Environmental advocacy groups that take the Defense Department to court appear to operate as foreign agents working to help China and undermine the U.S. Navy and America’s military readiness in the Asia-Pacific region, congressional leaders suggest.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, and Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., chairman of the oversight and investigations subcommittee, called on two environmental groups to submit documents that “identify any policies or procedures” the groups took to ensure compliance with the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Bishop and Westerman last month wrote the two groups, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Biological Diversity.
In a letter to Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the two Republican lawmakers expressed concern about China’s “extensive perception-management campaign” and the “NRDC’s role” in assisting these efforts.
The environmental group’s press releases and other written correspondence “consistently praise the Chinese government’s environmental initiatives and promote the image of China as a global environmental leader,” their letter says.
An aide to the House committee told The Daily Signal in a phone interview that there is “a significant level of engagement between the NRDC and Chinese government officials.”
And, the aide said, “the American people should know about the group’s relationship with foreign governments whether or not the connection is direct or indirect.”
The New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit advocacy group founded in 1970, has $306.2 million in net assets, according to tax records. The group’s website says it “works to safeguard the earth” and has more than 3 million members and “online activists.”
The nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, based in Tucson, Arizona, was founded in 1989 and has $18.3 million in net assets, tax records show. The group’s mission is “to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction,” and it has about 1.6 million members, according to its website.
The Foreign Agents Registration Act requires anyone who acts as an agent of foreign principals “in a political or quasi-political capacity” to disclose that relationship periodically, as well as all “activities, receipts, and disbursements in support of those activities,” according to the Justice Department.
The law, which predates World War II, is the subject of legislation from Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., that he says “corrects long-standing loopholes exploited by lobbyists of foreign entities to conceal their work to influence U.S. government activities.” The bill also clarifies reporting requirements, authorizes investigative tools, and establishes enforcement safeguards, according to Johnson’s office.
Both the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Biological Diversity complied with June deadlines set by Bishop’s House committee to submit information detailing compliance with the law.
Neither group is registered as a foreign agent, and both maintain they operate in America’s national interest despite their close ties to foreign governments and litigation against the U.S. military.
A second committee aide told The Daily Signal that up until now the requirements of the Foreign Agents Registration Act have not been as strictly enforced as they should be.
“Historically, the Justice Department has not utilized FARA, and there’s limited case law and a need for clarity,” the second aide said.
Lawsuits Against Navy Draw Scrutiny
The political activism of the Natural Resources Defense Council continues to coincide with China’s geopolitical interests, while it regularly files lawsuits against the Pentagon aimed at constraining military exercises vital to national security, Bishop and Westerman say in their letter to the NRDC.
The organization “collaborates with Chinese government entities deeply involved in Chinese efforts to assert sovereignty over the South China Sea in contravention of international law,” the two Republicans say. It also works to “discredit those skeptical of China’s commitment to pollution reduction targets” who seek to report honestly on environmental data, their letter says:
When engaging on environmental issues concerning China, the NRDC appears to practice self-censorship, issue selection bias, and generally refrains from criticizing Chinese officials. … Of note, the NRDC collaborates with Chinese government entities that are deeply involved in Chinese efforts to assert sovereignty over the South China Sea in contravention of international law.
By contrast, the NRDC takes an adversarial approach to its advocacy practices in the United States. In fundraising materials, the NRDC claims to have ‘sued the [U.S. government] about once every 10 days’ since President Trump was inaugurated. Over the last two decades your organization has also sued the U.S. Navy multiple times to stop or drastically limited naval training exercises in the Pacific arguing that navy sonar and anti-submarine warfare drills harm marine life. We are unaware of the NRDC having made similar efforts to curtail naval exercises by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy.
Although China is “actually the world’s top polluter,” the first committee aide told The Daily Signal, the NRDC goes to great lengths to avoid criticizing the Beijing government’s actual environmental record.
“The NRDC is totally in the tank for China, and they are the MSNBC news for China,” the aide said. “The NRDC is developing the notion that China is an environmental leader and promotes the idea that China can be trusted to reduce emissions. When you see the NRDC photos of China, they show how beautiful and clean China is, but they don’t say anything about all the pollution. Instead, we get this heavenly, angelic portrayal of China.”
The Republican lawmakers’ letter to Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, focuses on a lawsuit the group filed against the Defense Department in concert with a coalition of environmental groups in Japan and the U.S. The suit calls for halting the planned relocation of the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to a less-populated part of the Japanese island of Okinawa.
The Center for Biological Diversity “appears to have engaged in political activities within the United States on behalf of the government of the Japanese Prefecture of Okinawa and other foreign entities to influence plans regarding [Marine Corps Air Station] Futenma’s relocation,” the letter says.
Both the U.S. and the central government in Japan have made relocation of Futenma a priority, the letter explains.
“The committee seeks clarification about the nature of CBD’s close relationship with Okinawan government officials and foreign environmental groups,” the congressmen write.
Green Activists Deny Being Foreign Agents
In their letters to the two environmental groups, Bishop and Westerman make the point that the Foreign Agents Registration Act “is clear about registration requirements for a person or group acting in the political or public interests of a foreign entity, even when done through intermediaries.”
They also highlight the penalties attached to the law, which include fines that could reach as high as $10,000 and imprisonment of up to five years.
The Daily Signal emailed both environmental groups to ask their response to the committee’s letters and seek comment on the allegations that they operate as foreign agents.
Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, released a statement lashing out at Bishop:
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. He’s abusing his position, tarnishing the House of Representatives and making a fool of himself with these amateurish McCarthy tactics.
The green group also provided The Daily Signal with a copy of the letter it sent to the committee, disputing the allegations.
The letter focuses on the center’s efforts to conserve the Okinawa dugong, a sea creature closely related to the manatee. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed the species as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act.
The center’s efforts on behalf of the dugong are “controlled and directed” by its board of directors and executive director, not any foreign interest, the letter says. Thus its activities on Okinawa “are exempt” from the law, the letter argues.
“If Reps. Bishop and Westerman are truly confused about the center’s motivation and control, it is perhaps because they abuse their position 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.”
On its website, the Center for Biological Diversity describes how it has used “innovative legal tactics to secure new protections for the dugong,” which involves litigation against U.S. military operations.
China’s Use of ‘Lawfare’
The Natural Resources Defense Council released two statements in response to the committee.
In the first, the NRDC says it works to advance American values, and that its activities in China are to ensure “a more sustainable future for everyone.”
In the second, the group addresses a June 13 letter Bishop and Westerman sent to Defense Secretary James Mattis asking for information about the impact of environmental litigation on military readiness.
The congressmen called Mattis’ attention to already-identified acts of Chinese espionage inside the U.S. They also pointed out that “China’s employment of lawfare is inherently more difficult to detect” because the Chinese can conceal political motives behind the actions of seemingly sympathetic causes such as environmentalism.
The Republican lawmakers suggested that China may be exploiting America’s legal system as part of a larger strategy to “erode” the U.S. military advantage in the Asia-Pacific region.
“For example, the impact of marine life from the U.S. Navy’s use of active sonar and underwater explosives has been the subject of several lawsuits led by the Natural Resources Defense Council dating back to the 1990s,” Bishop and Westerman wrote Mattis.
The congressmen also cited information from the Navy describing how environmental litigation “unreasonably restricted Navy training and testing activities.”
Although the Supreme Court has concluded there hasn’t been a “documented episode of harm to a marine mammal caused by naval sonar,” their letter to Mattis notes, lower courts continue to rule otherwise with decisions that restrict naval exercises.
‘Weaponization’ of Environmental Law
Green groups typically invoke the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 in legal actions against the U.S. military. That law requires federal agencies to assess the environmental impact before implementing projects.
The House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing in April on what it called “Weaponization of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Implications of Environmental Lawfare.”
The committee defines lawfare as “an attempt to use the courts to damage or delegitimize projects that litigants oppose, or to distract time and resources that would otherwise go to implementing the project, or to win a public relations victory.”
The environmental law was “originally intended to increase awareness regarding the effects of federal actions on the environment,” a committee memo says, but its “vague and ambiguous language has exposed the federal government to excessive litigation and resulted in perverse outcomes for agencies, the environment and taxpayers.”
The last time reforms were made to the National Environmental Policy Act was in 1986, committee aides told The Daily Signal. Since serious national security implications are attached to environmental lawsuits against the military that cite the law, lawmakers can make a strong case for a new round of reforms, they said.
“It would be a good idea to link NEPA reform with national security, but the Department of Defense has not been helpful here,” the first aide said. “Defense Department officials won’t come right out and say NEPA is a terrible law, they will just say it’s a problem that they can work around.”
“But the Defense Department has a lot to gain from NEPA reforms, the aide added. “They would not be so bogged down in court.”