Lobbying for foreign interests is booming business in Washington

In a city where politics is the main business, connections command a high price. Foreign interests -- not just governments, but rebel groups and corporations -- seem willing to pay United States firms hundreds of thousands of dollars to give them a leg up in the Washington bureaucracy.

Take Jonas Savimbi, the Angolan rebel leader who is paying a US lobbying firm $600,000 to set up appointments and ferry him around the city. During his 10-day visit here, Mr. Savimbi has met with President Reagan, Secretary of State George P. Shultz, and Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger. He's also appearing on CBS's ``60 Minutes,'' ABC News ``Nightline,'' the ``MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour,'' Cable News Network, ``Good Morning America,'' and the ``Today'' show.

Savimbi has repeatedly said that his guerrilla war against Angola's Marxist government is threatened by lack of funds. But if he gets $15 million in covert aid from the Reagan administration, $600,000 will seem to him like money well spent.

Savimbi's lobbying firm, Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly, is one of some 800 companies or individuals representing foreign interests. That's up from 555 foreign registrants a decade ago, according to the US Justice Department's foreign-agents registration unit.

These firms have flourished in the last 10 years as Washington's bureaucracy has grown more complex and foreign governments have become more sophisticated. And they often employ political powerhouses, including: former Central Intelligence Agency director William Colby for Thailand, Singapore, and Brazil; former Reagan campaign manager John P. Sears for South Africa, West Germany, and the Japanese Auto Manufacturers' Association; former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman William Fulbright for the Japanese Embassy and the Bahamas; former US senator from Florida George Smathers for South Africa; and former Democratic Party chairman Robert Strauss, for China.

``In the past, people felt that registering as a foreign agent would have a detrimental effect on their political career,'' says a State Department official in frequent contact with foreign registrants. ``So you had a lot of congressmen and senators who didn't get reelected'' signing up because they no longer had a policial career to worry about.

In addition, he says, there are ``increasing numbers of young, ambitious, bright people who make a campaign work'' who are leaving government to represent foreign interests. When they first come to government, ``they find that there are far fewer senior-level positions and far greater competition for those spots than they had expected. And they find out that the business of government is one of drudgery and few victories.'' So they leave government and market their connections, which lets them affect policy without the drudgery, he says.

Business for these firms is booming under the Reagan administration. ``When you have an activist foreign policy, you probably have more business for Washington representatives of foreign countries,'' says Frank Mankiewicz, a partner at Gray & Co., one of the biggest lobbying firms.

Political turmoil has also put foreign agents in high demand. South Africa now has 16 firms working for it, vs. five a decade ago. One firm alone -- the law offices of John P. Sears -- receives $500,000 a year.

And last November, three months before the Philippine elections, the Chamber of Philippine Manufacturers, Exporters and Tourism Associations hired Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly. Prior to that, the only substantial representation the Philippines had was for the Philippine Sugar Commission.

Paul Manafort, who worked in the Reagan campaign before founding the firm in 1980 with two other top GOP political consultants, stresses that they are not working for the Marcos government, but ``a private-sector association close to the government.''

However, for a fee of $950,000, the firm is expected to do more than promote tourism and investment in the Philippines. When the Philippine foreign minister wanted to meet with the House Asian and Pacific Affairs subcommittee, for example, it was Black, Manafort that set it up, a committee staff member says. (Usually, he says, such meetings are set up by the embassy.)

Protectionist legislation is also good for lobbying business. Between the government and industry groups, Japan hired 25 firms last year.

Even the Soviets may be getting into the game. Recently, three large firms -- Gray & Co., Hill & Knowlton, and Burson-Marstellar -- were approached by a man purporting to represent the information department of the Soviet Embassy. All three firms turned him down. The Soviet Embassy denies the man works there.

After all this money is spent on foreign agents, the question remains: Are they worth their fees?

If a foreign government is looking for inside information, it's better off working directly through the US government, says the State Department official. But, he says, foreign agents do have a ``narrow function'' where thay can be useful. ``Someone who's well connected can help move a country up in the queue by getting them the attention they might not have gotten.''

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