A Washington Tale: The Pakistani Agent Who Tried to Befriend Congress

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The case of Syed Fai has turned over the rock under which foreign influence peddlers and members of Congress usually shelter together, protected by the darkness of our loophole-riddled lobbying rules. Fai was arrested on Tuesday and charged with acting as a foreign agent for the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, Pakistan’s spy service, without registering under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, and for concealing that fact.

Over the course of 20 years, Fai led a registered charity called the Kashmiri American Council (KAC) which funneled political donations to members of Congress, ran conferences on Kashmir and funded educational trips to the disputed region between India and Pakistan, according to the criminal complaint filed in the Eastern District of Virginia. Among those Fai funneled money to were: GOP Congressmen Dan Burton (at least $10,000) and Joe Pitts ($2,000), Democrats Dennis Kucinich ($500) and Jim Moran ($2,000), the DNC ($250), NRSC ($9,500) and on Nov. 2, 2008, Barack Obama ($250).

The affidavit filed with the court says explicitly that the FBI special agent in charge of the case is “aware of no evidence that indicates that any elected official who received money from Fai or the KAC was aware that the money originated from any part of the Government of Pakistan.” The Justice department satisfied itself of this fact, I’m told; the White House would not say whether it was interviewed on the subject.

But the larger issue is how foreign interests use charities to try and influence members of Congress. Back in the late Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff era in 2005-06, I reported on a few of these operations. In one, a consultancy paid by Malaysia footed the bill for a Heritage Foundation-led junket for DeLay, his wife and other Republican House members to a “mystical island of wild scenic beauty”, according to a former Senator employed by Heritage. (Heritage denied the charge.) In another, DeLay and lawmakers for both parties accepted lavish trips to South Korea paid for by a charity set up and funded by a Korean business magnate.

The interesting thing about both cases is that they only got DeLay in trouble because the foreign funding link came to light: in the Malaysia case thanks to the former Senator, and in the Korean case because one of the charity’s lobbyists made the mistake of registering as a Foreign Agent. Those cases eventually contributed to DeLay’s ouster as GOP Majority leader, even though he claimed no knowledge of the foreign funding.

Quickly enough, the Hill went back to business as usual, with foreign-funded charities organizing junkets around the world. Thanks to IRS disclosure rules, charities don’t need to publish their donors, allowing multiple cut-outs to filter foreign donations through, for example, a foreign-owned Indiana-based ball bearing manufacturer without scrutiny from outsiders.

In the case of KAC, the affidavit says it was funded by various straw men and a medical practice, among others, many of whom were reimbursed by the ISI. The affidavit says that this information was discovered in part through confidential witnesses, physical searches and “court-ordered electronic surveillance, as well as internet service provider and telephone company records.” Some of those measures have been ongoing for years, sources tell TIME. Which raises the question: Why did the U.S. move on Fai now?Justice declined to answer; on background, an administration official said Fai was arrested in part because it became clear that another indicted operative, Zaheer Ahmad, was not going to be coming to the U.S. anytime soon.

It’s worth noting that Fai was not particularly successful. Burton reportedly held one hearing on Kashmir; others attended Fai’s conferences. It’s not clear yet who went on the junket mentioned in the affidavit. But over the course of the last 20 years, the U.S. has moved steadily closer to India as relations with Pakistan have soured. Says one Justice department official: “The law doesn’t just apply to successful foreign agents, it also applies to unsuccessful foreign agents.”

But given that lobbying by opaquely-funded international charities is widespread in Washington, it’s not clear just how aggressively the law is applied at all.