The Atlantic Council, Foreign Funding, and Intellectual Independence

Chuck Hagel Atlantic Council Chairman

Opponents of Senator Chuck Hagel’s confirmation to be the next secretary of defense have waged a smear campaign accusing him of everything from anti-Semitism to anti-gay bigotry to poor treatment of staffers.

They’re nonetheless short of not only a majority in the Senate but even the forty votes needed to sustain a filibuster. Their latest gambit is to delay a vote by engaging in a fishing expedition into the financing of the various organizations with whom Hagel is affiliated, including the Atlantic Council, where he serves as chairman of the board of directors.

Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, rightly notes that opponents are “insist[ing] upon financial disclosure requirements that far exceed the standard practices of the Armed Services Committee and go far beyond the financial disclosure required of previous Secretaries of Defense.” It’s perfectly reasonable to ask those seeking to serve in sensitive government posts to divulge who’s paid them. It’s bizarre, indeed, to ask that those entities in turn open their books.  And, as Levin notes, we haven’t done so: “Over the sixteen years that I have served as either Chairman or Ranking Minority Member of the committee, we have considered numerous nominations of individuals who were associated with similar think tanks, universities, and other non-profit entities. Even in the many cases where a nominee received compensation from such a non-profit entity, we did not require the nominee to disclose the sources of funding provided to the non-profit entity.”

Regardless, in the process of throwing out charges to see if anything sticks,opponents have made scurrilous suggestions about the Atlantic Council’s funding, practices, and motivations that must be addressed.

The notion that the Atlantic Council is some clandestine organization under nefarious foreign influence is laughable to those who know our long history. Our founders include Dean Acheson, secretary of state under Harry Truman, and Christian Herter, who held the same post under Dwight Eisenhower. And we’ve been led over the years by the likes of Andrew Goodpaster, Brent Scowcroft, and Jim Jones; in short, some of the finest Americans of the postwar era. But, while we’re well known and regarded in elite circles, we’re not a household name and these inflammatory charges may well be the first time some are hearing of us.

An unnamed “senior GOP aide” told Buzzfeed Wednesday that “Senators are not reacting well” to Hagel’s response that information about the finances of organizations with whom he’s affiliated “are not mine to disclose” and that he has “a fiduciary duty that includes the obligation to maintain the confidentiality of non-public corporate information.” The aide charged, “He is basically telling Senators they have no right to know if he has been unduly influenced by foreign governments or foreign agents over the last five years. What is he hiding?”

Friday afternoon, in attempt to set the record straight, Atlantic Council president and CEO Frederick Kempe released a seven-page letter to Hagel and various media outlets detailing the Council’s foreign funding sources and ethical policies relating to funders.

It’s worth noting at the outset that Hagel serves the Atlantic Council pro bono. He has put in countless hours over the past four years, including traveling all around the globe on Council business, without a single dime in compensation, from foreign sources or otherwise, aside from a $5000 honorarium for his contribution to our May 2012 publication “The Task Ahead: Memos for the Winner of the 2012 Presidential Election.” All contributors were offered the same amount and the compensation was “paid from general Council resources and not a foreign source.”

Breitbart’s Joel Pollack complains that “The list did not shed light on individuals such as Saad Hariri, whose family has given generously to the Atlantic Council and who has supported the Hamas terror organization publicly, as well as offering financial support to Syrian rebels.”

Like most 501(c)(3) organizations, the Council does not disclose individual donors. But the list wouldn’t have shed any light on Saad Hariri, in any case, given that he has no affiliation with the Council. (That said, conflating support for the political wing of Hamas, which like it or not constitutes the democratically elected government in Gaza, and support for terrorism is simplistic; even more so considering that Saad Hariri’s father, former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, was murdered by Hezbollah terrorists.) We have, however, received generous support from Bahaa Hariri, Rafik’s eldest son, who is a businessman and not a political figure. We’ve hardly hidden this fact. Bahaa Hariri sits on our board of directors and we’ve proudly named our Middle East Center after his father, a great force for peace in the region whose work was cut short by an assassin.

Like all organizations of its kind, the Atlantic Council has to fund its work by cultivating donors. As our focus has broadened from NATO to addressing global challenges by harnessing transatlantic cooperation and values, so has our circle of foreign funders. 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. The full text of these policies is included in the aforementioned letter.

The short version is that all funding from foreign governments or state-controlled entities are formally reviewed by the Council’s executive leadership team and reviewed by the Nominating and Governance Committee of its board. Additionally, the Council’s policies for foreign entities include non-negotiable terms of full disclosure and intellectual ownership and the Council always seeks to diversify the funding  so that no project is dependent on a single funder.

Further, aside from our “common belief in the Council’s mission of renewing the Atlantic community for global challenges,” the “Council as an organization does not adopt or advocate positions on particular matters” while its individual board directors, executives, and staff are free to express their own views, so long as they make clear they speak for themselves, not the organization. While that policy has been formalized since Hagel came aboard, it’s been our operating principle for as long as I’ve been here. Indeed, the inaugural posting for this blog noted,

It should be emphasized from the outset that the views expressed here are strictly those of the signed author and do not necessarily reflect a consensus view of the Council, its Board, or its members.  This isn’t a generic disclaimer aimed at covering our backsides but rather a reflection of the fact that, while we share a vision that the West must work together to achieve our foreign policy aims, the Council is a diverse, non-partisan network of leaders and scholars with a wide range of views on what are complex and controversial issues.  These pieces don’t represent the Council’s view because, more often than not, the Council doesn’t have a view.  Or, perhaps I should say, we have many views.

Our board of directors  contains prominent members of both parties, including individuals who’ve passionately and publicly disagreed with one another on the great controversies of US foreign policy over the years. We’re an institution that awarded our highest honor to George H.W. Bush and to the man who defeated his bid for re-election, Bill Clinton, in successive years. For that matter, we’re an institution chaired by Chuck Hagel who gave a 2011 Freedom Award to John McCain, years after the two had a bitter falling out over the Iraq War. While these individuals may disagree on many things, they’re united in their belief in the value of American leadership, cooperation with our European allies and partners, and in the core values of Western democracy.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: James Joyner

Image: FPS_Hagel.jpg