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The scandal embroiling Washington’s most venerable think tank, explained

Why the president of the Brookings Institution, retired Gen. John Allen, has resigned.

Brookings Institution president John Allen, seen in 2018, speaking at an economic policy event at the think tank in Washington, DC.
Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Jonathan Guyer covers foreign policy, national security, and global affairs for Vox. From 2019 to 2021, he worked at the American Prospect, where as managing editor he reported on Biden’s and Trump's foreign policy teams.

Few research institutes in Washington command as much respect as the Brookings Institution. It’s where a visiting head of state may deliver a lecture, where an administration official might roll out a new policy idea, and where former US leaders hold prestigious fellowships. More than 20 of the think tank’s experts have gone on to serve in the Biden administration.

And yet, over the weekend, Brookings president John Allen resigned after a federal investigation into his alleged unregistered lobbying work for a foreign country became public.

For Washington observers, it was a stunning fall. Allen had long carried an air of impartiality and public service. After an almost four-decade career in the Marines, he retired as a four-star general in 2013 and joined Brookings as a fellow. In 2014, President Barack Obama appointed him as the State Department special envoy for the global coalition countering the Islamic State.

By 2017, Allen was again a private citizen and working at Brookings. He also, according to a US District Court filing made public last week, was allegedly lobbying top officials in President Donald Trump’s administration on behalf of Qatar. He did not register as a foreign lobbyist as required under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Spokesperson Beau Phillips denied that Allen had ever worked as an agent of the Qatari government. “Gen. Allen has actively and voluntarily cooperated with all U.S. government inquiries related to this matter,” Phillips said in a written statement.

If the FBI’s allegations are correct, Allen’s conduct crossed lines — legal ones. But it was only possible in a world where similar, albeit less explicitly transactional, connections are normalized.

The scandal surrounding Allen’s resignation reveals how foreign and corporate interests have a bigger role in policy-idea production than we tend to realize, and how relatively little scrutiny the capital’s think tanks receive despite their outsize influence in policymaking.

What we know about the investigation into Allen’s alleged unregistered lobbying

Last week, the Associated Press reported on a court filing that brought an incident from five years ago into the public eye: The FBI is investigating Allen for reportedly lobbying the Trump administration and Congress on behalf of Qatar. The court filing appears to have accidentally been posted online, and the New York Times later published it in full. The allegations are explosive. “As requested by Qatari government officials, Allen corresponded with, met with, and successfully lobbied U.S. Executive Branch officials in the United States to release public statements sought by Qatar,” according to the filings.

Allen’s potentially illegal work occurred soon after Trump made his first trip abroad to Saudi Arabia. Galvanized by Trump, the kingdom banded together with the United Arab Emirates and other Arab partners in June 2017 to blockade the neighboring country of Qatar. The United States works closely with Gulf states (despite none of them being democracies), and the feud made it an awkward balancing act for US policymakers. The embargo of Qatar became particularly sensitive given that the small, wealthy country hosts a US military base.

The court filing alleges that Allen had been tapped by two unregistered representatives of Qatar — a business executive named Imaad Zuberi and a former US ambassador to the UAE, Richard Olson — to advocate on Qatar’s behalf. (That Olson used the email address, a reference to the seedy Rick’s Cafe in the film Casablanca and the airport code for Dubai, might have been a tip-off that no one should be shocked that something was awry.)

When Trump’s national security adviser H.R. McMaster spoke at a Brookings event, per the court filings, Allen talked to McMaster about Qatar in the holding room and then followed up via his Brookings email address, apparently without disclosing a financial relationship he had with Qatari agents. Allen was flown to Qatar to meet with the country’s emir and senior officials. For the work, Allen arranged a “speaking fee” of $20,000, though no speech was delivered, and the prospect of long-term compensation. This apparently occurred before he became president of the institution in November 2017.

The court filings say that Allen knowingly concealed information from federal investigators about the nature of his relationship with Qatar and did not share requested emails with the FBI, including the one about the speaker’s fee. He also sought to advance the interests of two companies where he served as a board member — the Texas-based artificial intelligence company SparkCognition and the Israeli software maker Fifth Dimension — by introducing them to potential business in Qatar.

His spokesperson said in a statement, “General Allen took these actions because he believed it was in the U.S. military’s and U.S. government’s interest to help avoid a war breaking out in a region with thousands of U.S. troops potentially at risk.”

“The integrity and objectivity of Brookings’s scholarship constitute the institution’s principal assets, and Brookings seeks to maintain high ethical standards in all its operations,” the co-chairs of its board, Glenn Hutchins and Suzanne Nora Johnson, wrote in an email to staff. “Our policies on research independence and integrity reflect these values.”

On Sunday, Allen resigned from the think tank, saying in his resignation letter that it was “best for all concerned in this moment.”

Think tanks hold great stature — and deserve more scrutiny

There are many dynamics in the Allen story. Politico emphasized the routine nature of old generals selling out, the Quincy Institute’s Eli Clifton and Ben Freeman spotlighted the role of foreign funding in Washington think tanks, and journalist Mattathias Schwartz has previously investigated the bagman Zuberi, who at one point claimed he was working for the CIA.

One central question is whether this scandal will prompt any broader reckoning with the way policy ideas are generated in the nation’s capital.

Washington think tanks hold a kind of implicit authority. They are scholars without students or classrooms, and they regularly brief policymakers. An annual report from 2017 says, “Brookings scholars have regular and direct interactions with policymakers and White House staff members across regional and functional areas of responsibility.”

Think tank experts are quoted on TV, radio, and news sites, including Vox. There’s good reason for that: At their best, think tanks translate complicated research into actionable policy ideas. They provide expertise on breaking news or global trends that’s accessible to a wide audience.

Think tanks represent a somewhat unique aspect of the way policy is made in Washington, which is through a marketplace of ideas. It’s a marketplace funded by foreign governments, US government entities, corporations, private foundations, and individual donors — advocates and policy entrepreneurs of all stripes. But the thought is that when the funding sources are sufficiently diversified, the research is independent and impartial.

The issue then is that, despite its influence, the think tank industry has received relatively little examination. Tufts professor Daniel Drezner has pointed out in an academic article that “think tanks are less heavily regulated than more traditional forms of political spending, such as campaign contributions and lobbying members of Congress.” Drezner noted that “the percentage of cash donations from foreign governments to Brookings nearly doubled between 2005 and 2014.” The think tank hosted a Middle East research center in Doha for 14 years, and stopped receiving funding from Qatar in 2019 after reportedly receiving more than $14 million from the country.

We know that information because Brookings does well on the transparency ledger, and it annually publishes its donor roll. But this is about more than Brookings.

All of this is part of how foreign interests contribute to the policy ideas in Washington and, in particular, a battle that has been fought between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. In 2016, Max Fisher documented for Vox Saudi’s vast influence in the capital. And hacked emails shared with the Intercept showed how the Center for New American Security in 2016 produced private policy reports for the UAE ambassador to the US, Yousef Otaiba.

Since Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, some Washington institutions have distanced themselves from the kingdom and from Gulf funding more generally. Brookings stopped taking Saudi funding, and the progressive Center for American Progress stopped taking Emirati funding. But as nonprofits seek to diversify donors, foreign funding remains a cornerstone of some think tanks’ budgets.

One way that think tanks can address the potential taint of foreign funding is, as the Quincy Institute’s Eli Clifton has put forward, advocating for radical transparency. In a recent interview, he said that think tankers should disclose their funding with each of their publications, just as academics and scientific researchers are expected to.

Sarah Leah Whitson, who directs the advocacy group Democracy for the Arab World Now that Khashoggi founded before he was killed, says the Allen affair is a symptom of a much broader problem of foreign governments influencing US foreign policy, with former policymakers being implicated in the process.

“It’s a direct financial interest of their own career prospects when they leave government,” she told me. “It has undermined faith in our most senior government officials responsible for the most important national security protection of our country, who we now just suspect are counting on where their bread is going to be buttered when they leave office.”

Though some of its senior fellows are associated with Democratic administrations, Brookings is middle-of-the-road and bipartisan. It was founded in 1916, and a recent press release says that it has provided foreign policy or national security personnel to every administration since FDR. “The most important asset of every think tank is its reputation,” wrote the late researcher James McGann, who monitored think tanks as part of the Global Go To Think Tank Index Report, and consistently ranked Brookings toward the top.

As Brookings president, Allen phased out donations from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. He worked with the board to establish new criteria for foreign funders, “which placed emphasis on democracy,” according to a person familiar with internal deliberations who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“In 2019, Brookings undertook a review of its policies on foreign funding to reinforce the institution’s full commitment to research independence,” a Brookings spokesperson wrote by email. “As a result, foreign donors are subject to an enhanced review that includes, but is not limited to, the funder’s democratic status.”

That accomplishment will now likely be lost to this unfolding investigation.

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