A group of U.S. lawmakers is prodding the Trump administration to require the Qatar-based news channel Al Jazeera to register as foreign agents under U.S. law.
The move against the Arab-language TV-news powerhouse comes as the little-enforced Foreign Agents Registration Act is undergoing a renaissance of sorts, prompted in part by a rare criminal prosecution — special counsel Robert Mueller's indictment of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and longtime aide Rick Gates for their work for Ukraine.
In a letter sent Monday to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the members of Congress argued that Al Jazeera is serving as a mouthpiece for Qatar's foreign policy views and that the network appears to qualify as a "state-controlled" operation.
"We find it troubling that the content produced by this network often directly undermines American interests with favorable coverage of U.S. State Department-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations, including Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria," Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) and others wrote. "American citizens deserve to know whether the information and news media they consume is impartial, or if it is deceptive propaganda pushed by foreign nations."
A Justice Department spokesperson had no immediate comment on the letter.
The effort to pressure Al Jazeera to register is the latest in a series of efforts to reinvigorate the law passed in 1938 to combat Nazi propaganda.
In November, the online news outlet Sputnik and U.S. affiliates of Russian-owned broadcaster RT registered as foreign agents under protest after receiving what amounted to formal warnings from the Justice Department. Russia quickly retaliated by making similar moves against U.S. news outlets in Russia.
Last month, a bipartisan group of senators said Chinese media outlets operating in the U.S. should be required to register under FARA. Only the distributor for a Chinese government-owned newspaper, China Daily, is currently registered, the senators said.
And the special counsel's ongoing prosecution against Manafort and Gates has called additional attention to lobbying campaigns allegedly drawing on foreign government funds to target U.S. officials and audiences. Mueller has alleged that a European group promoting various policies favorable to the Ukrainian government was actually a front for then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions.
Manafort has repeatedly denied the allegations in the indictment filed last October, but last week Gates entered a guilty plea in the case and admitted that he was part of a conspiracy to violate FARA in connection with the Ukraine-related work.
The fresh scrutiny of Al Jazeera raises some tricky questions about the scope of the U.S. foreign-agents registration law. In 2016, Al Jazeera shut down Al Jazeera America, its 24-hour channel specifically targeting U.S. audiences.
It's unclear how much a foreign news operation needs to focus on U.S. audiences in order to trigger registration requirements under FARA.
When the law was passed eight decades ago, it was easier to determine such a focus. With news distributed via the Internet, those lines have become more blurred.
"While I'm sure there are people reading and viewing the stuff online in Canada or the U.K., it seems clearly intended and geared to influence U.S. policy or public opinion on issues such as Israel and the Middle East," one attorney, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said of Al Jazeera's English operations. "If it was Al Jazeera's Arabic language channel or another Al Jazeera channel directed at the Arab world we were talking about, it would be a different story."
The evolving campaign by U.S. lawmakers' to press Al Jazeera to register has drawn reports in recent weeks by the Washington Free Beacon and the Huffington Post. The transmission of the letter to Sessions on the status of Al Jazeera took place at the outset of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual Washington policy conference and amid a pitched battle over a forthcoming Al Jazeera documentary focused on pro-Israel groups and activists and their roles in the U.S.
Spokespeople for Al Jazeera did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story, but officials at the network have suggested the program will feature someone who infiltrated pro-Israel groups undercover and gathered information about their close cooperation with the Israeli government.
Various pro-Israel groups have sought to put pressure on Qatar in recent months to prevent airing of the documentary or to vet its contents. A spokesperson for the Qatari embassy did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
The lawmakers' letter specifically urges the Justice Department to explore "the full range of activities undertaken by Al Jazeera in the United States, including reports that it infiltrated American 501(c)(3) and (c)(4) nonprofit organizations."
FARA registration has been an issue of contention involving U.S. policy toward the Mideast for decades. In the 1960s, the Justice Department and a Senate committee investigated the American Zionist Committee over its ties to Israel. The group submitted detailed information on its activities to the Justice Department but never formally registered under FARA.
The organization eventually morphed into AIPAC and altered its funding practices to bar any subsidy from the Israeli government, but it has sporadically faced calls from its critics to register as an official lobbying arm for Israel. The group claims that it is a voice of pro-Israel Americans and that it operates independently of the Israeli government.