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American environmentalists questioned over alleged ties to Okinawan protesters

Okinawans filled the Onoyama Athletic Stadium to protest U.S. presence on Okinawa June 19, 2016.

JAMES KIMBER/STARS AND STRIPES

By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 25, 2018

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Lawmakers are investigating an American environmental group over alleged ties to Okinawa’s anti-base protest movement.

The House Committee on Natural Resources sent a letter to the Center for Biological Diversity Wednesday, asking the nonprofit to produce documents and information related to contacts with activists and politicians on Okinawa.

Committee members have asked the group to “provide an explanation” as to why they are not registered as a foreign agent.

Their letter was signed by Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican and chair of the committee, and Bruce Westerman, an Arkansas Republican who chairs a subcommittee on oversight and investigations and addressed to the nonprofit’s executive director Kieran Suckling.

“The Committee is concerned that your organization’s political activities in the United States in opposition to the relocation of MCAS (Marine Corps Air Station) Futenma and the continued U.S. military presence in Okinawa may require compliance with the Foreign Agents Registration Act,” the letter states.

“The Committee seeks clarification about the nature of CBD ‘s advocacy work to influence U.S. environmental and natural resources policy in light of CBD’s close relationship with Okinawan government officials and foreign environmental groups.”

The center — dedicated to saving species “hovering on the brink of extinction,” according to its website — has been involved in nearly 15 years of litigation with the U.S. government aimed at protecting the critically endangered dugong, a marine mammal that is native to Okinawa’s coastal waters, and halting the relocation of air operations from Futenma to the northern coastal base of Camp Schwab.

A particular issue for the group is a runway being built in the dugongs’ habitat of Oura Bay.

The Republicans’ letter alleges that the environmentalists have arranged meetings with U.S. politicians and their representatives, held press conferences and coordinated other publicity events “in support of foreign anti-base activists, environmental groups, and members the Okinawan government opposed to the U.S. military’s presence.”

The committee expressed concern over radical groups infiltrating the protest movement on Okinawa and the influence of Chinese universities and think tanks on the island.

“Some local opposition undoubtedly represents the sincere concerns of Okinawans regarding the cost of hosting such a large contingent of U.S. military personnel and dependents,” the letter states. “According to Japan’s Public Security Intelligence Agency, however, many of the political parties and activist groups most vocally opposed to, and willing to take direct action against, the U.S. military presence in Okinawa are ‘radical’ groups like the Japanese Communist Party and Okinawan independence movement.”

Japan’s communist party is a member of the ruling coalition in the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly and supports Okinawa’s anti-base Gov. Takeshi Onaga.

Suckling and the Center for Biological Diversity could not be reached for comment over the weekend but the center has publicized foreign partnerships in press releases found on its website.

The investigation is the latest by the Committee on Natural Resources as they probe foreign interference in American environmental and natural resources policy, the lawmakers’ letter states.

“To date, the discourse about foreign influence in the United States has largely focused on China and Russia,” the letter said. “The Committee, however, is concerned that sub-national foreign governments and nonprofit foreign entities also use environmental litigation by U.S.-based… organizations to stop, restrict, delay, or impose additional costs on U.S. military activities.”

The letter acknowledged the burden placed on Okinawans by the large U.S. military presence but said it remained critical to the U.S.-Japan alliance. The relocation was described as necessary to alleviate a grave safety threat with Futenma being located in the middle of a densely-populated urban area.

The Foreign Agents Registration Act is designed to ensure that the U.S. government and its people are informed of the “source of information (propaganda) and the identity of persons attempting to influence U.S. public opinion, policy, and laws,” according to the Department of Justice’s website.

The act requires “any person or entity, including non-profits,” to register with the Justice Department if they act at the request of a foreign party or any person “whose activities are directly or indirectly, supervised, directed, controlled, financed, or subsidized in whole or in major part” by a foreign party.

Registration is also required for any entity attempting to influence the U.S. government and its people to formulate, adopt or change domestic or foreign policy on behalf of a foreign party.

Failing to register as a foreign agent can draw fines up to $10,000 and up to five years in prison.

The lawmakers have given Suckling and the Center for Biological Diversity until June 27 to provide the requested documents and information.

burke.matt@stripes.com

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