By Petr Svab
The acquittal of a former business partner of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn has the potential to hinder some government attempts to abuse its powers to spy on Americans.
Bijan Rafiekian was acquitted on Sept. 24 of acting as an agent of the Turkish government without informing the U.S. government and two related charges.
In vacating Rafiekian’s conviction, U.S. District Judge Anthony Trenga criticized the prosecutors for broadening the definition of “agent of a foreign government” and sketched a narrower definition.
The case has received some media attention because of Flynn’s short stint as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser. But its repercussions may be significant, as labeling a person a “foreign agent” opens the door for the government to spy on them.
Rafiekian was charged under Section 951, which says that a person who acts as a foreign agent—“agrees to operate within the United States subject to the direction or control of a foreign government or official”—will face up to 10 years in prison unless he or she first informs the Attorney General.
The law has several exceptions, such as for diplomats and people engaged in “a legal commercial transaction”—it’s not supposed to go after people engaged in above-board business with foreign governments.
Yet the government, it appears, found a clever way to make many legal transactions illegal.
The prosecutors argued that violations of the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) can make one liable under Section 951.
Such an interpretation seems open to abuse of power.
FARA deals with foreign lobbying and requires timely, periodical, and detailed disclosures from people whose lobbying is done on behalf of foreign governments or that principally benefits a foreign government.
FARA violations are common, data suggests.
Even among those who register, many seem to flunk the rules.
The Justice Department’s Inspector General found, from a “risk-based” sample of new FARA registrations from 2013 to 2015, that about two-thirds were filed late. The majority of the reviewed filings also had at least one other noncompliance issue (pdf).
Yet only seven FARA violations have been prosecuted in the previous 50+ years. Part of the reason for that is that FARA has a high standard for the co-called “mens rea”—state of mind. The government would have to prove the violators acted “willfully,” knowingly breaking the law. A lobbyist ignorant of the law can’t be held liable.
In the Rafiekian case, the prosecutors argued that any FARA violation, regardless of willfulness, makes one ineligible for the “commercial transaction” exception under Section 951.
They further said, in substance, that “direction or control” under Section 951 means somebody “agrees or is willing to do something the foreign principal requests,” Trenga said in his opinion.
That’s indeed the case under FARA, but such a reading of the law is “unwarranted,” under Section 951, the judge said, because “the word ‘agent’ has a well-established common-law meaning” that includes “the power of the principal to give directions and the duty of the agent to obey those directions.”
“A person must do more than act as a ‘representative’ or ‘on behalf of’ a foreign government,” he said, further noting that, “In sum, the government’s construction of Section 951 would, in effect, import into and conflate the narrow common law notion of agency reflected in Section 951 and the related regulation with the broad definition of an ‘agent’ under FARA, which goes well beyond any common-law understanding of agency and includes conduct not fairly read into the definition of agency under Section 951.”
Trenga’s reining in of who the government can and can’t label an “agent of a foreign government” has a special significance because the label seems to open the door to spying under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
FISA allows the government to obtain the electronic communications of anybody the secret FISA courts determine to be an “agent of a foreign power.”
Both FISA and FARA are overseen by the Justice Department’s National Security Division (NSD), which in the past assigned counterintelligence overtones to its interpretation of Section 951.
The NSD called Section 951 “espionage lite,” saying that it “generally involves espionage-like or clandestine behavior or an otherwise provable connection to an intelligence service, or information gathering or procurement-type activity on behalf of a foreign government,” according to a 2016 IG report (pdf).
She said she would “bet money” the government took out a FISA warrant on Flynn in 2016, when he was advising the Trump campaign. That hasn’t been confirmed, though.
It may not be easy or even possible for the government to collapse FARA and FISA together directly. FARA speaks of agents of a “foreign principal”—a term that includes private entities and appears too far removed from the “agent of a foreign power” label needed to pass the muster of FISA judges.
Trenga’s opinion, however, seems to confirm that the government was borrowing the broad FARA interpretation of “agent” to label people foreign government agents under Section 951.
Wilson Miller, a lawyer who has previously identified issues with the NSD, commented that “it would be legally permissible to use allegations of Section 951 violations as grounds for a FISA warrant.”
Trenga’s opinion isn’t a binding precedent in other federal jurisdictions, but it can be raised in the future by defense lawyers to persuade other judges. In that sense, it may make the government think twice before taking out a FISA warrant on somebody based on FARA violations.
Follow Petr on Twitter: @petrsvab