrainian nationalist groups of a semi-fascist character; Russian propaganda exaggerates their role while ignoring the role played by Russian fascist organizations in eastern Ukraine. And so on.


call on the American public ... to obtain news from actual reporters, who report to an editor and are professionally accountable for mistakes. We suggest NPR, the BBC, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Buzzfeed News, VICE, etc. and especially your local papers and local TV news channels.12

This discourages people from using any alternative news sources -- and not just those listed as purveyors of Russian propaganda -- and encourages a largely unjustified trust in the establishment media whose persistent biases have been exposed by numerous researchers.13

The point about the accountability of 'professional' reporters to editors, which is made twice, is irrelevant as well as disingenuous. Many alternative media outlets, including at least some of those blacklisted by PropOrNot, also have editors. And while editors may indeed perform the useful function of correcting reporters' 'mistakes' the opposite scenario is also common -- editors distorting or suppressing truthful reports by journalists so as not to offend owners, advertisers, or other powerful interest groups. Do they really not know this?   

It seems to me reasonable to suspect that the concern about Russian propaganda, while genuine, serves as a pretext for pursuing a more far-reaching goal -- namely, restoring full monopolistic control of the political establishment over the public flow of information. This is done by turning domestic critics into 'foreign agents' -- just as in Russia and Israel.



 1. (November 15, 2013).

 2. See, for instance, Andrei Fursov, 'Tridtsat_’ dnei, kotorye izmenili mir. Ukrainskii krizis, ego podzhigateli i skrytye shifry,' Svobodnaia mysl’, 2014, no. 2, pp. 33-48, available in English as 'Thirty Days That Changed the World: The Ukrainian Crisis, its Instigators and Hidden Codes,' Russian Politics and Law, 2015, v. 53, no. 1, pp. 47-72. Fursov is director of the Institute of Systemic-Strategic Analysis and of the Russian Research Center at Moscow University for the Humanities.

Some nationalist writers -- for example, Mikhail Deliagin, director of the Institute for Problems of Globalization -- call Putin himself a 'national-traitor' ('Krym dlia Rossii -- pervyi shag vozvrashcheniia v Mir,' Svobodnaia mysl’, 2014, no. 2, pp. 97-112; in English: 'Crimea -- The First Step in Russia's Return to the World,' Russian Politics and Law, 2015, v. 53, no. 3, pp. 6-31).

 3. On the Smotrich bill see: Jonathan Lis, 'Rightist MK Wants to "Out" Leftist Israeli NGOs in New Bill,' Ha'aretz, January 17, 2015 (;

 4. On the Israeli law see: Lahav Harkov, 'Israel to Clamp Down on Foreign Funding of NGOs,' The Jerusalem Post, October 15, 2017 (

 5. Wikipedia.

 6. Dr. Dov H. Levin of Carnegie-Mellon University found that since 1945 the US has interfered in foreign elections over eighty times (The Real News, 'Historian: If Russia Meddled, It Was "Average",' July 23, 2017).

 7. The Real News, 'Jill Stein Denounces Probe over "Collusion with Russians",' December 19, 2017.

 8. According to the video sourced in note 7, websites whose traffic has been reduced by 50-75 percent include and (World Socialist Web Site).

 9. The initial list also contained 200 sites, but five were 'removed following constructive conversations with outlet operators' while five others were added.


 11. 'Ukraine: Popular Uprising or Fascist Coup?' at


 13. See, for instance, my analysis of the bias in the way establishment media handled the 'Pizzagate' scandal ('Pizzagate': Pedophilia in High Places?' at or numerous criticisms on of the anti-Palestinian bias in New York Times coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict.     


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