When U.S. officials become foreign agents

October 28, 1990|By DAVID KUSNET

Agents of Influence:

How Japan's Lobbyists in the United States

Manipulate America's Political System.

Pat Choate.


295 pages. $22.95. When a country hits hard times, nothing angers people more than feeling betrayed by the privileged and powerful.

With America mired in governmental gridlock and fearing economic collapse, there's no shortage of targets for populist wrath. Junk-bond hustlers, savings-and-loan officials and celebrity plutocrats like Donald Trump -- all exemplify the primal parable that political economist Robert Reich calls "rot at the top."

But if there's anything more contemptible than decadence, it's disloyalty, and treason-of-the-elites is the theme of Pat Choate's controversial new book. His targets are what he characterizes as trade-war turncoats who shuttle from powerful positions in the U.S. government to lucrative careers fronting for foreign interests.

As Mr. Choate reports, foreign governments and companies -- particularly Japan's -- spend at least $400 million a year to hire "lobbyists, superlawyers, former high-ranking public officials, public relations specialists, political advisers -- even former Presidents." Meanwhile, Japan spends an additional $300 million a year to build a grass-roots political network and influence opinion makers in academia, the media and think tanks.

For instance, Japanese interests prevailed over General Motors, Ford and Chrysler to win "light truck" imports the best of two worlds: classification as passenger cars for tariff purposes to enjoy lower duties, and reclassification as trucks once on sale in the United States to enjoy lower fuel-efficiency standards. Similarly, the Toshiba Corp. lobbied successfully to escape severe sanctions for selling restricted military technology to the Soviets.

Mr. Choate's most disturbing revelation concerns the career paths of staffers in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, which is responsible for representing American interests in trade negotiations. "Between 1973 and 1990," he writes, "one-third of the USTR officials who held principal trade positions left to become registered foreign agents." And, in 1989, "the three top American trade positions -- the USTR and the senior deputy USTR's -- went to people who were working for Japanese and other foreign interests."

Imagine the uproar if this information were distributed to workers at an auto plant, a steel mill or an electronics factory the same day they're told they're facing layoffs because of foreign competition.

Yet, if this information is infuriating, all but the most knowledgeable readers may be as confused by what Mr. Choate and his publisher apparently believe is his hottest finding: a list of about 200 former high-ranking U.S. officials who later represented foreign governments and corporations.

It is of interest that a former assistant secretary for trade at the Department of Commerce has represented All Nippon Airways, Hitachi Ltd., Japan Aircraft Development, Komatsu Corp., Samsung Semiconductors, Hyundai Motor America and the Korean Foreign Trade Association. Surely there's a story that a former assistant secretary of state and special negotiator for the Mideast peace process has represented the government of Iraq. Meanwhile, Maryland readers might want to know that former Sen. Charles Mathias represented the People's Republic of China, and former Representative Michael Barnes' clients included Toyota and Sony. But the list doesn't indicate what these former public officials did for clients, nor whether they were primarily lobbying or lawyering.

Without further explanation, the reader can't tell whether these former officials were representing their clients on legitimate concerns, or whether, as the listing implies but does not prove, they were in some way compromising U.S. interests. It's one thing for former State Department officials to represent Saddam Hussein or former trade officials to represent Hyundai, but when lawyers leave government service is it inherently improper to represent any and all foreign clients? For instance, what difference does it make that former Secretary of State Edmund Muskie once represented a Canadian insurance company and a British steel company -- the two foreign clients that place him on Mr. Choate's list?

Nonetheless, "Agents of Influence" is useful, particularly if Mr. Choate succeeds in prompting public discussion of two important issues. First, there is a need to set new standards for "civic virtue" so that government officials no longer will see public service as a steppingstone to making their fortunes representing private interests, foreign or domestic. Second, debate is long overdue on what constitutes America's national interest in the world marketplace. As Mr. Choate asks, "Are some industries and technologies so critical to America's economic and military security that they warrant special federal policies?"

The ultimate responsibility for the problems described in this book, as Mr. Choate repeatedly declares, lies not with Japan but with ourselves. While our elites helped plunge us into our present predicament, it's up to the rest of us to find a way out.

Mr. Kusnet was a speechwriter for former Democratic presidential candidates Michael Dukakis and Walter Mondale.

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