WASHINGTON (CN) – The Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday grilled Justice Department officials on the agency’s uneven enforcement of a law that requires agents of foreign governments to register with the agency.
The law, called the Foreign Agents Registration Act or FARA, has taken on more prominence recently with news that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn retroactively registered as foreign agents for lobbying work they did for foreign countries.
The law has also come up in discussions about a meeting Donald Trump Jr. took with a Russian lawyer and a Russian-American lobbyist, neither of whom was registered as a foreign agent.
Trump Jr. took the meeting after being promised compromising information on Hillary Clinton, and Manafort and other Trump campaign officials attended the meeting as well.
Both Manafort and Trump Jr. were originally scheduled to testify at Wednesday’s hearing on the law, with Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., even going so far as subpoenaing Manafort to force him to cooperate.
But both men reached agreements with Grassley and Feinstein allowing them to provide transcribed interviews and other documents to the committee in exchange for not having to testify at the public hearing.
Glenn Simpson, the CEO of Fusion GPS, which commissioned a controversial dossier alleging connections between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, was also subpoenaed to testify, but Grassley dropped the subpoena after Simpson agreed to provide a transcribed interview.
While the absence of Trump and Manafort created a void at the much-anticipated hearing, senators on the Judiciary Committee criticized the Justice Department for its enforcement of FARA, calling it unequal and ineffective.
“It seems to me that the time has really come to tighten this Act up,” Feinstein said at the hearing.
Grassley noted that the number of people who registered as foreign agents has dropped significantly in recent years so that only 400 are currently on the Justice Department’s rolls.
Grassley said it is unlikely so few people are advocating on behalf of foreign governments in the United States and suggested the Justice Department is not enforcing the law as it should.
“Knowing exactly who is acting on behalf of the Russian government is vital in to get to the bottom of Russian influence in our democratic system,” Grassley said. “That is why FARA must be enforced consistently and evenhandedly, otherwise it won’t be taken seriously.”
Senators also questioned why so few prosecutions happen under the law. In written testimony, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz said his office found only seven criminal prosecutions were brought under FARA between 1966 and 2015, with only three people being convicted under the law.
Adam Hickey, the deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice Department’s National Security Division, defended the small number prosecutions, saying there is a high burden of proof for such cases because prosecutors have to show the agent is being willfully deceptive.
Hickey also noted that people acting with similar interests as foreign governments do not need to register as foreign agents, only those who act at a government’s explicit direction.
“One of the challenges we sometimes face is that independent groups may have interests that overlap with or coincide with foreign government,” Hickey said. “And that can be a challenge to our determination that they are acting at the direction or control of the foreign principle.”
The hearing ended before the committee could hear from William Browder, a hedge fund manager whose investigations into corruption in the Russian government led to the Magnitsky Act, which allows the president to impose sanctions against Russians who commit human rights violations. The hearing ended earlier than expected because Democrats invoked the so-called two-hour rule, which prevents Senate committees from meeting beyond two hours past when the Senate convenes.