Op-Eds, Articles and Think Tanks for Sale: Thoughts on the Corruption of Washington’s Ideas Industry


My friend Doug Bandow (note that the Cato Institute has already made him a “former senior fellow”) has recently admitted to taking payment from Jack Abramoff to write favorably about Abramoff’s clients. Doug has resigned from the Cato Institute and been forthright that this whole thing was a “lapse of judgement.”
Truth in advertising. Doug Bandow has been a guest-blogger at The Washington Note in the past, and he wrote one of the more compelling but still wrong-headed pro-John Bolton articles in National Review this year. Those that have been reading TWN for a while know that I was diametrically positioned to Bandow on the Bolton battle.
For the record, I would ask Bandow to guest blog again.** I regret that he is involved with Abramoff, but when a town like Washington, D.C. has become systemically corrupt, where does one start focusing the blame? Bandow has paid a price by resigning from Cato.
But what of think tanks and the growing undisguised advocacy role that they play on behalf of funders’ objectives?
What of the media at home and abroad in which the U.S. government has paid pundits, ghost writers, and opinion leaders to help shape opinion via op-eds and other articles in the U.S. press and even Iraq’s press?
What of Tom DeLay’s efforts to punish corporate trade associations and NGOs for hiring Democrats, choking off political access to all — inside and outside the Congress — who didn’t do his bidding?
All of these depict a corruption of institutions that should not rest on the revelations about one guy who has a great mind and made a mistake — particularly when the rest of the institutions in this town are engaged in dramatically worse behaviors.
I have written about the corruption of think tanks in the past, and in my view, Doug Bandow’s transgression is minor. I praise him for not resisting or dissembling about this relationship to Abramoff.
But on other fronts, what about Jim Woolsey’s war-profiteering? What about Doug Feith’s $700,000 grant from Turkey, orchestrated by Israel? What of Richard Perle’s conflicts of interest in this war? Cheney’s Haliburton conflicts have already become cliches.
I hope that this kind of story about Bandow grows into a larger discussion about institutions and their responsibility to the public.
Another recent departure from the Cato Institute was Chuck Pena, then Director of Defense Policy Studies at that institution. In contrast to Bandow who already has “former” attached to his bio on the Cato website, Pena — who is no longer there — still reads as if he were a current employee.
Within weeks of departing Cato, Pena wrote an important critique of the trap think tanks were in because of the Iraq war and the constraints of ideology, and ideological funders. He argues, and TWN agrees with him, for an “emancipation of think tanks“.
Despite the few articles out there, some are discussing what is driving real corruption in Washington — and why institutions that span the range from 501(c)3, 501(c)4, 527, and other policy and/or political incorporated entities are increasingly becoming money launderers for lobbyist’s objectives.
It’s time we began to think about “best practices” in the ideas industry and began to move the norms of this town back in a direction of which we can be proud.
— Steve Clemons
** UPDATE: I have modified my position on this matter and think that there should be criteria for guest-bloggers on TWN, including Doug Bandow. I hope he is able to meet them in the future, but further commentary can be read about my reconsideration of this policy at this comment: “Posted by Steve Clemons at December 16, 2005 05:36 PM” (just click on comments and scroll to the noted time of this comment). I did embrace the notion of Doug Bandow guest-blogging again prematurely as there need to be established ground-rules. That said, I rarely have guest-bloggers and have only done so once in the history of TWN. Thanks for the constructive counsel from readers.
— Steve Clemons