How the US Military Spies on Okinawans and Me

Emails and reports obtained under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act from the U.S. Marine Corps include tallies of the number of protesters outside the base at the daily sit-ins and the names of some demonstrators. The one on top contains a profile and photo of journalist Jon Mitchell. (Photo: Jon Mitchell)Emails and reports obtained under the US Freedom of Information Act from the US Marine Corps include tallies of the number of protesters outside the base at the daily sit-ins and the names of some demonstrators. The one on top contains a profile and photo of journalist Jon Mitchell. (Photo: Jon Mitchell)

Outside the jurisdiction of its bases, the United States Marine Corps (USMC) on Okinawa is conducting extensive surveillance of Japanese residents, peace groups and the media — including me (see above). The operations, revealed by documents obtained under the US Freedom of Information Act, have been denounced by Japanese lawyers, with one expert calling them a violation of national sovereignty. On October 23, Paris-based NGO Reporters Without Borders issued a press release condemning the surveillance operations.

The 268 pages of FOIA-released papers from between May and July consist of emails from the Provost Marshal office at Camp Schwab, Nago City, and reports titled “Protest Activity Intelligence Bulletins” compiled by the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) of Camp Butler, theUSMC’s umbrella term for its bases on Okinawa. The documents are classified as “For Official Use Only” and “Law Enforcement Sensitive.”

The emails include daily tallies and the names of some Okinawans engaged in sit-in protests outside Camp Schwab, the proposed site for the relocation of Futenma Air Station. The emails are distributed by the Provost Marshal’s office to more than 30 parties, including the CID, Japanese security guards and marines with ranks as low as lance corporal.

The CID bulletins also list the citizens’ groups, including women’s rights organizations and student group SEALDs, which participated in the island-wide protests following the alleged murder of a local woman by a former marine in April. These bulletins feature photographs of individuals apparently taken by the military police, screen-grabbed from TV news programs or copied from social media accounts.

“Since this surveillance is of people outside the physical boundaries of military bases, it is illegal unless the US military can absolutely prove it is necessary for their operations in Japan. Even then, the military needs to weigh up the privacy rights of each individual being monitored,” says Sayo Saruta, attorney at law and director of think tank, New Diplomacy Initiative.

“Furthermore, we must not forget the chilling effect of this surveillance. Taking photographs of people outside the bases and monitoring their social media might discourage both those participating and others considering joining demonstrations from exercising their own right to free speech.”

Okinawa-based lawyer Yukihito Oguchi went even further in his criticism. In an interview with local media, he condemned the surveillance as interfering in the affairs of a sovereign nation andsaid that the Japanese government ought to issue a severe protest to the US.

In response to the revelations, United States Forces Japan (USFJ) Public Affairs spokesperson, Major John Severns, denied the actions violated the US constitution, Japanese law or US militarypolicies. He claimed the actions were authorized by agreements between the US and Japan — andthe operations were necessary to protect “our people” from demonstrators “in potentially volatile situations.”

Severns declined to explain what agreements he was citing, nor did he reply to questions about how the military was preventing the leak of private information included in the documents.

Last year, USMC privacy lapses hit the headlines in Japan when Robert Eldridge, deputy assistant chief of staff of government and external affairs, was dismissed, following the leak of on-base security camera footage to Japanese neo-nationalists.

Moreover, these latest revelations come on the heels of news earlier this year that bases onOkinawa play an important role in US global surveillance operations. According to documents leaked by former CIA employee Edward Snowden and published by The Intercept, Okinawa functioned as “the front end for the majority of signals collected for exploitation at the Kunia RSOC (Regional SIGINT Operations Center) in Hawaii.” Snowden had worked at Kunia, one of three regional NSA spy stations, prior to blowing the whistle on top secret surveillance programs in 2013.

A June 2003 copy of the NSA’s in-house newsletter SIDtoday (SID: Signals Intelligence Directorate) described how US spy operations utilized a large military antenna in Yomitan Village. The information gathered there was distributed to “every branch of the U.S. armed forces as well as the State Department and other elements of the Intelligence Community” on Okinawa.

The NSA newsletter hints that surveillance operations were also conducted on Okinawa, with theauthor describing how traffic accidents and crimes involving Americans on the island triggered theneed for further intelligence gathering to help policy makers deal with the repercussions of such incidents.

Another copy of SIDtoday from December 2003 detailed the Japanese government’s agreement to pay “well over $150 million” to move the Yomitan antenna to a “low-profile” location within Camp Hansen, Kin Town.

Last year, US spying operations in Japan were highlighted by a WikiLeaks release of NSA documents which revealed the US had eavesdropped on Japanese government officials andcorporations between 2003 and 2011. Unknown is whether the NSA employed Camp Hansen’s new antenna system to spy on the Japanese government which had funded it.

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Among the USMC Criminal Investigation Division documents obtained under the FOIA was one report about “Jon Mitchell, a British journalist.”

Produced by Camp Butler CID and compiled with information gathered from the “Consolidated Law Enforcement Operation Center,” “law enforcement databases” and “open source channels,” the bulletin was dated June 9 and it described a lecture I’d given two days previously near Camp Schwab on the topic of military environmental contamination. The report also included a short profile of me and my photograph, apparently copied from a TV news show.

“Whether inside or outside the United States, the US military should not be surveilling journalists and writing up intelligence reports on their lawful activities, full stop,” says Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. “By doing so, they are imperiling journalists in their home countries and sending a dangerous message about press freedom abroad.”

Featured in the same June 9 bulletin was a report about Ann Wright, the former State Department official turned peace campaigner, who also visited Okinawa in June.

This is not the first time that I’ve realized the US military has been monitoring me. Last year, following my investigations into the discovery of dioxin near two military schools within Kadena Air Base, the USAF apparently blocked my IP address from accessing its websites. The tactic seemed possibly intended to impede my use of the military’s online system for filing FOIA requests.

In an attempt to uncover who had ordered the blacklisting of my IP address, in June, I filed a FOIA request with the USAF (outside its online system to circumvent the block) asking for all of its correspondence on the matter and me. After a series of delays and missed deadlines, Kadena Air Base released 37 pages of documents in early October.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the documents failed to reveal who’d authorized the block. But what they did provide was a number of insights into the military’s attitudes towards me.

One USAF email calls me “adversarial” and my “tone of reporting is hostile.” Another mail says “co-operation with reporter has consistently been a non-starter. He has an agenda and is fairly open about it.”

This is probably a good moment to remind the senior USAF staff who wrote these emails of their role as defenders of US constitutional values which enshrine the freedoms of expression and thepress. Far more eloquent than I could ever hope to be is the following statement by Federal Judge Murray I. Gurfein, who stated in 1971: “A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know.”

On Okinawa, senior officials in the US military have repeatedly betrayed these very values they’re tasked with upholding. Last year, USMC officials lashed out at Okinawans for exercising their own freedom of expression in peaceful demonstrations; earlier this year it was revealed that orientation lectures misled newly-arrived marines with statements that Okinawans were “self-serving,” had “double-standards” and their reactions to military crimes were “more emotional than logical.”

Senior officials’ suppression of their own troops’ right to know is most evident when it comes to the issue which earned me the attention of the CID: military contamination. Whereas in the US, the health impact of base pollution is widely known and the government offers assistance to those affected, on Okinawa, host to 32 bases, the military has resisted all calls for transparency. Hundreds of veterans who served with honor on Okinawa are sick from exposure to hazardous substances, their children are born with life-threatening illnesses, Japanese base workers are dying from asbestos-related diseases and recent tests show that Okinawa’s drinking water, like that near military bases in the US, has been contaminated with levels of the pollutant PFOS exceeding EPA standards.

Not only do senior military officials in Okinawa consistently refuse to address these issues when I approach them for comment prior to publication of my articles, more worryingly, they fail to reach out to assist service members and their dependants who are at risk.

In April, for example, I uncovered documents detailing the exposure of military personnel to asbestos on the base during war games in 2000. I emailed Kadena staff to provide them with thedocuments, but the initial offer was ignored. Only after mailing again did the USAF agree to accept them. However military sources, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, tell me no attempts have been made to forward those documents to the Department of Veterans Affairs or alert those exposed.

Likewise, USFJ has made no attempts to warn service members, their dependants or local residents of other serious incidents on Okinawa occurring since 1995. These have involved therelease of hazardous substances such as dioxin, PCBs and heavy metals from munitions incinerators which, according to military reports, put farmers’ fields at risk

Senior military officials on Okinawa are derelict in their duty to protect. But fortunately, other government agencies are beginning to take notice. My investigations have been cited in reports by the US Congressional Research Service and debated in Japan’s national parliament. More importantly, sick US veterans have begun using my research to win long-overdue assistance from the VA.

Even the Japanese government, which is usually reluctant to support Okinawans in issues related to the US military, has been moved to act. Following my investigations revealing decades-long contamination of local water sources by the USAF, Japan’s Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs demanded that the US military submit the lists of accidents — totaling 8,000-plus pages — upon which I’d based my articles.

Note: On October 26, commenting on the blocking of Jon Mitchell’s internet access to USAF sites, USFJ spokesperson Maj. John Severns said he recognized the seriousness of the allegation andwas discussing the matter with a military legal team.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in The Japan Times on October 19, 2016.