A prominent environmental group informed Republican lawmakers that it has not acted at the direction of any foreign entity in its effort to protect an endangered species on the island of Okinawa in Japan. The group, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), then turned the tables on the lawmakers, asking the Republicans to reveal whether any outside organizations helped draft a letter sent last week by the lawmakers accusing CBD of being a foreign agent.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and one of the lawmakers who sent last week’s letter to CBD, is a strong supporter of the fossil fuel industry and is viewed as taking his marching orders from the nation’s extractive industries.
Aside from emphasizing to the lawmakers that the CBD’s efforts to protect the Okinawa dugong — one of the world’s most endangered marine mammals — are not in any way serving “predominantly a foreign interest,” the group vowed in its letter, dated Wednesday, to not let Republicans’ “crude political bullying tactics” impede its efforts to protect endangered species and ecosystems.
If the Republican lawmakers “are truly confused about the center’s motivation and control, it is perhaps because they abuse their positions of power so regularly, and are so deeply influenced by powerful corporate donors, that they are unable to conceive of people being motivated by empathy, public interest, and respect for the rule of law and democracy,” Kierán Suckling, executive director of CBD, wrote in the letter.
“Such a cynical world view could well lead them to far-fetched conspiracy theories and bullying McCarthy tactics rather than seeing the much simpler truth that an endangered species protection group would naturally take action to save one of the most imperiled marine mammals on earth in its time of need,” Suckling wrote.
“Rob Bishop is the one working against American interests, first by trashing our national monuments and now its democratic principles at the behest of the fossil fuel industry,” Suckling said in a statement last week.
Bishop and Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on oversight and investigations, wrote a letter to CBD on June 20 asking the group for information about its longstanding interest in conserving the Okinawa dugong, which is related to the manatee.
The Republican lawmakers wanted to know if the group was acting as an agent for groups on Okinawa Island in Japan seeking to protect the species. In an attempt at “red-baiting,” Bishop and Westerman wrote in their letter that “many of the political parties and activist groups most vocally opposed to, and willing to take direction action against, the U.S. military presence in Okinawa are ‘radical’ groups like the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) and Okinawan independence movement.”
The Republicans set a June 27 deadline for CBD to respond.
The two Republicans sent the letter to CBD about two weeks after they delivered a similar letter to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), demanding information about its work in China. NRDC told ThinkProgress that it responded to Bishop’s letter by the June 12 deadline given by the congressman, and remains in contact with committee staff.
The CBD also met the deadline, sending its letter to Bishop, along with the top members of the House Judiciary Committee. Suckling, one of the founders of of the nearly 30-year-old group, said CBD is not registered as an agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) because it has not acted at the direction of a foreign entity.
The center agreed FARA is an important issue for congressional oversight. President Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort has been indicted regarding his possible violations of FARA, while Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, belatedly registered as a foreign agent under FARA, Suckling noted in the group’s letter.
“Given the clear evidence that the Russian government actively worked to undermine our democratic elections in 2016 and actively worked to elect Donald Trump as president, determining if other individuals associated with the Trump administration or his campaign violated FARA would be an excellent place to begin such oversight,” the group said.
The center described the letter from the Republicans as a case of “irrational but politically convenient paranoia about what is clearly a normal use of American environmental laws by American environmental groups.”
In its own request, CBD asked the two lawmakers to provide it with all correspondence between themselves and outside individuals and organizations within 30 working days. The documents should include all early drafts of the letter “suggested or authored” by outside parties.
CBD also noted that oversight of FARA falls squarely within the jurisdiction of the House Judiciary Committee, not the House Natural Resources Committee. “Thus, the center is unclear as to what grant of authority Rep. Bishop and Rep. Westerman have invoked here to pursue this investigation given the lack of oversight authority regarding FARA with respect to the Committee on Natural Resources,” Suckling wrote.
The U.S. military’s planned expansion of a U.S. Marine air base at Okinawa’s Henoko Bay has proved extremely controversial in Japan. For years many local residents have protested and opposed the base-expansion plan for Okinawa, where 20 percent of the island is already occupied by U.S. military.
The Japanese Ministry of the Environment has listed dugongs as “critically endangered” and the dugongs are also on the U.S. endangered species list. In 1997 it was estimated that there may be only 50 Okinawa dugongs left in the world. More recent surveys have only been able to conclude that at least three dugongs remain in Okinawa.
U.S. and Japanese conservationists are rallying Thursday afternoon outside a federal courthouse in San Francisco in support of a lawsuit to halt construction of a U.S. military base that CBD says could wipe out Okinawa dugongs. A federal court is holding a hearing on Thursday to hear the claims in the lawsuit filed by CBD, Turtle Island Restoration Network, Japanese conservation groups, and Okinawan residents under the U.S. National Historic Preservation Act.
The federal court hearing on the lawsuit follows a landmark 2017 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit that affirmed the right of conservation groups to sue to compel the U.S. military to fully consider the base’s impacts. The plaintiffs are represented by Earthjustice, an environmental legal organization.
The construction of the U.S. military base on Okinawa would pave over some of the last remaining habitat for the endangered Okinawa dugongs, ancient cultural icons for the Okinawan people. Preliminary construction on the base began in 2014.