Foreign Agents Registration Act

Amidst concerns over Russian interference in the U.S. Presidential election, several bills have been introduced into the U.S. Congress to strengthen the enforcement of the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), a historically rarely enforced 1938 statute. Although these bills are well-intentioned, strengthening enforcement of FARA without first better targeting the Act’s sweeping and vague provisions would likely have significant negative effects for civil society.

As currently written, the Act could catch a range of legitimate and beneficial activities of non-profits and philanthropy. Such activities arguably could include:

  •  a U.S. nonprofit acting at the request of an international non-profit to host a public meeting to release an advocacy report;

  • an international nonprofit dispensing hurricane relief in the U.S.;

  • a U.S. nonprofit simply having a foreigner on their board of directors.

Registering as a “foreign agent” with the Department of Justice is both burdensome and stigmatizing for non-profits. At the same time, the vague language in the current Act creates the possibility for selective and politicized enforcement. Indeed, over the past decade, the world has seen a rising tide of “foreign agent” laws that target civil society and voices of dissent. Governments in these countries have frequently cited to FARA for justification of their own laws.  


Open Letter to Congress Concerning Foreign Agents Registration Act (2018) Signed by 46 humanitarian and development organizations expressing concern over ramping up enforcement of FARA without better targeting the Act. Also see, accompanying FAQ to the open letter.

The Danger of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) to Civil Society in the United States and Abroad (2018): A two-page ICNL briefer on the potential negative effects on non-profits of increasing enforcement of FARA and proposed fixes.

FARA’s Double Life Abroad (2017): A short ICNL report on how FARA has been used to justify restrictive “foreign agent” in other countries.  

Aid Barriers and the Rise of Philanthropic Protectionism (2015): An article by Doug Rutzen in the International Journal of Not-for-Profit Law on the rise of restrictions on foreign funding in nations around the world. The Department of Justice’s website on FARA. It includes the Act itself, regulations, and FAQs among other information.

FARA’s Effect on Nonprofits in the Media

Timothy Cama, Republicans target green groups over foreign ties, The Hill, June 27, 2018

Evan Halper, Is that environmental group a pawn of Beijing? Nonprofits wary of being branded ‘foreign agents’, LA Times, June 14, 2018

Andy Segedin, House Seeks Explanation on NRDC, China Connection, Nonprofit Times, June 7, 2018

Nick Robinson and Doug Rutzen, The Unintended “Foreign Agents”, Just Security, March 22, 2018

Andy Segedin, Nonprofits Face “Foreign Agent” Tag, The NonProfit Times, Jan. 16, 2018

Pending FARA-Related Legislation

House Bill 4170 (Johnson), Senate Bill 2482 (Feinstein/Cornyn), Senate Bill 2039 (Grassley), Senate Bill 625 (Shaheen/Young), Senate Bill 1679 (Duckworth), HR 585 (DeFazio), HR 2811 (Cicilline), HR 5354 (Moultan), Senate Bill 2583 (Rubio), HR 5336 (Wilson), HR 6010 (Smith), HR 6248 (Kaptur), Senate Bill 3274 (Bennet), and HR 6533 (Sarbanes).

ICNL’s work on FARA is part of its U.S. initiative

For more information contact: Nick Robinson at