Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas

Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas

by Ken Silverstein

June 15, 2014

© Ken Silverstein.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial License

big pharma is killing us, profits over people


I. From Ideas to Advocacy: How Think Tanks became Lobbying Organizations
II. The Rise of the Washington Think Tank
III. The Think Tank Industrial Complex
IV. Membership Has Its Privileges: Donor Rewards Programs
A. Case Study I: Foreign Affairs
B. Case Study II: The Bipartisan Lobbying Center: Advocating for Political Unity—
and Donors
C. Case Study III: World Resources Institute: Corporate-Friendly Think Tank
V. Staff Conflicts: Influence Peddlers and Consultants on the Payroll
A. Lobbyists on Think Tank Staffs
B. Business Consultants at CSIS: When Ideas and Client Interests Mesh
VI. The CAP Paradigm: How Money Transformed a Think Tank
VII: Fixes: Addressing the Conflict of Interest Problem

I. From Ideas to Advocacy: How Think Tanks became Lobbying Organizations

The Center for American Progress (CAP), Washington’s leading liberal think tank, was a big
backer of the Obama administration’s $25 billion loan guarantee program for renewable energy
projects. CAP specifically praised First Solar, a firm that received $3.73 billion from the Energy
Department under the program, and its Antelope Valley project in California.
In 2012, when First Solar was taking a beating from congressional Republicans and in the press over
job layoffs and alleged political cronyism, CAP’s Richard Caperton praised Antelope Valley in his
testimony to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, saying it headed up his list of
“innovative projects” receiving loan guarantees. Earlier, Caperton and Steve Spinner—a top Obama
fundraiser who left his job at the Energy Department monitoring the issuance of loan guarantees
and became a CAP senior fellow—had written an article cross-posted on CAP’s website and its
ThinkProgress blog, stating that Antelope Valley represented “the cutting edge of the clean energy

Though the think tank didn’t disclose it, First Solar belonged to CAP’s Business Alliance, a secret
group of corporate donors, according to internal lists I obtained. Meanwhile, José Villarreal—a
consultant at the power-house law and lobbying firm Akin Gump, who “provides strategic
counseling on a range of legal and policy issues” for corporations—was on First Solar’s board until
April 2012, while also sitting on the board of CAP.

CAP is a strong proponent of alternative energy, so its support of solar is not surprising. But the fact
that CAP had received financial support from First Solar while touting its virtues to Washington
policy-makers points to a conflict of interest: CAP is a think tank, and in theory a player in the realm
of ideas and policy, but its promotion of First Solar’s interests was part and parcel of the company’s
broader Washington lobbying efforts, on which it spent more than $800,000 during 2011 and 2012.
“The only thing more damaging than disclosing your donors and having questions raised about the
independence of your work is not disclosing them and have the information come to light and
undermine your work,” says Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive
Politics. “The best practice, whether required by the IRS or not, is to disclose contributions.”
“If you’re a lobbyist, whatever you say is heavily discounted,” says Kathleen Clark, a law professor at
Washington University and an expert on political ethics. “If a think tank is saying it, it obviously
sounds a lot better. Maybe think tanks aren’t aware of how useful that makes them to private
interests. On the other hand, maybe it’s part of their revenue model.”

CAP’s relationship with First Solar points to a rarely discussed political problem. Most discussions of
corruption undermining American democracy focus on our broken campaign finance system, which
allows private interests to buy political access and influence, or on the outsized power of corporate
lobbyists, who effectively constitute a fourth branch of government. Another fundamental problem
—though one far less understood or appreciated—is institutional corruption at Washington think
tanks, where a pay-to-play ethos has become the norm.

4 Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas, by Ken Silverstein

Think tanks play a leading role in framing the terms of political debate and establishing the
conventional wisdom. They prepare policy reports for congress and administrations, and host public
events on the big issues of the day. Their fellows testify on Capitol Hill and are ubiquitous in the
media, as sources for journalists, op-ed writers, and talking heads on cable news.

Think tanks are generally deemed to be independent and scholarly, a perception that heightens their
authority. But the agendas, intellectual output, and broader activities of think tanks, even the most
highly respected ones, are conspicuously skewed by money and politics.

Unlike other powerful Washington institutions, think tanks are almost entirely unregulated. Members
of Congress must disclose their donors and face restrictions on how much money they can accept.
Lobbyists are required to report their contacts with politicians and government officials, and to
provide basic information about their clients and contracts.

Think tanks inhabit a Citizens United world. Corporations and individuals can
make unlimited contributions to them and disclosure of donors is voluntary. Because think tanks can
be utilized in stealthy fashion, lobbyists and corporations increasingly see them as weapons in their
political arsenals.1

This political utility of thinks tanks—combined with their collective function as a gigantic source of
sinecures for government officials going through the revolving door—has fueled their explosive
growth. Thirty years ago there were about 120 Washington think tanks. Today, there are roughly 400
in the capital and about 1,800 nationwide.

“There are so many entities in Washington with millions or even billions of dollars at stake, and
meanwhile there is a web of organizations—think tanks, lobbyists, advocacy groups and others—
who all play a role in influencing policies,” says Meredith McGehee, Policy Director at the Campaign
Legal Center, a D.C. watchdog group that works on money in politics, disclosure, and government
ethics. “It’s a pretty sticky wicket. Big interests can bring their money to bear in sophisticated and
creative ways.”

II. The Rise of the Washington Think Tank

Think tanks date to the early 20th Century. They have always reflected relatively narrow elite opinion
and were never entirely impartial, but the earliest were modeled on academic institutions and focused
on technical aspects of policy. Brookings, the original think tank, was founded in 1916 (as the
Institute for Government Research) and billed itself as “the first private organization devoted to the
fact-based study of national public policy.” During the Great Depression its scholars took sides both
for and against the New Deal. The Council on Foreign Relations was founded in New York five years
after Brookings and, as author Peter Grose later wrote, sought to “guide the statecraft of
policymakers” with in-depth reports prepared by “groups of knowledgeable specialists of differing
ideological inclinations.”

5 Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas, by Ken Silverstein

After I wrote about CAP’s secret donors in the Nation magazine, the think tank published a list of corporate 1
contributors to its Business Alliance. It did not disclose the names of individual donors to CAP. Most Washington think
tanks disclose minimal information about contributors, and almost none provide specifics—i.e. dates of donation,
amounts and if money was a general donation or earmarked for a specific cause or project.

For decades, think tanks saw their role as “to inform but not quite to advocate, to help clarify policy
alternatives but generally not to choose among them,” Tevi Troy has written in National Affairs. As
late as 1971, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) postponed release of a study on a controversial
supersonic transport aircraft until after Congress had voted on a bill to fund it, Troy recounts. (The
Senate narrowly defeated the bill, 51 to 46.) William Baroody, head of AEI at the time, said the think
tank didn’t release the report beforehand because it “didn’t want to try to affect the outcome of the
vote.” That type of attitude soon went out of fashion as corporations and other donors began to
imagine a more expressly political role for think tanks.
The emerging, more aggressive perspective was prompted by the specter of economic stagflation and
the twin political crises of the early 1970s, Vietnam and Watergate. During that period top corporate

officials convened annually under the auspices of the Conference Board. Feeling pressured by then-
powerful labor unions and the demands of (what they saw as) an ungrateful citizenry, the assembled

CEOs feared a popular revolt might be imminent. “We have been hoist with our own petard,” one
executive said at the 1973 conclave. “We have raised expectations that we can’t deliver on.” Another
executive complained, “One man, one vote has undermined the power of business in all capitalist
countries since World War II.”

With profits down, business determined that the rules of the game had to be changed in its favor. “It
will be a hard pill for many Americans to swallow—the idea of doing with less so that big business
can have more,” Business Week stated bluntly in 1974. “Nothing that this nation, or any other nation,
has done in modern economic history compares in difficulty with the selling job that must now be
done to make people accept the new reality.”
Hence began a massive campaign by Corporate America to recapture the culture. As part of the plan
to win back politicians, intellectuals and the media, corporations vastly increased their lobbying
efforts. Most Fortune 500 firms didn’t have Washington public-affairs offices in 1970, but 80 percent
did by 1980, Kim Phillips-Fein recounts in her book Invisible Hands. Companies poured money into
the political system as well. Justin Dart, a major financial backer of Ronald Reagan’s political career,
was an early champion of political-action committees (originally created as a post-Watergate reform).
“Rhetoric is a very fine thing; a little money to go with the rhetoric is better,” he said of his preferred
method of dealing with members of Congress. “They listen better.”

Just as importantly, corporations shoveled cash into existing think tanks and established dozens of
new ones. The Heritage Foundation was created in 1973—with help from Paul Weyrich, a future
leader of the New Right and then a Senate staffer, and Lyn Nofziger, a Nixon White House aide—
and within a decade its annual budget topped $12 million. AEI became more politically emboldened
and saw its budget triple to about the same amount between 1975 and 1985. New conservative thinks
tanks founded in the post-Watergate period included the Cato Institute, the Manhattan Institute and
the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Over time, corporations also provided major support for think tanks aligned with Democrats,
especially moderate ones. The Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) was established in 1989, and received
millions of dollars from sources such as the Tobacco Institute, Occidental Petroleum, and various
Wall Street firms. The PPI was affiliated with the Democratic Leadership Council, which had been
founded to pull the party in a more centrist direction. Bill Clinton was a charter member of the
Council, and when he became president the PPI pumped out reams of studies in support of
NAFTA, welfare reform and other “New Democrat” priorities.
6 Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas, by Ken Silverstein

Intellectual corruption at think tanks has greatly accelerated in recent years. That’s partly because the
total sums of money flowing to them has increased so dramatically (as it has to other parts of the
political system), and partly due to changes in the nature of funding. In Scholars, Dollars and Policy
Advice, James McGann, director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of
Pennsylvania, found that think tank donors increasingly make short term, project-specific
contributions that have a clear desired outcome. “As grants become more focused, the agenda of
research topics . . . is increasingly less autonomous and the degree of freedom to explore innovative
solutions to complex policy problems is diminished,” McGann wrote. Short-term funding has also
encouraged think tanks to consciously craft projects to attract big foundation and corporate support,
and to try to demonstrate their value by showing they can impact the political process.
Another disturbing trend is the growing number of highly partisan think tanks, such as CAP,
founded by John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Clinton and an informal consultant to
President Obama before being named White House senior advisor in late 2013. Not surprisingly,
CAP often seems less interested in generating ideas and original research than in reflexively
supporting Democratic policies and providing instant critiques of GOP positions.
On the other side there is the American Action Network, a self-described “think-and-do tank” that
was founded in 2010 by GOP stalwarts such as Jeb Bush and Haley Barbour. Many of the Network’s
in-house experts are regular commentators on Fox News and the group’s policy papers regurgitate
(and sometimes inspire) Republican talking points.
“Partisanship in Washington has reached a fevered pitch and think tanks have been enlisted to
provide the ammunition in the battle over good and evil that seems to preoccupy politicians these
days,” McGann noted in his study. “Thus, it is increasingly difficult to find objective analysis that
looks at a range of ideas, opinions, and policy options.”
Another notable development has been the rise of “boutique” or specialty think tanks that focus on
a single area or single issue, and produce predictably stilted research reports. The Lexington Institute,
a Virginia-based think tank, has never met a weapons program it didn’t like. That is not surprising
since a good chunk of its funding—about $2.5 million in 2010—comes from defense giants like
Boeing, Lockheed and Northrop Grumman. (Lexington does not disclose its donors, but some have
been identified in news stories.)
Loren Thompson, Lexington’s chief operating officer and a defense industry consultant on the side,
played a part in a Bush-era scandal involving Boeing’s plan to lease the Air Force 100 aerial refueling
tankers. The deal—which would have cost the Air Force $30 billion, significantly more than the
purchase price of a brand new fleet of tankers—was canceled when Senator John McCain
discovered that an Air Force procurement official had fixed the deal for Boeing prior to accepting a
job at the company. Meanwhile, the Air Force and Boeing had discreetly deployed Thompson to sell
the deal to the press. As a senior Air Force official put it in one memo, “We’ve got Loren doing the
Lord’s work again. ‘3rd Party’ support at its best.”
Media outlets frequently cite Thompson and other Lexington analysts as defense experts, sometimes
omitting to mention the think tank’s ties to military contractors. For his part, Thompson has no
qualms about Lexington’s heavy defense funding. “Everything I write is true,” he told me during an
interview several years ago. “But chances are I’m not going to work on a project unless somebody,
somewhere is willing to pay. This is a business.”

7 Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas, by Ken Silverstein

III. The Think Tank Industrial Complex
In December 2012, Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina decided to leave the upper chamber of
congress to become president of the Heritage Foundation, a step that produced a mix of shock and
hand wringing in political circles. The shock involved some possibly quaint thinking about political
power: DeMint was abandoning the lofty heights of the Senate—“long considered the pinnacle of
power and influence in American politics,” as the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza put it—to immerse
himself in the world of policy research.
The hand wringing, on the other hand, involved some even more quaint notions about the think
tanks at the heart of Washington’s ideas industry. DeMint was not a “serious scholar,” wrote the Post’s
conservative blogger, Jennifer Rubin. By making him its leader, she said, Heritage “becomes a
political instrument in service of extremism, not a well-respected think tank and source of
Both reactions, though, leave out a crucial component: money. DeMint, who reported virtually no
assets on congressional disclosure forms, stood to get a significant raise by moving to Heritage.
Outgoing Heritage president Ed Fuelner received nearly $1.2 million in 2011, according to the
group’s tax filing. If DeMint gets the same compensation—and one expects he’ll get more—it would
amount to a raise of about 700 percent from his $174,000 annual take as a senator.
Once upon a time, the only way for a pol to cash in like that was to leave elected office in order to
become a lobbyist—a nice living, but one that carries with it a stigma that would likely kill any future
ambitions for high office. By contrast, a gig at Heritage, the main voice of the conservative
movement, could be a good launching pad if he returns to politics. Candidate DeMint could run as a
man of ideas, not another pol out shilling for his donors.
The problem with that wholesome image—and the anachronistic thing about Rubin’s lament over
Heritage’s potential loss of intellectual virginity—is that think-tanking and lobbying have come to
look more and more alike. Just like lobbyists, think tanks can frame policy debates and generate
political pressure—for the right price.
Heritage had $109 million in assets in 2002, a figure that ballooned to $174 million in 2011, according
to its tax filings. During the same period its annual fundraising haul (in contributions and grants)
climbed from $40 million to more than $65 million. Donors include major companies like Boeing
and Chevron and conservative foundations such as the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. In
addition to Feulner, at least 19 other officials there cleared $200,000, including former attorney
general Ed Meese ($420,000), former congressman Ernest Istook ($303,000), and former labor
secretary Elaine Chao ($290,000).
Heritage is hardly the only purportedly scholarly outfit that pays distinctly non-scholarly wages.
Think-tank salary escalation, and the glut of donors’ money it represents, spans the political
spectrum, as detailed in their tax filings to the IRS.
• The American Enterprise Institute had assets of $155 million and raised $37 million
from contributions and grants, up from $40 million and $16 million, respectively, in
2002. According to its 2012 annual report, AEI gets 39 percent of its funding from
foundations and 15 percent from corporations. Arthur Brooks, head of AEI, took in
$645,000 in 2011. Meanwhile, AEI’s 2011 tax filing shows Dick Cheney received

8 Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas, by Ken Silverstein

$210,000 for toiling an average of one hour per week as a board trustee. Poor John 2
Bolton. The former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under George W. Bush, and
now a senior fellow at AEI, took in roughly the same as Cheney even though those same
tax documents say he spends 60 hours per week on AEI work.
• The Brookings Institution had assets of $410 million and raised $87 million in
contributions and grants. That’s up from $228 million and $15 million in 2002. Strobe
Talbott, the former State Department official who heads Brookings, made $476,000.
Martin Indyk, the former U.S. diplomat and ambassador to Israel, took home $336,000
for serving as vice president and director of Brookings’s Foreign Policy Program.
William Gale, a Brookings tax expert and director of the think tank’s Retirement
Security Project, netted $358,000.
• The Center for Strategic and International Studies had $126 million in assets and raised
$48 million in contributions and grants, up from $35 million and $17 million in 2002.
President John Hamre, a former deputy secretary of defense, was paid $402,000. Charles
Freeman, a former assistant U.S. trade representative for China affairs and currently the
think tank’s senior adviser for economic and trade affairs, received a pay package worth
$199,000. Frank Verrastro, a former Pennzoil executive and White House energy policy
staffer who chairs the Energy and Geopolitics program at CSIS, took in $195,000.
• The Center for American Progress, Heritage’s liberal counterpart, had assets of more
than $44 million in 2011, five times more than when it opened its doors in 2003.
Contributions soared after Barack Obama won the White House; in 2011 alone, CAP
took in $34 million. In 2010, its affiliated advocacy organization, the CAP Action Fund,
reported assets of $5.7 million and contributions of $9.4 million. John Podesta netted at
least $270,000 in 2011, when he was CAP’s president.

There are plenty of well-respected scholars at prominent Beltway think-tank positions. But
supporting such large organizations requires the same ceaseless fundraising that politicians conduct
when running for reelection—and the same sort of temptations. “Things have to be paid for, I

respect that,” one former think tank staffer, who quit his job in disgust due to the intellectual horse-
trading he observed, told me. “But at some point it becomes hard to turn down money from [big

donors] and then it becomes hard not to do their bidding.”
Nowadays, if donors don’t like the results they get, they are increasingly inclined to move their
money to more compliant think tanks, or to more expressly political operations. “Think tanks are
competing with consulting firms, law firms, Super PACS, lobbyists and advocacy groups,” says
McGann of the University of Pennsylvania. “That puts pressure on think tanks to be more

9 Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas, by Ken Silverstein
Judy Mayka, AEI’s director of media relations, told me that that the money reported to Cheney “was for the amount 2
paid to the research assistant who worked on [his] book at AEI. AEI’s arrangement was that they would report the
researcher’s salary, benefits, and other associated costs as compensation to Vice President Cheney, and he would pay
the taxes on that amount.” This seemed like a curious arrangement, so on February 6th I asked Mayka to confirm that
the book in question was “In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir,” which was written with Cheney’s daughter

Liz (and in which he declared that torturing prisoners was “safe, legal, and effective,” and specifically endorsed water-
boarding). I also asked her for the name of the researcher who got such a princely sum and why the compensation

wasn’t paid directly to the researcher. She never replied. One also wonders why Cheney couldn’t hire a researcher
himself since he reportedly received a multi-million dollar advance for the memoir.

responsive to donors.” The new buzz term among private and public donors is “high impact
philanthropy,” McCann says.
“Think tanks have become more like PR and lobbying shops than research organizations,” says Steve
Clemons, a former executive vice president at the New America Foundation. “That they’re lesser
regulated than lobbyists makes them especially attractive to some funders.”
The end result of all this has been a general degradation of think tank research. Bruce Bartlett, who
was fired from the conservative National Center for Policy Analysis after writing a book critical of
George W. Bush’s policies, says much think tank scholarship today is akin to market research. “You
don’t study data to see what position you should take, because you know your position in advance,”
he says. “Now you do research to help better advocate for your position and identify constituencies
that you can target and bring along. It’s like P&G studying the coffee market to see if it can come up
with a new niche brand and take a few customers away from the competition.”
DeMint acknowledged as much in discussing his move to Heritage. “We must take our case to the
people ourselves, and we must start where all good marketing starts: with research,” he wrote in a
Post op-ed. “We need to test the market and our message to communicate more effectively.”
And he’s right: Political messages do need testing and tweaking in order to be more effective. But
that’s a job for well-paid market-research types—DeMint’s avocation before entering politics—rather
than humble scholars. Anyone confused as to which category describes large chunks of Washington’s
think tank output need only to look at their payrolls.
IV. Membership Has Its Privileges: Donor Rewards
When Newt Gingrich was running for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012, the Washington Post

ran a story about the Center for Health Transformation, which it described as his “hybrid” single-
issue think tank. Health care companies and industry groups have donated at least $37 million to the

Center since 2003. In return, the Center published reports and advocated on behalf of donors and
offered perks like “direct Newt interaction” and discounts on services offered by other groups
affiliated with Gingrich. While the center did disclose some of its donors, it didn’t reveal how much
money they had contributed.
It was an interesting story, but it obscured a key point: Newt’s “hybrid” was a particularly
straightforward form of pay-to-play, but its basic features are common at Washington think tanks,
including those with the most solid reputations for scholarship. Like Newt’s Center for Health
Transformation, many lure big donors with a package of benefits, including the right to attend
private events with think tank executives, scholars and lawmakers; tailored advice from scholars on
achieving PR and political goals; and even commissioned reports explicitly aimed at shaping policy.
Another perk—implicit but well understood—is the ability to contact recipient think tanks to
demand editorial changes on research in progress or to keep topics from being addressed at all.
Rewards are frequently offered on a sliding scale whereby the more you give, the more you get.

10 Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas, by Ken Silverstein

Most think tanks are nonprofit organizations, so a donor can even get a nice tax break for
contributing. But it’s their reputation for impartiality and their web of contacts that makes them
especially useful as policy advocates. “Think tanks can always draw a big audience to your event,
including government folks,” a Washington lobbyist who has worked with several told me. “And
people generally don’t think they would twist anything, or wonder about where they get their money.”
While think tanks portray themselves as altruistic scholarly institutions, they emphasize their political
influence when courting contributors. Donors to the Brookings Institution receive invitations to
private events in Washington, New York, and other cities—from small salon-style events to more
expansive conversations—and get briefings from think tank experts and can accompany them on
foreign trips.
Brookings has four levels of giving, with donors gaining “additional privileges” at every step up the
giving ladder. The top tier is the Chairman’s Circle ($100,000 and up), which gets donors a
“customized program of benefits designed in collaboration with the Senior Director of Corporate &
Foundation Relations.” Brookings also has “Program Leadership Committees,” whereby corporate
donors meet with senior think tank officials to discuss their specific goals. “If you have a particular
area of policy interest, you can support a specific research effort under way,” the think tank says in
one pitch for cash. Those interested in ”a deeper engagement”—read: ready to fork over especially
large sums of money—get personal briefings from resident experts and together draw up a research
agenda that will “maximize impact on policymaking.”
A. Case Study I: Foreign Affairs
The real scandal is not what think tanks offer, but what they deliver in return for big money
contributions. Because of limits on donor disclosure that can be hard to piece together, but consider
the financial ties between several major think tanks and certain Eastern European governments and
The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), for example, courts corporate donors and
business leaders, saying on its website that it views them “not simply as financial supporters, but also
as valuable partners in the policymaking process.” The think tank advertises itself as being “in the

unique position to bring together leaders of both the public and private sectors in small, often off-
the-record meetings to build consensus around important policy issues.” It allows top-tier donors to

directly sponsor reports, events and speaker series, and (by giving more money) join a project steering
committee “and participate in the working groups that help develop the scope of the project.”
For a donor, CSIS, currently the No. 1 security and international affairs think tank in the University
of Pennsylvania’s annual rankings, is certainly a good ally to have on your side. Its 2012 annual report
boasts that the think tank plays “a critical role in generating ideas with policy impact for the
administration and Capitol Hill.” CSIS experts regularly testify before congressional committees and
brief members and staff, and the think tank hosts numerous meetings and forums on Capitol Hill
and for administration officials. Its scholars wrote hundreds of reports and papers that are “widely
distributed to policymakers and thought leaders in the policy, academic, and business communities,”
according to the annual report.
That type of firepower came in handy in 2011, when Kazakhstan held a presidential election in
which crooked dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has declared himself president-for-life, won 95.5

11 Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas, by Ken Silverstein

percent of the vote. The country’s rubber-stamp parliament has granted him the permanent right “to
address the people of Kazakhstan at any time” and to approve all “initiatives on the country’s
development.” In recent years the oil-rich Kazakh government has spent millions of dollars on
American lobbyists and PR firms to help improve and deepen its relationship with the United States.
Independent election observers quickly condemned the balloting as fraudulent and Freedom House
described it as “devoid of any real choice, much as in the days of Soviet rule.” But CSIS hosted a
Washington conference soon afterward that offered a remarkably upbeat perspective on the election.
Its point of view might have been be linked to the fact that Nazarbayev’s government had previously
paid the think tank’s New European Democracies Project more than $150,000 to co-author reports
about alleged democratic reforms in Kazakhstan.
CSIS partnered on its Kazakh work with a non-profit called the Institute for New Democracies,
which was paid separately by the Nazarbayev regime. Its executive director, Margarita Assenova, had
traveled to Kazakhstan to “monitor” the 2011 election, which she deemed to be free and fair. “The
people credit the wise leadership of Nazarbayev for peace, stability, economic development and
ethnic harmony in Kazakhstan,” Assenova said of the outcome.
The Atlantic Council, another D.C. think tank that offers abundant donor perks, has an equally
problematic relationship with the Nazarbayev regime. According to its website, the Council works
with companies “to develop their substantive narrative and determine the types of tools and
products . . . needed to best serve their growth strategy.” Companies are invited to contribute to
Council research, participate in Council task forces and strategy sessions, and partner with the
Council to publish reports and “Issue Briefs.” (The latter are described as “succinct document[s]
analyzing a specific, relevant topic with an emphasis on recommendations for policymakers.”)
For $25,000, corporate donors get one Issue Brief. For $100,000, they get three. They can also
purchase a “Transition Seminar,” whereby the Council “convenes a small group of senior experts
and former policymakers to provide advice and counsel to an official transitioning into a new
The Atlantic Council traditionally released very little information about its donors, but it disclosed a
list of foreign contributors in 2013 when its chairman, Chuck Hagel, was nominated by Obama to
head the Pentagon. The move came in response to a demand by 25 Republican senators ahead of a
Senate vote on Hagel’s confirmation. The list included Bahrain, Jordan, Sweden, Saudi Arabia,
Taiwan and Kazakhstan. “The Council maintains clear policies to ensure its ethical and legal
operation as [an organization] . . . which values its credibility and integrity as a generator of creative
ideas,” the Council’s president and CEO, Frederick Kempe, a former columnist at the Wall Street
Journal, wrote at the time. “All agreements with donors stipulate that the Council retains intellectual
independence and control over any content.”3
Simultaneously James Joyner, the Council’s managing editor, took to the think tank’s website to write
a blog post entitled “The Atlantic Council, Foreign Funding, and Intellectual Independence.” “Like
all organizations of its kind, the Atlantic Council has to fund its work by cultivating donors,” he

12 Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas, by Ken Silverstein
The immediate Republican response was somewhat less than enthusiastic. The Hill newspaper spoke to an unnamed 3
GOP senate staffer who complained that Kempe’s letter did not identify individual contributors, which Republicans had
specifically requested. “We have no idea if funds came through individuals from foreign nations that could create
conflicts of interest,” the staffer told the newspaper. “He doesn’t have a right to keep such potential conflicts hidden.”

wrote. “But we’ve always placed the integrity of our work above the preferences of our funders.
Indeed, under the leadership of Hagel and Kempe, we’ve recognized the potential for these
relationships to confer an appearance of conflict and therefore outlined detailed policies for review
of foreign government funding and intellectual independence.” But these claims of intellectual
independence are hard to square with the Council’s own promises to big donors which can be found
on its website. “The Council works with our partners to develop their substantive narrative and
determine the types of tools and products, including event opportunities and co-branded
publications, required to meet their goals and needs,” says one fundraising pitch.
The pledge of intellectual independence is hard to square with treatment the Council has given to at
least one of its foreign donors.
In 2012, the Council hosted a conference on Kazakhstan. The conference was paid for by Chevron,
which has vast oil interests in the country and is a top-level donor ($100,000-and-up) to the Council,
and the Kazakh government, Kempe acknowledged. He declined to say how much they contributed,
“not because I don’t want to but because we’re not authorized to give numbers.” It’s also worth
noting that the Council’s board includes Alexander Mirtchev, a highly controversial Washington
operator who has close ties to the Kazakh regime.
The conference was essentially a love poem to Nazarbayev. During introductory remarks Hagel
talked about “the partnership that evolved and grows and strengthens each day between our
countries,” according to the conference transcript, and said the Kazakhs “were responsible for
pulling together a very, very impressive country that has made astounding progress.”
Keynote speakers included Kenneth Derr, who was CEO of Chevron when it forged a partnership
with Kazakhstan and is now the country’s Honorary Consul in San Francisco. “Under President
Nazarbayev’s extraordinary leadership, Kazakhstan is now independent, secure and extremely
prosperous,” Derr said, according to a conference transcript. Yerzhan Kazykhanov, Nazarbayev’s
Minister of Foreign Affairs, was another keynoter. During his visit to Washington, the foreign
minister presented several Americans, including Hagel, with state awards from the Nazarbayev 4
Panels were also overwhelmingly stacked with regime-friendly voices: Ariel Cohen of the Heritage
Foundation; Bolat Nurgaliyev, Kazakhstan’s former ambassador to the United States; and Sean
Roberts, an Associate Professor at George Washington University. Of more than a dozen panelists
only two offered more than tepid criticism of the regime. For example, Robert Blake, Jr., U.S.
Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, said Nazarbayev had largely failed to
meet “Kazakhstan’s stated commitments to reform and to uphold human rights and democratic
“We chose all the speakers; we chose the subjects,” Kempe said. “If you look through the whole day
of speakers, they’re hardly cheerleaders for Kazakhstan.” He pointed to Lorne Cramer of the
International Republican Institute as someone who offered a critical perspective. Yet according to the
transcript, Cramer had this to say: “I will tell you, as somebody that deals in human rights and
democracy, that there’s a lot to praise in Kazakhstan. . . . We all know it relinquished its nuclear

13 Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas, by Ken Silverstein and 4
Kazakh_Foreign_Minister_presents_more_US_politicians_with_medals_and_orders_1328069823.html (accessed
February 12, 2013.)

arsenal, and I think that was one of the first things it did that drew such attention to it; and as it also
made great strides in the field of human rights.”
Roberts chaired a panel on U.S.-Kazakh relations and wrote one of three “issue briefs” the Council
released in conjunction with the conference. Issue briefs, a perk offered to big donors, are described
on the Council’s website as a “succinct document analyzing a specific, relevant topic with an
emphasis on recommendations for policymakers.”
“In looking at twenty years of independence in the former Soviet region of Central Asia, Kazakhstan
stands out in most respects as a stable oasis in a desert of uncertainty,” Roberts wrote in his brief. “It
is little wonder, therefore, that the most stable and fruitful bilateral partnership for the United States
in the region over the past twenty years has been with the Republic of Kazakhstan. (A week before
the conference, at a hearing on Kazakhstan’s political stability, Roberts told federal lawmakers “we
really need a policy of engaging Kazakhstan, because I think that that’s going to bear much more
fruit than just beating them up.”)
The other two briefs were equally friendly; no surprise, since they were written by energy industry
analyst Katherine Hardin and Douglas Townsend, Honorary Consul of the Republic of Kazakhstan
in Wales and a Senior Advisor to the International Tax and Investment Centre (ITIC). The latter is
funded by companies and organizations with interests in Kazakhstan, including Chevron,
ExxonMobil, and the Kazakhstan Petroleum Association, and sent “election observers” to various
ballots held in Kazakhstan over the past decade. The elections—including the 2011 balloting noted
above, in which Nazarbayev won 95 percent support—was enthusiastically endorsed by ITIC.
A Council speaker acknowledged that Chevron had sponsored the conference but the think tank said
nothing about donations from Kazakhstan, based on transcripts of the affair. The closest it came was
when Ross Wilson, director of the Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, told the audience he
wanted to recognize Kazakh Ambassador Erlan Idrissov, “a friend of many of us, who encouraged
the council to put together this retrospective and prospective look at Kazakhstan that we’ll have
today.” The fawning issue briefs for the conference made no mention of financial support from
either Chevron or the Kazakh regime.
Former Soviet interests have also made good use of other well-known Washington institutions to
buff their images. Victor Pinchuk, the Ukrainian oligarch, sits on the board of the Peterson Institute
for International Economics, and is one of its largest donors. Pinchuk grew rich by buying state-run
firms privatized during the 1994 to 2005 reign of President Leonid Kuchma. It has frequently been
alleged that Pinchuk was the beneficiary of sweetheart deals, a suspicion encouraged by the fact that
he is married to Kuchma’s daughter.
Peterson Institute senior fellow Anders Aslund wrote a book, “How Ukraine Became a Market
Economy and Democracy,” which included criticism of Kuchma but on balance presented a
flattering portrait. One section, called “Kuchma Saved His Country,” included an interview with the
former president, who replied to penetrating questions from Aslund such as, “What was your
greatest deed?” and, “What else are you most proud of?”
The Washington Post ran a 2011 op-ed by Aslund that sharply criticized the “sinister” rule of the
government then in power, which he said had used “the judicial system to repress opponents.” He
noted in this regard that prosecutors had “surprisingly” charged Kuchma with involvement in the
murder of journalist Georgy Gongadze in 2000.

14 Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas, by Ken Silverstein

Aslund’s general criticism of the current government of Ukraine is not without merit, but his byline
identified him only as a senior fellow at Peterson. Nowhere was it disclosed that he and his think tank
receive substantial funding from Pinchuk, whom he portrayed in the piece as a political martyr.
Furthermore, Pinchuk’s father-in-law has long been suspected of ordering the journalist’s murder.
Whether guilty or not, there was little “surprising” about Kuchma being charged in the case.
“In no way does [Pinchuk] try to influence the views expressed by me or other members of the
Peterson Institute,” Aslund told me by email. “Obviously, before accepting grants from anybody, you
make sure that it will not influence your views or cause any other conflict of interest.”
B. Case Study II: The Bipartisan Lobbying Center: Advocating for Political
Unity—and Donors
The Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), says its website, “drives principled solutions through rigorous
analysis, reasoned negotiation and respectful dialogue,” and “combines politically-balanced policy
making with strong, proactive advocacy and outreach.” The BPC, which is often described in press
accounts as a “centrist think tank,” is highly influential and the media and Congress treat its reports
and pronouncements as consequential and weighty.
The BPC’s reputation is further enhanced due to the large number of former government officials
and members of Congress who serve on its board and as “senior fellows.” For example, a May 2013
story in Politico said that two former Senators had thrown “their energy policy weight . . . to make the
case that the private sector—rather than federal government—should decide on whether to export
natural gas.” One of the former Senators was Byron Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota, who
was identified in the story with the reassuringly neutral title of co-chairman of the BPC’s Energy
Project. The story cited Dorgan’s recent Congressional testimony, during which he had said, “We
believe the market should make the decision about the exports of natural gas.”
The story didn’t mention that Dorgan is a “senior policy advisor” and co-chair of the lobbying
practice at Arent Fox, one of Washington’s premier influence peddling shops. Nor did it say that
energy companies, including America’s Natural Gas Alliance, heavily fund the BPC. That’s typical of
the free ride the press gives to the BPC, which routinely advocates, under the guise of independent
scholarship, for policies that benefit its donors.
The BPC was founded in 2007 by former Senate Majority Leaders Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Bob
Dole and George Mitchell, who all cashed in on their government experience by working for Beltway
law and lobbying firms, and advising major corporations. The think tank’s funders include
foundations, corporations and trade associations, with donors in the last two categories including
FedEx, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, the American Bankers Association, BP, Chevron,
Citigroup, ConocoPhillips, the Nuclear Energy Institute, and Shell.
A number of prominent BPC “senior fellows” work as lobbyists. These include:
• Robert Bennett, the former GOP Senator from Utah, who is also a “senior policy
advisor” at Arent Fox and who registered to lobby last January, immediately after he was
exempted from the law that bars former elected officials from lobbying for two years
after retiring from public service. Bennett, a former member of the Senate Banking
Committee, also formed his own consulting firm to advocate on behalf of major

15 Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas, by Ken Silverstein

financial institutions. His clients have included Americans Standing for Simplification of
the Estate Tax (ASSET), a front group working to slash the inheritance tax.
• Dan Glickman, the former Secretary of Agriculture and ex-Democratic House member
from Kansas, who represented the Motion Picture Association of America and whose
lobbying clients while at the firm of Akin Gump Strauss, Hauer & Feld included Dow
Chemical, American Financial Group Inc., Alliance of American Insurers, Mortgage
Insurance Companies of America, and the Walt Disney Company.
• Trent Lott, the former Republican Senator from Mississippi, who has lobbied for
numerous companies, including energy giants ExxonMobil, Chevron and Shell, and
America’s Natural Gas Alliance.

The BPC has programs in health care, economic policy, infrastructure, national security and energy.
Dorgan, Lott and William Reilly, who headed the EPA under George Bush Sr., and whose board
affiliations have included ConocoPhillips and DuPont, led the latter. Corporations are the dominant
group among the energy project’s membership list, including CEOs and executives from Marathon
Oil, ExxonMobil, Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, Exelon Corporation, and Southern Company.
For window dressing there is one environmentalist, Ralph Cavanagh of the Natural Resources
Defense Council.
The majority of BPC’s funding comes from “philanthropies” and its energy work is supported by
grants from the William and Flora Hewett Foundation and Climate Works Foundation, Rosemarie
Calabro Tully, spokeswoman for the think tank’s energy project, told me. “Foundation funding is
generally provided to support a specific project, while corporate funding is directed to support BPC’s
general operations,” she said.
One BPC report, “America’s Energy Resurgence: Sustaining Success, Confronting Challenges,”
included over fifty policy recommendations. The chief outside consultant on the report was William
Klinefelter, a lobbyist whose major clients include ExxonMobil.
So it’s hardly a surprise that the report paid lip service to alternative energy but heavily promoted the
fossil fuel industry. For example, in terms of oil and gas, it called on Congress to “expand access to
oil and gas exploration and production in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico,” and said the Interior
Department “should accelerate the timetable for leasing areas off the coasts of the Mid-and South
Atlantic states.” In other words, full speed ahead for offshore drilling.
A Wall Street Journal story on the report quoted Lott—his status as a former Senator and affiliation
with the BPC were noted, but not his work as an energy lobbyist—as saying, “I would say to the
leaders, Reid and McConnell, if you’re looking for something that historically has been bipartisan,
something where you could come together and do good for the country, energy is it.” It said that
Lott had recalled the “good old days of bipartisan cooperation,” and that energy would be “a good
place” for Congress to start that again. Other BPC personnel testified on the Hill and promoted the
report’s industry-friendly recommendations.
Meanwhile, the BPC’s Energy Project held a series of events to discuss its positions on energy. The
affairs were hosted by BPC Senior Fellow and former Republican Senator Pete Domenici (who in
2006 was voted “Worst in the Senate” by Republicans for Environmental Protection due to his
efforts to promote oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) and David Goldwyn (who

16 Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas, by Ken Silverstein

served at the Energy Department under Bill Clinton, then ran a consulting firm that provided
“political and business intelligence” to oil companies, then became the State Department’s
Coordinator for International Energy Affairs under Obama, and now has returned to the private
sector as an energy consultant).
Speakers and panelists at the BPC’s first event on June 12, 2013 included a number of energy
industry analysts (for example, Edward Morse, Global Head of Commodities Research at Citibank)
and former Louisiana Senator Bennett Johnston. He has lobbied for energy interests ever since
retiring and has also been a Chevron board member and policy advisor to The Heartland Institute, a
clearinghouse for climate change denial.
The keynote speaker was Senator Lisa Murkowski from Alaska, one of the most pro-energy industry
members of Congress. “We . . . know that this is an issue on which we must take the long view,
recognizing that it will play out across decades,” she said, according to a transcript of her remarks.
“We will need the best and brightest working on this question, and I see many of you gathered here
today. I’m glad to join you—and glad to be part of this conversation—because we really must
approach it in a balanced and bipartisan manner.”
And even more importantly to the BPC, in a manner that helps out its donors and the staff ’s
lobbying clients.
C. Case Study III: World Resources Institute: Corporate-Friendly Think
The World Resources Institute (WRI) is “a global environmental think tank that goes beyond
research to put ideas into action,” says the group’s website. Notes from a board meeting in March of
2005 show development director Liz Cook discussing “finding the money to take WRI to scale” and
allowing it to “increase its budget to match its ambition.”
Much of the plan was to bring in corporate money. The notes show board member Bruce Smart, a
retired businessman with the Continental Group (previously Continental Can Company) and former
U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade in the Reagan Administration, saying,
“The problems today are such that they will be solved only by forging partnerships with industrialists
and we need to go after them.”
And go after them WRI did. According to board meeting notes, corporate contributions grew from
around $800,000 in December of 2005 to over $10 million by the following September. WRI’s total
budget doubled from $20 million to $40 million between 2005 and 2011, with corporate cash more
than doubling as a percentage of the total budget between 2007 and 2011.
According to its most recent annual report, corporations and corporate foundations provided WRI
with 19 percent of its funding in 2012. Other foundations gave 33 percent and most of the rest came
from the U.S. and foreign governments, and “international sources.”
WRI’s chief vehicle to raise business cash is its Corporate Consultative Group (CCG). All it takes to
join is a minimum of $50,000 and a stated “commitment to . . . improvement in social and
environmental performance over time.” In exchange for their funding, companies gain access to
“environmental intelligence that they need in order to protect and grow shareholder value.” This
includes “tailored advice” from WRI staff experts, who can “participate in a panel, or brief your

17 Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas, by Ken Silverstein

colleagues on important issues.” Corporate donors can also use the think tank to “develop and test
new ideas, using WRI as a sounding board.”
WRI says it is “especially sensitive to public perception about the influence of corporate funding on
the research conducted by non-profit think tanks,” so it reviews each relationship carefully and rejects
money “that is restricted to specific policy research reports that issue recommendations for
government policy.” On the other hand—and it’s hard to find an actual distinction here—it “does
work in partnership with private sector entities among others to develop joint policy
recommendations” with the costs “shared among the collaborating parties.”
One of the CCG’s founding members was BP, with which WRI had a “strategic relationship” for
about a decade. The partnership, which netted WRI at least $950,000, was suspended, for obvious
reasons, after the Gulf spill.
But even before the spill, BP’s eco record was hardly pristine. In 2008, Greenpeace named it as the
year’s top corporate greenwasher for running its “Beyond Petroleum” PR campaign (“From the earth
to the sun, and everything in between”) even as it allocated 93 percent of its total investment fund
for the development and extraction of oil, gas and other fossil fuels and slightly more than 1 percent
to solar.
A chief aim of the WRI-BP partnership was promoting “Carbon Capture and
Sequestration” (CCS),” an unproven, hideously expensive technology in which BP is heavily invested.
In theory, carbon sequestration allows coal companies to continue to produce greenhouses gases but
“capture” and store about 90 percent—while requiring forty percent more energy to run a CCS plant
than a regular plant—before they are released into the atmosphere.
In a best-case scenario, large-scale use of carbon sequestration is decades away, and many critics say it
is unlikely to ever happen and a flawed idea to begin with. “The process basically involves adding a
chemical plant to a power plant,” says Kirk Davies, research director of Greenpeace. “It would allow
companies to talk about how they’re taking action while sitting back and continuing to pollute.”
Another early CCG member was GE, which for years was considered to be one of the globe’s worst
corporate polluters. Board minutes from September 2005 show that Edelman, GE’s public relations
firm, brokered its partnership with WRI. Think tank board member Leslie Dach—one of the most
influential corporate lobbyists in Washington, who at the time had recently left Edelman to serve as
Wal-Mart’s top influence peddler—argued that the think tank should “build on our success with GE
and thus be proactive in seeking similar opportunities.”
In 2005, WRI teamed up with GE to launch its wildly successful “Ecoimagination” PR campaign and
product line. Jonathan Lash, president of WRI, joined GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt at a press conference
kicking the campaign off. “This is a hugely important step by one of the world’s most important
companies,” he said. “Innovation and leadership are what is necessary to address climate change, and
that is what we are seeing from GE.”
GE released a particularly smug Ecoimagination advertisement in 2007, which sought to sell “clean
coal”—a long time industry-spawned PR and marketing myth that’s borne as much success as ancient
alchemy’s promise to turn lead into gold—with hot male and female miners wearing black tank tops
and hard hats, as Ernie Ford’s 1955 recording of “16 Tons” plays in the background. The voice over

18 Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas, by Ken Silverstein

muses, “Now thanks to emissions reducing technology from GE energy harnessing the power of
coal is looking more beautiful everyday. Another product of pure Ecoimagination.”
Even GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt acknowledged that Ecoimagination was more about form than
content. “I don’t want to change the economic flow of the company,” he told the Wall Street Journal in
a 2007 story about the campaign. And as the Journal noted, despite Ecoimagination, GE “continues
to sell coal-fired steam turbines and is delving deeper into oil-and-gas production. Meanwhile, its
finance unit seeks out coal-related investments including power plants, which are a leading cause of
carbon-dioxide emissions in the U.S.”
But from a PR standpoint the Ecoimagination campaign was a huge success. Newsweek magazine’s
2012 “Green Rankings” listed GE as the company with the 7th best eco-image in the U.S. That was
far above its ranking—83rd—in terms of its actual environmental record.
More recently, WRI has taken an interest in shale gas. At one board meeting in September 2011,
Susan Tierney, an assistant secretary of the Energy Department under President Clinton, suggested
that WRI get into the shale game by helping “to bridge the gap between industry and the public by
providing unbiased information.”
WRI says environmental concerns need to be addressed in developing shale, but its position seems
more closely aligned with industry, which favors a full speed ahead approach, than with
environmentalists who advocate a more cautious approach. Two senior WRI officials wrote an item
on the group’s website (“Shale Gas: Time to Look Before We Leap Any Further”) which expressed
environmental concerns about shale but also exhibited a markedly upbeat tone. It called shale “a
game-changer for global energy supply” and predicted “a repeat of the early 20th century oil rush.”
At a February 2012 hearing of the U.S.-China Economy and Security Review Commission, an agency
that advises Congress, WRI senior associate Sarah Forbes said the two countries “share an interest in
the international development of shale-gas resources.” She urged U.S. companies to invest in Chinese
shale-gas production and said congress should help them “maximize opportunities” there.
There are a variety of ties between the energy industry and the think tank and its staff. A number of
WRI’s corporate donors have major shale gas interests and James Harmon, the chairman of the think
tank’s board, also sits on the board of QEP Resources, Inc., an independent natural gas and oil
exploration firm with extensive shale holdings.
Board member Susan Tierney is a managing principal at Analysis Group, a consulting firm that
advises various utilities that use natural gas and the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America,
the natural gas pipeline industry association. Kathleen McGinty, another board member and chair of
the White House Council on Environmental Quality during the Clinton administration, is senior vice
president of Weston Solutions, Inc., which consults for various energy firms, including Chesapeake
Energy, one of the big shale players. She’s also a director for NRG Energy, a wholesale power
generation company whose assets include more than two-dozen natural gas power companies.
Tierney and McGinty both served on the Secretary of Energy’s Advisory Board that issued an
industry-friendly report in 2011 on shale gas development. The report’s recommendations were
“largely directed at improving public knowledge about development and enhancing the effectiveness
of the current management of shale gas development environmental risks,” Barry Russell, CEO of

19 Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas, by Ken Silverstein

the Independent Petroleum Association of America, which represents the companies that drill most
of the country’s oil and natural gas wells, approvingly said upon its release.
WRI also has taken an interest in global water supply, forming an “Aqueduct Alliance” with
corporations such as Goldman Sachs, Dow Chemical Company, Talisman Energy and Coca-Cola.
WRI paints the Alliance as a bold eco initiative—saying it will help members reduce their “water footprint in high risk areas” and promote “more equitable, efficient, and sustainable water
resources”—but it seems more about giving a green gloss to companies that desperately seek access
to water for their business operations.
Coca-Cola, which uses 1 gallon of water to produce a 2-liter bottle of soda (and as much as 132
gallons if water used to grow ingredients such as sugar cane is included, according to the World
Wildlife Fund), has been involved in conflicts with farmers and villagers over access to water in
countries ranging from El Salvador to India. Goldman Sachs is heavily involved in the global water
privatization market, a $1 trillion business. Talisman requires enormous amounts of water for its
shale gas operations.
Indeed, WRI’s press release in August 2011 announcing the creation of the Aqueduct Alliance
acknowledged its members had baser concerns than the fate of the earth. As a result of limited
global supply, rapid population growth and climate change, it said, many companies had experienced
water-related disruptions in operations that “can negatively impact profitability and continued
economic growth.”
WRI’s research reports are generally deemed to be first-rate. Michael Oko, a spokesman for the think
tank, said it has firm “firewalls” in place and that its research reports are closely reviewed internally
and externally. Neither donors nor the board have any input into research, he added.
WRI thinks that strategic partnerships with corporations are essential to change and that the think
tank influences its corporate sponsors as much as they influence it, according to Oko. WRI, he said,
vets companies and doesn’t take money if it believes a potential donor is not dedicated to its mission.
(Given the companies it has taken money from, it would be interesting to know whom WRI turned
down. Oko declined to elaborate on that matter. I received no reply from WRI about a request to
speak with development director Cook.)
Oko said WRI took a more subtle approach than many environmental organizations and does more
research than lobbying. The shale gas issue is very polarized and WRI tends to be in the middle, he
Oko said WRI is highly transparent about sources of funding, and a recent report by Transparify
backs him up. And I found much of the material about WRI’s funding, including board minute
meetings, on the group’s website.
However, it’s hard to see how taking so much money from corporations doesn’t impact the think
tank’s agenda and decisions about what issues WRI decides to tackle—and to research—in the first

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V. Staff Conflicts: Influence Peddlers and Consultants
on the Payroll
A. Lobbyists on Think Tank Staffs
In 2010, Ian Brzezinski joined the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank focused on foreign
policy issues. The position, and a perch on Atlantic’s Strategic Advisory Group, seemed natural for
someone with Brzezinski’s resume, which featured significant policy jobs at the Pentagon and on
Capitol Hill.
Of course, that kind of CV is a good fit for another type of Washington work, too. In March 2011,
Brzezinski started up his own lobbying firm. That year, the Brzezinski Group reported two clients:
Grupa LOTOS S.A., a Polish oil company, and Central Europe Energy Partners (CEEP), a nonprofit
of which Grupa LOTOS is a member and founder. They paid him at least $101,000 to lobby the 5
U.S. government on a Grupa LOTOS project to store petroleum in salt caverns in Poland. Between
April 2012 and March of 2013, Grupa LOTOS paid Brzezinski an additional $24,000 a quarter—a
total of $72,000—even though he hasn’t reported any direct lobbying contact with lawmakers.

The same month he started his lobbying firm, Brzezinski spoke at a conference in Poland co-
sponsored by CEEP. On the agenda, he was listed as affiliated with the Atlantic Council. He

discussed energy security and “the importance of salt caverns.” A summary on CEEP’s website
reported that Brzezinski said the region should “follow the model of the USA and collect strategic
[energy] reserves,” and that salt caverns Grupa LOTOS wants to exploit were “perfectly suitable for
storage of gas and oil.” And the following October, a month and a half after registering to lobby
separately for Grupa LOTOS, Brzezinski spoke at a conference sponsored by the James A. Baker III
Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. “Poland can play a significant role in reshaping 6
Europe’s energy map,” said the agenda. “The United States, too, has a strong interest regarding the
future of Poland’s energy industry.” Appearing on the same panel was the CEO of Grupa LOTOS.
The title of his talk: “Project Caverns: Establishing a Strategic Petroleum Reserve for Poland.”
Washington lobbyists are required by law to disclose who they work for, how much they get paid and
what issues they advocate for. But they’re not obliged to mention it when they do other work—like,
say, appear as a policy expert at a think-tank event. Brzezinski’s Atlantic Council bio, for instance,
says he “leads the Brzezinski Group, which provides strategic insight and advice to government and
commercial clients,” but it doesn’t disclose that he’s a registered lobbyist or identify his clients. The
Rice University conference agenda listed Brzezinski as a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council
without mentioning that he was lobbying for the company that wanted to build the project—or that
another panelist was paying him. (Brzezinski said he was unavailable and referred questions to the
Atlantic Council; the Council did not return phone calls or emails requesting comment.)

21 Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas, by Ken Silverstein
In its 2010 annual report, Grupa LOTOS discussed forming CEEP, which it said was engaging with think tanks in 5
order to achieve its “prime objective.” It specifically mentioned the Atlantic Council and the Center for Strategic and
International Studies as some of its target partners.
When Brzezinski registered to lobby on behalf of CEEP, he disclosed that Grupa LOTOS either financed or controlled 6
the activities of CEEP or had a direct interest in the outcome of the lobbying activity. He later terminated his
registration to lobby for CEEP and signed up separately for Grupa LOTOS.

Brzezinski’s role is hardly anomalous. Dozens of Washington insiders have simultaneously worked as
lobbyists for outside entities while serving as top staff, directors or trustees of 20 of the 25 most
influential think tanks in the United States, as ranked by the think tank program at the University of
Take Clark Ervin of the Aspen Institute. A former Department of Homeland Security inspector
general under George W. Bush, he later served as co-chairman of Barack Obama’s transition and,
later, was a member of both Janet Napolitano’s Homeland Security Advisory Council and the
Wartime Contracting Commission on Iraq and Afghanistan. On September 15, 2011, Ervin founded
and became executive director of Aspen’s Homeland Security Group, where he “convenes
policymakers and thought leaders in homeland security and counterterrorism with a view to helping
shape the policy debate,” according to a bio on the website of his law firm.
At the start of 2012, Ervin began lobbying for Vanguard Integrity Professionals, a security software
company that received about $850,000 in contracts with federal agencies in 2012. Vanguard paid
Patton Boggs $310,000 in 2013 for the services of Ervin and three other firm lobbyists. According to
Steven Ringelberg, Vanguard’s chief operating officer, Ervin introduced Vanguard to potential
government clients while his colleague at Patton Boggs lobbied in support of the Cybersecurity Act
of 2012. (Ringelberg said the firm did not stand to gain financially if the bill had passed, which it
didn’t; rather, he said, the company’s support was ideological and for the common good.)
The campaign for the bill was intense. Advocates painted “frightening pictures of derailed trains and
toxic clouds, closed airports and hospitals, even compromised nuclear power plants fouled by secret
attacks on computer networks,” according to a Kansas City Star story. That frightening picture could
only have been confirmed by Ervin’s scholarly program at Aspen, which released a statement—
signed by Ervin and 17 others, mostly former government officials—urging lawmakers to
immediately take up the bill for debate, pointing to “the possibility of a devastating cyber-attack” if
Congress didn’t act.
The statement did not mention that Ervin had a financial relationship with a security software firm
also trying to push the bill forward in Congress. Likewise, Ervin’s Aspen Institute bio identifies him
as “a partner at the law firm Patton Boggs,” but doesn’t specify that he does lobbying work, let alone
that he aids firms who work in the sector that Ervin’s think-tank group studies.
Ervin said in an email it “should suffice for anyone who is curious . . . to know that I work at a law
firm and which law firm, and then anyone who is curious as to the details can consult the firm’s
website.” Jim Spiegelman, a spokesman for the Aspen Institute, said members of the Homeland
Security Group who signed the letter supporting the Cybersecurity Act were speaking for themselves,
not the think tank, which relies on employees to self-report conflicts or potential conflicts. He said,
Ervin did not disclose a conflict “because there wasn’t one,” since the Homeland Security Group
doesn’t speak for Aspen, and Ervin didn’t lobby on the bill. Ervin, Spiegelman added, was not even
“certain that anyone at his firm has lobbied for Vanguard on cyber-security legislation.”
The Center for American Progress has also had registered lobbyists on its staff. CAP senior fellow
Scott Lilly, whose beat includes national security issues, lobbied for Lockheed between 2005 and
late-2011. (A 31-year Hill veteran, he’d joined the Center in 2004.) Lilly, who declined a request for a
phone interview, sent a statement by email saying he had never discussed “Lockheed interests with
CAP staff while serving as a lobbyist for Lockheed.” Lilly’s bio at the CAP website lists a long

22 Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas, by Ken Silverstein

number of past political posts and accomplishments, but doesn’t say anything about him working as
a lobbyist for Lockheed.
Should it have? Lilly is a widely respected defense policy intellectual—and CAP, according to
spokeswoman Andrea Purse, has consistently argued for reductions in defense spending and taken
positions contrary to Lockheed’s interests. And yet awareness of the lobbying work could color even
seemingly unrelated and politically unremarkable pronouncements. For instance, when Lilly,
describing ties between the U.S. and Taiwan as “one of the more important bilateral relationships in
the world,” said that Washington should deliver Taipei “weapons that are necessary . . . without
apology” to China. (Taiwan has “defended its skies with Lockheed Martin products” for decades,
according to the company website.) Or when he cited the role of Tomahawk missiles in knocking out
Libya’s radar and missile-defense systems. (Lockheed works on the missile program.)7
But in the Washington think-tank world, with its tradition of coziness with power, not many people
seem to understand how these all-too-common relationships might merely create an appearance of
something murky. Perhaps one reason for that is the long history of lobbyists serving on the boards
of think tanks, where they can corral donations and steer the organization in larger ways.
At the Brookings Institution—No. 1 on the University of Pennsylvania list—Kenneth Duberstein,
former chief of staff to Ronald Regan, is on the board of trustees, entrusted to “safeguard the
independence of the Institution’s work” while also running a multi-million dollar lobbying shop
down the street. His clients include Goldman Sachs, Comcast, PepsiCo and General Motors. During
his time on the board of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, between 2003 and
2009, David Metzner lobbied for a number of companies with major interests in China, including
Exelon and Siemens Corp. At least four registered lobbyists also serve on the board of directors at
the Atlantic Council, including Lisa Barry, a top in-house lobbyist for Chevron who previously
served as a House staffer, and deputy assistant Frank Kelly, who joined the board in 2003, the same
year he launched the Deutsche Bank’s D.C. lobbying shop.
Of course, nearly all think tanks have corporate funding—and some of them were expressly set up
by industries. But when a policy organization with claims to more disinterested scholarship overlaps
with lobbying, it raises questions. An ideological orientation is one thing; employment by specific
businesses with an interest in policy outcomes is another.
There are legitimate reasons why someone at a think tank might support more trade with China, or

remark on the effectiveness of a certain missile, or encourage the expansion of Poland’s petroleum-
storage capacities. Undisclosed financial ties, though, unnecessarily call all of that into question.

“Someone at a think tank might be smart and have good ideas, but if they’re a lobbyist, they’re not
just a scholar, they have a financial investment,” says Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project
on Government Oversight. “That’s a huge problem.”
One easy fix: Transparency. “If you have a situation like someone from the Tobacco Institute think
tank also lobbying for a tobacco company, there’s not really a problem,” says McGehee of the
Campaign Legal Center. “Everyone knows what’s going on and can take that into account.”

23 Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas, by Ken Silverstein
CAP President Neera Tanden adopted a “no lobbyists” on the payroll policy after my colleague Brooke Williams and I 7
questioned the think tank about Lilly’s role in a story for the New Republic.

But while the government can mandate transparency for the lobbying industry, it can’t tell putatively
scholarly organizations what to do. McGhee says they should do so themselves and very clearly
disclose when an on-staff lobbyist is working on issues or involved in events or reports that take
positions favorable to his or her clients. “If you’re a lobbyist you’re essentially a paid spokesman,” she
said. “That’s a piece of information that the public and policymakers need to know.”
B. Business Consultants at CSIS: When Ideas and Client Interests Mesh
During the early-2000s, the Heritage Foundation regularly criticized Malaysia’s then- prime minister,
Mahathir Mohamad, for his anti-Semitism and his government’s human rights violations. Suddenly,
though, the think tank changed its tone and began sending members of Congress to Malaysia on
junkets and holding panel events like, “Malaysia: Standing Up for Democracy” and “U.S. and
Malaysia: Ways to Cooperate in Order to Influence Peace and Stability in Southeast Asia.”
As the Washington Post disclosed in 2005, “Heritage’s new, pro-Malaysian outlook emerged at the same
time a Hong Kong consulting firm co-founded by Edwin Feulner, Heritage’s then president, began

representing Malaysian business interests. The Post quoted Bruce R. Hopkins, an expert on tax-
exempt organizations, who said Heritage and Feulner were operating in a gray area because it

appeared that Heritage, a nonprofit, was being used to provide benefits to Feulner’s for-profit
consulting firm and its clients.
Malaysia’s current relationship with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) raises a
similar problem. Ernest Bower runs CSIS’s Southeast Asia Studies (SEA), which ardently promotes 8
closer ties between Washington and Kuala Lumpur and generally buffs the image of the Malaysian
In 2012, SEA launched a report, “From Strength to Empowerment: The Future of U.S.-Malaysia
Relations,” during an event at the Rayburn House Office Building. A previous event sponsored by
Bower’s program, “U.S.-Malaysian Relations: Looking Ahead at Key Pillars of Cooperation,” also
made the case for stronger economic, political and military ties.
Meanwhile, Bower simultaneously operates a Fairfax, Virginia-based consulting firm, Bower Group
Asia, that advices foreign companies looking to invest or expand operations in Malaysia. Bower’s
value as a door opener to his corporate clients is based on his close ties to government officials, who
are no doubt pleased with his ability to influence policy and debate in Washington through CSIS. In
Malaysia, the government bestowed him with the honorary title of “Datuk” in recognition of his
work strengthening bilateral relations with Washington.
“It’s hard to say CSIS is impartial on Malaysia when Bower has all these ties to the government,” says
one person familiar with CSIS’s programs. “You always see a tilt towards business interests and a soft
brushing out of concerns about democracy. There’s usually someone representing the Malaysian
government, the U.S. government, business and maybe a moderate academic. So you don’t hear much

24 Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas, by Ken Silverstein
Not as egregious, it should be noted. The key difference, as readers will see, is that Heritage completely changed its 8
tune on Malaysia after the think tank’s head was retained to advocate for the country, whereas CSIS’s position has been
consistent. But if there’s not the same sort of intellectual dishonesty, CSIS’s work raises doubts about its objectivity. It
also raises the question of whether a consulting firm run by a senior figure at CSIS benefits from his role at the think

about the fact that there’s a vibrant opposition or police brutality or discriminatory laws against
Chinese or gay baiting or attacks on Shias.”
And it’s not just Malaysia. CSIS’s Southeast Asia program covers most of the 19 countries where the
Bower Group operates. While client relationships are “highly confidential,” Bower’s consulting firm
claims to have provided “due diligence, strategy input and hands on support” for billions of dollars
in investments in Southeast Asian countries including Burma, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia. In
other words, Bower has confidential business ties with Southeast Asian governments and companies
while heading a think tank program that is supposed to be scholarly and independent, but that
effectively advocates for Southeast Asian regimes.
Bower told me that when CSIS asked him to build a chair for Southeast Asia studies his business was
well established and he didn’t want there to be any questions regarding potential conflicts “or I would
not have been willing to come aboard.” He said CSIS has a strong process in place to prevent
conflicts; for example he is required to confidentially disclose his clients to the think tank. (He said
he is prohibited by his contracts with clients to share them publicly.) Bower added:
“My business does not represent any foreign governments and we do not lobby in Washington, DC.
Like all programs at CSIS and most think tanks we have donors who are from governments,
companies, foundations and individuals. All donors have an interest in what they fund, otherwise,
why would they contribute? But at CSIS was have a policy that we maintain complete control over
the intellectual agenda and editorial control over all our products. My business does not have an
impact on what we study, write or say at CSIS. At CSIS, we have been openly critical of government
policies in the US and throughout the ASEAN countries.”
Bower received a bachelor’s degree from Colgate University but is more of a businessman and
corporate advocate than a scholar. Prior to joining CSIS in 2009, he operated an earlier consulting
firm and served for a decade as president of the US-ASEAN Business Council, “the premier
advocacy organization for U.S. corporations” in Southeast Asia.
Bower Group Asia helps corporations and hedge funds “develop strategies to expand their
businesses, solve problems and do good things in Asia,” according to its website. Bower’s company
bio says he “regularly publishes and provides input to policies in Washington and around Asia,
including Congressional testimony and media interviews”—though when he’s quoted in the press he
is almost always cited as “a Southeast Asia specialist” at CSIS with no mention of his consulting
Murray Hiebert is a senior advisor to the Bower Group and also deputy director to Bower at CSIS’s
SEA. His role at Bower Group is not even mentioned in his CSIS bio, and he, too, is invariably
identified in the press with the halo of think tank scholar. Christopher Johnson, a former CIA China
analyst who holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS, is the Bower Group’s managing
director for China. That affiliation is not mentioned in his CSIS bio either, or typically when
reporters quote him.
(About his relationship with the media, Bower said: “Reporters I speak with know that I am a chair
holder at CSIS and also have a business. That fact is well known and it is in my bio on the CSIS
website. . . . Ultimately, they [reporters] understand and decide how they cite me. I am certainly not
opposed to them indicating that I work at CSIS and my company. In most cases, however, they seem

25 Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas, by Ken Silverstein

to know what hat they want me to be wearing when they have a question in mind. We clarify that and
You’d expect a consulting firm for international corporations to be relentlessly pro-business and not
to dwell much on issues like human rights. After all, more trade fattens the bottom line of corporate
clients. With an allegedly independent think tank, though, you’d expect a somewhat more balanced
And so the synergy between the Bower Group’s agenda and CSIS’s SEA program is troubling. Bower
and Hiebert frequently moderate panel discussions or testify at CSIS events, as do other consulting
firm personnel. At one CSIS program on Burma in 2012, Serge Pun testified as an invited expert. He
also happens to be the head of the Bower Group’s local office in Burma. Pun, by the way, is a
businessman who grew rich during the worst days of military rule in Burma. A 2008 story in the
Times of London said he “maintains good relations with the Burmese dictatorship, has socialized
with its leaders and is a donor to state-run charities.”9
Other speakers at the Burma event included Bower, Christopher Johnson, and Kurt Campbell, a
former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs who now also runs a business
consulting firm and who brokers deals in Burma. Critics of Southeast Asian regimes are less
frequently invited to speak at CSIS events.
Much of CSIS’s Indonesia work is funded by the Arsari Djojohadikusumo Foundation (ADF), which
was established by Indonesian businessman Hashim Djojohadikusumo, one of the country’s leading
oligarchs and the founder and deputy chairman of a major political party. Hashim’s brother, Prabowo
Subianto, is the party’s presidential candidate in the July 2014 election. He’s also a former general
who is banned from entering the U.S. for human rights violations. Troops under his command
kidnapped and tortured at least nine democracy activists in the late-1990s. (A November 2013 story 10
in Forbes said that few candidates would be able to run for president in the 2014 election because they
would need at least $600 million. Fortunately for Prabowo, his brother Hashim has said he is
prepared to foot the bill.)
With its support from the ADF, CSIS conducts “research on U.S.-Indonesia relations and Southeast
Asia and includes a proactive program to promote deeper understanding and closer relations between
the United States and Southeast Asia.” Last May, CSIS hosted an event, “A U.S.-Indonesia
Partnership for 2020,” whose purpose was to “put new ideas and energy into the US Indonesia
relationship,” and which featured a discussion with Bower and Indonesia’s ambassador to the U.S. A
report was released at the event that contained “a set of recommendations on the U.S.-Indonesia
relationship for Obama,” which was authored by Murray Hiebert.

26 Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas, by Ken Silverstein
Tan Sri Ghazzalli Bin Khalid, who as his country’s ambassador to the U.S. from 1999-2006 worked closely with Jack 9
Abramoff’s influence peddling network, runs the Bower Group’s Malaysia office. During the same period that Heritage
was pushing Malaysia, Abramoff was also promoting it, too. He didn’t want to register as a lobbyist, though, so the
Malaysian government, through Ghazzalli, paid Abramoff through the American International Center, a bogus think
tank he set up at a beach house in Delaware. During Ghazzalli’s tour of duty in Washington the Malaysian Embassy
delivered $1.2 million dollars to Abramoff to arrange a White House meeting between Prime Minister Tun Mahathir
Mohamad and President George W. Bush. Ghazzalli resigned as ambassador after the accusations surfaced.
As this report was being finalized, a group of Indonesian lawyers has asked a court to force Prabowo to stand trial for 10
alleged human rights abuses.

Hiebert and Douglas Ramage, managing director for the Bower Group in Indonesia, both appeared
on panels at the event. So, too, did John Riady, Chairman of Indonesia’s Chamber of Commerce and
Industry and an executive at the massive Lippo Group conglomerate. John Riady is the son of James
Riady, who has been barred from entering the U.S. for more than a decade after he pled guilty in 2001
to a “conspiracy to defraud the United States” through illegal contributions to the campaigns of Bill
Clinton and other Democrats. The panel featuring Riady suggested the Indonesian government was
impeding economic growth by pursuing social justice measures.
The ADF also retains a Washington lobbying firm, Williams Mullen, which it paid $480,000 last year
to promote “strong relationships between the United States, U.S. businesses, and the U.S. people and
Indonesian citizens and nongovernmental organizations, including issues of economic growth and
regional security,” according to disclosure forms. It’s hard to see much difference between what the
lobby firm does and what CSIS does. And part of the ADF’s money is used by CSIS to pay for visits
by members of Congress and congressional staff to Indonesia and to bring Indonesian
parliamentarians and staff to the United States. As a lobbying firm, Williams Mullen cannot legally
fund such junkets.
“Regarding the Arsari Djojohadikusumo Foundation, we have no knowledge of any lobbying work
they may be doing,” Bower told me. “If the family has lobbyists in Washington, DC, then I have not
met them. . . . Our program is assiduously aware that we need to be particularly unbiased in our work
in Indonesia and I believe we have amply met that standard.” He said educational exchanges between
parliamentarians and their staff is an activity “that many non-profit organizations undertake for
educational purposes.”
Vietnam is another example of the synergy between the think tank’s SEA program and Bower’s
consulting business. In July 2013, Vietnam’s president, Truong Tan Sang, came to Washington for a
White House meeting with President Barack Obama. During the visit, CSIS hosted Sang for a major
policy speech and panel discussion (moderated by Bower.)
Sang’s visit came at a time that his government was leading a major crackdown on its opponents. The
Vietnamese secret police had recently detained dozens of bloggers and political activists and was
stepping up intimidation of journalists, academics and NGOs. As a result, human rights groups,

unions and members of Congress had called on Obama to press Sang on his government’s anti-
democratic actions and to slow talks on increasing trade. Representative Ed Royce, a California

Republican and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote a letter to Obama
complaining about the “intolerable state of human rights in Vietnam.”
But CSIS’s event on Vietnam was cheerfully upbeat and there was little mention of these unpleasant
issues. Meanwhile, Hiebert co-authored a CSIS report that said Sang’s government was “struggling
with how to allow more political space for its citizens, who have become empowered through the
economic benefits of its reform efforts.” The report cited Jonathan London of City University of
Hong Kong, who said “a much more vibrant and open political debate” had emerged in the country.
Hiebert’s report concluded by saying that Vietnam and the United States “recognize that it is in their
strategic interests to maintain close relations. Sang’s visit will reaffirm that shared belief and set the
stage for a more enhanced U.S.-Vietnam partnership in the decade ahead.”
Bower made similar statements to the press. In a Financial Times story—which identified him only as
“senior adviser for Southeast Asia” at CSIS—he said Sang’s visit would embolden “reformers” in

27 Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas, by Ken Silverstein

Vietnam. “There’s a view in D.C. that by inviting Mr. Sang and talking with him about economic
integration and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that should strengthen the moderates within the
Vietnamese system,” Bower said. Of course, there’s an opposite view too, as expressed by John
Sifton of Human Rights Watch, who wrote at the time that engagement with Vietnam could
embolden hardliners in the regime by “letting [them] think they can get what they want from the
United States while paying only lip service to human rights.”
Southeast Asia is obviously a hugely important region. In 2012, it was the fourth largest U.S. export
market and fifth largest overall trading partner. The Obama administration announced “a strategic
pivot” in American foreign policy, where the United States will shift away from the Middle East and
Afghanistan and invest more heavily in the Asia- Pacific, especially Southeast Asia.
The message of the Bower Group and CSIS is that trade and integration into the global economy
will bring democracy and human rights. This is the same argument made a quarter century ago about
engagement with China, and so far there’s no evidence to support it.
VI. The CAP Paradigm: How Money Transformed a
Think Tank
The history of CAP, which began as a decidedly progressive organization but has since moved
markedly toward the center, well illustrates the role that money plays in influencing think tank
agendas. It also shows how—and why—donors increasingly make use of think tanks as part of their
lobbying campaigns
As noted above, CAP’s founder, John Podesta, was chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and ran
Barack Obama’s transition team following the 2008 election. During the early Obama years he was an
informal adviser to the new president and in 2013, two years after he had stepped down as the think
tank’s president, Podesta was hired as White House senior counselor. By then CAP had clearly
emerged as the most influential think tank of the Obama era.
Podesta, who remains as CAP’s chairman, is a former lobbyist, and it’s no exaggeration to say that
influence peddling is the family business. His brother, Tony, and sister-in-law, Heather, head separate
lobbying firms that each rank among the most powerful in Washington.
Neera Tanden, who served in both the Obama and Clinton administrations and, in between, as policy
director for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, replaced Podesta. Former Virginia
congressman Tom Perriello heads up the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the group’s
advocacy unit. There’s no real separation between the think tank and the fund—they operate out of
the same offices and share personnel—but the latter is legally allowed to lobby and the former not,
so this alliance gives CAP added power.
Just as the Heritage Foundation is a GOP attack dog, CAP during the Obama era has been less
interested in producing new ideas than in reflexively supporting Democratic policies and providing
instant critiques of GOP positions. It periodically criticizes the White House, but effectively serves as
a house organ of the Democratic Party, much as Pravda was to the Politburo during Soviet times. (To
be fair to CAP, during the era of Brezhnev, as opposed to Stalin.)

28 Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas, by Ken Silverstein

In an amazing break from script, Tanden in 2012 told New York magazine, “Obama doesn’t call
anyone, and he’s not close to almost anyone. It’s stunning that he’s in politics, because he really
doesn’t like people.” She immediately apologized via Twitter, saying, “I was trying to say how
President Obama, who I admire greatly, is a private person, but I deeply regret how I said it.” For
anyone else at CAP, such a personal sideswipe at the premier grandee of the liberal Washington
establishment would almost surely have been a firing offense.
It was also deeply out of character for the think tank’s carefully tended public image, which brings
new meaning to the word banal. On its website, CAP explains that its mission is to “critique the
policy that stems from conservative values, challenge the media to cover the issues that truly matter,
and shape the national debate,” and cites “progressive pioneers” such as Teddy Roosevelt and Martin
Luther King, Jr. However, when visitors to the site toggle over to the actual content of the group’s
policy portfolio, they meet a barrage of platitudes that sound as if they were lifted directly from the
collected works of Ronald Reagan. “As progressives, we believe America is a land of boundless
opportunity, where people can better themselves, their children, their families, and their communities
through education, hard work, and the freedom to climb the ladder of economic mobility,” CAP
states. “We believe an open and effective government can champion the common good over narrow
self-interest, harness the strength of our diversity, and secure the rights and safety of its people. And
we believe our nation must always be a beacon of hope and strength to the rest of the world.”
Such self-advertised vacuity makes perfect sense for an institution like CAP, for the simple reason
that these pious word clouds are also the standard argot of corporate America. CAP’s board and
roster of scholars are stuffed with the most rancid elements of the Democratic Party, many of them
Clinton administration veterans or key political supporters. In December 2012, it named Lawrence
Summers, formerly Clinton’s treasury secretary and Obama’s National Economic Council director, as
a distinguished senior fellow. “As our country continues to confront challenges to establishing
economic growth that is more broadly shared, there are few thinkers with Larry’s insights, keen
intellect, and policy creativity,” Tanden said at the time.
Summers was famously named by Time magazine in 1999 as one of the three members of “The
Committee to Save the World,” along with Robert Rubin and Alan Greenspan. They earned that title
for pushing through the near complete deregulation of financial markets—which then worked, in
fairly short order, to engineer the collapse of the global economy. (In a sort of sideline gambit of
epic managerial incompetence, Summers also managed to squander hundreds of millions in
endowment funds during his Bush-era tenure as president of Harvard, by putting together an
enormous 2004 interest-rate swap predicated on a disastrous reading of market trends.)
Unlike his two superhero colleagues, Summers has since mildly repented for his worst deregulatory
excesses and now calls for greater oversight of the financial industry and some limited government
intervention in the private sector to spur recovery and growth. Of course, nothing in his revisionist
policy playbook is disturbing enough to prevent him from continuing to make millions by consulting
for and speaking to financial giants and hedge funds, and accepting perks such as free jet rides from

29 Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas, by Ken Silverstein
The latter firm was the first major merged financial titan of the post–Glass-Steagall age, which Summers’ pal Rubin 11
matriculated back to after his own term as treasury secretary in the Clinton White House; Rubin, clearly determined to
follow in Summers’ distinguished footsteps, nearly bankrupted the flailing investment bank before departing as a
“senior counselor” in 2009 after pocketing more than $100 million.

Another board member is Tom Daschle, the former U.S. Senate majority leader who had to withdraw
his nomination as Obama’s secretary of health and human services because of his failure to pay
about $128,000 in taxes (an oversight, he claimed). Daschle has made millions since leaving public
service as a “special adviser” on K Street and at a private equity firm.
Carol Browner, Clinton’s EPA head and Obama’s director of the White House Office of Energy and
Climate Change Policy, also sits on CAP’s board. One of America’s premier greenwashers, Browner
disclosed income of $1 million to $5 million in 2008 from Downey McGrath, whose partners include
her husband, former congressman Tom Downey, and whose clients have included ExxonMobil,
ChevronTexaco, and DuPont. Browner is now a founding partner at Albright Stonebridge Group, an
international global strategy company led by Madeleine Albright—the onetime Clinton secretary of
state who is also a CAP board member.
The suggestion that CAP is in the business of airing dispassionate policy research and then letting
the chips fall where they may for the sake of broadening the scope of intellectual debate in
Washington is entirely laughable. A review of CAP’s research track record shows that the group’s
work is dictated by two simple mainsprings: its obvious and overwhelming fealty to the Democratic
Party, and the pursuit of corporate cash. For evidence of the former, look no further than the
revolving door that connects the think tank and the Obama administration. At least forty CAP
staffers have taken administration jobs since Obama’s inauguration in 2009, and at least eight
administration officials moved to CAP after leaving their government posts. White House visitor logs
show hundreds of meetings between CAP staffers and administration officials; CAP leaders Podesta
and Tanden, not surprisingly, were among the most frequent White House visitors.
One former CAP staffer described “total synchronization” between the administration and the think
tank, which he said routinely allowed Team Obama to vet reports prior to publication. “We were
constantly in touch with the White House,” this person said. “Once I was on the phone with four
White House lawyers who wanted to know what I was going to say [in an upcoming report].”
Another former staffer offered a somewhat more generous interpretation of the group’s tight
alliance with the business wing of the Democratic Party. “Corporate influence is a huge part of
American politics,” he said. “CAP is interested in politically achievable policy, and if no one is going
to profit from it, it is not going to be achievable.” Translation: CAP is going to advance a self-styled
progressive policy agenda by greeting the steady creep of plutocratic rule with a variation of
“Everybody into the pool!”
It’s therefore no surprise that the other plank of the CAP research agenda—the eager acquisition of
greater corporate backing—commands an increasing share of the group’s efforts. There’s little
functional difference between the Democratic Party and the corporate world when it comes to
running campaigns and elections; why should the promotion of policy debate be any different? After
growing rapidly in its first few years, tax records show, CAP’s total assets fell in 2006 for the first
time, from $23.6 million to $20.4 million. Assets started growing again in 2007 when CAP founded
the Business Alliance, the membership rewards program for corporate contributors, and then
exploded when Obama was elected in 2008. CAP’s total assets now top $44 million, and its Action
Fund treasury holds $6 million more.
A confidential CAP donor pitch I obtained describes the Business Alliance as “a channel for
engagement with the corporate community” that provides “the opportunity to . . . collaborate on

30 Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas, by Ken Silverstein

common interests.” It offers three membership levels, with the perks to top donors ($100,000 and
up) including private meetings with CAP experts and executives, round-table discussions with “Hill
and national leaders,” and briefings on CAP reports “relevant to your unique interests.”
As previously noted, CAP only began disclosing the members of its Business Alliance in 2013, after I
reported on its corporate backing in the Nation. I had obtained multiple internal lists from 2011
showing that dozens of major corporations had joined. The lists were prepared by Chris Belisle, who
at the time served as the alliance’s senior manager after having been recruited from his prior position
as manager of corporate relations at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In a résumé posted online,
Belisle, who no longer works at CAP, said his overseeing the Alliance involved working “directly with
senior or head of government relations in representing their company interests within the
organization,” and being in charge of “programming” for members, including “the planning of
monthly Roundtable discussions and customized policy briefings.”
According to these lists, CAP’s donors included Comcast, Walmart, General Motors, Pacific Gas and
Electric, General Electric, Boeing, Lockheed, Abbott Laboratories, Amgen, Bank of America, 12
Carefirst Blue Cross Blue Shield, Citigroup, Eli Lilly, General Dynamics, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts,
Pfizer, The Carlyle Group and Verizon.
I contacted a number of CAP donors on the lists; only Boeing replied to a request for comment.
“Our work with think tanks is not political, but is more educational in nature,” spokesman Tim Neale
told me. “We want to learn from and share ideas with scholars across the political spectrum, and we
like to get a wide range of viewpoints and ideas rather than focus solely on a particular political
Several CAP insiders, who asked to speak off the record, told me that when Podesta left, there was a
fear that contributions would dry up. Raising money had always been important, they said, but
Tanden ratcheted up the efforts to openly court donors, which has impacted CAP’s work. Staffers
were very clearly instructed to check with the think tank’s development team before writing anything
that might upset contributors, I was told.
I obtained a March 2012 e-mail from Belisle to Podesta and CAP’s communications and legal teams,
which was also copied to Tanden. The e-mail noted a ThinkProgress item featuring a New York Times
op-ed by former Goldman Sachs executive Greg Smith, who called the company’s environment
“toxic and destructive.” At the time, the firm was under heavy fire for deceiving investors and for its
larger role in driving the speculation in toxic securities that unwound the economy. Belisle said he
was “flagging” the item for Tanden since she had recently met with Michael Paese, director of
Goldman’s Washington lobbying office. Goldman Sachs subsequently became a donor.
For an edifying snapshot of how CAP’s fast-growing roster of funders and independent-minded
progressive research can make for an awkward fit, consider the 2011 story of the think tank’s
handling of a scandal in private sector spying. Emails stolen by hackers revealed that lawyers for the
U.S. Chamber of Commerce plotted with three private security companies—Palantir Technologies,

31 Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas, by Ken Silverstein
I mentioned previously that Scott Lilly, a Hill veteran who joined CAP in 2004 as a senior fellow covering national 12
security, simultaneously served as a registered lobbyist for Lockheed between 2005 and 2011. But he wasn’t the only
defense lobbyist working for the think tank. Rudy deLeon, CAP’s senior vice president for national security and
international policy, was a Boeing executive and directed the company’s lobbying operations between 2001 and 2006,
before joining the think tank the following year.

Berico Technologies, and HBGary Federal—to spy on the Chamber’s perceived enemies, which
included activists, labor unions, and CAP. The think tank earned the Chamber’s wrath in part due to
the reporting of Lee Fang, then at ThinkProgress, who had exposed elements of the Chamber’s
shady foreign fundraising operations. “We are the best money can buy!” a Palantir executive wrote in
one email gloating over the company’s planned Chamber-sponsored surveillance activities. “Dam it
feels good to be a gangsta.”
The plotting ended when the emails were leaked—but the revelations were highly embarrassing to
the security firms. Two of them soon made their way into CAP’s obliging orbit. In April 2011, two
months after the story broke, Berico signed up Heather Podesta to lobby for it. By mid-2012,
Palantir, a major contractor to U.S. intelligence agencies, had joined CAP’s Business Alliance.
CAP, for its part, maintains that it has erected a sturdy Chinese wall separating out its fundraising
activities from its policy work. Here’s CAP spokeswoman Andrea Purse: “The Center for American
Progress is a non-partisan educational institution committed to progress on our country’s most
pressing issues, including energy, national security, economic growth and opportunity, immigration,
education, and health care. Our policy formation and analysis is independent, and we have advocated
and will continue to advocate for ideas and policies that create progress for millions of Americans.
We advance these ideas, no matter who is in power.”
CAP’s standing as a secret sluice gate for corporate money has not prevented it from attacking its
enemies for doing the same thing. In an article in Politico in 2012, Perriello and senior fellow Amy
Rosenbaum bashed conservative groups for putting out TV attack ads without revealing that their
funders were big companies that stood to gain from positions espoused by the ads. “This Orwellian
twist was lost on most voters, because [thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v.
Federal Election Commission] there’s no obligation to disclose the donors behind these attacks,” they
wrote. When it comes to courting corporate largesse, in other words, Orwellian twists are entirely in
the eye of the beholder.
It’s hard to scientifically break down the precise ratio by which politics and money influence CAP’s
positions on the issues of the day, but there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence. Consider, for example,
CAP’s various stands on ballistic missile defense. In April 2008 the group reported that BMD
systems were “increasingly obsolete” because “there is no imminent, new ballistic missile threat. The
threat from a North Korean or Iranian long-range missile is still largely hypothetical. . . . A recent
GAO report showed that Missile Defense programs are chronically over budget and behind
But a year later, the group had completely reversed course. In June 2009, CAP released a statement
saying, “The United States needs real capabilities to deal with real threats. It must therefore continue
to research, develop, and deploy credible missile defenses to protect the United States homeland,
allied forces operating overseas, and the territory of U.S. allies.” Of course, the basic assumptions
behind the BMD program hadn’t shifted in any way during the intervening year; what had changed,
quite obviously, was the partisan alliances around the White House. CAP issued its first assessment
when George W. Bush was president and the second one during Barack Obama’s first term. Obama
had not changed the White House’s line on the utility of the BMD program, and so, one can only
infer, CAP was inspired to toe an entirely new line of its own.

32 Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas, by Ken Silverstein

Of course, it also helps that Lockheed, Boeing, and Raytheon, all members of the Business Alliance,
are major BMD contractors. CAP’s 2009 statement specifically praised two highly controversial
programs, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and the Aegis system, on which all
three companies are primary contractors or subcontractors. CAP’s “Idea of the Day” on January 4,
2010, was “Continue Funding for Reliable Missile Defense Systems,” which said that the Pentagon
should “continue research and testing” the THAAD and the Aegis so they could “be perfected to
provide the most cost-effective means of missile defense available.”
Likewise, the Obama administration’s strong pro-nuclear energy posture may help explain CAP’s
curiously evolving (though still inconsistent) stance on that issue. It’s clear enough, at least, that the
group’s complex divagations on nuclear power have also stemmed partly from CAP’s support for the
corporate-inspired “cap-and-trade” bill on global warming that the then-Democratic Congress tried,
and failed, to move out of committee in the heady early days of Obama’s first term. Cap-and-trade
supporters agreed to include pro-nuclear language in the legislation in a pathetic effort to win GOP
support. In July 2010, Senate majority leader Harry Reid announced that he would not even bring the
bill up for a vote, producing the most humiliating (and hideously expensive) defeat for the
environmental movement of modern time.
Even after the bill went down, CAP senior fellow Daniel Weiss was pitiably seeking to rally
Republican troops to the lost cause. “Opposition to ‘cap-and-trade’ legislation to reduce global
warming pollution is a common refrain among many Republican and a few Democratic officials this
fall,” he wrote on the think tank’s website. “The program is derided as a ‘cap and tax’ that would
drain voters’ wallets while bankrupting the nation. But ironically enough, the three most recent
Republican presidents promoted cap and trade, including Ronald Reagan.” He then hailed Reagan’s
achievements, noted that Sarah Palin and many Republicans “greatly admire the father of cap and
trade,” and whined that nonetheless Palin still opposed “a global warming plan that would employ
the innovative cap-and-trade system first created by President Reagan.”
At a cursory first glance, the group’s posture against the spread of nuclear energy could almost be
mistaken for a principled stand. In July 2008, CAP published a piece at the group’s website called “10
Reasons Not to Invest in Nuclear Energy.” During congressional testimony that same month, senior
fellow Joseph Romm said that nuclear power’s “own myriad limitations will constrain its growth” and
that it was “simply not a near-term, cost-effective solution to our climate problem.”
CAP continued to criticize nuclear power after Obama took office. In March 2010, it posted another
paper on its website, “Protecting Taxpayers from a Financial Meltdown.” The report drew a strong
rebuke from the Nuclear Energy Institute, which accused the think tank of “misstatements,
unsubstantiated estimates, and inaccurate descriptions of nuclear construction.”
Yet CAP’s opposition to nuclear power has softened considerably at times, even after cap and trade
was shot down. Last February 9th, the day the Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted approval for
the construction of new nuclear plants in Georgia, CNN quoted Richard Caperton, director of
CAP’s Clean Energy Investment program, as saying, “Moving away from fossil fuels in order to
address climate change is the biggest challenge facing our power sector, and safe nuclear power will
be an important part of that solution.” CAP released a statement by Caperton the same day saying
that completing the plants “would be a critical step in proving that nuclear power can continue to
serve as a leading source of low-carbon power.”

33 Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas, by Ken Silverstein

In October, CAP hosted a conversation with Allison Macfarlane, chair of the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission. “Nuclear power is our nation’s largest low-carbon power source,” read CAP’s invitation
to the event. “Over the last two decades, U.S. nuclear plant operators have shown an excellent record

of operational safety and have greatly increased the operational performance of reactors.” The pro-
nukes positions in the post-cap-and-trade phase of policymaking might well have something to do

with the significant stakes in nuclear energy shared among at least half a dozen Business Alliance
members: GE, Pacific Gas Electric, Duke Energy, American Electric Power, Constellation Energy,
and Xcel Energy. It’s a safe bet, at any rate, that this powerful group of funders has been quite
pleased to see the recent boilerplate pro-nuclear PR copy going out under CAP’s letterhead.
Foreign governments and business entities can also join the Business Alliance, whose membership
list includes the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office—which functions as Taiwan’s
embassy in Washington and retains many lobbyists, including former Oklahoma Republican Senator
Don Nickles and former Missouri Democratic Representative Richard Gephardt—and the
Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists of Turkey (TUSKON).
In 2010, CAP issued a report, “Ties That Bind: U.S.-Taiwan Relations and Peace and Prosperity in
East Asia,” which warned that the partnership between the two countries had stagnated and
suggested that the United States maintain arms sales to Taiwan, increase economic and diplomatic
cooperation, and otherwise “seek ways to deepen their relationship.” That same year, CAP’s Scott
Lilly gave an address at the American Institute in Taiwan, in which he hailed the ties between the two
nations as “one of the more important bilateral relationships in the world” before calling for
additional arms sales to Taiwan. Lockheed, for whom Lilly lobbied at the time, is a leading arms
merchant to Taiwan.
With help from TUSKON, CAP also makes an annual fact-finding trip to Turkey, among them one
in February of 2013. The CAP delegation met with U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone and senior
Turkish government officials. A former CAP staffer told me that TUSKON had “amazing access”
and “could call anyone in the government and get us a meeting or interview.” As a result of the
Turkish group’s support, CAP was “totally in the tank for them,” this source said.
CAP also presses for closer ties between the U.S. and Turkish governments, just as Ankara’s lobbyists
do. In 2012, CAP hosted an event featuring Commerce Secretary John Bryson, who spoke on his
“vision for deepening even further the US-Turkish commercial relationship.” Two years earlier,
Podesta gave the keynote address at a TUSKON conference in Istanbul. In his speech—titled “The
Unique Importance of the Turkish-American Relationship”—he praised CAP senior fellow Michael
Werz for his work on “strengthening the US-Turkey relationship.” He also pointedly noted that
Werz’s predecessor as CAP’s Turkey expert, Spencer Boyer, had left the think tank to become the
Obama administration’s deputy assistant secretary for European affairs.
“Our policy work is independent and driven by solutions that we believe will create a more equitable
and just country,” Purse told me. CAP has similarly cited all the ways in which it has been critical of
its (only recently acknowledged) corporate donors as proof that they do not influence its policy
It’s nice that CAP sometimes criticizes its donors, but I found numerous instances where it praised
them as well. But really, that is not the point. Wall Street companies gave a lot of money to President
Obama not because they expected to get his support all the time, but to get it more than they would

34 Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas, by Ken Silverstein

if they didn’t give him money at all. (And I’d say they got a pretty good return on their investment.) I
expect that’s the same impulse that prompts companies to give CAP money, unless you believe
Boeing’s explanation to me, that its contributions to the think tank are purely “educational in nature.”
Thus, it seems, CAP really is the perfect liberal think tank for the age of Obama, when the core
policy options and alliances that shape American politics are simply dictated by the flow of cash. The
former staffer who spoke with me about CAP’s frequent communications with the Obama White
House succinctly summed up the gnat-straining fate of the multimillion-dollar think tank. “They
totally bought into the Obama vision, and he had no vision,” he said. “When Obama was progressive
and talked about the stimulus, they were for that, and when he cut a deal with Boehner, they were for
that. They don’t stand for anything themselves.” Except, it seems, for the moneyed regurgitation of
the current Democratic mush.

VII: Fixes: How to Address the Conflict of Interest
It’s because of the sorts of relationships described in this report that the University of Pennsylvania’s
think tank program warned, in a 2013 report, that think tanks “appear to be losing their voice and
independence” and losing “their credibility with policymakers and the public.” The situation is likely
to get worse with think tanks fighting for funding and offering such attractive rewards to big
contributors. In fact, the study says, think tank donors are growing “impatient with conferences,
forums and seminars,” and increasingly want their money spent on “operational, advocacy-oriented
programs.” And that, it seems, is something think tanks are more than happy to offer.
Think tanks, like all major research institutions, need to raise money. But rules should be put in place
to ensure that donors aren’t able to corrupt research outcomes or to use think tanks as part of their
lobbying campaigns.
Think tank officials and staff interviewed during research for this report unanimously acknowledged
that fundraising could lead to potential conflicts of interest and that internal ethics rules or guidelines
are needed to prevent that. However, they were not in agreement on precisely what the rules should 13
look like.
One source at a conservative think tank said that while guidelines were important, they should not 14
create “barriers to entry.” This person added: “Think tanks are not the government. We have our
First Amendment rights. I fill out forms for my think tank that lists my outside income and the think
tank decides whether there’s a problem or not. I don’t think I should be required to disclose all of

35 Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas, by Ken Silverstein
Few think tanks make available their internal rules on conflicts of interest. Among the few that do are the centrist 13
New America Foundation and the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. The former defines a conflict
of interest “as an interest that might affect, or might reasonably appear likely to affect, the judgment or conduct of an
individual associated with the Foundation.” It cites a few examples of potential conflicts, such as a director, officer,
fellow, or staff member receiving gifts “from any third party on the basis of his or her position with the Foundation
(other than occasional gifts valued at no more than $50). Another example would be a New America staffer or director
holding outside employment “that will materially encroach on such person’s obligations to the Foundation” or
“compete with the Foundation’s activities.”
The sources were granted anonymity to encourage them to speak as freely as possible about the topic. 14

that information to the public. We’re not public servants but we do important work and you don’t
want people to be driven out. Also, the ability to earn outside income is important because think tank
salaries are low, so I give speeches and outside writing to earn income.”
This person said that entities donate to think tanks for all sorts of reasons and that it was “unrealistic
to ask think tanks to decline donations.” However, he believed donors should never be allowed to
edit or change research papers and conclusions, regardless of whether they have a direct financial
interest in the product or not.
The source said that he believed fellows at conservative think tanks had an easier position than those
at liberal think tanks. “Everyone knows that we are generally pro-business and anti-regulation,” he
said. “I don’t see why I shouldn’t be able to take money from groups whose side I am already on.”
The key issue, he said, was ensuring a strict separation between a think tank’s administration and its
scholars. “You need to make sure of two things,” this source stated. “Fellows should be able to write
what they want without it being pre-approved by the administration, and fellows should be allowed
to endorse a candidate no matter what his or her political party. Unfortunately, not all think tanks
permit those things.”
Another source, at a less ideological think tank, believed stricter rules were needed. He said: “You
need to disclose outside income, period. Internal disclosure is not enough. Some think tanks are
corrupt from the get-go but they still have weight in Washington and it’s not clear who’s paying their
bills. People need to have clarity and know whose water you’re carrying and who is paying your bills.
If the pharmaceutical interest industry wants to pay me $25,000 to speak at their convention I need
to report that to the outside world. Maybe that’s fine but it needs to be transparent. A public
intellectual should disclose who is paying him or her to be a public intellectual.”
This person said there would always be tension when it came to raising money, even if the tension
was very subtle in some instances. He once wrote critically about one of his think tank’s major
donors, which complained to the administration: “The subject came up at a board meeting and I
wasn’t there but I heard about it afterwards. The president of the think tank defended me and there
were no direct repercussions but it made me paranoid. I don’t feel like I changed anything I wrote
but I didn’t push for a bigger footprint within the institution because I felt insecure about my
position and that I had made people at the top uncomfortable. They are the ones that have to chase
money so I kept my head down; I didn’t want to make the president defend me too often.”
This person added: “Whenever someone gives you money it’s hard to criticize them but at the same
time you don’t have to sell your thoughts and ideas. There’s still a great diversity of interests in this
country and if you are creative you can find someone to fund what you want to do. That said, fellows
must be isolated from politics. That’s why tenure was created in academia; you want some people to
be completely insulated from that type of pressure. It’s really hard for intellectual to make their way
without selling out and you need to find ways to fund and protect those people.”
Based on such input, here are some thoughts about the broad type of conflict of interest rules that
think tanks should adopt.
1) A think tank should be dedicated to advancing its mission rather than the interests of
any specific person or organization. Therefore, it should not allow an active employee to
work as a registered lobbyist on behalf of any entity other than the think tank itself. (An

36 Pay-to-Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas, by Ken Silverstein

employee is defined as someone receiving pay for work, so this policy would not apply
to unpaid board members, advisors, etc.)
2) Think tanks should decline donations from any entity that has a focused financial
interest in the outcome of the policy debate addressed by the research funded. A
“focused financial interest” would mean, for example, a subsidy, regulatory change, legal
requirement, or narrow tax loophole that could specifically harm or benefit a potential
donor or that donor’s industry.
3) Transparency enhances the credibility of scholars and their research. Therefore, think
tanks should clearly and prominently disclose any research area or project specific
donations on its website, and on any and all products that are a part of that research
area or project, such as webpages, reports, policy papers, or speaker series.
4) Organizational websites should include a prominent link to a list of donors on its
homepage. The list would include all types of donors, such as individuals, foundations,
corporations, and governments. Disclosure should be a default practice, and current and
potential donors should be notified of this practice.
5) Anyone who represents a think tank before Congress regarding any specific issue or
legislation should clearly disclose, as a part of the official transcript or communication
(testimony, letter, email, memo, etc.), any donors to their institution that have lobbied on
the issue or legislation, or that are known to have a focused financial interest in the
6) Anyone who represents a think tank before Congress or other lawmakers is also
expected to disclose any potential conflict of interest, or anything that reasonably could
be perceived as a conflict of interest, such as prior employment by interested parties or
lobbying work.
7) All think tank board members, fellows, scholars and other officials should fill out a
financial disclosure form annually. The form should disclose information regarding : 15

a) Money or any material benefit received from any company or organization, for-
profit or non-profit, that an observer might reasonably expect to affect in any way

one’s research, writings or other activities for the think tank.
b) Owned stock, material securities, stock options, shares or any other financial interest
in other companies that might affect or be perceived as affecting research and
writing results.
c) Received royalty income of any amount, or the right to receive future royalties,
under any patent, license or copyright from any company or organization, for-profit
or non-profit, that might be perceived as financially affecting research and writing.