Think Tank Scholars and Their Lobbying Ties

For the past several days, we’ve tracked connections among government, lobbying and think tanks.

Few families illustrate this web better than the Brzezinski clan.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, is a trustee of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He previously held board seats with two other think tanks – International Crisis Group and the Jamestown Foundation.

His son Mark, who served with President Clinton’s National Security Council, was a lobbyist at McGuirewoods before being named U.S. ambassador to Sweden.

His other son, Ian, is currently a registered lobbyist with his own firm, the Brzezinski Group. He’s also a researcher with the Strategic Advisors Group, a body of NATO and security experts affiliated with yet another think tank, the Atlantic Council of the United States.

A former deputy assistant secretary of Defense, Ian Brzezinski now lobbies for such clients as Central Europe Energy Partners and Grupa Lotos, a Polish oil company.

(We should note that a third sibling, Mika Brzezinski, is a co-anchor of the MSNBC program, “Morning Joe.” One might say that she influences government in her own way, but she has never been a registered D.C. lobbyist.)

While it’s unusual to find so many ties within one family, many in Washington have links to both lobbying and think tanks.

When we matched the names of fellows, staff, scholars and experts at top national think tanks against the First Street database, we found 76 people who were current or former lobbyists.

In many cases, they had been lobbyists for nonprofits or advocacy organizations. Some had lobbied for the think tanks themselves.

But in more than a third of the cases, the think tankers lobbied for business. A few examples:

  • David J. Berteau is senior vice president and director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He also served in the Defense Department under four defense secretaries. As a think tanker at CSIS, he studies and writes about defense spending. As a lobbyist at Clark & Weinstock, he represented businesses, including defense contractors such as PPG Industries and Elbit Systems of America.
  • Nancy Holcombe Camm, senior legislative analyst for the Rand Corporation, is a former lobbyist for the Consumer Data Industry Association and the Consumer Bankers Association.
  • Mario Mancuso, a former under secretary of Commerce who is a visiting senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, is a former lobbyist for Akin Gump.
  • Jack Spencer, a research fellow on nuclear energy policy at the Heritage Foundation, is a former lobbyist for Babcock & Wilcox, an energy company.

Online biographies of scholars and fellows often mention previous business ties, but rarely do they use the word “lobbyist.”

Because think tanks spring from an academic tradition, their work is widely viewed as independent and above the fray.

Some try to guard the integrity of their research through rules about political activities and financial conflicts. (The Brookings Institution, for example, publishes its policies on its web site).

But many do not.

In fact, more than a few think tanks describe themselves as nonpartisan while maintaining clear points of view.

Tevi Troy, former deputy secretary of Health and Human Services and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, recently sounded a warning about this trend. As he wrote in National Affairs: “At a moment when we have too much noise in politics and too few constructive ideas, these institutions may simply become part of the intellectual echo chamber of our politics, rather than providing alternative sources of policy analysis and intellectual innovation.”

Many think tanks, even the highly regarded, are less than forthcoming about funding sources. If their greatest asset is their independence of thought, they should provide not only a complete list of donors, but the sources of support for each program, fellowship and study.

With increasing amounts of money going to American think tanks in recent years, and the use of resulting research in all sorts of advocacy – be it direct lobbying, public relations or campaigns, it’s time for more transparency.

This is the third of a four-part series on the relationships between think tanks and the lobbying industry:

Laurie Bennett, a longtime journalist, blogs for First Street and Forbes. She’s a co-founder of


  1. Tatiana Teixeira says:

    Dear Laurie, I am a Brazilian journalist and PhD candidate. My research is about American think tanks and US Foreign Policy. I found your serie of articles quite interesting and I would like to talk to you about it, if you had any free time. I am staying in DC until mid-January. Thank you. Tatiana Teixeira


  1. […] Thursday, January 26: Think Tank Scholars and Their Lobbying Ties […]

  2. […] Thursday, January 26: Think Tank Scholars and Their Lobbying Ties […]

  3. […] Thursday, January 26: Think Tank Scholars and Their Lobbying Ties […]

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