Think tanks in the United States are a go–to resource for media outlets seeking expert opinions on pressing public policy issues. But think tanks often have entrenched stances; a growing body of research has shown that their funders can influence their analysis and commentary. This influence can include censorship — both self-censorship and more direct censoring of work unfavorable to a funder — and outright pay–for–research agreements with funders. The result is an environment where the interests of the most generous funders can dominate think tank policy debates.
One such debate concerns the appropriate level of U.S. military involvement in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Since Vladimir Putin’s illegal and disastrous decision to launch a full–scale invasion of Ukraine, the United States has approved approximately $48.7 billion in military spending.1 Despite the very real risk that escalations could lead to direct U.S. military involvement in the war, few think tanks have critically scrutinized this record setting amount of U.S. military assistance.
Within the context of public debate about U.S. military involvement in the Ukraine war, this brief investigates Department of Defense (DoD) and DoD contractor funding of think tanks, those organizations advocacy efforts for policies that would benefit those funders, and the media’s predominant reliance on think tanks funded by the defense sector. The analysis finds that the vast majority of media mentions of think tanks in articles about U.S. arms and the Ukraine war are from think tanks whose funders profit from U.S. military spending, arms sales and, in many cases, directly from U.S. involvement in the Ukraine war. These think tanks also regularly offer support for public policy solutions that would financially benefit their funders without disclosing these apparent conflicts of interest. While this brief did not seek to establish a direct causality between think–tank policy recommendations and their arms industry funding in the case of the Ukraine war, we find a clear correlation between the two. We also found that media outlets disproportionately rely on commentary from defense sector funded think tanks.
The analysis offers a number of key findings.
First, of the 27 think tanks whose donors could be identified, 21 received funding from the defense sector (77 percent). Unfortunately, because donor disclosure is voluntary, we cannot determine the percentage of think tank funding that is derived from defense contractors.
Second, in articles related to U.S. military involvement in Ukraine media outlets have cited think tanks with financial backing from the defense industry 85 percent of the time, or seven times as often as think tanks that do not accept funding from Pentagon contractors.
Third, despite a general trend towards greater donor transparency at think tanks, nearly a third of the top U.S. foreign policy think tanks still do not provide the public with information about their funders.
Fourth, media outlets rarely identify conflicts of interest posed by experts they cite from defense industry funded think tanks in cases where they offer their opinions on policies that would benefit the defense industry.
These findings lead to several policy recommendations:
• Think tanks are not required to publicly disclose their donors and many choose not to, hiding their potential conflicts of interest from the public and policymakers. Congress should end the era of “dark money” think tanks by enacting legislation that requires think tanks to publicly disclose any funding they receive from the United States or foreign government agencies or firms that work for them.
• Think tanks should also adopt a professional standard of disclosing, within the publications themselves, any funding the think tank receives from entities that have a financial interest in the subject matter of the publication.
• Media outlets should, similarly, adopt a professional standard to report any conflicts of interest with sources discussing U.S. foreign policy. By not providing this information media outlets are deceiving their readers, listeners, or viewers. This information provides important context for evaluating expert commentary and is, arguably, as important as the commentary itself.
Few Americans know what a think tank is or does, although they play a pivotal role in the U.S. political process.2 Think tanks operate as something of a conduit between academia and the policymaking community, conducting research and opining on pressing policy issues, including everything from healthcare to climate change to U.S. foreign policy. Think tanks also work directly with policymakers in the executive branch and Congress. Their experts regularly testify before Congress and go on to serve in key positions in the executive branch. Former government officials in turn often go on to work for think tanks, earning them the nickname of “holding tank” where former government officials await a change in party affiliation of Congress or the Presidency.3
Of most direct relevance to this brief is the fact that think tanks are a go–to source for media outlets seeking opinions on pressing policy issues. Think tank experts provide the comments and articles you read in prominent national media outlets . They’re the voices you hear providing commentary on NPR, podcasts, and even local radio stations. They’re the faces you see on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC opining on the most pressing U.S. policy issues of the day. In short, think tanks are a key component of public debates about U.S. politics and policy.
But think tanks are often biased. Many now take stances that are decidedly ideological, even partisan, which are sometimes explicitly spelled out in their mission statements. Think tanks also rely on a powerful force that has the potential to influence their work: funding. The nation’s top think tanks raise tens of millions of dollars in revenue every year — the Brookings Institution, for example, which has regularly been cited as the top think tank in the world,4 had operating revenues of more than $94 million last year.5 These are enormous budgets for non–profit organizations, 97 percent of which have budgets below $5 million, according to the National Council of Nonprofits.6
To fill these enormous coffers, think tanks rely on financial support from individuals, foundations, universities, philanthropic organizations, corporations and governments — both foreign and domestic. Some of this funding can create conflicts of interest, wherein think tanks are funded by those with a financial stake in the policies they are discussing. A growing field of research has documented how funding impacts the work of think tanks.
Perhaps the most well known investigations of think tank funding were a pair of New York Times exposés headlined “Foreign Powers Buy Influence at Think Tanks,” and “How Think Tanks Amplify Corporate America’s Influence.”7 The former documents the prevalence of foreign government donations to think tanks and showed how, at some think tanks, that funding appeared to bias the think tanks work in favor of those foreign funders. Similarly, the latter New York Times article exposed several instances where think tanks funded by the defense industry conducted research, and other activities that some might consider lobbying, to promote the interests of their funders. For example, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), conducted work that “culminated with a report released in February 2014 that reflected the defense industry’s priorities,” according to the Times, and CSIS staff “initiated meetings with Defense Department officials and congressional staff to push for the recommendations.”8 At another think tank, The Hudson Institute, a defense contractor who funded a research project there was “given regular briefings on the research and the opportunity to suggest revisions to early drafts,” according to the Times.9
These articles, at least in part, helped to spark a growing field of research that seeks to investigate funder influence at think tanks. The consensus of this research is that, as one academic analysis explained, “Think tanks are vulnerable to conflicts of interest due to their sources of funding, face pressures to market research in a partisan and results–oriented — rather than enlightened debate toward social welfare — fashion, and focus on gaining public and political attention through media visibility.”10
Some think tank funding research has focused explicitly on the impact that funding from the U.S. defense industry has on think tanks. A report I authored for the Center for International Policy identified more than $1 billion in funding from the U.S. government and defense contractors going to the top think tanks in the United States.11 A report by The Revolving Door Project investigated one of these think tanks, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), and found “CNAS has made multiple policy recommendations that would directly benefit some of the think tank’s donors, including military contractors and foreign governments.”12
Another study, authored by Kjølv Egeland and Benoît Pelopidas of the Center for International Studies in Paris, identified rampant conflicts of interest in nuclear weapons policy analysis.13 The study authors interviewed grant managers and former and current employees at think tanks funded by the nuclear weapons industry, who offered candid explanations of how funding biased these organizations’ work. One former think tank analyst went so far as to say “what we were producing was not research, it was a kind of propaganda.”14
The Egeland and Pelopidas study also demonstrated the mechanisms through which funding influences think tank work, namely: outright censorship, self–censorship, and perspective filtering. While outright censorship — akin to the editing of reports by funders in the New York Times expose — was relatively rare, nearly all of the think tank analysts interviewed by Egeland and Pelopidas reported engaging in self–censorship to avoid alienating funders. Perspective filtering then effectively serves to filter out the perspectives of experts who disagree with the biggest funders. As the authors explain, it is, “the systematic platforming or elevation of certain ways of viewing the world over others. Indeed, the most generous funders exercise significant influence on the evolution of the foreign policy marketplace of ideas by affecting which questions are asked and which expert milieus are enabled to thrive.”15
“Censorship becomes largely unnecessary when you only hire people who agree with the views of the censor…This helps to produce an artificial consensus: experts all seem to agree with one another only because most dissenting experts are excluded from the conversation,” explained Brett Heinz, co-author of the Revolving Door Project’s report on CNAS’s ties to the military industrial complex.16
This study aims to build upon these prior research efforts by analyzing think tank funding within the context of the debate about U.S. responses to the war in Ukraine. Russia’s illegal and disastrous invasion of Ukraine has dominated foreign policy debates for over a year and many think tanks have been some of the loudest champions for increasing U.S. military spending. While think tank experts might have myriad reasons for supporting increased U.S. military spending — not the least of which is protecting the Ukrainian people — some have an additional incentive: their employer is funded by military contractors profiting from the war. This offers an incentive for them to advocate for policies that benefit these firms. Through the mechanisms of donor censorship, self–censorship and perspective filtering identified in previous studies, the expectation here is that think tanks funded by the defense industry will be more likely to advocate for U.S. military solutions to the Ukraine war.
To analyze the impact of defense industry funding on the public debate about arming Ukraine, the remainder of this brief proceeds in four parts. The first section provides information on defense industry funding of the top rated U.S. foreign policy think tanks.
The following section analyzes these think tanks published articles and reports related to the war in Ukraine. The results of this analysis show that think tanks funded by the defense sector are much more likely to recommend policies that would be of financial benefit to the arms industry than are think tanks not funded by the defense industry.
The third section presents the results of an analysis of think tank media mentions related to U.S. military responses to the war in Ukraine. These results show that think tanks with more defense industry funding have an outsized presence in media related to arming Ukraine. This section also examines the content of these media mentions, with a specific focus on the top five most–mentioned think tanks. And, again, finds evidence that defense industry funded think tanks publicly advocate for policies that would benefit the defense industry.
The fourth section addresses a troubling lack of transparency on the part of many think tanks, which do not disclose their funders. Additionally, this section addresses the trend of media outlets citing scholars from think tanks — who do publicly disclose their defense industry funding — without disclosing this potential conflict of interest when those scholars offer support for policies that would benefit the defense industry. Finally, the brief concludes with recommendations that would improve transparency and trust in the think tank sector.
DoD and DoD contractor funding of the top foreign policy think tanks in the United States
This section provides an overview of defense industry funding of the top think tanks in the United States, offering a brief discussion of the prevalence of arms–maker money at some of the nation’s leading think tanks. Previous research has shown that think tanks are awash in funding from the arms industry. An academic study focused on nuclear arms found that, of the world’s top 40 foreign policy think tanks, 58 percent received funding “from companies involved in the production or maintenance of nuclear–weapon systems.”17 The percentage was even higher at the most venerated think tanks, with eight of the top 10 think tanks in the world all reporting funding from nuclear–weapons makers or maintainers.
A 2020 Center for International Policy report, “U.S. Government and Defense Contractor Funding of America’s Top 50 Think Tanks,” which I authored, found that 84 percent of the top U.S. think tanks accepted funding from defense contractors.18 The report also found widely divergent levels of donor transparency at the top think tanks in the United States, with 12 of the top 50 not disclosing any donor information. As discussed below, some think tanks still refuse to disclose their donors, or only disclose very limited donor information. To build upon these previous analyses, this brief provides an updated accounting of defense contractor funding of the top foreign policy think tanks in the U.S.19 Those think tanks are shown in Table 1 below.20
To obtain information about the financial ties of these institutions to Pentagon contractors we took a three pronged approach. First, we sought out all publicly available information think tanks voluntarily provide about their funders. This information typically came from think tanks’ annual reports and disclosures on their websites.
Second, given that think tanks are not required to publicly disclose any of their funders and many think tanks choose not to do so, we then sought out third–party sources of information about these think tanks’ funding sources. This primarily consisted of credible investigative journalists reporting about these think tanks previously undisclosed funding sources.21 Finally, when neither of these methods yielded information about a think tanks’ funding, the information was requested via email. In several cases — that are discussed in greater detail in the “Troubling Think Tank Transparency” section below — think tanks still opted to keep their funding sources secret.22
For the 27 think tanks that we were able to obtain donor information from, we then evaluated whether any of their funding came from DoD contractors or the DoD itself.23 Table 1 provides a list of these top foreign policy think tanks and indicates whether they received defense sector funding.
Table 1: Top ranked U.S. foreign policy think tanks and defense contractor funding24
|Think Tank Ranking||Think Tank Name||Defense Contractor Funding?|
|2||Carnegie Endowment for International Peace||Yes|
|3||Center for Strategic and International Studies||Yes|
|4||Wilson Center (Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars)||Yes|
|7||Council on Foreign Relations||Yes|
|8||Center for American Progress||Yes|
|9||Center for a New American Security||Yes|
|13||Hoover Institution||Not Disclosed|
|14||Human Rights Watch||No|
|15||Foreign Policy Research Institute||Yes|
|16||Chicago Council on Global Affairs||Yes|
|17||Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments||Yes|
|18||Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies||Not Disclosed|
|19||Asia Society Policy Institute||Yes|
|20||United States Institute of Peace||No|
|21||American Enterprise Institute||Yes|
|22||Belfer Center for Science and International Relations||Not Disclosed|
|25||Pacific Council on International Policy||Yes|
|26||Middle East Institute||Yes|
|27||Center for Transatlantic Relations||Not Disclosed|
|28||Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy||No|
|29||Institute for Science and International Security||Yes|
|30||German Marshall Fund of the United States||Yes|
|32||Global Security Institute||Not Disclosed|
|33||International Peace Institute||Not Disclosed|
As Table 1 indicates, the vast majority of the top foreign policy think tanks in the United States are funded by the Pentagon or its contractors. Of the 27 think tanks where donor information was obtained, more than two-thirds (78 percent) received funding from the Pentagon or a Pentagon contractor. Among the top ten ranked foreign policy think tanks in the United States, this figure jumps to 100 percent.
The extent of funding each of these top foreign policy think tanks receives from the defense industry varies considerably. Unfortunately, the precise amount of defense industry funding most think tanks receive cannot be determined, as think tanks are not required to disclose their funders and, even amongst those that do, many think tanks list donors without indicating the amount of donations and others just list donors in ranges (e.g., $250,000 to $499,999). We can, however, arrive at a conservative estimate of defense industry funding for some think tanks by taking the lower end of the ranges each defense contractor is listed in.
Using this imperfect and conservative measure, it becomes clear that many of the top rated foreign policy think tanks are awash in defense industry dollars. For example, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Atlantic Council, and the Center for a New American Security all receive more than a million dollars annually from the defense sector.25 As discussed below, the extent of reliance on defense industry funding appears to be correlated with these think tanks’ support for policies that would benefit the defense industry.
The RAND Corporation works directly for U.S. national security agencies — including the Army, Air Force, Department of Homeland Security, and other defense organizations — which provide more than half of the think tanks revenue.26 However, because of these close ties with national security agencies, RAND has adopted a policy to “not accept funds (i.e., project sponsorship or philanthropic support) from firms or segments of firms whose primary business is that of supplying equipment, materiel, or services to the U.S. Department of Defense.”27
Defense industry funded think tanks offer support for U.S. military responses to the war in Ukraine
While the vast majority of the top foreign policy think tanks in the United States receive defense contractor funding, this may have little or no impact on these think tanks’ work. After all, many think tanks publicly proclaim that they maintain strict standards of intellectual independence that insulates their scholars from donor influence.28 On the other hand, previous research on think tank funding has repeatedly found that funders are able to influence think tank work through the mechanisms of censorship, self–censorship, and perspective filtering mentioned above. This section seeks to investigate this phenomenon in the context of the debate about increasing U.S. military spending as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In short, this analysis analyzing the content of the top ten think tanks (listed in Table 1) finds a pattern of Pentagon and Pentagon contractor funded think tanks offering greater support for U.S. military responses to the Ukraine war than think tanks without this military industry funding.
Content analysis of think tank publications
To investigate think tanks’ public support for increasing U.S. military spending as a result of the war in Ukraine this section presents the results of an analysis of the top ranked foreign policy think tanks’ 10 most recent publications related to the Ukraine war, prior to the one–year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2023.
The results of this analysis demonstrate that think tanks with financial ties to the arms industry often support policies that would benefit the arms industry. Some of the articles from think tanks with defense industry funding were even similarly titled, like a CSIS article, “Aid to Ukraine: Much More than Tanks,”29 and an Atlantic Council article, “Tanks are vital but Ukraine will need much more to defeat Putin’s Russia.”30 AEI also published multiple articles supportive of further escalations in U.S. military weaponry provided to Ukraine. One piece, for example, argued that Ukraine receiving Western tanks may “presage the need for other advanced capabilities, whether longer–range missiles or fourth-generation fighter aircraft, in the months ahead.”31 Another AEI publication argued that Ukraine’s greatest vulnerability “pertains to the amount of assistance” it receives from the United States.32
Other think tanks that received funding from the defense industry made similar arguments. The Brookings Institution, for example, published articles entitled “Arming Ukraine without crossing red lines” and the “The Long War in Ukraine,”33 which argue that the United States can send tanks and other vehicles, missiles, and even aircraft without violating any red lines and raising the costs of escalation. A Wilson Center article, “Four Reasons Why Supporting Ukraine is a Good Investment”34 takes this argument a step further and contends that military aid is critical not just to help Ukrainians, but to avoid global war, improve the U.S. image abroad, showcase the superiority of American security, and even protect LGBT rights. A report by the RAND Corporation, “How the Ukraine War Accelerates Defense Strategy”35 takes this seemingly new version of Ronald Reagan’s famous “Peace through strength” argument a step further and says that fighting Russia through Ukraine improves America’s position against China as well. At a more functional level, a Council on Foreign Relation’s article, “The West is Sending Light Tanks to Ukraine. Will They Make a Difference?”36 argues that sending light tanks and other armored vehicles to Ukraine could make a difference at all levels of warfare: operational, tactical, and strategic. The Center for a New American Security article, “The Surprising Success of U.S. Military Aid to Ukraine”37 argues that a number of U.S. supplied weapons, including “howitzers, High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), anti–ship missiles, air–defense capabilities, and infantry fighting vehicles and tanks,” were all vital for Ukrainian success on the battlefield.
Much of the Hudson Institute’s publications related to Ukraine similarly called for U.S. military responses to the conflict. For example in “Ukraine Should Take Crimea from Russia”38 a Hudson institute scholar declares that to retake Crimea, “All Kyiv needs is Western weapons and munitions. For the sake of stability — within and outside the region — let’s give Ukraine the tools it needs to get the job done now.” In “NATO’s New Opportunity: US Commitments in Europe after Russia’s War in Ukraine,” a Hudson scholar argues the U.S. should continue isolating Russia after the war is over and even “encourage Russia’s defense customers to consider new, more reliable suppliers for their militaries.”39
Some of the articles published by these think tanks, particularly the Atlantic Council, were dismissive of diplomatic solutions to the conflict, arguing for a “rejection of any compromise with the Kremlin,” for example.40 Another Atlantic Council article called for a marked increase in hostilities in the war, arguing that “Ukraine has the right of proportionate retaliation. This begins with a right to destroy critical infrastructure in Russia and plunge Moscow and other cities into darkness.”41
On the other hand, think tanks that received little or no funding from the arms industry published articles that had little resemblance to their defense industry funded peers. Much of the work of The Carnegie Endowment, which receives minimal defense industry funding compared to other top think tanks, focused on comparative politics and Russia’s domestic institutions.42 Many of these pieces were expository rather than prescriptive. The few prescriptive pieces advocated for passing existing security obligations to Europe, thereby reducing U.S. military involvement.43 The expository pieces covered the interplay between domestic institutions in Russia — political, economic, and religious. Interestingly, there were multiple pieces on how Russia’s own invasion has increased rent–seeking from well–connected players, including low–level politicians,44 oil companies,45 and private mercenary groups.46 There were also multiple pieces that focused on the conflicts between Church and State in both Ukraine47 and Russia.48 The remaining pieces focused less on the United States and more on in–depth analysis of the relations between Russia and other relevant parties, such as Ukraine,49 Serbia,50 and the former Soviet states.51
The Center for American Progress — whose only defense industry funder is the tech-giant Microsoft, which also receives hundreds of millions of dollars in DoD contracts every year — was also much more measured in its work on the Ukraine conflict.52 For example, the article “Why the United States Must Stay the Course on Ukraine” supported U.S. efforts in Ukraine, but did not support any particular kind of security assistance or defense product.53 It also mentioned the need for greater defense spending and leadership from the European Union in the long run as opposed to a purely U.S.–led effort.
The Heritage Foundation has, historically, accepted defense contractor funding. In fact, a prior think tank funding report found that Heritage was one of the top think tank recipients of defense industry funding from 2014–18.54 But a Heritage Foundation spokesperson explained via e–mail that the organization has now severed ties with the defense sector. According to Rob Bluey, Vice President of Communications for the Heritage Foundation, “This year, Heritage made the decision to refuse funding from the defense industry, which protects our ability to provide independent analysis without even the perception of influence on the part of any defense contractor.” The organization’s publications appear to reflect some of this independence. For example, the Heritage’s President has even publicly proclaimed a readiness to confront “well–connected defense contractors… in order to keep the nation both solvent and secure.”55
The publications by Human Rights Watch — another think tank that does not accept funding from the U.S. military or its contractors — primarily documented war crimes by Russia with a special focus on the role that particular kinds of weapons can play in exacerbating said crimes.56 The two pieces that focused exclusively on weapons, highlighted the use of landmines and cluster munitions as weapons that disproportionately kill civilians.57 The remaining pieces reported on different war crimes by Russia, including kidnapping, torture, and attacks on energy grids, hospitals, and cultural sites.58 The one piece that highlighted a response to the war crimes mentioned using multilateral organizations to pursue further investigations and use accountability mechanisms to inform the rest of the world.59
In sum, publications from think tanks with little or no funding from the Pentagon or Pentagon contractors typically stood in stark contrast to those funded by the defense industry in their emphasis on expository rather than prescriptive analysis, support for diplomatic solutions, and a focus on the impact of the war on different parts of society and the region.
These findings do not demonstrate funding is leading any individual scholar to adopt positions they might not otherwise have taken. The challenges of demonstrating any causal relationship in that regard are well beyond the scope of this analysis. The findings here show a correlation between funding and publications by think tank scholars, but do not necessarily establish causality.
However, if previous research on the impact of funding on think tank analyses is any indication, defense industry funding could be influencing think tank work through a combination of donor censorship, self–censorship, and perspective filtering, wherein scholars that are critical of defense industry donors are simply filtered out of top foreign policy think tanks.60
Lack of transparency at many think tanks and media outlets
As previously mentioned, a growing body of research has demonstrated the impact that funders can have on the work of think tanks. This has contributed to remarkably low levels of trust in think tanks.83 All of these studies point to the need for donor transparency, as well as conflict of interest avoidance and disclosure, as Eli Clifton and I recommended in the Quincy Institute brief, “Restoring Trust in the Think Tank Sector.”84
Unfortunately, many of the think tanks mentioned here have not heeded that advice; nor have media outlets taken steps to alert their readers to these easily identifiable conflicts of interest.
This analysis found that nearly a third (10 of 33) of the top foreign policy think tanks in the United States do not provide the public with donor information. This includes many of the think tanks that were cited most by media outlets in the analysis discussed above. The American Enterprise Institute, for example, does not publicly provide donor information and did not respond to multiple requests for comment about its defense industry ties, despite the Chairman of its Board of Directors, who has donated at least $20 million to the organization, being the head of the Carlyle Group, which owns multiple U.S. military contractors.85 AEI scholars have noted the organization’s defense industry funding at public events, however. For example, at an AEI event featuring panelists from Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, the moderator explained that, “We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that both Lockheed and Northrop provide philanthropic support to AEI. We are grateful for that support.”86 Unfortunately, this information is still missing from the organization’s website.
Even some think tanks that do not accept defense industry funding also do not publicly disclose their donors. A spokesperson for the Cato Institute, for example, confirmed the organization does not accept defense industry funding and provided a copy of the think tank’s annual report that includes donor information.87 However, the Cato Institute’s publicly available version of this annual report does not disclose this donor information.88 Similarly, a spokesperson for Human Rights Watch provided a version of the organization’s annual report that includes donor information, but these 10 pages are omitted from the organization’s publicly available version of the annual report.89
The media outlets analyzed here also failed to provide their readers with any indication of the potential conflicts of interest posed by experts from defense industry backed think tanks commenting on the defense industry. In fact, none of the media mentions analyzed here included disclosures of defense industry funding of these think tanks that were, at times, recommending policies that could financially benefit their funders. Perhaps the most glaring example of this was a CSIS study90 that recommends creating a “strategic munitions reserve,” which would be a windfall for arms makers, that was cited in numerous media outlets including The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and Defense News.91 None of these articles mentions the millions CSIS has received from the arms industry, including Lockheed Martin, who has already received hundreds of millions of dollars in Ukraine related contracts and whose CEO is even quoted in the CSIS report. Ultimately, this indicates a failure of judgment by leading media outlets reporting on vital issues of war and peace in Ukraine.
The analysis undertaken here points to a number of recommendations that would help to restore public trust in the think tank sector and the media. First, think tanks should publicly disclose their funders. Many of the think tanks contacted for this analysis mentioned the need for donor privacy, but that is a protection for individuals, not companies. Donor privacy is especially irrelevant for firms–like many in the defense industry–who derive a majority of their income from government contracts. The fact that many “dark money” think tanks still refuse to disclose their donors creates an uneven playing field where transparent think tanks, like CSIS and the Atlantic Council, reveal all of their funders. Congress should enact legislation to rectify this imbalance and require think tanks to publicly disclose any funding they receive from the United States or foreign governments or firms that work for them.
Second, think tanks should also adopt a professional standard of disclosing, within the publications themselves, any funding the think tank receives from entities that have a financial interest in the subject matter of the publication. Many of the studies analyzed here included recommendations that would be of direct financial benefit to those think tanks’ funders. At the very least, readers of those studies, especially policymakers and journalists, should be made aware of these potential conflicts of interest.
Third, media outlets should, similarly, adopt a professional standard to report any conflicts of interest with sources discussing U.S. foreign policy. By not providing this information media outlets are deceiving their readers, listeners, or viewers. This information provides important context for evaluating expert commentary and is, arguably, as important as the commentary itself. Some media outlets, like CNBC, have been quick to identify these conflicts of interest and provide their readers with this information.92 All media outlets should follow suit and proactively disclose the potential conflicts of interest of the sources they’re citing.