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Is that environmental group a pawn of Beijing? Nonprofits wary of being branded 'foreign agents'

Is that environmental group a pawn of Beijing? Nonprofits wary of being branded 'foreign agents'
A passenger airplane flies behind steam and white smoke emitted from a coal-fired power plant in Beijing. (Andy Wong / Associated Press)

When leaders of a powerful congressional committee turned their attention this month to the scourge of foreign agents plotting to weaken American democracy, they didn’t target Eastern European hackers or shadowy international political operatives.

They instead took off after the even-tempered environmental lawyers at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, said he suspects the group has become an agent of China’s Communist Party. Why else, Bishop and a colleague wrote in a letter to the group demanding documents, would NRDC spend so much effort fawning over our adversary’s imperfect environmental record while attacking the Trump administration’s stewardship?

The committee’s interrogation of one of the country’s leading environmental groups came as part of a larger trend: Last year, Robert S. Mueller III’s special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election breathed new life into the federal law requiring registration of foreign agents. Since then, the 80-year-old statute has started to become weaponized by political interests to go after their opponents.

A broad spectrum of civil society groups that work internationally fear they could face a new legal threat — being pressured to register as foreign agents, a designation that could severely damage an organization.

“It is not at all clear where this is headed,” said Sam Worthington, CEO of InterAction, a large coalition of U.S.-based nonprofits that work internationally. He warns that thousands of American nonprofits could find themselves in the same predicament as the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Like several other baleful developments in U.S. public life, the potential misuse of the foreign agent registration law parallels developments in Russia. Advocates for nonprofit groups worry that a legal tool meant to protect American institutions could be used to strike at those out of favor in Washington, much as the Kremlin has used similar rules to intimidate and shut down civil society groups.

America’s Foreign Agent Registration Act has been around since 1938, when it was passed to flush out Nazi agents in the prelude to World War II. By the 1950s it had become a staple of the so-called Red scare, used to attack perceived communist sympathizers.

W.E.B. Du Bois, the prominent black sociologist and writer, was indicted in 1951 on charges of being an unregistered Soviet agent, with prosecutors citing his role as chair of the Peace Information Center, a group that advocated nuclear disarmament. He was acquitted, but the State Department banned him from traveling for eight more years because Du Bois would not sign an affidavit renouncing communism.

In recent years, the act was laxly enforced and routinely ignored by Washington lobbyists who did work for foreign governments but claimed that they did not meet the law’s requirements to register. That changed last year when Mueller indicted President Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, on, among other charges, failure to register. That was followed in November, by the Justice Department forcing the Russian-funded television network RT America to register.

Suddenly, attorneys and lobbyists in Washington with foreign governments on their client lists began to register in significantly larger numbers.

As is often the case in Washington’s highly polarized political environment, it didn’t take long for people to begin worrying about unintended consequences. In April, a group of 43 nonprofits urged lawmakers seeking to bolster enforcement of the registration law to proceed cautiously, warning their proposals could open nonprofits to “politicized enforcement actions and attack.”

“The act is so vaguely and broadly written that it lends itself to being politicized,” said Nick Robinson, legal advisor for the International Center for Nonprofit Law. “That might be by politicians or the Department of Justice or others who can use this to target nonprofits.”

“We have seen this before,” Robinson said, pointing to the Du Bois case. “We and a whole bunch of other nonprofits are concerned about this,” he added.

The coalition’s letter was sent only weeks after Republicans on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee issued a report suggesting environmental groups protesting fracking and natural gas pipelines had become unwitting agents of the Russian government.

The same committee last year accused the Sea Change Foundation, a major funder of large U.S. environmental groups, of getting money from Russian energy interests eager to curb gas extraction in the U.S. The committee seized on reports in right-wing media about the group’s opaque financial documents in making its accusations, but it admitted that there was “little to no paper trail.” The members of Congress demanded the Trump administration investigate if Sea Change was a foreign agent.

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Roderick Forrest, an attorney for the Bermuda-based firm through which much of the money to Sea Change was channeled, said in an email that allegations are “completely false and irresponsible” and that there is “no Russian connection whatsoever.”

But Sea Change and others may now find themselves targeted by the Natural Resources Committee. “We are looking into groups beyond NRDC,” said a committee aide who was not authorized to speak on the record.

Committee officials denied Bishop and the co-author of the letter, oversight subcommittee chairman Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), are using the registration act to target groups that oppose their push to expand oil and gas drilling. They say they merely seek clarity about their foreign affiliations.

“There is some question about to what degree a foreign entity drives NRDC’s mission,” the aide said. “Have they crossed the line from just being sycophants to Chinese leadership to actively or indirectly carrying out their information campaign in some capacity?”

In their letter, Bishop and Westerman challenged NRDC’s praise of China’s environmental efforts and questioned whether the group was “aiding China’s perception management efforts with respect to pollution control and its international standing on environmental issues in ways that may be detrimental to the United States.”

The letter cites NRDC’s praise of fisheries protections by China at the same time Greenpeace was sharply critical of the nation for subsidizing commercial fleets that are depleting fisheries around the world. “The Committee is concerned that the NRDC’s need to maintain access to Chinese officials has influenced its political activities in the United States,” the congressmen wrote.

A spokeswoman for Greenpeace called NRDC an ally that it fully supports.

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NRDC did not respond to interview requests. In a statement, Bob Deans, the organization’s director of strategic engagement, said the group’s work combating pollution worldwide is in America’s national interest.

“We’re proud of our work, in China and elsewhere, helping to create a more sustainable future for everyone, and we look forward to discussing that work with Chairman Bishop and the committee,” the statement said.

The committee’s investigation has alarmed even some of those who have urged Congress to do more to inoculate American institutions against Chinese government interference. Among them is Glenn Tiffert, a visiting fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, who recently testified to Congress about the methods the Chinese use to project influence.

He pointed to organizations, including the Confucius Institutes present at hundreds of American schools and universities. Their mission is to teach Chinese language and culture, but critics worry they have become a subtle tool the Chinese Communist Party uses to indoctrinate students.

Educators have been debating whether the institutes should be compelled to register as foreign agents. Branding them as such would likely prompt schools to sever their relationships, depriving students of the language training and other coursework they provide.

Tiffert says that’s a debate the nation needs to have as it contemplates the nuanced ways in which foreign governments exert influence inside America. But he calls the congressional insinuations about the NRDC deeply concerning.

“This should not be about American civil society organizations, like NRDC,” he said. “We need to be cautious about recklessly crossing that line.”

The committee’s letter “brings to mind some dark chapters in history when loose innuendo and association with foreign government were hurled for political purposes,” he said in an interview.

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