House Republicans’ attempts to brand U.S. environmental groups as foreign agents is showing no signs of slowing down. On Monday, Earthjustice joined the Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Biological Diversity, and World Resources Institute as targets of Republicans leaders of the House Natural Resources Committee.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, and Bruce Westerman (R-AR), chairman of the Oversight and Investigations subcommittee, sent a letter to the prominent nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice demanding documents regarding its ties to foreign officials and environmental activists.
This is the fourth such letter sent this year by Bishop and Westerman. And this letter is the second sent to an environmental group related to opposition to the planned relocation of a U.S. military base in Okinawa, Japan.
In a June 20 letter to the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), Bishop — a strong supporter of the fossil fuels industry and long-time opponent of public lands — and Westerman suggested the group’s efforts are being used to impose additional costs on U.S. military activities in Japan. The U.S. military has a large presence on the island.
The CBD, Earthjustice, and other environmental groups, however, are concerned about the negative ecological impacts of the relocation of a Marine Corps air station in Japan, including the potential harm to a marine mammal, the Okinawa dugong.
In Monday’s letter, addressed to Earthjustice President Abigail Dillen, Bishop and Westerman noted that the CBD — in its responses to the committee’s request for information — identified Earthjustice attorneys as the group’s legal representatives in litigation over the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma (MCAS Futenma). The CBD’s responses thus spurred the lawmakers to extend their accusations to a fourth organization.
“The Committee is concerned that your organization’s political activities within the United States in opposition to the relocation of MCAS Futenma and the continued U.S. military presence in Okinawa may require compliance with the Foreign Agents Registration Act,” the Republicans wrote in their letter.
The Republicans asked Earthjustice to provide answers to questions about whether it has registered as a foreign agent and requested documents related to its legal work on behalf of the CBD in Okinawa.
Earthjustice had not responded to a request for comment from ThinkProgress at the time this article was published.
The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires all people and organizations acting in the U.S. on behalf of foreign countries to register with the Justice Department as foreign agents.
“If a political enemy of an environmental group is looking for creative ways to, at the very least, get information out of these groups and then make that information public, it is within the realm of possibility to use FARA for political purposes,” said Joshua Rosenstein, an attorney at Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein & Birkenstock, who specializes in lobbyist regulations and FARA requirements.
The House Natural Resources Committee’s use of FARA as a political weapon against environmental groups “could set a precedent that could be used on both sides of the aisle in the future,” Rosenstein told ThinkProgress.
In an October 2016 report, the Department of Justice’s inspector general slammed the department’s national security division’s lax enforcement of foreign lobbying reviews. Partially in the wake of that report, the Justice Department has been increasing its enforcement of FARA.
But the Justice Department’s decision to intensify its attention on foreign lobbying enforcement, Rosenstein noted, is “different than members of Congress using potential FARA violations as a sword.”
Based on the activities of the environmental groups in China and Japan, Rosenstein said he does not believe FARA has been violated.
“In order for FARA to apply, it requires an entity in the U.S. be acting as an agent for a foreign government. Merely going out there and praising what some foreign government happens to be doing and criticizing the U.S. on the same issue doesn’t turn you into an agent of the foreign government,” he said.
An environmental group may highlight China’s policy on a renewable energy and climate issue. But that doesn’t mean the group is acting under the control or at the direction of the Chinese government when it is doing that, according to Rosenstein.
Last month, Bishop and Westerman targeted the World Resources Institute, a well-respected international environmental and climate research group, over its environmental and sustainability programs in China. And earlier this summer, the Republicans’ first target was the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The lawmakers requested documents related to the NRDC’s relationship with China.
FARA prosecutions have been rare over the past several decades. The case against former Trump presidential campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his aide Rick Gate, who are accused of violating this act, is the most prominent prosecution of an alleged violation of FARA in years.
In the case of environmental groups and other nongovernmental organizations, there needs to be explicit instructions from a foreign entity for FARA to come into play.
“It would have to be a foreign government saying, ‘We’re going to ask you, NGO, to address public perception on behalf of our nation among the U.S. public on this issues,” Rosenstein said.