Issues | THE FOREIGN ELEMENT

How the U.S. military spies on Okinawans and me

Documents reveal marines are amassing information on protesters and journalists

by Jon Mitchell

Special To The Japan Times

Outside the jurisdiction of its bases on Okinawa, the United States Marine Corps is conducting extensive surveillance of Japanese residents, peace groups and the media — including me. The operations, revealed in documents obtained under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, have been condemned by press freedom organizations and Japanese lawyers, with one expert calling them a violation of national sovereignty.

The 268 pages of papers from between May and July consist of emails from the Provost Marshal office at Camp Schwab, located in the northeastern city of Nago, and reports titled “Protest Activity Intelligence Bulletins” compiled by the Criminal Investigation Division of Camp Butler, the USMC’s umbrella term for its bases on Okinawa’s main island. The documents are classified as “For Official Use Only” and “Law Enforcement Sensitive.”

The emails include daily tallies of participants and the names of some Okinawans engaged in sit-in protests outside Camp Schwab, the proposed site for the relocation of USMC Air Station Futenma, currently situated in Ginowan, central Okinawa. 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 the student group SEALDs, that participated in the island-wide protests following the murder of a local woman, allegedly by a former U.S. 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 U.S. 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, an attorney and director of the New Diplomacy Initiative think tank. “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 interference in the affairs of a sovereign nation and said that the Japanese government ought to issue a severe protest to the U.S.

Contacted by The Japan Times, the Pentagon would not confirm whether it was aware of the extent of the surveillance or at what level it had been authorized. It deferred inquiries to the USMC, which, at the time of publication, had not responded to requests for comment.

These latest revelations come on the heels of news earlier this year that bases on Okinawa play an important role in U.S. 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 National Security Agency 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 U.S. spy operations utilized a large military antenna in the Okinawan village of Yomitan. 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 the author describing how traffic accidents and crimes involving Americans on the island triggered the need for further intelligence-gathering to help policymakers 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 farther north to a “low-profile” location within Camp Hansen in the town of Kin.

Last year, U.S. spying operations in Japan were highlighted by a WikiLeaks release of NSA documents that revealed the U.S. had eavesdropped on Japanese government officials and corporations between 2003 and 2011. Whether the NSA employed Camp Hansen’s new antenna system to spy on the government that had funded it is unclear.


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

This is not the first time that I’ve suspected the U.S. military was monitoring me. Last year, following my investigations into the discovery of dioxin near two military schools within Kadena Air Base, my IP address was blocked from accessing USAF websites. USAF pages were unavailable on my home’s IP, but upon switching to neighboring networks they opened immediately. The tactic was possibly intended to impede my use of the military’s online system for filing FOIA requests.

In an attempt to uncover who might have 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 had authorized the block. But what they did provide was a number of insights into the military’s attitudes toward The Japan Times — described as “a small US-language daily with circulation of approx. 20,000” — and me.

One USAF email calls me “adversarial” and says 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 duty to defend U.S. constitutional values that enshrine freedom of expression and the press. Far more eloquent than I could ever hope to be is the following statement by Federal Judge Murray I. Gurfein, presiding over the Pentagon Papers case 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 U.S. military seem to have repeatedly betrayed the 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 newly arrived marines were told in orientation lectures that Okinawans were “self-serving,” “more emotional than logical” and had “double standards.”

Senior officials’ suppression of their own troops’ right to know is most evident when it comes to the issue that earned me the attention of the CID: military contamination. Whereas in the U.S., the health impact of base pollution is widely known and the government offers assistance to those affected, on Okinawa, host to 32 U.S. bases, the military has resisted all calls for transparency.

Hundreds of veterans who served on Okinawa are sick due to 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 U.S., has been contaminated with levels of the pollutant PFOS exceeding U.S. safety standards.

Not only do senior military officials on Okinawa consistently refuse to address these issues, but more worryingly, they fail to reach out to assist service members and their dependents who are at risk.

In April, for example, a FOIA request unearthed documents detailing the exposure of military personnel to asbestos on the Kadena base during war games prior to 2000. I then offered the documents to base staff, but my initial email 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, say no attempts have been made to forward those documents to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) or alert those exposed.

Likewise, U.S. Forces Japan has made no attempts to warn service members, their dependents or local residents of other serious incidents that have occurred on Okinawa since 1995. These have involved the release of hazardous substances such as PCBs and heavy metals from munitions incinerators, which, according to military reports, put farmers’ fields in danger.

Senior U.S. military officials on Okinawa appear to have been derelict in their duty to protect, but fortunately, other government agencies are beginning to take notice. Investigations first published by The Japan Times, many on these Community pages, have been cited in reports by the U.S. Congressional Research Service and debated in the Diet in Japan. More importantly, sick U.S. veterans have begun using this 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 U.S. military, has been moved to act. Following April’s Japan Times investigations revealing decades-long contamination of local water sources by the USAF, Japan’s defense and foreign ministries demanded that the U.S. military submit the lists of accidents — totaling 8,000-plus pages — upon which the articles were based.

These are no small achievements for a small English-language daily with a print circulation of 45,000 and an online readership of millions more.

Jon Mitchell received the inaugural Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan Freedom of the Press Award for Lifetime Achievement for his investigations into U.S. military contamination on Okinawa and other base-related problems. Your comments: community@japantimes.co.jp.

‘Japan is not a country at war’

Benjamin Ismail, Head of the Asia-Pacific Desk at Reporters Without Borders, offered the following comment on the revelations of U.S. surveillance on Okinawa:

It seems likely we are in a situation of organized surveillance on citizens and journalists covering U.S. military activities in Japan. This surveillance is happening on foreign territory with the apparent complicity — or at the very least silence — of the Japanese government. Given the information we currently have, we are worried for the situation of press freedom in Japan, already at risk under Shinzo Abe’s administration.

Unfortunately, censorship and even arbitrary detention of foreign journalists by the U.S military is not exceptional, especially in countries where the military have significant presence.

Japan is not a country at war, and reasons such as national defence cannot be invoked to justify the U.S. military’s interference in Jon Mitchell’s journalistic work. We plan to issue a statement with questions addressed to the head of the U.S. military in Okinawa and to the Japanese authorities. Those manifest signs of surveillance and violations of the right to inform independently and free from any kind of pressure call for answers from both countries.