A front organization is any entity set up by and controlled by another organization, such as intelligence agencies, organized crime groups, banned organizations, religious or political groups, advocacy groups, or corporations. Front organizations can act for the parent group without the actions being attributed to the parent group.
Front organizations that appear to be independent voluntary associations or charitable organizations are called front groups. In the business world, front organizations such as front companies or shell corporations are used to shield the parent company from legal liability. In international relations, a puppet state is a state which acts as a front (or surrogate) for another state.
Intelligence agencies use front organizations to provide "cover", plausible occupations and means of income, for their covert agents. These may include legitimate organizations, such as charity, religious or journalism organizations; or "brass plate firms" which exist solely to provide a plausible background story, occupation, and means of income.
The airline Air America, an outgrowth of Civil Air Transport of the 1940s, and Southern Air Transport, ostensibly a civilian air charter company, were operated and wholly owned by the CIA, supposedly to provide humanitarian aid, but flew many combat support missions and supplied covert operations in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Other CIA-funded front groups have been used to spread American propaganda and influence during the Cold War, particularly in the Third World. When intelligence agencies work through legitimate organizations, it can cause problems and increased risk for the workers of those organizations. To prevent this, the CIA has had a 20-year policy of not using Peace Corps members or US journalists for intelligence purposes.
Many organized crime operations have substantial legitimate businesses, such as licensed gambling houses, building construction companies, trash hauling services, or dock loading enterprises. These front companies enable these criminal organizations to launder their income from illegal activities. As well, the front companies provide plausible cover for illegal activities such as drug trafficking, smuggling, and prostitution.
Where brothels are illegal, criminal organizations set up front companies providing services such as a "massage parlor" or "sauna", up to the point that "massage parlor" or "sauna" is thought as a synonym of brothel in these countries.
The Church of Scientology uses front groups either to promote their interests in politics or to make their group seem more legitimate. The FBI's July 7, 1977 raids on the Church's offices (following discovery of the Church's Operation Snow White) turned up, among other documents, an undated memo entitled "PR General Categories of Data Needing Coding". This memo listed what it called "Secret PR Front Groups," which included the group APRL, "Alliance for the Preservation of Religious Liberty" (later renamed "Americans Preserving Religious Liberty"). The Cult Awareness Network (CAN) is considered by many to now be a front group for the Church of Scientology, which took the group over financially after bankrupting it in a series of lawsuits.
Time identified several other fronts for Scientology, including: the Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR), The Way to Happiness Foundation, Applied Scholastics, the Concerned Businessmen's Association of America, and HealthMed Clinic. Seven years later the Boston Herald showed how Narconon and World Literacy Crusade are also fronting for Scientology. Other Scientology groups include Downtown Medical, Criminon and the Association for Better Living and Education (ABLE).
In politics, a group may be called a front organization if is perceived to be disingenuous in its control or goals, or if it attempts to mask extremist views within a supposedly more moderate group. Some special interest groups engage in astroturfing, which is an attempt to mask lobbying as a grassroots movement.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee has been accused of using front organizations as a means of circumventing limits on campaign spending These front organizations have names unrelated to AIPAC. Delaware Valley Good Government Association (Philadelphia), San Franciscans for Good Government (California), Beaver PAC (Wisconsin), Cactus PAC (Arizona), and Icepac (New York) are examples of former AIPAC front groups.
Many in the gun rights movement claim that the American Hunters and Shooters Association is a front for gun control groups aimed at dividing gun owners into the sport-oriented and the self-defense oriented.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations is alleged by many scholars and intelligence agencies to be front organizations based on their founding ties to known Islamist or terrorist organizations like Hamas. Rep. Cass Ballenger of North Carolina has stated that CAIR is a "fund-raising arm for Hezbollah" in an interview with the Charlotte Observer published 4 October 2003. CAIR official Todd "Ismail" Royer was convicted of conspiring to train on American soil for violent jihad. CAIR officials Rabih Haddad, Bassem Khafagi and Ghassan Elashi have all been convicted of conspiring to fund Islamic terrorist groups.
Other Islamist front organizations used to gather money for terrorist groups (including al-Qaeda), or accused of doing so, include the Global Relief Foundation, Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, Al Barakaat, Benevolence International Foundation, and Konsojaya Trading Company. In the UK, the Muslim Association of Britain has been accused of being a front for or connected to the Muslim Brotherhood.
South Africa's apartheid-era government used numerous front organizations to influence world opinion and to undertake extra-judicial activities and the killing of anti-apartheid activists; these included the following:
Communist and other Marxist-Leninist parties have sometimes used front organizations to attract support from those (sometimes called fellow travellers) who may not necessarily agree with Leninist ideology. The front organization often obscures its provenance and may often be a tool for recruitment. Other Marxists often describe front organizations as opportunist.
According to a list prepared in 1955 by the United States Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, the Comintern set up no less than 82 front organizations in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s. This tactic was often used during the Red Scare of the 1950s, when a number of organizations in the labor and peace movements were accused of being "Communist fronts". Sometimes, Communist fronts worked at an international level, as has been alleged with the World Peace Council.
Soviet intelligence has infiltrated many peace movements in the West. In addition to WPC, important communist front organizations included the World Federation of Trade Unions, the World Federation of Democratic Youth, and the International Union of Students. Somewhat less important front organizations included: Afro-Asian People's Solidarity Organization, Christian Peace Conference, International Association of Democratic Lawyers, International Federation of Resistance Movements, International Institute for Peace, International Organization of Journalists, Women's International Democratic Federation and World Federation of Scientific Workers. There were also numerous smaller organizations, affiliated with the above fronts such as Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. Numerous peace conferences, congresses and festivals have been staged with support of those organizations.
More recently, the Workers' World Party (WWP) set up an anti-war front group, International ANSWER. (ANSWER is no longer closely associated with WWP; it is closely associated with a WWP splinter, the Party for Socialism and Liberation, but PSL plays a more open role in the organization.) Similarly, Unite Against Fascism, the Anti-Nazi League, the Stop the War Coalition and Respect – The Unity Coalition are all criticised as being fronts for the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (UK).
Some anti-Islamist feminist groups in the Muslim world have also been accused of being front organizations. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan has been accused of being a Maoist front, while the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq has been accused of being a front for the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq .
The concept of a front organization should be distinguished from the united front - a coalition of working class or socialist parties - and the popular front - a coalition of a Communist party with bourgeois groups. Both the united front and popular front usually disclose the groups that make up their coalitions.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), an organization which advocates vegetarianism for health reasons, has criticized high-protein diets such as the Atkins Diet, and seeks to eliminate the use of animals in scientific research, has been accused of being a front group for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an animal rights organization.
Banned paramilitary organizations sometimes use front groups to achieve a public face with which to raise funds, negotiate with opposition parties, recruit, and spread propaganda. For example, banned paramilitary organizations often have an affiliated political party that operates more openly (though often these parties, themselves, end up banned). These parties may or may not be front organizations in the narrow sense — they have varying degrees of autonomy and the relationships are usually something of an open secret — but are widely considered to be so, especially by their political opponents.
Examples are the relationship between the IRA and Sinn Féin in 1980s Ireland or between the Basque groups ETA (paramilitary) and Batasuna (party) in Spain. Similarly, in the United States in periods where the Communist Party was highly stigmatized, it often operated largely through front groups. In addition, the Provisional IRA also operated a vigilante front group, called Direct Action Against Drugs.
Corporations from a wide variety of different industries set up front groups. Some pharmaceutical companies set up "patients' groups" as front organizations that pressure healthcare providers and legislators to adopt their products. For example, Schering Healthcare and Biogen Ltd. tried to pressure the UK National Health Service (NHS) to adopt its drug Beta Interferon to treat Multiple Sclerosis (MS) sufferers. Schering set up and funded a group called MS Voice, with its own website, which claimed to represent MS sufferers.
Another pharmaceutical company, Biogen, set up a campaign called Action for Access, which also claimed it was an independent organization and the voice of MS sufferers. People who visited the website and signed up for the campaign did not realise that these were not genuinely independent patient groups. It has been alleged that computer software giant Microsoft created and funded the Association for Competitive Technology to defend its interests against charges of antitrust violations. Tobacco companies frequently use front organizations and doctors to advocate their arguments about tobacco use, although less openly and obviously than in the 1980s.
The Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) is one of the more active corporate front groups and one of several front groups created by Berman & Co., a public affairs firm owned by lobbyist Rick Berman. They claim to be supported by restaurants, food companies and more than 1,000 concerned individuals. Based in Washington, DC, Berman & Co. represents the tobacco industry as well as hotels, beer distributors, taverns, and restaurant chains. The group actively opposes smoking bans and lowering the legal blood-alcohol level, while targeting studies on the dangers of red meat consumption, overfishing and pesticides. Each year they give out the "nanny awards" to groups who, according to them, try to tell consumers how to live their lives. Berman & Co. is also associated with various anti-union and union-busting campaigns, such as their "Center for Union Facts", as well as anti-animal rights campaigns such as "www.petakillsanimals.com". They also run affiliated websites such as ActivistCash.com.
A list of some alleged corporate front groups active in the US is maintained by the Multinational Monitor. Some think tanks are corporate front groups. These organizations present themselves as research organizations, using phrases such as "...Institute for Research" in their names. Because their names suggest neutrality, they can present the commercial strategies of the corporations which sponsor them in a way which appears to be objective sociological or economical research rather than political lobbying.
Similarly the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness has been criticised as a front organization for various industry bodies which seek to undermine regulation of their environmentally damaging activities under the guise of 'regulatory effectiveness'.
Astroturfing, a wordplay based on "grassroots" efforts, is an American term used pejoratively to describe formal public relations projects which try to create the impression of a groundswell of spontaneous popular response to a politician, product, service, or event. Corporations have been known to "astroturf", but are not the only entities alleged to have done so. In recent years, organizations of plaintiffs' attorneys have established front groups such as Victims and Families United and the Center for Justice and Democracy to oppose tort reform.